Seize the day: Make cyclist's encounter with teens a cause for innovation

Seize the day: Make cyclist's encounter with teens a cause for innovation

January 18th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga has a new culture clash brewing.

Pickup trucks vs. grown-ups in spandex riding expensive bicycles on narrow, twisty, mountainous roads.

And, cyclists: beware. It's not just that you look funny. It's that here in a land unaccustomed to buses, let alone bicyclers, you put yourself and the rest of us at risk when you flaunt what we see as safety concerns against what you see as a challenge. Our mountain roads and many valley roads are barely wide enough for two vehicles -- let alone two vehicles and you with your three-foot passing rule.

So it is unfortunate, but not completely unexpected, that a cyclist on Raccoon Mountain last week reported to police that he was harassed and maced by Lookout Valley teens who first rode by and startled him with an air horn, then returned and maced him.

First the teens confessed when a Chattanooga police investigator went to their homes asking questions. But when the cyclist prepared to press charges in Marion County, where the alleged offenses occurred, the teens changed their stories and claimed the cyclist intimidated them by leaning into their vehicle's window. Now, they say, they sprayed him with pepper spray because they were afraid. Marion police are still sorting it all out.

No one condones the road rage or poor humor. What's more, the incident has the makings of a Chattanooga reputation spoiler. And it comes at a terrible time. In coming months, Chattanooga will host three major extreme cycling events: Ironman Chattanooga, the 3-State 3-Mountain Race and the USA Pro-cycling Championships.

But the city's reputation aside, this culture clash is likely to get worse as Chattanooga tries increasingly to profit from our gorgeous outdoor-friendly geography and as younger, tech-savvy and fitness-minded people move here.

And the fact remains that our geography, and the decades-old -- some century-old -- roads that zigzag up and over and around it are not made to accommodate the newest in-vogue fad of cycling at breakneck speed or excruciating slowness around one blind curve after another.

Less than a year ago, in the 3-State 3-Mountain biking event here, a cyclist rounded a curve too fast in the rain on Lookout Mountain and struck an oncoming car head on. The cyclist was killed.

We don't expect trains and barges to move over for walkers and fishermen. So why it is OK to give carte blanche to cyclists on these narrow roads with no room for error? We wouldn't let our children ride a bike on the W Road, so why is it OK for someone old enough to know better?

Yet there is money in these events, and Chattanooga is cashing in. The Ironman event alone is expected to bring $8 million to the area. So we must make some compromises. Here's a suggestion:

Let's seize the day and build the cyclists their own dream practice and race roads over local mountains. Use TIF funding -- tax increment financing -- for it. Tax increment funds funnel expected tax revenue to be gained from anticipated property value in an area to reimburse developers for commercial improvements over time.

At least one part of that dream course can run up Aetna Mountain and through the planned Black Creek development, since that planned Black Creek road already has $9 million in taxpayer supported TIF funding. The road still isn't built, so there's plenty of time to plan bike lanes.

Plus, atop Aetna is the remains of an old four-wheeling off-road course over state and private land protected by conservation easements. The four-wheelers are not allowed there because they cause erosion. Bicycles ridden by people in spandex don't.

If the planned development on Aetna Mountain deserved TIF funds for its anticipated profits, then surely this region's bet on the future for extreme sports events would further legitimize the use of our money to help developers of a posh new enclave.

Perhaps the unfortunate encounter of those teens and the cyclist really did us all a favor.