HAYWARD, Wis. — One of three skiers to have raced every American Birkebeiner since its inception in 1973, David Landgraf, 62, died Monday in the hospital after being hit by a motorist while bicycling Friday evening.
According to a press release from the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, Landgraf, of Bloomer, Wis., was hit by a car on Highway 27 in Hayward, the town where he finished 38 consecutive Birkebeiner ski races, a 50-plus kilometer trek starting in Cable.
A report from the Sawyer County Sheriff’s Department stated that Landgraf was struck from behind by Anna Amparo, 24, of Hayward, who looked back to talk to her two children. She turned around to see Landgraf, but was unable to swerve in time.
Landgraf’s storied skiing history began with the Birkie, when his friend Ernie St. Germaine convinced him to do the inaugural marathon with him, according to the Associated Press. He prepared by skiing in a parking lot.
Ten years later, Birkebeiner founder Tony Wise recognized the 10 original skiers who had started and stuck with the event as “Founders”. Landgraf, St. Germaine and another friend John Kotar, now on the event’s board of directors, were among them.
The three upheld the tradition, making it to every winter Birkie, some which drew close to 10,000 skiers. They would meet at the banquet before each race and share memories, St. Germaine said in an AP interview.
“I hope to take all of those things he did to inspire me … and I’m going to do my best to live them,” St. Germaine said. “He was a year younger than me, but ultimately, he was my hero.”
The youngest of the “Founders,” Landgraf consistently placed in the men’s top 200. Earlier this year, he finished in 2 hours, 43 minutes for second place in his age group and 468th overall. Landgraf also competed internationally and claimed U.S. Master’s Championship titles, according to the Birkie press release.
“He was an amazing person and part of the very fabric of the Birkie,” Executive Director Ned Zuelsdorff said in the press release. “To see Dave in that lone, red Founder’s bib, coming across the finish line with men many years his junior, is just a testament to Dave’s spirit as a person and an athlete. He represented something very special to so many skiers.”
A retired physical education teacher, Landgraf taught at Bloomer Middle School and coached children and adults in Nordic skiing.
In a 2004 interview, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the Birkie changed his life.
“I ski as much as I can and I try to stay in shape in the offseason,” Landgraf said. “I’m always racing against myself to see how good I can do. I try to take everything in and try to enjoy the race and the people (and) the festivities afterward.”
He said he was a recreational cyclist who liked to bike in his hometown on paved roads with little traffic.
Landgraf’s death is the sixth cycling fatality in Wisconsin since July 1, the Sentinel reported. At least four of those involved a rider being struck from behind.
Dave Schlabowske, a spokesman for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, told the Sentinel that cycling remains a safe activity. Every year, 2.5 million people ride bikes in Wisconsin, and the death rates are much lower than that of motors and people walking down stairs. An average of 11 cyclists die from collisions with motorists each year.
“Despite the fact that riding a bike is still very safe, the recent spate of crashes, those that appear to be due to inattentive driving, should remind us all what a tremendous responsibility it is to drive a car,” Schlabowske said.
“The potential is always there for tragedy, and it’s really our responsibility to drive with the respect that it deserves and really focus on what we should be focusing on.”
From the Birkie website: “A celebration of Dave’s life will be held at 11:00 am on Saturday, August 13, at the Bloomer Middle School Gym in Bloomer, WI, with lunch following in the cafeteria. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to Bank Mutual in Bloomer for the Bloomer Track Program or Ski Strong, or to the Chippewa Valley United Way.”
Private condolences can be sent through the Schriver Funeral Chapel’s website:
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.