Stop the cycle: If the pros can't cycle safely on mountain roads, how can we?

Stop the cycle: If the pros can't cycle safely on mountain roads, how can we?

May 30th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Taylor Phinney was injured at the U.S. men's nationals here on Monday.

Photo by Erin O. Smith/Times Free Press.

Professional cyclist Taylor Phinney was seriously injured Monday when he rounded a curve coming down Lookout Mountain on Scenic Highway and struck the guardrail while trying to avoid crashing into a motorcycle driven by a race official in the USA Cycling national championship.

Another pro cyclist, Lucas Euser, was descending just behind Phinney, and he also crashed to miss the motorcycle.

"I went into the concrete wall, and I disintegrated my rear wheel and my pedal and everything. I popped up against that wall, while he (Phinney) hit the guardrail," Euser told VeloNews. "Taylor's bike was 40 feet down the road, and he was underneath the barrier. I didn't see exactly how he crashed, because I was trying not to die myself."

Monday's spectacular crash points up the dangers of biking on our mountain roads. Not just for pros, but also for regular Joes.

If professional cyclists and professional cycling course officials can't safely "share the road" on Chattanooga's curvy, two-lane, mountain lanes, neither can hobby cyclists and ordinary motorists. The accident makes clear something this page has taken quite a bit of criticism for saying several times: bicyclists should be banned from these two-lane mountain roads.

Special events and professional races are fine, if the roads are closed to all other traffic during those events; but never, never, never should cyclists be on mountain roads like Ochs Highway, Scenic Highway and the W Road along with normal traffic.

Just over a year ago, a Florida man died on Ochs Highway when he lost control of his bike and crashed into a car during the 3 State, 3 Mountain Challenge, an event organized by the Chattanooga Bicycle Club. More than 2,000 bicyclists came to Chattanooga for that ride. One didn't go home, and the life of the person whose car he struck was likely forever altered as well.

Hardly a day goes by that W-Road drivers don't round a curve to find a cyclist struggling up Signal Mountain or flying down it. There is no room to give the cyclist the law-prescribed and common-sense 3-feet clearance without the driver being forced to break another law -- crossing the center line and risking a head-on collision. In a curve, a motorist just has to inch along behind, all the while praying not to be rear-ended by another car rounding a bend.

Sometimes cars pass anyway. When that happens, the unknowing drivers coming around blind curves in the downhill lane are the ones who should be saying their prayers.

No one here is suggesting that bicyclers don't have rights. And no one is saying that the outdoor mecca of Dixie doesn't want and need the cycling and sports events -- and the dollars that come with them. We do.

But there is an 800-pound gorilla in lime-green spandex that no one wants to talk about -- safety.

It's just not safe to bicycle on steep mountain roads. It's one thing for professional cyclists to do it while the roads are closed to traffic. (And even then, the pros wreck.) It's an entirely different thing for amateur cyclists and the workaday people who have to drive those mountain roads to get to work and home.

Again, we proffer a suggestion: Build the cyclists their own dream practice and race roads over local mountains. At least one part of that dream course can run up Aetna Mountain and through the planned Black Creek development, since that proposed Black Creek road already has $9 million in taxpayer supported TIF (tax increment financing) funding. The road still isn't built, so there's time to plan bike lanes.

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

Explore the possibility of using more TIF funding 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. 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, and Chattanooga's Aetna is an outdoor and sports mecca and destination in the making.

Is it going to take a multi-fatality, head-on collision to snap everyone awake on this issue? Who else's son or daughter or mother or father has to die or be injured to get a bike ban on our mountain commuter roads?

Put another way: Public safety trumps recreation, plain and simple.