Story and photos by Ian Haupt
My hands come down on the bars. I push out and down to bring my chest forward as I tilt my head back and close my eyes. I take a deep breath through my nose, opening my eyes as I let it out. Some of the pain in my lower back flows away. I wish I could do the same for my quads. They feel as if clamped in a vise. I try shaking both legs while still on the pedals. No use.
I gain speed and catch the car ahead of me as we approach a sharp bend in the road. I pull on the brakes a few times preparing to corner. My front wheel comes within a foot or two of the car’s bumper as my eyes meet the driver’s in the rear view mirror before he accelerates out of the turn. I dance on the pedals to do the same as the gap between us grows and he disappears around the next curve.
This bend, about 10 miles south of Bellingham on Chuckanut Drive, is one of the rare spots on an open road where bikes, for a brief moment, are faster than cars. It’s a 180-degree blind turn at the bottom of a hill where the road narrows. A sign before it indicates a sharp corner and suggests “15 mph.” I, and most of my buddies, can take this corner at about twice that speed if a car does not block our path. But should we?
A Change.org petition titled “Ban cyclists from riding on the Chuckanut Drive” that floated around on different social media platforms received 454 signatures in three months, with a goal of 500. It asks the city of Bellingham to implement restrictions on cyclists or to ban them altogether.
My cycling buddies and I understand the concern for the safety of ourselves and motorists. We have all had our fair share of close encounters with cars or witnessed near head-on collisions when cars cross over the centerline to pass at the wrong times.
However, according to data from Washington State Patrol, bicycles haven’t been the cause of a collision on Chuckanut Drive in the past five years. Of the 91 crashes on the road since January of 2015, no cyclists were involved.
But the petition is not wrong about the road being dangerous.
It winds along the sheer sandstone cliffs of the Chuckanut Mountains, the only place where the Cascade Range meets the sea, overlooking picturesque views of Chuckanut and Samish bays and the San Juan Islands. It’s the perfect place to shoot a car, motorcycle or bike commercial.
Stretches of the narrow, meandering road are shoulderless, making passing extremely dangerous as oncoming traffic is often difficult to see and cars have to cross the double solid centerline to get by. The road conditions make it so everyone, cars and bikes, have to be on their best behavior to ensure everyone’s safety. This is where tensions arise.
Many drivers exceed the 45 mph speed limit, some pushing at least 60 mph. Some are out on a joyride with their crew, each in their own souped-up sports car with almost purring motors. They risk the lives of everyone else on the road by racing around the curves, slowing down for no one.
But they aren’t the only ones to worry about. Plenty of drivers refuse to wait for an opportune time to pass cyclists. (If you’re approaching a curve, it’s probably not the time).
All this is not to say we cyclists are always on our best behavior.
We often use the full lane to maximize our speed through corners and bends, or we ride two-wide with a friend. However, all these uses of the road are legal under Washington state law. Cyclists have the right to use the full lane to accommodate their safety needs. But when we hear a car coming behind us, we still try to get to the side of the road and single-file as quickly as possible.
So we would like to ask drivers not to stop driving on the road, but to just slow down, have some patience when approaching cyclists on Chuckanut Drive. Wait until you can see an open road in which to pass. The seconds, or possible minute if it’s a busy day, you are delayed will keep us both safe and enjoying this beaut of a road. It’s a scenic byway after all; Interstate 5 allows for travel twice the speed.
Around the bend, I caught up to my friend, Jordan. Farther down the road, on a long, straight stretch, I heard a motorcycle approaching in the distance from behind us. Riding two-wide, I was out in the middle of the lane. I accelerated in front of Jordan and veered right over to the edge to let the motorist by. As he passed, he raised his left arm — maybe a wave of appreciation, I thought, until I saw his gloved hand and middle finger pointing to the sky. x
Ian Haupt is a journalism student at Western Washington University. When not dodging cars on Whatcom and Skagit County roads, he has his feet up in Bellingham with either coffee or a beer in hand.