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Cyclists vs. motorists: a showdown in Colorado

A pair's run-in with the law in a rural area renews the question of how the two groups can share state roads.

July 27, 2008|DeeDee Correll | Times Staff Writer
  • Bicyclists cross an intersection in Fort Collins, CO.
Bicyclists cross an intersection in Fort Collins, CO. (Kevin Hoffman / Fort Collins…)

FORT COLLINS, COLO. — In the feud between motorists and cyclists, the hour was high noon.

A lawman stopped two visitors on a quiet county road and warned them that their behavior wouldn't be tolerated in these parts.

Their transgression: riding their two-wheeled steeds side-by-side instead of falling into single file when an automobile approached.

"Don't let the sun set on your behind in my county" is how the cyclists heard the deputy's warning.

Or maybe he said, "If you stay in Dodge, be prepared to follow the rules or suffer the consequences," as the sheriff would later say.

Either way, they were fighting words that shook a fragile truce between Colorado motorists and bicyclists and raised anew the question of whether the two groups can coexist on the state's roads.

As in other parts of the country, tensions between cyclists and motorists are considerable. Drivers complain about cyclists whizzing down mountain roads, oblivious to nearby cars. Riders say drivers veer dangerously close and toss soda cans at them.

The northern Colorado county of Larimer draws cyclists by the hundreds for its solitary country roads winding through fields and canyons, and around beautiful lakes. Larimer's largest city, Fort Collins, is a college town lauded for its friendliness to bikes.

But in the county's rural areas, some residents have grown weary of the spandex-clad athletes who fill the roads every weekend, said Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden, who stands accused of sharing such prejudices.

The conservative sheriff takes potshots not only at cyclists but also at the nearby liberal college town of Boulder, which produces some of Larimer's cyclists.

In one recent column on the sheriff's website, Alderden wrote: "Don't you just love this time of year, when the birds, boats and cyclists come out? Well, two out of three ain't bad."

This spring, Alderden's traffic deputies stepped up their efforts to rein in those they saw as violators -- cyclists who rode two abreast, requiring motorists to edge into oncoming lanes to avoid them.

Among those stopped in May were a pair of riders from Boulder. They said Deputy Brian Ficker told them he didn't appreciate Boulder cyclists riding in his county and told them to return there or face a ticket.

Because they were not ticketed, authorities did not release their names, and the cyclists did not identify themselves in an account circulated in the cycling community.

Alderden disputed their account. "It wasn't 'Get out of Dodge,' " he said. "He told them, 'This is the law. You might get away with it in Boulder County, but in Larimer County, we enforce the statutes.' "

In the ensuing media coverage, barbs flew back and forth. Some accused the sheriff of being an overweight, lazy man jealous of the cyclists' fitness; Alderden called cyclists arrogant and said that spandex had adversely affected their sense of humor.

"There's a sense of entitlement to do whatever they want: They're environmentally conscious, and everyone else is a fat pig," he said.

But the flap also revealed a division of opinion over the law.

State law permits cyclists to ride two abreast, as long as they don't impede the normal flow of traffic.

To Alderden, that meant they should move into single file if a car approached.

Bicycle advocates, including the author of the bill, see it differently. It's OK for a car to drive around two cyclists, just as they might for a slow-moving farm vehicle, said state Sen. Greg Brophy. "I don't believe it's unreasonable for a car to come off cruise control," he said.

Bicycles also are vehicles on the road, noted Dan Grunig, executive director of Bicycle Colorado. If there are more bikes than cars on a particular road, then perhaps they constitute the normal flow of traffic, he said.

"It's a point for discussion," he said. "You can't assume traffic is only motorized."

Despite a recent meeting called to find common ground, the two sides reached no consensus. Brophy said the law should be clarified, something he intends to address next year. Alderden says that until then, he will continue to enforce the law as he interprets it.

A long-term solution will require revamping Colorado's roads, Grunig and Brophy said.

In Colorado, growth has encroached on traditionally rural areas, where two-lane roads have become major commuter routes, Grunig said.

"Those are the routes that recreational cyclists use," he said. "When there's a big shoulder on the road, there's not conflict. People get along fine."

"We really need to work toward [building] roadways that recognize both uses," Brophy said.

Until that happens -- if it does -- everyone should remember that safety is paramount, said one Boulder cyclist, who said he could understand the sheriff's point of view.

"The car is much bigger than the bike," said Donald Cicchillo, president of the Boulder Cycling Club, who recently came upon the aftermath of a fatal bicycle crash. "We want to share the road, but my philosophy is: Be safe."


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