Finding a bicycle's place on the road

Sunday, October 3, 2004

I don't ride bikes much, haven't since I was 15 years old.

I taught my 6-year-old son how to ride a bike several months ago, and I love watching him waddle side to side through the park on his two-wheeler.

But I didn't enter the bike shop Wednesday morning to buy a bike for me or my son. I went to write a story.

I had been reading public comments on the editorial pages of our newspaper about the adversarial relationship between cyclists and motorists.

Anonymous callers said cyclists are rude and don't belong on the road. And cyclists responded. We have every right to be on the roads of Missouri, they said.

So on Wednesday I showed up unannounced at a bicycle shop in Cape Girardeau. I met a young man named Dustin Gross, who I later learned cut short his chemistry education at the University of Missouri for the chance to help a friend start up this bike shop. He's a bike junkie and has been for as long as he can remember.

I told him I wanted to see for myself what it's like riding in Cape Girardeau traffic. I wanted to ride along with an experienced cyclist, see what the cyclist sees, hear what he hears.

I grew up in small towns. The streets and parking lots where I rode my Schwinn Predator as a boy were pretty much traffic-free, and I never had any close calls. Not with cars, anyway. Once I got my driver's license, my trusty chrome Predator was left for the dust and the spiders until my baby brother was old enough to ride it some six or seven years later. I never rode in much traffic, never rode on a highway.

Gross seemed excited and eager to help.

"Three problems," I said. "I'm not in very good shape. I don't have a bike. And I have to write this story by Friday."

"We got you covered," he said.

Before I left, he handed me some literature on bicycling safety. He said biking was much easier in Columbia, where many roads have bike lanes. He said he wished there was some of that here. But even bicycle lanes don't prevent accidents.

"When I lived in Columbia, one of my friends was killed," he said. "His name was Mike Brady. This is a serious issue."

He handed me a bright yellow 39-page manual written by John S. Allen called "Street Smarts: Bicycling's Traffic Survival Guide" and a laminated card of Missouri Bicylcing Statutes distributed by the Missouri Department of Transportation. When I got back to the office, I read the MoDOT material first.

One question was answered right away.

Yes, cyclists do have every right to be on the road. Furthermore, Section 307.88 says that cyclists have the same rights as motorists.

Some other rules I found interesting:

Cyclists are not permitted to ride on sidewalks in business districts.

Cyclists on sidewalks must yield right of way to pedestrians and must give an audible signal that they're approaching.

Cyclists riding at less than the posted speed or slower than the flow of traffic shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as is safe, exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction, except when making a left turn.

Simple enough, I thought.

Then I began to flip through the yellow manual. Yikes. There were all sorts of scenarios that I'd never thought about.

I learned there are times when it's appropriate, and safer, to ride in the middle of the lane, or at least close to it.

Take for instance a street like Broadway. There are cars parked all along the side of the road. I figured the cyclist should simply stay as close to the parked cars as possible and let the traffic go around.

Well, as I read in the book, what if somebody opens his car door? Pow! Over the handlebars I would go.

In that scenario, where the cars are parked along the curb, the book said I should ride my bike far enough away from the parked cars to allow the door to open. That puts me in the middle of Broadway's right lane.

Also, the book says, on multilane roads with narrow lanes, like the western portion of Broadway, cyclists should ride in the middle of the right lane so they can't get squeezed out or hit.

The manual goes on and on describing different scenarios: Right turns, left turns, changing lane positions, getting a driver's cooperation. It was a lot to digest, and I didn't have enough time to get through it all by the time Gross called me back and told me to meet him at the shop at 6 p.m.

A $2,749 bicycle

When I arrived, Gross was still working, so I looked around the place.

Bikes hung from hooks on the ceiling, some held on racks throughout the store. Several types of helmets, accessories, shoes and car racks were placed throughout the store.

I saw one bike, a Madone it was called. The Madone is a sharp black model with narrow racing slicks for tires. It was priced at $2,749.

I asked the young man behind the counter what made this bike so special. The Madone was made of carbon fiber. It's aerodynamic, the employee said.

It was clear how serious some are about this sport. That was proved further when a guy with loud shorts and bulky legs walked into the shop. His name was Cody Fulkerson. He's a state trooper. A bike enthusiast. And he shaves his legs. Many serious cyclists do this because scrape wounds supposedly heal faster without hair.

Fulkerson and I talked about bicycle safety.

"What it boils down to is common sense," he said.

That made me feel better since I hadn't completed the text of the bright yellow safety guide.

Fulkerson told me that it's rare when a motorist is rude, but it happens.

"My wife and I were in a riding group one day, riding single file and we were at the crest of a hill," he said. "This guy gets mad that we're riding single file and just blows the horn. Then he flips us off. Then he gets in front of us and slams on his brakes."

The motorist didn't know whom he was messing with. Fulkerson jotted down the license plate number and issued the man a ticket the next day while wearing his trooper uniform.

But Fulkerson was quick to make a point: Cyclists aren't always innocent. Some don't know the rules. Some don't care about traffic patterns. Some just get lost in thought.

Just like drivers, there are good ones and bad ones.

Midway through the conversation, the store's owner, John Dodd, has something to interject.

Honking your horn isn't always a bad thing, he tells me.

