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Learning to share the road in Cazadero


CAZADERO -- Nestled in a steep, wooded canyon in west Sonoma County, Cazadero has about 500 residents and two dozen buildings that line Cazadero Highway as its Main Street.

But this scenic, bucolic setting also is home to simmering tension between the people who drive its narrow, hilly roads, often in pickups, only to encounter a growing number of cyclists who come from afar for the daunting rides.

"There is a clash between the cyclists and the local people, especially when they ride as a peloton, as a big group, which is necessary for the way they train," said Charlotte Berry, a 25-year Cazadero resident and co-owner of Cazadero Hardware. "It is difficult to pass them on the local winding roads that are covered with brush and a lot of blind curves. There is a lot of friction because it slows people down."

Resident John Zimmerman said he has seen a dozen cars lined up behind slow-moving cyclists.

"I don't want to spoil their fun, but it's a safety issue," he said. "All it takes is one hot-head to pass when they shouldn't, and someone will get killed."

The issue exploded several months ago when the county roads department removed two cattle guards, the last straw for ranchers who loudly accused the county of bowing to cyclists at the expense of agriculture.

What followed was several community meetings to clear the air and set the stage to reach a middle ground, Berry said.

"Cazadero is ahead of the game working this out," Berry said. "The GranFondo that is named for our road is the largest cycling event in the United States. Whether we like it or not, we will have cyclists. So we have evolved, we are not just hillbillies."

Berry said crews of local residents are cutting back the brush from roads while asking Cal Fire and PG&E Co. to do the same, and are seeking grants to enable the county to fix potholes and pave gravel turnouts to allow for passing.

Greg Fisher, an organizer of Levi Leipheimer's King Ridge GranFondo, which could have 6,000 participants and gross $300,000 at its October event, is considering erecting signs promoting cycling etiquette and warning of the tight turns and steep descents.

"We don't have the capacity or the interest to police people's behavior across the board, but the Fondo does bring a popularity to these roads, even though they have been famous for years," Fisher said. "We have been working with county to see what resources we can divert to this area."

King Ridge, Seaview, Fort Ross, Old Cazadero and Skaggs Springs roads are steep, thin, twisting ribbons of asphalt that are pinched by Scotch broom, manzanita, oaks, bay laurels and redwoods.

Unlike other areas of Sonoma County where cycling and motorists compete for road space, Cazadero is only for the serious cyclist and has become a training ground for professional racing teams.

"They call it the King Ridge Alps," Berry said. "It is in the international cycling magazines as one of the top 10 professional training runs in the whole world. We get the Lance Armstrongs and those famous guys coming right by our shop."

The most popular is a 36-mile loop starting and ending in Cazadero with 4,800 feet of climbs and harrowing descents that are only for the most skilled rider.

"It's a fitness test for me, to see where I'm at," said Fred Gibson of Petaluma, who likes to ride the loop twice a year. "It's one of the most challenging roads I know."

Still, the corner of western Sonoma County is largely agriculture. When hay truck meets bicyclist, it can be troubling.

"The one-day GranFondo event is not an issue; it is one day and controlled," said Fort Ross Fire Chief Steve Ginesi. "What bothers me are the riders, day in and day out, in the middle of the road. And it is hard to get around them."

The roads can be dangerous for the inexperienced, inattentive or overzealous, said Christine Canelis, a Cazadero Fire Department volunteer and member of the West County Wild and Crazy, an informal woman's cycling group.

On Memorial Day weekend, a woman lost control of her bicycle on a steep, tight curve and ended up unconscious and face down in the south fork of the Gualala River. A fellow rider jumped off the bridge to rescue her and suffered a broken arm and leg.

"It's all about experience," Canelis said.

Resident Leland Falk said in March he was hit by an out-of-control cyclist on Skaggs Springs Road while hauling a load of hay, causing $6,300 damage to his pickup.

"I was very angry at that point, after he was OK," Falk said. "I chewed them out for being reckless. What is going on is everyone thinks these rural roads are their personal racetracks because there was little traffic on it. I knew it was going to happen eventually."

As in most long-simmering disputes, many of the complaints are anecdotal and hard to verify.

Motorists say some cyclists hog the road, are arrogant, are overly aggressive in demanding the right of way, flash obscene gestures and litter.

In cycling circles, stories abound of drivers crowding riders, shouting curses and pelting them with trash and water bottles. But it's hard to find someone who said such abuse has actually happened to them.

"That hasn't been my experience," said Dan Winkler, whose been riding in that area for 20 years. "All my friends are experienced riders, and they have not had any problems."

Tom O'Kane, Sonoma County's deputy director of public works, found himself in the middle of the dispute when the county replaced two cattle guards on King Ridge Road several months ago.

He was confronted by angry ranchers who complained he was caving in to cyclists and accused the county of planning to systematically rip out cattle guards even as it lacked funds to do other, basic road repairs.

O'Kane said the work was done at the request of the property owner because the guards were causing flooding problems and no longer were in use.

"That is absolutely false, there were not any bicyclists who had contacted us," O'Kane said. "There have been some obnoxious bicyclists and maybe some obnoxious ranchers and they have been at each other."

Berry said the cattle guard incident brought the issue to a head and prompted two community meetings attended by residents, the CHP, bicycle advocates and Sonoma County officials, including Supervisor Efren Carrillo, to clear the air.

Fisher said for the bicycling community, the first of the two meetings at the fire hall, when emotions were running high, was a wakeup call.

"It was a rough meeting, but we are pleased to have heard it, we are pleased to be working with those folks," Fisher said. "The big picture is it will benefit cycling in Sonoma County. That is kind of the point, that is the big picture."

Berry said she feels tensions have calmed.

"The main people who were the angriest are now working with the cyclists to resolve this," Berry said. "We are working through what was a stressful situation."

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.