Open road, and light holiday traffic, beckons to cyclists

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
With New Year's Eve revelers asleep in their beds, cyclists hit the safer, empty roads of New Year's Day.

Janet Goldstein donned a third layer of clothing as she explained the upside to a bone-chilling 32-mile bike ride on New Year's Day.

She said the holiday traditions that keep most people at home also create optimal conditions for cyclists to cruise the narrow, curving roads over Baltimore County's hills.

On New Year's Day, the normally treacherous loop over steel bridges and along roads without shoulders became a carefree trek for the six riders Goldstein led through the countryside.

"People who are going to come out on a nasty day, after they've probably been out partying last night, they're hard-core," Goldstein said as she fiddled with her custom-made, 16.2-pound road bike in the parking lot of Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville.

"If it was a nice day, you might get people with New Year's resolutions out here," she said. "Instead, we have a few people in layers. Lots of layers."

Ross Chason, a Catonsville engineer who rode the two-hour loop in Baltimore County, said other people's hangovers mean cyclists don't have to share the road.

"A lot of people who have been out all night are off the roads," he said, noting that safety is the motivation behind the group outing.

"One of the reasons we ride in a group is that it's easier to be seen," Chason said. "A lot of us go out for the camaraderie, but also because there's safety in numbers."

The Baltimore Bicycling Club, which has about 1,000 members, organized two group rides Friday that would be more difficult to execute amid normal weekday traffic: the Cockeysville trek and a shorter ride that snaked through the city.

The city route still had its share of potholes and potential dangers, but at least there was little traffic to navigate, said ride leader Gloria Epstein.

"We're all very serious road riders," Epstein said.

"Today, we're hoping that everyone's home sleeping," said Amie Pfeifer of Parkville, her face framed by the fitted, neoprene headpiece she wore to counteract 37-degree weather.

Several riders on Friday mentioned Thomas Palermo, an avid cyclist and bike-frame builder who was killed in December 2014 during a ride in Roland Park. A drunken driver who was also texting swerved into Palermo's bike lane, then left the scene. In October, former Episcopal bishop Heather Cook was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to killing Palermo. Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of memorial services for Palermo, who was a married father of two young children.

Palmero's death caused many cyclists, including Pfeifer, to become more attuned to safety. She said she no longer rides at night and invested in a series of lights and reflective gear to help drivers see her.

"Despite all of the things we hear about people getting killed, I can't stop riding," she said.

The empty roads and daytime rides on winter holidays ease the concern a little, she said.

On average, about six bicyclists die in crashes in Maryland each year, according to an analysis of federal crash data by Governing Magazine.

This year, the advocacy group Bike Maryland will again push to change state laws to better protect cyclists and punish drivers who hit them. A top priority of the group would make it against the law to pass a cyclist on any road unless the driver can give the cyclist three feet of clearance.

Current law gives an exemption to drivers on narrow roads, a provision advocates say doesn't make sense.

"If you can't give three feet, then it's not legally safe to pass," said Bike Maryland's advocacy coordinator Emily Ranson.

A similar proposal died in Senate committee last year. Ranson said an informal work group of state delegates reviewed the issue last summer. She hopes this will make passage more likely this year when the General Assembly convenes.

For Friday's ride, Goldstein and the ad hoc group of riders in Baltimore County wore bright green vests, mirrors, flashing lights and helmets — even though there were hardly any cars on the road.

"Everyone ready to go? Let's boogie," she shouted as they peeled out of the parking lot of Oregon Ridge Park. "Single file when a car tries to pass!"

ecox@baltsun.com

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