Focus on safety as countdown to bicycle race begins
’08 car-bike crash that hurt 5 riders heightened concern
By Patrick Finley
Richard DeBernardis, founder of El Tour de Tucson bicycle race, has one request for motorists Saturday.
"The best way to help El Tour, because a lot of people don’t ride bikes or support charities, is to not ride in their car on El Tour days," he said. "Let the cyclists have it."
He makes the same statement every year, figuring that, even with the best motorist intentions, the race is safer.
The race, the largest participatory sporting event in Southern Arizona, includes 9,000 cyclists who will take part in one of four races: 109, 80, 66 or 35 miles. This year’s 27th El Tour will feature a new start/finish line downtown. It still includes a ride along the perimeter of Tucson, and two spots where cyclists cross dry riverbeds and must carry their bikes across. El Tour raised its annual security costs from $125,000 to $150,000 this year, mostly because of the route change.
Safety is always a concern for El Tour and for Tucson, a city described by some as a cycling mecca. Race organizers, cyclists and other local groups use El Tour as a reason to revisit the issue every November.
Last year, William Wilson, 91, hit 10 El Tour cyclists while trying to turn north on Westward Look Drive on the city’s northwest side. Five cyclists were hurt, the most serious with a life-threatening brain injury.
DeBernardis said "certainly more people are sensitive" this year because of the crash.
"In that accident, you had a man that decided to make a left turn in front of cyclists," DeBernardis said. "Why did he do it? Could we have stopped it? Are we going to try to prevent people from doing that this year?
"Certainly. But we do that every year."
When DeBernardis founded the race almost 26 years ago, he could count by hand the number of houses on Oracle Road.
Now, with a much busier Oracle under construction, the route will pass more houses than ever before.
Riders will use Calle Concordia, La Cañada Drive, Naranja Drive and First Avenue before rejoining the route at Moore Road.
The race’s start/finish line was moved to Church Avenue between Alameda and Pennington streets, and the Silverbell Road stretch has been moved to the Interstate 10 frontage road, ideally creating a smoother and less-congested race.
But being closer to more homes on the new route necessitates more security.
"Can we eliminate all accidents? I don’t think so," DeBernardis said. "There are people that are irresponsible — both bicyclists and motorists."
El Tour’s safety concerns mirror those of Southern Arizona.
According to the Pima Association of Governments Bicycle Crash Analysis presented in May 2009, there were 359 crashes in Greater Tucson in 2008, four fewer than the year before. There were seven bike fatalities in 2008.
From 2001-08, there were 39 cyclist fatalities and 342 cyclists left incapacitated.
Tom Thivener, the city of Tucson’s bicycle and pedestrian program manager, said he purchased "Share the Road" public safety announcements to fit around El Tour.
There’s a reason — Southern Arizona usually has more crashes in the months leading up to El Tour. From 2001-08, crashes averaged 39.8 in October and 34.5 in September. No other months had more.
"When El Tour comes up, the buildup is a lot more cyclists training," Thivener said. "It’s the loveliest weather, and people are training for El Tour."
Tucsonan Mark Zajicek, 60, who rides 20 miles each way to work on his bicycle, said Tucson’s grid of straight streets might make it easier for motorists to ignore cyclists in their peripheral vision.
The secret for El Tour, he said, is not to feel too comfortable.
"Cyclists can’t get into the false sense of security that, ’We own the road today,’ " he said. "You can’t take for granted that everyone’s going to obey security, or that they’re going to manage the crowds."
Sometimes, though, rage flares. Earlier this month, Christopher Thompson, a Los Angeles-area emergency room doctor, was convicted of mayhem, assault with a deadly weapon and other charges for intentionally slamming his brakes and injuring two Los Angeles cyclists. He will be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison in December.
Zajicek, who has been riding for 50 years, said the trial proved that "incidences are going to have consequences for both parties." In his experience, however, Zajicek has found Southern Arizonans to share the road without incident "more than 95 percent of the time."
DeBernardis said he has noticed "more anger out there between motorists and cyclists," but that tends to be quelled by education.
That’s why El Tour will be broadcasting every 15 minutes on KOOL (1450-AM) on Saturday, starting at 7 a.m. At 11 a.m., when most riders are out on Tucson roads, El Tour will broadcast for a full hour.
The more drivers that know where the racers are, the less likely there will be a repeat of last year’s accident. At least that’s the hope.
"The safest time to ride our streets is that day, on El Tour de Tucson," DeBernardis said. "It’s more supported with police and event equipment than ever before."