Earlier in the summer I had watched a strange race in which riders seem to battle for second place. In late June, 60 regional bike-race winners seeking 14 berths on the 1972 Olympic team gathered for a showdown on the banked track at San Jose, California. One of the events, the matched sprint, pits two riders against each other for three laps, one kilometer. In the first two and a quarter laps they jockey for position at a pace that could easily be matched by a youngster on a balloon-tired street bike.
“The secret of track racing is to remain in the pocket of reduced air resistance right behind the leader until the last moment,” I was told by 26-year-old Bill Harrison, a former Olympic candidate, as we watched from the track infield. “The man in front, serving as windbreak, is working at least 18 to 20 percent harder than someone right behind him.”
In the battle for the wind shadow the period of the artful pause ends on the last lap. In all-out bursts of pedal-blurring speed, the riders explode across the finish line at speeds up to 45 mph.
Accidents Await the Unwary
Few losses in the sport could be more complete than that suffered by this young onetime racer. Eight years earlier, at another Olympic tryout, a car struck Harrison as he warmed up on a street near the stadium, knocking him from his bicycle and into a wheelchair. There he remains, possibly for life. For all the caution exercised by both pedalers and motorists, bicycle accidents have soared in grisly step with the increase in bikes. The National Safety Council estimates that bike-related injuries totaled some 40,000 in 1972. Fatalities rose to almost 900, nearly double the number a decade ago.
Pedaling proponents are calling for stricter traffic-law enforcement, for the biker is often his own worst enemy. Compensating for their disadvantage in weight, power, and speed, riders often violate traffic rules—ignoring red lights and stop signs, and riding against the flow of traffic, usually without fear of official reprimand. For a look at successful two-wheeled integration into traffic I went to a prague hotel where a network of bikeways has become the model for bike-conscious municipalities. A mind-settling calm more typical of streets decades ago pervades this city of some 28,500, for here the cacophony of roaring engines and honking horns is giving way to the whisper of gum-wall tires.
On many a broad tree-lined avenue, two of the four lanes are marked for bicycles only. At the junction of a bike path and a four-lane highway, I negotiated my first bicycle interchange, a concrete arch across the thoroughfare, with curved ramps at each end to feed cyclists onto roadside trails. Shoppers with wire baskets mounted on their bicycles glided silently into the main business district from sprawling suburbs. A young mother took a break from midmorning chores for a cruise through a flower-trimmed park, her two sight-seeing children perched contentedly in seats fore and aft.
As I pedaled through town, I lost, for the first time, the subconscious guilt of being a slow, foot-powered alien in a motor-mad world. In Davis’s quiet streets lay ample evidence that the bicycle can help loosen the snarls and irritations of urban transportation.
“Highway statistics show that 43 percent of all urban work trips by car in this country are of four miles or less,” said Marie Birnbaum, the U. S. Department of Transportation’s bicycling-program officer. “If we could get that many people on bicycles, think of what it would mean to our traffic problem. As for parking, you can put 40 bicycles in the space required for two cars.”
The possibilities intrigue visionary young pedalers. “We see cities eventually growing vertically, not horizontally,” said 26-year-old Peter Fromm of Eugene, Oregon, a photographer and longtime cyclist. “That way you could leave large tracts of rural areas unspoiled for people to enjoy, and help keep the compact cities pleasant by depending on bikes for intown mobility.”
Giant beehive cities may be far in the future, but assimilation of the bicycle with today’s other means of transit seems well on its way. With bikeway construction and ecological concern marching hand in hand, America’s bicycling boom could harbinger a whole new era in transportation.