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More power to bicyclists!

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a weekday morning, and a line of cars driven by sailors, officers, contractors and civilian staff backs up on Crystal Lake Road in Groton, waiting to enter the Naval Submarine Base.

Commuter traffic heading to Electric Boat, Pfizer and other employers is also heavy on nearby Route 12, as well as on both spans of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, which crosses the Thames River a mile-and-a-half south.

Bicyclists Rebecca Nash and Doug Thompson, en route to jobs at Connecticut College in New London, whiz past vehicles on Crystal Lake Road, slow down to turn left on Military Highway, and resume pedaling along the Thames River’s east shore.

“It’s the best way to start the day,” said Rebecca, who is participating this month in a Bike2Work Challenge organized by Bike Stonington, a local advocacy group that promotes bicycle access, safety and awareness.

“We have 30 riders signed up,” said Jennifer Lacker, the organization’s president, who is also pushing to have smoother bicycle lanes installed on the grated-deck bascule bridge over the Mystic River in downtown Mystic.

When they’re not on their way to work, Rebecca and Doug pedal sleek road bikes for exercise, and switch to sturdy mountain bikes with wider tires for trail rides. But for commuting, they hop on two-wheelers with battery-powered electric motors — popularly known as e-bikes — that can be activated to make pedaling easier on steep inclines.

“They level all the hills,” Doug explained. A one-time competitive racer who still likes to pedal hard, Doug said he doesn’t bike to work for exercise, but to reduce the carbon footprint left by driving a gas-powered car. He is the college’s Rosemary Park Professor of Geoscience in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geophysics & Environmental Studies Program, and also the Suzi Oppenheimer '56 Faculty Director in the Office of Sustainability.

Doug began using an e-bike for commuting a few years ago, after a decade of using one that relied exclusively on pedal power. Doug estimates he has covered about 20,000 miles biking to work, and relishes the commute as “a time to think, to disconnect.” Doug said he has experienced transcendent moments while riding — a coyote briefly loped beside him; a bald eagle flew close overhead; fluttering snowflakes disappeared through dense clouds over the Thames. One time, a driver of the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile tooted his horn and waved.

Rebecca, who works in college advancement, said she regularly encounters other bicyclists going the other way on the bridge — commuters who live west of the Thames and ride to jobs on the east side.

“We’re like a community,” she said, adding that one rider she knows only by sight circled back to help her fix a flat tire.

Rebecca and Doug use their e-bikes most of the year, relying on cars only if it’s pouring rain, snowing heavily or freezing cold.

Rebecca began biking to work three years ago when she purchased an e-bike, and appreciates battery power when climbing the “bear of a hill” leading to the college. Not having to overexert means “I don’t arrive all sweaty,” she said.

Jennifer, Bike Stonington’s president, says she is encouraged that more people of all ages are riding regular bikes and e-bikes these days, not just to commute and run errands, but simply for pleasure.

“It’s a wonderful way to see the area,” she said.

She and Brian Kent, president of Bike Groton, have presented to state and local officials a proposal they say would make the Mystic bridge safer for cyclists. It calls for retrofitting four-foot-wide strips of perforated, galvanized steel plating over the existing grated bridge deck, making for a smoother bike ride. They reported that Florida has hired a company to install similar strips, and expressed hope that the Mystic bridge — which the state Department of Transportation considers part of a major bike route — would be the first in Connecticut to incorporate such a feature.

To emphasize her point, Jennifer invited me last week to accompany her on a bike ride through Mystic.

After zipping down River Road on the Groton side of the river, we continued on Pearl Street and waited at a stop sign on Main Street for an opening in vehicle and pedestrian traffic. After a minute or two, we managed to turn left and ride slowly, with cars in front of and behind us, as well as traveling in the opposite direction only a feet away.

After passing Gravel Street, we reached the bridge and steered for one of two narrow, cement strips built into the grating, supposedly to make it easier for cyclists.

First of all, Jennifer complained, the strips are poorly placed. Cyclists who ride on the left strip wind up in the middle of a traffic lane; those who veer right wind up too close to the edge. She rode in the car lane; I opted to take my chances riding uncomfortably close to the sidewalk wall.

Secondly, she said the strips are too narrow. I agree; I felt like a tightrope walker while trying to keep my bike from drifting onto the grated surface.

Finally, if you did stray off the cement strip onto metal grating, which I managed to do briefly while riding a lightweight road bike, the tires shake and shimmy.

Of course, skittish riders can simply dismount and walk their bikes 218 feet along the sidewalk. That may not be that much of an inconvenience, but if making an improvement that turns out to be relatively simple and not too expensive, why not give bicyclists a break? After all, our government spends significant sums making sure roads and bridges are safe for motorists; surely it can surely afford a tiny portion of the transportation budget to help out bicyclists.

May is National Bike Safety Month, so here’s hoping all riders enjoy smooth and safe riding.

 

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