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Some Cyclists Don't Earn Passing Grades for Trail Etiquette

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By Vicky Hallett
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

One by one, as dozens of Team in Training runners arrived triumphantly at Fletcher's Cove on the Capital Crescent Trail at the end of their weekly long outing, they greeted each other with cheers, applause -- and then a shrill cry of "Bike back!" warning fellow runners to hop aside or risk the wrath of a quickly approaching cyclist.

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"It's common sense to look back before you stop or turn around, but after 16 miles, your brain turns to mush," admits coach Rich Hewitt, who hammers trail etiquette into his soon-to-be-marathoners. They know to stay to the right and never run more than two side by side, and, of course, they shun iPods.

They've also apparently learned that not everyone who shares their routes tries to be as courteous, which was the main topic of the kvetchfest I overheard while taking a stroll to look into trail safety.

"Someone . . . yelled at us to move out of the way. But if they'd warned us, we'd have moved over in time. It's frustrating," complained Noble Stafford, 25, as he waited for his teammates to come in. Not that he doesn't understand the gripes of folks on wheels: While riding the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, Stafford once had to swerve his bike into the water to avoid hitting women who were jogging six abreast.

As more Washingtonians commute, race, amble and dog walk on the same thin strip -- often the Capital Crescent Trail, the area's most popular off-road route, with an estimated million users a year -- clashes are inevitable, as they are on any multi-use trail. To help cope with what many agree is increased usage, the Maryland-National Capital Park Police introduced a new 15 mph speed limit on the trail this summer, much to the chagrin of cyclists, who grumble about being singled out. "The fastest person isn't always the one who did the stupid thing," reminds Dorcas Adkins, safety education program director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Although most trail users pass each other quite considerately, there are certain types who appear with disconcerting regularity: The guy with a leash in each hand allowing his dogs to frolic in opposite directions; the cyclist gabbing on her cellphone; the parent pushing a monster-size stroller smack dab in the middle of the trail; and the birder who stops abruptly (and repeatedly) for a better look.

"The people doing something wrong stick out like a sore thumb," says Park Police spokeswoman Lt. Karen Petrarca. But they're much more likely to get a talking-to from an officer than a ticket for speeding, not stopping at a stop sign or having an out-of-control dog. "Education," Petrarca adds, "is always preferable to enforcement."

To see for myself, I tagged along for an afternoon with Officer Tom Mock as he patrolled several Montgomery County trails. On the Northwest Branch trail near Takoma Park, we roused a drunken guy, and we scoped out Longbranch and Sligo Creek for gang activity. On the Capital Crescent, which stretches from Georgetown to Silver Spring via Bethesda, the only user who required any action was a young boy biking alone slowly in the left lane. With a "Hey, buddy, find your mommy and ride to the right," the perp was taken care of.

Fortunately, the kid managed to confuse only a few people, who slowed down to scoot around him. Though no one has statistics, Peter Gray, board chairman for the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, says his group keeps hearing about crashes sending people to the hospital. Park ranger Haleh Mirabrishami, who checks the trail daily, says the three most common complaints she receives involve cyclists who speed, fly through stop signs and don't announce that they're passing. Mirabrishami says she came close to decking one such offender after she stopped to have a conversation on the trail. "I always talk with my arms a lot, and I almost smacked someone in the face" as the cyclist whipped by, she says.

There is also debate about just how cyclists should indicate that they want to overtake. "When cyclists say 'Passing,' pedestrians start dancing," explains Paul DeMaio, manager of BikeArlington, a county program that promotes cycling. They'll sometimes step to the left out of surprise, or in some cases, yell an annoyed, "I know!"

As Mark Polston, 35, prepared to hop on his bike at the Georgetown end of the Capital Crescent, he fessed up to not announcing his approach to pedestrians. "I just think, 'How many times do I have to say it?' I figure they know I'm coming. I'm panting loudly enough," he says. His pal Joseph Kaufman, 33, seemed slightly appalled. "It does strain the vocal cords, but unless someone has giant headphones on, I signal," he declares.

It helps that Kaufman has a bell, which WABA's Adkins says gets the best results. "It's so recognizable and it solves the language barrier," she says.

If there were an award for the very safest, most courteous person on the Capital Crescent Trail, no doubt it would go to Barbara Ryan, 52, of McLean. I spotted her as she rode up to Jack's Boathouse in a blindingly orange and yellow vest, with two rear-view mirrors attached to her helmet ("One kept falling off, so I have backup," she explained), front and back lights, a ringing bell and a speedometer. Why all the precautions? She has two kids and a big dog and she used to be a runner, so she's sympathetic to everyone's needs.

Maybe that's the most important lesson: Put yourself in other people's running shoes, cycling shoes or rollerblades, and you'll end up on happy trails.


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