The man behind the statistics

He could simply be a statistic – one of three tragic numbers: eight, 29 or 50. Or all three.

Twenty-nine being the number of fatal road crashes so far this year, eight being the number of motorcyclists to die on our roads so far this year, and 50 being the number of motorcyclists killed in the past 12 months.

Tauranga man Rhys Middleton, 23. Photo: Supplied.

But this statistic had a cheeky grin, a love of life and a blossoming professional and romantic future, before it was snuffed out on State Highway 5, near Napier, on Sunday morning.

This statistic also had a name: Rhys Gerard Middleton, 23, of Tauranga. An eminently likeable bloke from all accounts.

He died when his Honda CBR600 connected with a vehicle driven by a tourist. And like many accidents, there were just nanoseconds in it.

“Had it been a moment sooner or a moment later, then the outcome could have been very different,” says his dad Mike, a man who nurtured and shared his son’s passion for bikes.

Once a biker always a biker, he says.

“Yes, another second either way and Rhys possibly could have bounced off the vehicle and survived.”

But in these circumstances he hasn’t. And a family, a fiancée, a myriad of friends and bikers from all over prepare for a funeral. And it was an accident that apparently could have been averted. “One hundred percent,” says Mike Middleton. Seems there’s a lot to it and it’s under investigation.

It always seems so senseless, so futile when a young life is taken before their time, especially one so full of promise.

“Rhys was engaged to Laura. They’d bought a house and were to be married on February 11, 2017, a year almost to the day,” says a proud mum Judy Richards. Laura is now without the man she had pledged her love to, without her best mate.    

And Rhys’s career was right on track. He was a manager at Greer’s Gastro Bar in the village. “People liked him and liked his style. They would come in and he would have their drinks ready for them.”

Rhys was front of house, while Laura was a chef at Greer’s, her parent’s business. So Rhys and Laura lived, loved and worked together.

The Middleton men – Mike, Rhys’ brother Ryan and Rhys – had been on a bit of a run last weekend, done it dozens of times before. About 300kms down to Napier for the local social motorbike club rally. ‘One Night Stand’ they called it. Blokes ride bikes, play with bikes, talk bikes. Like-minded people having fun. The fun ended suddenly and sadly on the homeward leg.

Dad Mike had gone on ahead. Ryan and Rhys were riding with three others when fate intervened and one son didn’t come home.

Mike has a love-hate relationship with motorbikes. “I highly recommend you never climb on one. If you have never been interested and suddenly get the urge, then don’t.”

It’s because he has seen too many people killed on motorbikes. And now his son. “My partner wants to ride a bike, but I won’t let her.”

He says bikers are just too exposed and vulnerable. “A lot of people don’t know how to ride a bike properly. That’s why they call us temporary New Zealanders.”

There’s a couple of others who’ll be feeling the loss, feeling the tragedy.

“Leelo and Stitch,” says Judy. The biker, the businessman had two cats. “He had an affinity with all animals since he was a kid. He was the animal whisperer – sheep, cows, dogs, whatever – he would have them under his spell.

There will be lots more stories about Rhys Gerrard Middleton at the celebration of his life at Classic Flyers, 1pm on Saturday, February 13. There will be tall tales, tears, laughter and sorrow. Then a cavalcade of more than 100 motorbikes will lead Rhys on his last ride.

Perhaps Rhys’ story will be his legacy – that we become more sensitive, more aware of the road statistics. We are dealing with people and lives, not just numbers.

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