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Cyclists say their lives are at risk from road-raging motorists 

Punishment pass

click to enlarge Rachel Beisel shot this photo of a man coming at her with a bat. - RACHEL BEISEL
  • Rachel Beisel
  • Rachel Beisel shot this photo of a man coming at her with a bat.

It was 7:30 on a Sunday morning earlier this summer, and a member of the COS racing team was starting his ride, cruising down Fountain Boulevard.

The cyclist — we'll call him "B" since he didn't want to be named for this story because he fears for his life — says the road was empty until a brown pickup truck pulled up behind him and laid on the horn. The driver of the truck then pulled up next to B and started yelling incoherently through his cracked passenger-side window.

At first, B says he wasn't fazed. In the decades he's been riding, he says, "I've had things thrown at me, people swerve at me, people yell random things."

He says he tried to lean in to hear what the driver was saying, but the driver swerved at him, turned so quickly onto Hancock Expressway that he left skid marks, and then threw his truck in reverse in an attempt to mow B over.

The driver then sped down Fountain and over the crest of a hill.

B says he took off, riding in the direction the truck had gone, in hopes of seeing a license plate that he could report to police. By the time his bike crested the hill, however, the driver had turned his truck around and was flying toward B at what seemed like 70 miles per hour. B says he crouched down, trying to make out the plate number. Then he saw the driver's hand stretch out his window and heard a loud bang.

The gunshot froze the cyclist in place. The truck kept on going.

While gunshots are a rarity, local cyclists say it's common for motorists to target them.

Adam Jeffrey, Southern Colorado Velo Board President and an active road cyclist, says he's become accustomed to the occasional motorist swerving into him, yelling at him or flipping him the bird.

"You'll get the honk right behind you," he says. "That scares the living shit out of me every time it happens."

Jeffrey says all his road buddies have similar experiences.

Even state Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, says he's had sodas hucked at him from passing cars and been forced off the road by vehicles, despite the fact that he only rides roads to get to trails.

Ironically, Merrifield, together with Republican Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray, successfully sponsored a 2009 law that requires motorists to give cyclists 3 feet of room when passing. Merrifield says he thinks people are aware of the law, and many "go the extra mile," changing lanes to pass him. But others, he says, seem to have a homicidal streak.

"It's very irritating that drivers think they have the right to own the road and they don't have enough humanity to avoid frightening or injuring cyclists," he says. "To me it's inexplicable. I don't comprehend the human emotion that says it's OK to behave like this."

So how common are such incidents locally? It's hard to say. Anecdotally, cyclists say they rarely report motorists to the police, and Colorado Springs Police Department Spokesperson Lt. Howard Black says even incidents severe enough to warrant a report aren't necessarily tracked. That's because the police department doesn't classify crimes that way, Black says.

Likewise, city spokesperson Kim Melchor says the city does maintain a website (bit.ly/2bWo1p9) where cyclists can report "close calls" (situations where a vehicle nearly hit them), but data was not immediately available.

The city was, however, able to provide a count of crashes between cars and bicycles. From Jan. 1 through Sept. 1, the city lists 26 accidents between cars and vehicles. The driver of the vehicle was at fault in 20 of the crashes. Nine involved an injury.

For comparison, between Jan. 1 and Sept. 1, 2015, there were 37 accidents between cars and bicycles in the Springs. Injuries were incurred in 20 of those crashes.

Given the limitations of police databases, the cycling community is tracking motorists on its own.

Ernest Ezis, a technology consultant and road cyclist who lives in Boulder, runs a site called The Close Call Database, which is accessible worldwide. When a close call is reported on the site, it sends out an email to other members within a 60-mile radius, warning them. The site also provides ways to track motorists who are "repeat offenders" in the hopes of getting charges filed.

Ezis says that on a larger level, he hopes the site brings attention to the plight of cyclists — not just through data, but through the videos and pictures that many users post, which show just how frightening drivers' behavior can be.

The site has had about 700 reports since Ezis started it in 2014, shortly after a truck driver tried to plow over his friend while the two were riding in a bike lane.

"The untold story that people aren't talking about is that yes, a lot of this is intentional," he says.

