Triathlons, country roads are a dangerous mix

Published 5:46 pm Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Isle of Wight has spent millions of dollars creating a safe place to ride a bicycle. A few million more will soon be spent by Smithfield. Whether or not you’re a fan of the Park-to Park bike trail and the money it’s taken to construct it, the fact is, it should make bicycling safer for cyclists and motorists alike.

Those of us who live on Mill Swamp Road certainly hope so. Mill Swamp and several other county roads have become much-favored trail routes for bicycling in recent years. Mill Swamp has even appeared on “favored route” maps as one of the area’s best locations for cycling. That, despite the road’s narrow lanes, poor lines of sight and significant vehicle traffic (about 1,200 a day). As a result of its popularity, motorists traveling to and from Smithfield most any day, but notably Saturdays, can expect to find bicycles sharing the road.

Still, meeting or passing an occasional bicycle or two on the way to the grocery store isn’t a big deal, and if traffic laws are observed by motorists and bicyclists, it shouldn’t be.

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State law is specific in its requirements for motorists and bicyclists sharing a road. Bicyclists are required to ride “as close as safely practicable” to the right edge of the traffic lane, although the law was amended to allow bicyclists to ride two abreast.

For their part, motorists are required to allow at least 3 feet of space when passing bicyclists, and with two cyclists riding abreast, that generally means passing in the opposite lane just as you would while passing a car in order to provide the required legal spacing.

The bottom line is that bicyclists have as much right to be on most roads as do motorists, and the increasing popularity of bicycling makes it incumbent on motorists to be alert, be careful and — sometimes the hardest part — be patient. So long as motorists and bicyclists both keep safety in mind, there shouldn’t be a problem.

But then, there are the organized bicycle events. Somebody’s going to be seriously hurt during one of these, and when it happens, I pity the motorist who has the misfortune to have been involved.

Two weeks ago, a triathlon was staged, as they regularly are, at the Smithfield YMCA. It’s admittedly a good location for the events. The athletes can swim in the Y’s pool, run laps around the Smithfield Historic District and race bicycles down Mill Swamp and Bethany Church Roads and back to the Y.

But heaven help you if you are a motorist caught in the middle of the bicycle leg, because these cyclists are racing and some among them appear to feel that the traffic rules have been suspended on their behalf.

We usually try to avoid using the road during the big events, but sometimes that’s not possible. If I have to leave home during a race, I try to pick a lull, turn the car’s flashers on, settle in a safe distance behind a batch of bikes and roll along at their speed. It’s not that far to town. It should be perfectly safe and usually is.

During the recent race, a half-dozen cyclists were in front of my car and there was clearly not going to be a place to pass because of cyclists coming in the opposite direction, so I settled in, giving them a safe distance. Another bicyclist, who had apparently drunk an extra Red Bull or two that morning, came up behind and rode my bumper, obviously preparing to pass.

Another car, coming from Smithfield, was also between two clusters of cyclists, and our two vehicles met in the curve at Holly Drive. The cyclist behind me picked that moment to pass — and did. He went between our two cars, using the solid “no passing” line to steer between us.

He made it, then passed a couple more cyclists and probably did well in the race. I just hope he finished in one piece.

If traffic laws are suspended during these races, then there ought to be some public notice of the fact. I don’t think they have been, however, so it seems that the race participants have a responsibility to adhere to traffic safety rules even if it costs them a race position or two.

The foot races held in Smithfield can be understandably annoying for residents, but they are at least safe because an abundance of police officers and volunteers are employed to move runners across and down streets.

The triathlon bicycle leg is different. Once they leave the YMCA, the cyclists are pretty much on their own to ride as hard as they can and return as fast as they can, and some of them are simply ignoring traffic laws.

Motorists should not have to stay home so that cyclists can race, and cyclists understandably are racing to win. They are not just riding. However, when dozens of them are racing back and forth on a relatively busy highway, the potential for disaster is self-evident.

Maybe one of these days, our expensive bike trail will offer a solution to some of these racing issues. In the meantime, these major races are a safety hazard that county and town officials need to examine carefully.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is