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Cyclists team to raise motorists' awareness

The alarm blared before dawn. Cold air seeped in my open windows.

I'd been asleep three hours. I wanted to roll over and forget about getting up, but I knew I'd regret it. My first-ever group bike ride would be worth it, I told myself, though I wasn't sure why.

I was signed up for an 18-mile Share the Road ride through southern St. Petersburg. The idea is to make drivers more conscious of bikes and their right to the road. In the past year, I had already seen the worst of riding.

My beloved Raleigh hybrid was stolen from the office. I replaced it with another bike, subsequently stolen from my apartment. I shoveled money into more bikes, but never questioned whether it was worth it.

In August, I covered the death of a bicyclist who collided with a garbage truck in St. Petersburg. At the scene, a fellow bike commuter marveled about how instantly, and easily, cyclists are killed on the road. Jim Ramage, 50, died two blocks from his home.

Earlier this month, another man died on a bike in a crash that injured nine other people. A crowd of hundreds gathered in the glare of emergency lights, pointing at two tarps that covered the cyclist's body and, about 6 feet away, his leg. Steven Mincey, 49, died instantly.

In my car and on a bike, I have a new appreciation for cars' deadly power. They careen on no set track with a force of thousands of pounds multiplied by their speed. The danger has worsened as auto manufacturers have competed in an arms race of larger and larger vehicles.

The threat to life isn't the only roadblock. America is built around cars. Our cities, roads, parking lots and drive-throughs bow to them. Nice cars help define success. Bike-commuting sucks time and leaves you sticky on the ride up the office elevator.

So why do it? Why overlook the obstacles and keep pedaling? I hoped some fellow two-wheelers would have some ideas.

So that morning, I shook off sleep and pedaled groggily over the bumpy brick streets to North Shore Park. As the sun rose pink over the bay, hundreds of cyclists gathered in biking jerseys and clip-in shoes, straddling shiny Cannondales, Peugeots and Biancis. I stuck out in my board shorts, tank top and Jesus sandals, sitting on a dinged-up Schwinn I bought at Goodwill for $12.06.

We set off according to speed, starting with those overachievers who wanted to ride more than 25 miles an hour. A couple waves later came my group, at 14 to 17 miles an hour. We pedaled past the Vinoy Hotel and St. Petersburg's picturesque waterfront.

I chatted with Duane Schultz, who rode a Cannondale. He kind of stuck out, too, in a group mostly hunched over on road bikes. On his silver hybrid, he sat upright like that evil neighbor in The Wizard of Oz. I told him I was trying to understand why people ride and why more don't.

He's 63, lives in Clearwater and votes Republican. He started riding after his wife got her Cannondale, not wanting to be left out. He said bicycles slow time down so that you notice what's around you. He feels like an urban explorer when he rides.

We joked about "thrill hill," the little bridge on Third Street, being the only climb in Pinellas County as we pushed our way up. A cold wind was coming from the north, but we felt the day warming with the sun.

Duane faced his own hurdle last year on the Pinellas Trail. He rode into a broken post, fracturing his arm and damaging his bike. His first reaction was to take his bike to the shop to get it fixed.

He walked into the bike store with his white jersey covered in blood. The employees told him he should probably get his arm checked out.

Our group looped south, then cut west on Pinellas Point Drive, following the white spray paint that read "SR" for Share the Road.

In a group of about 30 cyclists, we felt like the majority. It seemed the road was meant for bicycles and not cars. I could see why it was safer — cars saw us and gave us plenty of room when they passed.

A recent study backs that up. Researchers found that the rate of cycling accidents falls as ridership rises. The more people ride, the more conscious drivers are of cyclists. It's called a virtuous cycle. The more people perceive cycling as safer, the more take it up.

But I laughed at the dorkiness of the group rides, people pointing to pot holes with Harry Potter-like gestures and shouting out herd-animal communications like "car back!"

Passing two men in a golf cart and sprinklers, I started feeling tired. But soon I was pumping beside a happy retired couple on a Schwinn tandem bike, talking about the joys of riding. We passed a toddler who called out "Hi! Bye!" as we sped past. Before I knew it we were back to a spread of bananas, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and coffee.

Snacking and chatting, we headed for Vinoy Park, where biking advocate Alan Snel was darting between tents at his annual Bicycle Bash by the Bay. The Bike Bash is a hodgepodge of bike stores, vendors and groups that advocate cycling.

Snel has ridden twice across the country and has commuted by bike in every city he's worked in. He sees riding as an extension of childhood curiosity in the world. He compared riding to flying on a magic carpet.

"That was your vehicle of choice as a kid when you first got away from your parents and start checking out things around you," he said. "I still use the bicycle that way. To me it's still my tool of choice in terms of exploring and seeing the world.

I learned the rules of the road for bike commuting, how to plan long-distance travel and how government programs encourage biking, carpooling and bus ridership.

In the city's tent, Cheryl Stacks fitted me with a free helmet. She's the bicycle-pedestrian coordinator for the city, and she showed me how to adjust the straps to make sure they form a triangle around my ears.

Stacks said the city has a master plan to help it become friendlier to cyclists. When a road is repaved, it's automatically considered for bike lanes.

The state has made some progress as well with a law that requires motorists to give bicycles 3 feet of space when they pass.

For a day, the cycling movement made me feel like I wasn't such an oddball for riding home at night and hauling groceries in a milk crate. The old American idea of freedom — the idea we used to associate with V-8 convertibles — is shifting. Now we want freedom from $4 a gallon gas and foreign oil.

But the ride also confirmed what I'd already been feeling. The solution is more cycling.

As long as you wait for your neighbor to ditch the Hummer, gas prices will soar and the Howard Frankland will back up past the hump. I am part of the movement to solve those problems and make the road safer for people like Jim Ramage and Steven Mincey.

I ride because I enjoy it. I interact with my environment. But I also ride in their memory.

Stephanie Garry can be reached at sgarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2374.

Cyclists team to raise motorists' awareness 10/25/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 6:58pm]
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