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From a cyclist's point of view

06/05/2008

By Peter Oliver

I appreciate Reginald Bragg sharing his concerns about cyclists on Valley roads in last week's Valley Reporter. He is right that cyclists do occasionally ride discourteously or dangerously, and as a frequent rider on Valley roads, I too get upset when I see cyclists not riding as responsibly as possible. The bad behavior of a single rider can shed a bad light on all cyclists, as it apparently has with Mr. Bragg.

That said, a few things should be understood from a cyclist's point of view. For starters, most cyclists with whom I ride do know the basic rules of the road in Vermont and abide by them. Essentially the rules are: a) ride as far to the right as is safely possible, and b) ride two abreast only when not obstructing the flow of traffic. In short: Do the best you can not to impede automotive traffic, even if at times you might be forced into the travel lane or briefly be in the way of vehicles attempting to pass.

Unfortunately, there occasionally are cyclists with bad riding habits, just as there are occasional bad drivers. But this shouldn't condemn the considerable majority that does play by the rules, nor should it be the grounds for imposing Draconian limitations on the use of bikes on the road.

Obviously, the quality of the roadway is an enormous factor in determining the safety of vehicle and bike interaction. Where shoulders are wide and smooth -- Route 100B south of Middlesex, for example -- it is easy for riders and drivers to get along just fine. On the other hand, the postponing of the repaving of Route 100 between Warren and Waitsfield has left a gruesome road surface, with the shoulder in many places all but gone, creating a more hazardous playing field for both riders and drivers.

Many readers have probably signed the petition that has been circulating in recent weeks to make sure that when Route 100 is repaved, room is made for an adequate bike lane. All cyclists and drivers should hope that that will happen.

When space is constricted -- by poor road conditions or bridge crossings, for example -- there is going to be inevitable friction between cyclists and motorists. As Mr. Bragg points out, different rates of speed are a major contributing factor, but let's be realistic -- not allowing riders on the roads where the shoulder has deteriorated is not an option.

That is why applying a "share the road" principle is so vitally important. Motorists should understand that "sharing" doesn't mean ceding the road to cyclists; it simply means exercising a little patience when approaching and passing cyclists. Let's face it -- waiting till it is safe to pass a biker rarely means a delay of more than a few seconds, if there is any delay at all. At the same time, cyclists in general need to exercise all reasonable actions to allow the smooth, safe flow of automotive traffic. Sharing the road is really not that hard or inconvenient. It's not that big a deal.
Mr. Bragg suggests that it would be absurd to allow, say, skateboarders and pedestrians on the road. The fact is, though, cyclists are certainly not the only users of the roads traveling well below the speed limit. We've all spent time behind farm or construction vehicles, or RVs chugging uphill at 25 mph, or school buses making frequent stops. Horseback riders, pedestrians, and -- yes -- even skateboarders sometimes use our roads.

A driver's license, as Mr. Bragg seems to imply, isn't like a deed of road ownership for motorists. The rural roadways of The Valley are open and legal thoroughfares for many people, often unlicensed, using many forms of transportation. Not only will that remain the case, it should remain so.

Rather than being discouraged, cycling needs to remain a vital component of The Valley's culture. Among other benefits, it is environmentally benign, improves physical fitness, and is a positive catalyst for The Valley economy, The Valley being nationally renowned as a great place for vacationing cyclists to ride. Cycling brings tourism to The Valley.

Patience, courtesy and mutual respect can be a lot more effective in keeping the roads safe for motorists and cyclists than the kind of licensing, restriction or policing that Mr. Bragg suggests. Such measures might not eliminate the few bad cyclists, just as all the rules of the road can't eliminate bad drivers. But as someone who has seen this issue from the perspective of both cyclist and driver, I'd say that sharing the road, by and large, works.

Peter Oliver lives in Warren and is a member of the Mad River Riders bicycle club.
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