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Cyclists by choice _ or chance _ share need

What happened Sunday to more than a dozen cyclists who were mowed down by an errant driver in St. Petersburg ought to remind anybody with eyes open that people on bikes have a right to be on the highway.

The lesson is largely missed in the bay area. Year after year, the ranking doesn't change. We are consistently among the most dangerous places in the country to ride a bike.

Yet some of us still ride.

There are the clubs, like the two represented in Sunday's accident _ the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and the St. Pete Mad Dog Triathlon Club. These are the people who ride, mostly on weekends, for recreation and pleasure, for challenge and competition.

They ride expensive bikes and wear bright outfights and, almost always, helmets.

And then there are the anonymous others, who ride bikes from Wal-Mart or the Salvation Army, who can't afford helmets, let alone the bike shorts with the padded seats. They use their bikes the way the rest of us use our cars.

Gena Torres, a Hillsborough County planner, keeps track of bike crashes. Accidents like Sunday's, involving the Lycra crowd, get the attention. But Torres says most crashes involve the others, a group she likes to call "the invisible cyclists."

Last summer, she spent her workday mornings for a month stopping bicyclists on the street in Tampa. She asked them where they were going, what they were doing. "They were going to work. They were trying to get to their families," she said. "They were trying to get to the store. It was a commute type of trip."

And they were doing it on roads the rest of us commuters pack with automobiles.

These are the streets where the crashes occur, Torres said. Most occur during the day.

The invisible cyclists ride bikes because they have no car. They are too poor. Or they have lost their driver's licenses.

Often, though, they ride their bikes improperly.

They ride without a helmet. Or against traffic. Or while wearing headsets. Or while wearing dark clothing at night. Or without lights. Or they ride drunk.

In other words, sometimes they are asking for trouble.

Sure enough, said Torres, these riders, not the weekend warriors, are the ones most often hurt and killed.

Yet they're not the ones who get the attention. Their deaths are noted only briefly in the paper.

Torres is stumped over how to reach these invisible others, how to teach them the tools of safe biking that people in bike clubs learn from the get-go. She dreams of being able to give away bike helmets and bike lights.

She also wishes she could reach politicians and road engineers, and get them to keep these other, invisible bicyclists in mind.

"If I could give them anything, it would be bike lanes," Torres said.

You name the road. Nebraska Avenue. Florida Avenue. Even Dale Mabry Highway. Torres is all for narrowing traffic lanes to create bike lanes to take these cyclists-by-necessity where they need to go.

Torres interviewed 100 city cyclists last summer. She put their stories together in a package and has twice presented it to officials.

She spoke up to illustrate how out of touch those officials were with the transportation needs of city residents, most poor. They would be lost without their bikes. They must get around one way or another, whether the roads are safe or unsafe.

Torres said she's not very popular with some county engineers now.

It doesn't bother her. "I wanted them to see what I was seeing," she said.

Her campaign continues.

_ Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelonesptimes.com or 226-3402.

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