MIDDLEBURY — The sun is shining bright.
It’s an early fall day and the mercury sits somewhere around 70 degrees.
Perfect cycling weather.
Still, Bud Angelo, taking a break along the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail just east of Middlebury, doesn’t let it lull him into complacency. He’s wearing a helmet, and a flashing red light — turned on — is affixed to the rear of his recumbent bicycle. He’s clad in a bright-orange jersey, all the better to make himself visible, prevent an unwanted encounter with a car.
“A lot of folks are very courteous,” he says, alluding to motorists, “and there are a lot of maniacs.”
Angelo, of Elkhart, wants to be prepared, and it’s not without reason. According to records from the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department and The Elkhart Truth, three cyclists have died so far this year while pedaling the roads here and three more died in 2012. Two have suffered injuries thus far in 2013 and 11 more sustained injuries in 2012.
As Elkhart and Elkhart County have grown, vehicle traffic has increased, making it more stressful to ride a bike, said Danny Graber, president of Bike Elkhart, formed to make the city more bicycle friendly. “The heavier traffic becomes, the more us bicyclists fear for our safety,” he said.
ADVANCES, BUT APPREHENSION PERSISTS
That said, it’s by no means all doom and gloom for cyclists:
The 17-mile Pumpkinvine trail, in the works for years, allows cyclists — including many in the Amish community going to and from work — to ride from Goshen to Shipshewana without having to rub shoulders with autos, by and large. Another segment, the MapleHeart Trail, connects Goshen and Elkhart.
The city of Goshen will have more than 30 miles of trails in all when ongoing construction of a bridge and pathway along Monroe Street near the Elkhart County 4-H Fairgrounds finishes later this year.
Save for the busier county roads, cyclists say Elkhart County byways, in general, are safe for those on two wheels.
Notably, there’s recognition, at least among some, that accommodations need to be made to make it safer for cyclists. The Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce identified construction of a path along Cassopolis Street in northern Elkhart as one of several road priorities, to make it safer for cyclists and pedestrians to traverse the busy commercial corridor.
Still, there’s a measure of apprehension among many cyclists, and heightened awareness that you have to be proactive if you’re going to get the bike out and get on the road. It’s a particularly pertinent issue for the Amish here, who use bikes heavily on the county roads, not just for recreation, but to get around and conduct business.
Dewayne Yoder is Amish, but that doesn’t mean he frowns on modern safety devices when cycling to work and back home each day. He has no helmet, but his bike has front and rear lights, he wears yellow reflective bands around his ankles and he’s got a mirror affixed to his handlebars so he can monitor traffic behind him. When he goes to work in the mornings, around 4:15 a.m., he puts on a fluorescent, reflective vest.
“Wearing a vest and doing what you can creates respect,” he said, taking a breather along the Pumpkinvine trail while pedaling home to Shipshewana from work in Middlebury. It lets motorists know that you’re there, to pay attention.
‘DISTRACTED ALL THE TIME’
Talk to cyclists and they say the dangers they face stem chiefly from motorists. Sure, some cyclists make bonehead maneuvers — ride two abreast on roadways, ride against traffic. But cars are bigger and more powerful and, in cyclists’ view, motorists are generally the culprits in car-bike accidents.
“I think primarily the motorists need to be accommodating to cyclists being on the road,” said Kyle Hannon, a member of the board of Bike Elkhart and also the head of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce. “The thing is, drivers get distracted all the time and that’s why there are accidents.”
In the two accidents leading to the deaths of three cyclists last year, the motorists were criminally culpable and convicted.
Kevin Meyer was sentenced to three years of home detention for failure to stop after an accident after the car he was driving struck and killed Raymundo Sabag, 60, at around 3:30 a.m. June 7, 2012. Both were southbound on C.R. 17 near the U.S. 20 Bypass, and Sabag, using reflective clothes and lights on his bike, was hit from behind.
Daniel Snead was sentenced to 18 years of prison on two counts of causing the death of someone while driving under the influence stemming from an accident, also on June 7, 2012, that killed cyclists Daniel Runion and David Anglemyer. That accident on C.R. 20 just south of Elkhart occurred after Snead, who had taken meth the day before, fell asleep at the wheel and drove into Runion and Anglemyer.
“You get in a car and you zone out. You get on the phone, turn on the radio,” said Spencer Short, owner of Pumpkinvine Cyclery in Middlebury. “You’re just a high-speed projectile.”
The Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department has forwarded to the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office details of the investigation into the death of Elmer Miller, who was cycling on the shoulder of U.S. 20 near C.R. 18 on July 24 when he was struck by an auto operated by Lyle Otto. Sheriff’s department inquiries continue into the deaths of cyclists Daniel Yoder, killed after he was struck by an auto on June 19 on C.R. 40 north of Millersburg, and Dale Ewers, struck on Sept. 5 after starting to cross C.R. 127 northeast of Goshen into the path of an auto.
Those sorts of incidents make Don and Trudy Gloy, a couple from White Pigeon, Mich., stick to trails when they want to bike. “Highways are too dangerous,” said Don Gloy, taking a break from biking the Pumpkinvine with his wife.
VESTS, LIGHTS, MIRRORS
Others, though, say if you’re smart, take precautions, avoid the most traveled roads, you can make cycling a relatively safe activity.
Wear a fluorescent vest.
Install mirrors so you can better monitor the traffic around you.
Use front and rear lights, even during the day.
Short, the Middlebury cycling shop owner, advises against riding right up against the right-hand stripe of a roadway. Instead, edge left, closer to the center, so you’re more visible, so cars are forced to go around you and don’t try to sneak past without giving any wiggle room.
Fortunately, the message about making yourself seen seems to be sinking in, at least among some. The local Amish community met in August before the start of the school year to discuss road safety, emphasizing the need to be visible while cycling county roads, said Noah Petersheim. He runs the Trailside Bike Shop in rural Elkhart County, nestled amid Amish farms southwest of Middlebury.
“I sold more vests ... and lights this fall than I ever have before,” Petersheim said.
The operator of another shop that caters to the Amish community, Crystal Valley Bike Shop off C.R. 16 east of Middlebury, sounded a similar message. He didn’t want his name used, coming from a community that shirks the limelight, but he has no problem if his message gets out.
“That’s something we preach in here — safety, lights,” said the man. “We stress it more and more, and people are more conscious of it.”
Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack.