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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
When a knot of 30 or 40 or even 100 bicyclists passes through Portola Valley and Woodside, as happens regularly, the cyclists tend to behave like a flock of birds: the individuals sense a change in direction or speed and seem to act as one.
The comparison goes only so far, though. Birds, for example, don't have to pay attention to stop signs.
Bicyclists do have to pay attention, but often do not. Twenty-five of them received tickets and were accused by sheriff's deputies of running a stop sign at Canada and Woodside roads on Aug. 28. A pair of deputies on motorcycles were on the scene and pulled them over.
What is it about that group-riding thing? It does have an appeal, and it's speed. The cyclists arrayed behind the leaders pedal against much lower air resistance and move at much higher speeds. There are risks, however. Mere inches separate rear and front wheels as the cyclists lead and follow each other. A mistake at high speed in very close quarters can be disastrous.
The real physical grind is on the cyclists out front, a cast of characters that continuously changes as they fall back and are replaced by fresher riders from within the group. The result is a blistering pace, and stop signs present a conundrum.
When a road is temporarily a race course, the conundrum goes away. The course is mapped out, the intersections are cleared, the traffic rules are fairly simple: go for it. In a race, there is a word for cyclists when they bunch up: peloton.
"We have some riders that think they are in a peloton," Sheriff's Office Lt. Ray Lunny, a bicycle rider himself, said in an interview. "They're not in a peloton. They're not in a race. They're out on a ride on an uncontrolled roadway that is open to all types of vehicles. They're not on a race track."
"There's a place to compete on a bicycle (and) a public roadway is not the right place," he said. "Pelotons don't exist in California unless there's a race going on."
The state vehicle code offers no relief to massed bicycles, Lt. Lunny said. The law treats them the same as a group of cars or motorcycles.
The rules of the road, he added, are meant to make it safe for everybody, but some cyclists don't want to obey the rules. "That's too bad," he said. "I feel terrible for them (but) how about the rights of everybody else that's on the roadway?"
A hard nut
Stop signs and masses of cyclists ignoring them are a problem, said Bob Mionske, a prominent attorney in cycling circles, and a two-time Olympic contender and former U.S. national champion in men's road racing.
Mr. Mionske, who is based in Oregon, acknowledged that cyclists roll through stop signs, but noted that cars do, too, "all day long," and cause much more damage in an accident than bicycles.
So stop signs are a problem. What about the anonymity of drivers, the raw physical presence of a larger and heavier steel-caged vehicle moving at speed, a driver's ability to keep a vehicle under control, distractions while driving, contention with bicycles for space at intersections, and pent up emotions in everyone? Not to mention losing hard-won momentum.
"In front of a judge, none of these things are going to matter," Mr. Mionske said. "(The stop-sign problem) is one of the things where we don't have any defense. I don't know what the solution is in terms of getting it under control. ... This kind of scofflaw behavior doesn't do much for our reputation. The (peloton) wanna-be's are the real problem."
The state of Idaho, he said, now has a stop-as-yield rule, meaning that drivers and riders can treat stop signs as yield signs if it's safe to proceed. "That's a real sensible way to approach this issue," Mr. Mionske said.