Cook: Share the road less traveled

Cook: Share the road less traveled

January 19th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Man, cyclists tell some crazy stories. They're almost like ... war stories.

"I've had two guns pulled on me," one cyclist said. "An unspent shotgun shell hit me in the leg."

Coke cans and beer bottles Kaepernick-ed from open truck windows. Car horns. Somebody stopping his truck and firing his gun into the air. More four-letter words than Scrabble. Trucks that come within inches on roads with barely any shoulder.

"Trying to force me down the cliff," the cyclist said.

"I've been lucky I haven't been hit or killed," said a second.

"We are buzzed or heckled every ride," added a third.

"This stuff happens all the time," said a fourth.

If you are a cyclist, it's a matter of when -- not if -- The Encounter occurs. You're minding your own business, pedaling your sci-fi bike that weighs little more than a burp when out of nowhere, the good-ole-boy truck grinds down on you, "Ride of the Valkyries" blaring from its speakers.

If you're still conscious by the end, two questions spew out like the last air from a flat: Why does this happen?

And how do we make it stop?

Earlier this week, the story of Anders Swanson captured the attention of the American cycling community. Six days ago, he was riding the reservoir on TVA's Raccoon Mountain reservoir when teens in a truck air-horned, revved, buzzed, followed and then assaulted him with pepper spray in the face.

He in his Lycra and cleated shoes, weighing 148 pounds and riding a 15-pound Litespeed. They with their camo hats and 3-ton Chevy.

"With a Confederate flag front plate," Swanson told police.

It was a cultural collision, one that left Swanson in the back of an ambulance. Despite confessing to police officers, the teens were not charged or arrested. Questions over jurisdiction rerouted the investigation from Chattanooga officers (who got the confession) to Marion County detectives (who spent last week investigating).

"Greetings from New Orleans," one cyclist emailed. "Your story about the cyclist is getting a lot of attention down here."

Know why? It's the same reason cyclists from across America have been calling and complaining to Marion County detectives all week.

Chattanooga is a cycling city. A destination cycling city.

The 3-State, 3-Mountain Challenge. USA Pro Cycling Championships. Sequatchie Valley Century. This September, the first Ironman Chattanooga.

When the weather warms, triathletes will migrate here every weekend from spring through fall to train on the race course, which winds through St. Elmo and into Walker County, Ga. And more cyclists means there's more chance of The Encounter happening.

"The cycling community in the entire state is watching this play out and the repercussions will set a precedent," one cyclist emailed.

What would happen if those cyclists imposed an economic boycott of Marion County or Chattanooga?

The entire episode shows the crossroads where Chattanooga sits. Several people made jokes to me about "Deliverance," saying this whole mess reminded them of squealing, backwoods violence.

How terrible.

And how false.

Ironman, take some of your profits and pave the county roads. Spend gobs of money at small businesses. Fund bike clubs at the high schools. Help folks fall in love with cycling. Give them their first crank set.

Marion County, every cyclist you see is money on a bike. Ironman Chattanooga should bring about $40 million to the area. And you want to air-horn that? These guys aren't your enemy. They're your mortgage payment.

Sure, I get ticked at the guy who rides up the W Road at 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon. But you know what? It's his road, too. By law. The same one that says I'm required to give him three feet of room.

"A bicycle has the legal status of a vehicle," the Tennessee government states.

These teens? Arrest them. Charge them with felonies, nothing less. Make them an example to the rest of the noncycling, air-horning South.

Then put them on a bike.

Make them volunteer at every ride and race in the area. Have them ride up Raccoon Mountain every Sunday. Teach them the dappled joy of cycling. Help them realize how terrifying it is to get buzzed and air-horned.

"They thought it would be funny," the police report reads.

Well, they won't when it happens to them.

The only way to bridge the divide between cyclists and drivers is when the latter realizes the humanity of the former.

Anders Swanson's story is Every Cyclist's story.

But it doesn't have to be.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.