Sharing the road
When you see a bicycle on a farm-to-market road, what emotions go through your mind? Mine are concerns for the safety of the rider, followed by nostalgia to be out there riding through the countryside. Today, especially around larger cities and towns, we have a conflict zone that is leading to more accidents and more anger over sharing the road, as biking is increasing in popularity.
A bicycle was my first level of freedom. We only had leftover bikes from my brothers and sister and no money to buy a new one; so, I learned how to ride a 26-inch frame bike when I was six years old. I'd get it rolling down the hill from the old granary and hope to get on the pedals before it got to the sand at the side of the road. After many falls, I finally got out onto the dirt road and I was free! A quarter mile north and south was my range until I started riding to town to play baseball when I was 10. When your horizon is three miles, and you can ride that in a half hour, you are really out there.
I also remember the wrecks. Over the handlebars onto a gravel road was the worst and also riding that tall bike and realizing that my pant-leg was caught in the chain and I was pinned to the bicycle until it fell over. I feared traffic, even at an early age, and sometimes would wreck the bike just because I couldn't pedal and steer past the oncoming car.
Since the 1980s, the bicycle, as a means of recreation, has re-emerged in rural America due to advancement of technology and increase of leisure time. The conversion of rail right-of-way into trails also made a huge difference in the amount of riding that occurs in rural areas. When trucks took over hauling what the railroads had done for a hundred years, it was hard to accept but the alternative use of the rail lines has now turned into some beautiful paths across the landscape.
A month ago, I bought a bike to ride these trails and have found the experience exhilarating. First, the bicycle has come a long way since the coaster brakes of my youth. The frame is solid and the gears shift easily making it a joy to ride, especially on the gentle grade of an old rail line. The Great Western Trail, on the south side of Des Moines, runs for 20 miles and has several small parking lots to allow riders to transport their bikes to the trail. Off I go on a Saturday morning at dawn, with the intent of riding to the farmers' market 13 miles away. The asphalt path is eight feet wide and wanders through backyards, pastures and fields. It crosses under major highways, over streams and is canopied by trees with seasonal flowers blooming along the way. It is peaceful pastoral perfection.
Many states have seen the economic boon from bike tourism. Iowa has a huge ride called RAGBRAI (Register and Guests Bike Ride Across Iowa) that was started by The Des Moines Register back in the 1970s. It draws thousands who ride from west to east, river to river, for a week. It is a party on wheels that citizens both love and hate. However, over the years, the urban and rural cultures have learned to appreciate each other during this week in August.
The problem for agriculture is not the RAGBRAI crowd but the single and small group bike traffic on hard surface secondary roads where trucks and trailers run from early to late. Most of these roads have no shoulder and are narrow by today's standards.
Last fall, a farmer pulling two anhydrous tanks hit a bike rider with the back set of wheels. The man's pelvis was crushed and he spent many weeks in recovery. The biking community lashed out at farmers for not giving way to the bicyclists and the farming community responded by saying bikers are too aggressive when riding the rural roads. There is talk of a petition to the legislature that would request banning of bicycles on farm-to-market roads.
On my way home from a weekend ride, with the bike in the back of my truck, I saw a young man laying on the side of the road, bicycle askew and people huddled around him. Emergency response was on the scene and three more vehicles (ambulance, fire and police) were on their way. It is another conflict between car and pedaled vehicle that will heighten the strife between the two groups.
On the other side of this issue, cars versus farm machinery, we've had several fatalities this year where the driver didn't realize the tractor was going that slowly and was unable to stop. I wonder if a bicycle enthusiast has ever hit a tractor with his car?
I'm for sharing the road, within reason, but bicycle riders are always the losers when they are involved in an accident. For me, the trails are an ideal place to get my exercise and renew my spirit. I feel power in my legs, peace in my heart and satisfaction in my mind. I also wear short pants--so no more problems with my jeans getting caught in the chain!
Editor's Note: This is Ken Root's 35th year as an agricultural reporter. He grew up on a small farm in central Oklahoma and started his career as a vocational agriculture teacher. He worked in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri as a broadcaster and was the original host of AgriTalk. He has also been the executive director of the National AgriChemical Retailers Association in Washington, D.C. and the National Association of Farm Broadcasters in Kansas City. Ken is now the lead farm broadcaster at WHO and WMT Radio based in Des Moines, Iowa. He has been a columnist for HPJ and Midwest Ag Journal for eight years.