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Coronavirus pandemic leads to cycling uptick on Longboat Key

With more people out for exercise, rules of the road on the town's multi-use trail become top of mind.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. May 13, 2020
  • Longboat Key
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With the coronavirus pandemic wiping social calendars clean and freeing up time, pickings are becoming slim for activities to fill the days. 

Cyclists on Longboat Key are embracing their newfound time to devote to their rides. And people typically relegated to stationary bikes in the gym are venturing out for real often on gear that hasn't seen the sun for yearsij78uy=8/.

“Now I ride seven days a week unless it’s raining or something,” Howard Tessler said. 

Tessler, the president of the Longboat Key Bicycling Association, is a part-time resident who stayed on Longboat longer than normal instead of traveling home to Chicago. He’s retired, and though he normally volunteers at the Friendship Center in Sarasota, he isn’t doing that now, and social obligations have all but vanished. For Tessler, like many cyclists experienced and new, cycling is the big outing of the day. 

“Riding is actually better because traffic is down, so you feel safer,” Tessler said. “But there are a lot more riders out and some of them are not-so-experienced and will pass and not tell you they’re passing you.”

The wave of new cyclists has introduced a wave of etiquette breaches, whether the new cyclists know it or not. 

“I think they just probably don't know, I don't think it's some malicious attempt to take over the sidewalks,” cyclist and Town Commissioner BJ Bishop said. 

Announcing yourself whenever you’re passing someone is one of the rules of the road for cyclists on Longboat Key. This most often comes into play on the sidewalks, where runners, walkers and cyclists all portion out the pavement. 

“I noticed most bikes that come in (for repairs) don’t have bells on because they’ve been in the garage so long,” Backyard Bike Shop owner Lisa Nichols said. 

When riding on the sidewalk, cyclists must slow down and give an audible warning when approaching slower movers. according to town code. Pedestrians also always have the right-of-way. Tessler and Bishop say that the fewer people ride on the sidewalks, the better.

“There's nothing wrong with cycling on the sidewalk, but you do have to announce your presence,” Bishop said. 

The width of the bike lane on Gulf of Mexico Drive, where the speed limit is 45 miles per hour, may deter some inexperienced cyclists from taking to the space.

Tessler, the LBKBA and Bishop have all advocated for widening the lane to make it safer for cyclists. But these days, there’s no time like the present to try it out since there’s little enough vehicular traffic on the roads. 

“If they ever have any thought of becoming a regular cyclist and wanting to eventually use the bike lane, this would be the time to do it,” Bishop said. “I totally understand why people, as narrow as our bike lane is, are intimidated to ride in the bike lane.”

Sometimes, it’s not just bikes in the bike lane, especially these days. Bishop and Tessler have seen runners taking to the bike lane to ensure social distancing, but most will hop back onto the sidewalks when bikes approach. 

“The bike lane out here is not wide enough to pass anything,” Bishop said. “Alright, people, if you're on your feet, stay on the sidewalk. If you're on a bike, get in the bike lane, if you can't get in the bike lane, be courteous.”

Town police routinely address vehicles that obstruct the bike lanes.

Bishop also worries about personal safety. Not enough people wear helmets, she said, and though it’s not required for cyclists over age 16, she thinks more people should wear them. Even low-speed crashes without head protection can lead to dire injury. Tessler is also troubled by the people he sees without helmets in the bike lane. 

“I guess this was last week, and a woman was cycling on the sidewalk and (there was) a runner who had earbuds — and that's another whole problem,” Bishop said. “The runner suddenly just cut in front of the bicyclist, and the cyclist went down. Thank goodness, she was not seriously hurt. But she didn't have on a helmet.”

Cyclists have modified their routines to some degree during the pandemic, ceasing group rides and making sure to stay apart from everyone else. Experts recommend staying at least 12 feet from others when exercising, according to The Guardian, because of the deeper breathing associated with exercise. Tessler doesn’t wear a mask while he rides, and Bishop doesn’t either. She wears one around her neck to pull up in case she stops somewhere she may run into other people. 

“I’m encouraged that people are increasing their cycling during this time, and hopefully we’ll have more cyclists in the future,” Tessler said. “The more people get into it, the more enjoyable it will be.”

If you’re eager for a new way to safely get out of the house, maybe it’s time to pull your old bike out of storage. Plenty of bikes have been dusted off, with would-be cyclists assessing how road-ready their wheels are. 

“We’re trying to get them done ASAP because everybody wants their bike back,” Nichols said. “We weren’t expecting the amount of people that came.” 

Quite often, before the burgeoning cyclists hit the road, a tune-up is long overdue. Backyard Bike Shop has a big backlog of cycles to service, whether they need a chain, tire repairs, brakes that aren't safe or anything else that may have deteriorated in storage. 

“For the most part everybody has been very good to us,” Nichols said. “They’re just happy we’re here.” 


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