Benefield: Sonoma County's top cycling advocate ready to shift gears

Gary Helfrich doesn't get to ride his bike as much as he'd like these days, which is odd because he's the executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.|

Gary Helfrich doesn’t get to ride his bike as much as he’d like these days, which is odd because he’s the executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

The 1,200-member coalition, the county’s most noteworthy cycling advocacy group, is a presence at city council and county supervisor meetings, a constant champion of getting more people on bikes and making those riders safe on our roads and trails.

For five years, Helfrich, the knowledgeable and eminently quotable head of the coalition, has been the area’s voice for cyclists. But at the end of the month, he’ll step down as executive director, which will free him up for a lot of things - for one, riding his bike again.

“I’ve gotten really out of shape,” he said. “I’ve worked so hard with the bike coalition, I don’t get to ride my bike anymore.”

Those who have worked with Helfrich credit him for both his passion for bikes and cyclist safety, and his knowledge of government - of politics, more specifically.

“Whenever I called Gary on an issue, he’s knowledgeable, well-versed in process,” said Gary Wysocky, a Santa Rosa City Council member and past president and founding board member of the bicycle coalition.

“I can’t say enough about my interactions with him on government issues,” he said. “He knows the right people to call. He had relationships built up with those people.”

Those relationships have helped grow projects like Safe Routes to Schools, the Safe Streets campaign, the establishment of more miles of bikes lanes across the county and, anecdotally, the number of people on bikes.

It’s hard not to feel there are more people out there riding than ever before.

Before he took over the top job at the coalition, Helfrich worked as a planner for the county of Sonoma. That is where he will return on June 29.

“Bicycling safety is not just recreation but transportation in our community,” Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “He was a planner in the county, so I think he does get the big picture.”

And the big picture is that bikes belong.

“When you think of it, there aren’t cyclists and drivers - there is a person driving, there is a person riding, there is a person walking,” Helfrich said. “They are people going through their day doing X and Y and Z.”

“You don’t objectify a person by how they get around in the world,” he said.

And he’s quick to say that goes both ways - for someone who rides a bike or someone who drives an Escalade.

“People see somebody riding a bike as somebody different than them,” he said. “We are so small-minded about people being different.”

I asked whether the daily beatdown that cyclists are sometimes subjected to is driving him out of the job. He laughed.

“My skin was pretty thick from being a county planner,” he said.

Worse than anti-bike sentiment, he said, are the disappointments of the already converted.

“What takes it out of me more are the people I care about who feel we haven’t taken care of their needs,” he said.

Because face it, the needs are many.

Ride on Sonoma Avenue in Santa Rosa - where the bike lane exists, then suddenly doesn’t - and you will realize that our infrastructure could use some improvement. Get buzzed one time on a lonely west county road and you’ll know that animosity exists between some drivers and some cyclists.

But even advocates say that it goes both ways. Unthinking cyclists can wreck it for the rest of us.

“Being a jerk doesn’t get you anywhere, and if you are on a bike you might end up dead and if you are in a car, you might have your life ruined,” Helfrich said. “Being a jerk is no way to lead your life.”

But there remains a common, sometimes breathless, strain of complaint - cyclists don’t belong on roads made for cars, cyclists should pay taxes or get licenses or register their bikes if they want all these miserable bike lanes.

Helfrich chuckles at them all.

Roads were made for all lawful users, no more for cars than bikes. Cyclists do pay taxes. Very few folks on bikes don’t also drive cars - cars they have paid to insure, cars they have paid taxes to both purchase and fuel, cars they have paid to register and cars for which they maintain a license. In that way, cyclists are paying well more than their fair share of road costs.

And speaking of roads, Helfrich turns to the still-cited 1950s U.S. roads test that remains the standard for road-wear science.

From that study, Helfrich said, it was found that it would take 10,000 passes of a bike to equal the wear and tear from one pass on the same stretch of road by a car the equivalent of a Prius.

But for all of that, Helfrich believes things are getting better out on the roads - that tension between users is decreasing. And Wysocky believes that things are getting better in planning offices and city council chambers around the county as the “electeds” count cyclists among the user groups whose needs should be considered.

“I noticed the change when the first Amgen Tour (of California) came through,” he said. “City Hall didn’t treat us like a red-headed stepchild anymore. Absolutely. It was a sea change.”

Zane, a regular rider, said that 95 percent of the drivers she encounters when she is on her bike are respectful. The other five percent seem to have “an unwarranted hostility toward cyclists.”

“I think 95 percent of people really have been better educated because of the coalition and because of public efforts and the rise of road biking as a sport,” she said.

Helfrich said his goal has always been for the coalition to be so successful in making cycling part of our collective norm that there would be no need for the advocacy group anymore.

We are not there yet, but Helfrich is ready drop back after his pull on the front.

It’s been a good ride.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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