Gary Helfrich makes a point of listening to the complaints and the rants, the calls and emails of people upset by cyclists who don't follow traffic laws or who clog narrow roads.
Helfrich, the head of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, knows that bicyclists can do better at following traffic rules, but said that doesn't give a motorist the right to drive dangerously, or assault a cyclist.
"It's amazing how this disconnect happens. Suddenly it's OK to be a vigilante," he said. "Suddenly it's OK to kill someone with your car."
Road-rage incidents such as the one last year when an 82-year-old man rammed a cyclist with his car after chasing him onto the Oakmont golf course are the extreme. But that incident, along with a series of fatal bicycle accidents in Sonoma County and ongoing reports of cyclists being harassed, helped Helfrich build a campaign that has gotten Sonoma County, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol to pass "vulnerable user" ordinances to better protect cyclists and pedestrians.
The ordinance makes it easier for cyclists and pedestrians to sue people who harass or assault them. Critics, who fear that will lead to frivolous lawsuits, helped shoot down the proposal in Windsor and Healdsburg.
If nothing else, the vulnerable-user ordinance is intended to deter harassment and make the roads safer.
"I think there's a message there: educating people. You have to share the road with bicyclists. We all need to be more patient," said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who worked with Helfrich to bring the ordinance to the Board of Supervisors and get it passed.
"Cyclists aren't perfect at following the rules of the road," she said, but if they get into altercations with motorists "bicyclists will always lose."
"I'm waiting for the day when someone riding a car is killed by someone riding a bicycle," Helfrich said of the uneven match between a two-ton vehicle and someone on a bicycle.
Helfrich, 59, head of the bicycle coalition for the past two years, is on a mission to shift the culture and attitude toward cyclists.
"It's much more important than putting in a bike lane. If you put in a bike lane and still have a culture that's hostile to folks riding bikes, the road isn't any safer. It's just a designated area to be run over," he said.
The bearded, corpulent Helfrich is not the stereotypical avid cyclist, yet he is somewhat of a legend in bike-building circles. Bike Magazine called him "the godfather of bike titanium" for his pioneering use of the metal, and he was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame 20 years ago.
His career path has taken some unusual turns.
A roadie for the rock band Aerosmith in the 1970's, he would go to Sonoma State University in mid-life and become a planner for the County of Sonoma.
His hand in writing the county's pedestrian and bicycle master plan was a convenient segue to becoming executive director of the Bicycle Coalition when the $50,000 job came open.
In an interview at the Bicycle Coalition's cluttered offices off Mendocino Avenue just north of College Avenue, Helfrich played with an Allen wrench as he spoke.
"I'm very much a tactophile. I like tools a lot," he said. He's fascinated with how things are made, such as a piece of shiny steel tubing that he was holding. "We're disconnected from manufactured objects," he said. "You just don't pick this out of a field. Someone made this."
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