Cycling can help cut carbon emissions and reduce traffic congestion, but when narrow roads force cyclists and cars to pass within inches of each other, it can cause tensions to run high and keep some would-be clean commuters in their cars.
Durangoan Todd Wells, a former Olympic cyclist, saw tensions peak a few months ago when a driver swerved in front of a group of cyclists he was riding with on County Road 203 causing the whole group to come skidding to a stop.
The enraged driver jumped out of the truck and started screaming at the group, he said.
While Wells can understand drivers get frustrated by cyclists slowing them down, drivers should also consider how vulnerable cyclists are, he said.
“They tip over, hit their head – they are dead,” he said.
Cyclists tend to feel the most unsafe on narrow roads with high speed limits, such as rural highways and some county roads, according to cyclists and transportation experts.
Creating safe lanes for cyclists on highways and other roads and building new bike paths are key steps to encouraging more residents to forgo driving and bike instead, said Spencer Compton, chairman of Durango’s Multimodal Advisory Board.
“Ideally, I would like to see a connected network of dedicated bike paths, separated bike lanes and common bike lanes so that cyclists always have a place to ride that is out of the flow of vehicle traffic,” he said.
To prepare for new cycling infrastructure, the Colorado Department of Transportation recently mapped the most dangerous stretches of highway for cyclists based on the width of shoulders and volume of traffic, said Ken Brubaker, an engineer with the bicycle and pedestrian section.
Data from Strava, a phone app, showed cyclists tend to avoid highways without shoulders because they are the most stressful, he said.
Knowing where cyclists are using dangerous highways can help the agency prioritize projects for cyclists.
While CDOT has a tight budget, road improvements needed for vehicles could also help improve stretches of highway for cyclists. For example, wider shoulders could improve highway safety for both cyclists and drivers, said Tony Cady, regional planning and environmental manager for the agency.
Some narrow county roads have the same problems as area highways, cyclists said.
For example, a popular cycling loop in the Animas Valley on county roads 203 and 250 (East Animas Road) does not have shoulders and can lead to frustrating congestion for cyclists and drivers, cyclists said.
The county is aware roads need to be widened, but it does not have the funding for that project, said Megan Graham, spokeswoman for the county.
It would cost La Plata County $1.5 million to $2 million per mile to comprehensively address the problems on those county roads, she said.
However, the county does plan to repave a 4-mile section of East Animas Road just north of city limits, she said.
Repavement could help solve part of the problem on the popular loop because cyclists must dodge potholes, said cyclist Tony Hermesman.
Hermesman said in general he avoids highways and other highly trafficked areas in Durango for safety reasons.
“Regardless of whether you are in the right or the wrong, that car is bigger than you,” he said.
As a driver, he can get frustrated with cyclists who are not obeying traffic laws.
“Cyclists don’t like the drivers, but they are not being courteous,” he said.
Longtime highway cyclist David Bowyer, 67, said he has biked from Cortez to Mesa Verde nearly everyday since 1989.
“I have been passed by millions and millions of cars,” he said.
Bowyer’s preferred route to Mesa Verde is one of the few medium-stress sections of highway for cyclists in Montezuma County.
Still, he stays as far to the right of the lane as he can and listens for the vehicles that have crossed the rumble strip coming behind him, he said.
He has never felt unsafe, but he has bottles thrown at him by drivers, he said.
Bowyer had to take a break from cycling after a blocked artery was discovered in his leg in October, but he plans to start long-distance cycling again soon.
“When you get to the top of Mesa Verde, you feel like King Kong,” he said.