"If people can give us just a boop, boop, that's what we want," he said. "Sometimes we can't hear the car coming."

Gross picked out a bike for me, a LeMond Poprad. Then he gave me a Velcro reflective strap to tie to my leg to keep my pant leg from getting caught in the chain. He handed me a helmet then showed me the levers I needed to shift gears and apply brakes. As he lowered the seat, he told me two phrases every cyclist should know.

"If you're riding with more than one person, the guy in back always says 'Car back' when a vehicle is coming from behind," he said. "The guy in front says 'Car up' when a car approaches from the opposite direction."

We were good to go.

The best routes

Most serious cyclists in the area have found certain roads to their liking: Route W, county roads 620, 618, 621, Route Y, Route V, Highway 177 and Route D in Jackson.

They like these roads because of the landscape and because there is the least amount of traffic -- excluding shift changes at Procter & Gamble on Highway 177. Cyclists aren't big fans of traffic, but there is a trade-off. Less-traveled roads mean narrower roads and roads with little or no shoulders. They also like the biking trail in Cape Girardeau, but it's not nearly long enough for the serious cyclists to train for races. Cyclists commonly ride up to 100 miles during bike tours.

Gross said we were just going to go for a short ride, just three or four miles, since I was a beginner. Just to get a taste.

I felt wobbly at first but immediately understood why these junkies enjoy riding so much.

The bike was smooth. I barely had to pedal, barely felt a bump.

We started out on Patricia Street and immediately swooshed down a hill. We zoomed through the neighborhood at around 20 miles per hour, an intimidating speed for someone with hairy legs making his virgin ride atop the graceful Poprad. I immediately understood what John Dodd said about not being able to always hear the traffic behind you. The air blew loudly in my ears.

Gross signaled with his left arm for us to turn right onto Hopper Road. The lanes were fairly wide on this street. A van drove around us with ease. We hopped off Hopper Road and onto the recreational hiking and biking trail and pedaled through the woods.

We came upon an elderly woman walking her dog.

"On your left," Gross said, and I wondered if he said this because a reporter was watching his every move or if he made this a habit.

Soon we caught up to a group of four pedestrians, five if you count the Doberman pinscher.

Gross said "On your left," but the group didn't hear him. We slowed almost to a stop as the four blocked the path.

"Coming through," he said politely.

"Oh sorry," the woman said. "Hey, you didn't honk your horn. You didn't say on your left."

The woman recognized Gross and was joshing. Gross told her his horn was on his other bike. The woman all but proved that Gross practices cycling etiquette even when reporters aren't around.

Lexington Avenue made me a little nervous. The lanes are plenty wide there, providing perhaps the most room for a bike of any road in town. But the traffic consistently zoomed by just a few feet away. At least it felt that way. I imagine the intimidation is much worse on a highway when cars are permitted to go 55 mph.

The worst part about Lexington was a barricade placed over a drain along the side of the road. I felt the road squeeze as I rode around the orange barrier and closer to the traffic.

We then took a right on Rampart Street, a neighborhood street not much different from those in the small towns where I grew up. Then we approached Kingsway Drive. Gross, about 90 feet ahead of me, motioned to take a left, and he did. Then a driver stopped on the other side of Kingsway motioned me ahead even though it was really his turn.

We made the full circle at Kingshighway. We safely crossed the five lanes of traffic and my brief tour was over.

I saw plenty of instances where a lack of attention or a blown tire could've been disastrous. And I also saw plenty of cooperation from cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. I went on another short ride Friday morning and experienced much the same thing, although I did witness an adult cyclist riding on the wrong side of Kingshighway.

I heard a much different story Friday afternoon.

I decided to drive out on Route D, one of the area's major biking routes.

As I took mental notes of the rural but busy highway, I was glad Gross didn't take me out here.

I wouldn't ride a bike on Route D. There are no shoulders. The road is narrow, curvy and hilly. I stopped at a few houses and could understand where Route D residents Anne Rees and John Wood were coming from.

"It really is scary for me as a driver," said Rees, who at one point in her life was an avid cyclist. "They have every right. I understand that, and I like seeing people riding bikes because I think it's a clean, healthy activity. But I don't feel I should have to make the choice between putting myself in danger by crossing the middle line or running a cyclist off the road."

The law says motorists should only pass when it's safe. But on Route D there aren't a lot of safe places. And few people have the patience to drive 15 miles per hour for a half-mile up a hill.

Wood wasn't as sympathetic toward the cyclists, particularly parents who tote infants in carriers on the back of the bike. He said some of the cyclists are respectful. Others he called arrogant.

"I've seen people riding bikes up the middle on a curve and almost get plowed," he said. "We have a lot of high school kids driving through here who just aren't very good drivers, and one day there is going to be a huge wreck."

Wood admitted to occasionally blaring his horn at cyclists who won't get out of the way.

"I know they have the right of way, but that's pushing it," he said.

It's clear that our area of the state wasn't developed with cyclists in mind. It costs a lot of money to add a few feet of hard surface to the side of the road. That's unfortunate for those who spend thousands of dollars and hours on bikes.

But the law is clear: If cyclists enjoy their sport on Missouri's roads, no one can stop them. No matter how dangerous the road is.

bmiller@semissourian.com

243-6635

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