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D.C. Area Bicyclists Battle Not Just Cars, But The Road Itself

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Bicyclists have to watch out for other vehicles, but sometimes the road can be their enemy as well.
Rebecca Cooper
Bicyclists have to watch out for other vehicles, but sometimes the road can be their enemy as well.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 11 bicycle accident deaths in Maryland alone in 2009. Many bike mishaps are not just the fault of bicycle vs. car -- but rather, bicycle vs. road.

The risks associated with riding a bicycle on roads crowded with cars and pedestrians might sometime seem to grow out of a conflict between different forms of transportation forced to share road space. But some cyclists will tell you the problem lies with the road itself.

The conflict is evident at many popular cycling spots around the D.C. region, including River Road in Montgomery County.

Rick Fritz is an orthodontist in Montgomery County. He's also a tri-athlete. While training with his bicycle late last year on River Road in Poolesville, Md., Fritz nearly lost his life.

"I was traveling about 30 to 35 mph going down a hill and I apparently hit a little swell in the road because there's not much of a shoulder there," says Fritz. "I ended up fishtailing into the left hand traffic lane, and landed on my head and my right hip and slid sown the remainder of the hill about 500 feet."

Although popular with cyclists, River Road north of the beltway is a challenge. The curvy local road has just one lane in each direction with painfully narrow shoulders, and no bicycle lanes. Car traffic moving at 40 to 50 mph along the major commuter thoroughfare doesn't leave much room for error.

Mark Blacknell, an attorney and self-described vehicular cyclist, says until roadways and infrastructure become more bike friendly, he prefers to "ride my bike as if I were driving a car." That means riding as part of car traffic, rather than in the sometimes narrow space alongside it.

In fact, laws in D.C., Maryland and Virginia allow bicyclists full use of the travel lane when they can match the normal speed of traffic. This helps cyclists ride predictably and avoid shoulder obstructions, or other obstacles like the sudden opening of a car door.

Blacknell also says riding as a vehicular cyclist encourages a roadway design concept engineers call complete streets.

"It's something that says that when we design our streets, we'll keep in mind that there are pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers who all have to use the streets safely, with the emphasis on safety," Blacknell says.

Until all roads are designed that way, cyclists will have to remain vigilant in the war on the road. Many of them may be doing just that on this year's Bike to Work Day, scheduled for Friday, May 20.


View Bike vs. Car Problem Areas on River Road in a larger map
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