Drivers becoming more tolerant to cyclists

Posted May 16, 2012, at 9:59 p.m.

My first bike ride in Fresno, Calif., sure was memorable. For all the wrong reasons.

It was November 1997, my first week in a new city. Pedaling north out of town on Auberry Road, I had barely ridden a few miles when someone in a passing car chucked a crumpled beer can in my direction. Soon after, the driver of a pickup truck slowed and swerved dangerously close so his passengers could swear at me and throw fast-food wrappers.

A day or so later, I went to a local bike shop and told my sob story. The owner, who grew up here, smiled, nodded and said my experience wasn’t uncommon. I decided right then and there that Fresno wasn’t a friendly place for cyclists. So for years, my road bike sat in the garage gathering dust.

I’m telling this story now not to bash Fresno but to illustrate, at least from my experience, how things have changed — in a positive sense.

May also features two century rides on consecutive weekends. (Participants can also choose shorter routes.) And, of course, there’s the Stage 4 finish of the Amgen Tour of California on May 16 in Old Town Clovis, Calif. While not a participatory event, the sight of a world-class peloton doing 30 mph on Friant Road surely will provide some inspiration for the recreational crowd.

In other words, it’s a great month to be a cycling nut. And there are more of them around than you might realize.

“Fresno is really growing up in terms of cycling,” said Rich Holdsworth, the co-owner of Rubber Soul Bicycles and a fixture on the local cycling scene.

“There are more bike organizations, more bike paths, more bike lanes and, most importantly, a lot more people riding bikes.”

Even though Fresno (and to a lesser extent, Clovis) was not designed with bikes in mind, significant progress has been made.

And I’m not just talking about how the Sugar Pine Trail finally connects with the Old Town Clovis Trail at Shepherd and Willow or the 30 miles of bike lanes that were installed in Fresno in 2010, second only to New York among U.S. cities for that year.

The progress I’m talking about involves people’s attitudes. A couple years ago, I started bike commuting once or twice a week. Yes, there were a few angry glares from drivers who want to use the bike lane on Weber Avenue as a passing lane. But one time, when gas was nearly $5 a gallon (as it surely will be again soon), a driver rolled down his passenger-side window at a stoplight to ask how much money I was saving.

“Not only are there more cyclists in town, there’s more awareness and acceptance by drivers,” Holdsworth said. “It has absolutely gotten better.”

Remember that old road bike gathering dust in my garage? Well, about six months ago I gave it to a friend who needed it to commute to her job.

Since I hardly ever used the road bike, I didn’t think I’d miss it. But slowly, the rides on my commuter bike started getting longer and longer until I found myself scanning Craigslist for a replacement.

In late March, I found a great deal on a used road bike and started heading out with the vague intention of doing one of this month’s centuries.

Monday, I found myself pedaling along Auberry Road — the same stretch of pavement where 15 years earlier I had been cussed at and pelted with a beer can.

And you know what? There was a striped bike lane most of the way, and passing cars gave me ample room. One, with a bike carrier on the back, even honked encouragement.

©2012 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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