Ezis says drivers engage in what he calls "the punishment pass" — a high-speed pass of a cyclist that's meant to come as close to the rider as possible without actually making contact. Sometimes, he says, the driver miscalculates and kills the cyclist.

Ezis says he thinks the punishment pass, as well as other aggressive behavior, is often the result of drivers believing that cyclists are breaking the law when, in fact, they aren't. A lot of drivers, he says, have mistaken beliefs about cyclists' right to use the road.

"They feel they are teaching you a lesson," Ezis says. "It's based on ignorance. They think that they know the law and you do not."

The only report filed on Ezis' site from Colorado Springs dates to Nov. 22, 2015.

Rachel Beisel, her husband Kalan Beisel, and her sister-in-law Amy Beisel were returning from a trail ride and crossing an intersection at Eighth Street and Cheyenne Boulevard, making a left-hand turn. The driver of a truck failed to yield the right-of-way when merging onto the same road and nearly hit Kalan, then exchanged words with him.

The driver continued down the road for a moment, then made a U-turn, parked his truck in the middle of Eighth Street, and approached Rachel and Amy with a baseball bat. Rachel reported that the man looked like he was going to try to throw the bat at them, when she yelled out, "Do you really want to kill someone today?"

Rachel tells the Indy that when she snapped a photo of the driver, he screamed a profane insult at her before speeding away. She says she reported the incident to the Colorado Springs Police but was told she'd have to come in person to sign paperwork in order for the investigation to proceed. Rachel says she still plans to do that when she gets back to the Springs, but she lives in Boulder.

Police records show that the call went through the state patrol before being forwarded to the CSPD hours later, which is why the situation wasn't dealt with immediately.

Still, Kalan says the situation seems like a miscarriage of justice, especially since Rachel's photo shows the license plate number of the man in the truck.

"It's just disappointing for sure when you're assaulted or whatever and cops don't seem that quick to do anything about it," he says.

Likewise, B says he never saw his assailant arrested. Instead, he received a letter from the police department stating that his case had been assigned to the Violent Crimes Section-Homicide/Assault Unit, but had not been assigned to an investigator and that "no further follow-up will be conducted at this time." The problem, the letter stated, was "a variety of solvability factors."

Unlike the Beisels, B wasn't able to record a license plate number. Now, he says, he's paranoid for his safety, and the safety of his cycling teammates who wear similar gear.

Part of the problem for cyclists in Colorado is that there are very few laws to protect them, Denver attorney Brian Weiss says.

Weiss, an avid cyclist himself, specializes in helping cyclists in court. He's the only Colorado attorney listed at bikelaw.com. Weiss says that he's represented several clients in Colorado Springs, including a couple who were involved in accidents in Garden of the Gods.

But the problem, he says, is that there are just a couple of misdemeanor laws in place to protect cyclists — they ban throwing items at cyclists from cars, or swerving into them. And it can even be difficult to secure a conviction on those minor charges if there isn't photo or video evidence.

In his experience, Weiss says, even killing a cyclist, can result in very low penalties — perhaps just small fines.

"We don't see as severe of charges as we'd normally like," he says.

But other states often do give drivers heftier penalties because they have "vulnerable user laws" that can make it a felony to endanger a cyclist, pedestrian or others who aren't driving a traditional motor vehicle. Weiss says he'd like to see Colorado put such laws in place, especially since it appears to him that "haters" — as he calls aggressive drivers — are lashing out more and more.

He notes that over the summer someone spray-painted anti-cyclist graffiti along the route of the Red Rocks Gran Fondo cycling event near Morrison. One photo published by the Denver Post shows a road bearing the words, "CARS Should Kill U."

And in July, the Post reports, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office arrested 27-year-old Calvin Chambers on suspicion of criminal mischief and reckless endangerment — both misdemeanors. Chambers is accused of throwing tacks on a popular bike route near an intersection. While that may seem minor, Weiss points out that a blown tire in the wrong place can lead to a crash that kills a cyclist.

"It's not like you want to always think that someone's out to get you," he says. "But it does feel like that sometimes, doesn't it?"

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