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Road Rules: Cycling season revs up familiar debate

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By Tracy Harris

Drivers are annoyed. Cyclists are annoyed. Ah, Oldham County in the summertime.

It’s Ironman season — for the next few weeks, triathletes will be pedaling on local roads getting ready for the 112-mile cycling portion of the competition, which takes place Aug. 26.

The cycling loop through Oldham County has been contentious since the event came to Louisville in 2007. In past years, vandals left tacks in the road to pierce bicycle tires; cyclists have been struck by BB gun pellets and signs telling “Ironman go home” have cropped up in several places. 

In 2010, police arrested a Bedford man for attempting to run cyclists off the road.

And an Ironman participant sued the county government and law enforcement after he was struck by a car during the event’s cycling portion in 2007.

But with or without Ironman, cyclists are granted the right to be on roadways by state law — and county officials are trying to improve safety for both motorists and cyclists.

In Kentucky, cyclists are considered normal vehicular traffic and have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists.

Locally, several signs have been posted in the county promoting safety and awareness for both parties, according to Judge-Executive David Voegele.

In 2011, the signs drew ire from cyclists who feel motorists need to follow the rules, too.

“I see all of these stern signs in town and lecture cyclists about how we’re supposed to behave,” asked Larry Preble, a La Grange chiropractor. “I support that, but where’s the other side of the equation?” 

Preble has organized bicycle rides for years as a way to encourage his patients to exercise.

“The general public doesn’t understand bicycles have the right to be on the road,” he said.

Now, the revised signs encourage “mutual safety,” although the rules are still directed at cyclists and include riding no more than two abreast, moving to single file to allow vehicles to pass and obeying traffic signals.

But the signs leave out rules that motorists may not know, like giving cyclists three feet of space when passing and that cyclists aren’t required to ride single file or in the far right-hand side of the lane, both common misconceptions.

State law allows cyclists, and motorcyclists, to ride two abreast. Cyclists should stay to the right-hand side, but only as far as is safe. 

According to state law, riders need not place themselves in danger of running off the road or over deteriorated pavement and may “take the lane” — ride in the center of the lane — when hazards, road widths or traffic speeds dictate.

Like motorists, cyclists must obey all stoplights and stop signs, use hand signals to indicate turns or stops and use headlights at night.

Lynn Soporowski, an engineer with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, works on the Share the Road campaign promoting bicycle safety as part of the KYTC.

She said the cabinet’s policy is to evaluate each road project for bicycle and pedestrian safety. That can mean adding bike lanes or multi-use paths or widening shoulders, she said.

But the key to roadway safety is awareness and eduction for cyclists and motorists.

“Be aware of what’s going on,” Soporowski said.

Soporowski said it’s a two-way street – both parties need to follow rules of the road.

“These are our citizens,” she said. “They have the right — and responsibility — to use the roads.”

Beth Atnip, race director for Ironman Louisville, agrees.

“You have to educate both parties,” she said. Atnip said cycling traffic frustrates some drivers, but state law grants cyclists permission to use Kentucky roads.

Atnip said Ironman has a good relationship with governments and police departments involved in the race, including Oldham County and La Grange.

Several months before the race, Atnip meets with officials to review detailed safety plans, which becomes easier the longer the course stays the same.

Local police officials agree their relationship with Ironman coordinators helps the event be successful and safe.

The Ironman corporation does pay for the additional emergency service personnel who work during the event. 

According to officials, there will be at least 30 on-duty EMTs and paramedics, two dispatchers devoted to the event and dozens of law enforcement officers from several
agencies. 

“The Ironman representatives have been very responsive to meet the needs of law enforcement to assist in assuring the safety of not only the cyclists, but also the motoring public of Oldham County,” said Kevin Collett, La Grange Police chief.

But many residents say the Ironman race isn’t welcome in Oldham County.

Goshen resident Joel Nivens said it is “nothing but a headache” for a month before and after the race.

“(It’s) very dangerous for cars and bikes on (U.S.) 42,” he said. 

Nivens said those who support Ironman Louisville’s bike route through Oldham County probably don’t live in North Oldham or experience the traffic delays that arise.

Atnip said there are no plans to change the bicycle course in part because race day has always gone smoothly.

The contract for Ironman Louisville runs through 2015 with an option to renew.

“People should expect cyclists on the road at any time,” she said. “At least for the next five years.”

Atnip added that training rides are not part of the official event — Ironman does not organize, promote or sanction training sessions on the course.

But she does believe increasing the dialogue between local officials, cyclists and residents would improve understanding and cooperation.

According to Soporowski, working with local governments to promote the Share the Road campaign has improved other communities. 

She cited Paula Nye Memorial Grants, issued by the KYTC each year, as a way to fund educational programs and signage to promote bicycle safety.

Grant applications are due Oct. 1, she said, and can be found at transportation.ky.gov/share-the-road

The site also contains information about bicycle safety and state regulations.

County officials are also working on an event ordinance to regulate events on public roadways. 

The draft ordinance returned to committee for revision July 17.

It is designed to prevent unexpected events from causing safety concerns in the county and would require permits for all commercial events and any event with more than 50 participants. 

Officials say the permits — and prior notice — would allow police officials to increase traffic control at dangerous intersections and ensure public safety.