Friend says cyclist who died in race was days away from proposing to longtime girlfriend

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Laurie Merli has nothing but fond memories of Casey Saunders. Merli said Saunders was a rider on the St. Louis-based bicycling team, Dog Fish, for 15 years -- a team Merli co-founded 19 years ago with her husband.

"He was just a grateful kid. Our Eagle Scout. I kind of wanted him to be my son and he kind of was." Merli said. "We thought he was one of our own boys. It’s been tough. It’s a shocker, this doesn’t happen that often in bike riding. "

Saunders, 29, died after his bike crashed into a barricade during Sunday's Tour of Kansas City race. It's something Merli described as a freak accident that is rare in the racing world.

"Accidents within the Criterium racing, which is the fastest bunched together riding, but you get broken collar bones and things like that, but this is highly unusual." she said. "I don’t even think it’s real yet. I didn’t want to wake up this morning and have it be a reality and it’s like a hard one. We’re all in disbelief and shock. Everybody is still shocked about the whole thing."

Merli said Saunders had the biggest heart and work ethic of anyone she knew. She said he was just days away from proposing to his longtime girlfriend.

"His dad spoke last night about how he was going to propose: ride ahead on the bike, and get down on one knee, and have that ring ready for her." Merli said. "It’s just hard to believe that it’s so shattered by this tragic, just tragic, unbelievable accident."

While Merli still has many questions she wants answered, she said Saunders' heart and spirit will never be forgotten.

"The cycling world is full of warm people and Casey was the warmest. For sure, he was. He was just the sweetest kid ever. We will so miss him," Merli said.

The Tour of KC posted a statement onto its Facebook page.

"Our thoughts go out to the family, friends, and teammates of the rider who passed after a race incident in today’s event. Our hearts are heavy as we mourn the loss of a member of the cycling community."