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Converging traffic: Cyclists, motorists jockey for space on Wine Country roads

  • Santa Rosa High sophomore Martha Fast walks her bike on a crosswalk where she was hit by a car 3 years ago when she was a student at Santa Rosa Middle School. She started riding a bike again this summer after avoiding riding the since the accident.

On a sun-splashed afternoon in Sonoma County's Wine Country, a Norwegian tourist rode a rented bicycle in the middle of a two-lane road, recording the natural beauty around him with a video camera that he cradled in one hand.

The bucolic setting west of Healdsburg has helped fuel the county's growing reputation as a world-class destination for cycling.

But as Bengt Eliassen kept pedaling and filming a few weeks ago, he was oblivious to a sport utility vehicle that had driven up behind him on Lambert Bridge Road. The truck followed Eliassen for several hundred yards until turning at the intersection with Dry Creek Road.

At a general store across the street, Eliassen chuckled when he was informed about the truck. "Normally, I don't ride with a camera," he said.

The brief encounter turned out to be a nonevent. But similar encounters between cyclists and motorists on Sonoma County's back roads and on city streets have led to some tense moments, and even crashes or intentional acts of violence. The CHP reports an increasing number of complaints from both cyclists and motorists who blame each other for flouting traffic laws and putting people's safety at risk.

This comes at a time when cycling has never been more popular in Sonoma County, where the number of people using bikes to go sightseeing, work out, commute or just cruise around town has proliferated.

That popularity is bolstered by the world-class athletes who train here, including Santa Rosa's Levi Leipheimer, and by the prestigious cycling events that are staged here, including the Amgen Tour of California and Leipheimer's King Ridge GranFondo, which drew 7,500 participants in October in only its third year.

"I think it's the best place on earth to ride a bike," Leipheimer said of Sonoma County during a recent speech to the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce.

But paradise still has its ugly side. Ask Martha Fast, a 17-year-old Santa Rosa High School junior who was struck by a car last month as she rode her bicycle to school. The irony? She was riding on Humboldt Street, the city's designated bike thoroughfare.

"I guess it was a moment where me and the driver both had different expectations of what the other was going to do," said Fast, who was not seriously injured.

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