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After a five-year hiatus, a group of avid bicyclists returned to the back roads of Petaluma this past weekend to find and remove old TVs, tires, moldy mattresses, couches and other unwanted items dumped by the side of the road.

The cyclists made note of the trash they found Saturday, then returned Sunday with pickup trucks and gloves to get rid of the mess.

Sunday’s most disgusting discovery was a rusty old freezer with a foul odor emanating from the rotten food left inside.

“It smells like something died in there,” said Ario Bigattini of Petaluma, who founded the all-volunteer ABC Rides “Tour de Trash” in 2005 with a bunch of his cycling buddies.

The informal effort is supported by the Sonoma County roads department, which supplies safety vests, garbage bags and barricades. The county public works department also disposes of the junk after the volunteers drop it off at a site on Airport Boulevard in Santa Rosa.

“A lot of the trash is off the beaten path, so you have to look down in the ditches,” Bigattini said. “Typically, public works is not liable for that trash, because it’s not a roadside hazard.”

Bigattini invited endurance racer Yuri Hauswald, who participated in the first Tour de Trash, to lead Saturday’s leisurely bike ride along some of rural Petaluma’s most scenic byways.

“It’s frightening what people are dumping,” said Hauswald, who grew up on a farm in the Chileno Valley southwest of Petaluma. “Some of the stuff is unsafe out there, with the dumping of liquor bottles and motor oil. There’s everything from Coors Light cans to engine blocks and refrigerators.”

On Sunday, a team of five adults and four teens returned to the litter sites found a day earlier, ready to haul away trash that is not only an eyesore but can injure cyclists riding at high speeds.

“These are our cherished back roads,” Bigattini said after removing the rusty freezer near the corner of Spring Hill and Guglielmetti roads. “The Bantam Classic, a race put on by Yuri, will come right through here in a couple of months.”

The Petaluma crew found about 20 dump sites Saturday but only cleared 12 the next day because their five pickups had reached capacity.

In addition to the freezer, they managed to lasso an old water heater, some wooden cabinets, a television, assorted couches and chairs, several mattresses and bags full of beer bottles and soda cans.

Most Fridays, a Sonoma County probation crew drives around Sonoma County’s rural roads and picks up large items that are discarded illegally.

“This is spring cleaning,” said Keith Marchando of Petaluma, an avid cyclist who served as a key member of Sunday’s cleanup crew. “Getting the involvement with public works has paid off. I saw a couch out there on Thursday night, and yesterday it was gone.”

Along Chileno Valley Road, the cyclists found what appeared to be the contents of an entire office that had spilled along the side of the road and into an irrigation pond.

“A lot of it is large pieces, not just trash bags,” Marchando said. “I wonder if people are evicted and then just dump their stuff.”

Another theory is that cleanup crews hired by homeowners may be pocketing the cash instead of paying to take the items to the county dump. Some items can be left at the dump for free, but it’s $20 to get rid of mattresses and refrigeration units with freon.

“People who dump things really know what they’re doing,” said Roxanne Maillet, Bigattini’s wife, whose two sons took part in the cleanup. “We’re showing our kids that you have to help the Earth.”

Competitive mountain biker/cycling coach Jonathan Lee led a 100-mile ride on Saturday along Santa Rosa’s back roads, but the volunteers on the ride only found two sites with roadside trash. The crew decided it was not worth going out Sunday.

The Petaluma cyclists agreed that sacrificing their weekend was definitely worth it, if only to raise awareness.

“I always think it’s good to give back to our community and to draw attention to what we see as a problem,” Hauswald said. “We’re showing folks that even though it’s not our trash, we’re willing to go clean it up.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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