Minneapolis cyclists battle for a place in traffic

Categories: Bicycle

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Benjamin Carter Grimes
Special thanks to Schmit Towing for the location and Chad Padelford, Ramsey Louder, and Sara Abdelaal for modeling.

Last summer, David Briscoe got the call that every parent dreads. It was a nurse. We have your daughter.

Shaina had left her home in south Minneapolis that Saturday, a hot one punctured by rain, and joined her friends for an impromptu race headed north through downtown. Around 3 p.m., lagging behind the pack, she hurried through the intersection of Washington and Hennepin avenues against a red light.

The driver of an ice-blue SUV paused as the first group of riders passed, then tapped the accelerator into the clearing. Shaina hurtled head-first into the driver's side of the car, smashing the mirror. The bike's front tire was ripped from the frame.

Though she was wearing a helmet, Shaina suffered a severe brain injury. Her jaw snapped. As the internal pressure mounted, she lay motionless on the asphalt, with blood pooling around her mouth.

Shaina was rushed to the Hennepin County Medical Center and would spend several weeks in a coma. David spent the next eight months documenting the recovery process on CaringBridge, a blog for sharing updates on sick or injured loved ones. He watched as Shaina strained against the wires on her jaw, strained to speak and to touch people's hands.

Today, Shaina is conscious but confined to a wheelchair, unable to talk. For hours, she looks at her own Facebook page trying to piece together what happened. Hundreds of people, mostly fellow cyclists, have visited her in the hospital in the last year and keep coming — friends and strangers bound only by the instrument that they use for travel. They've made T-shirts and spoke cards and a bicycle in her honor.

Some were, and still are, motivated by anger. At 28, Shaina was considered the model of responsible riding. She criticized others for taking chances, for not wearing helmets or lights, and for biking while drunk. But the question of who's right and who's wrong in this seemingly endless war between bicyclists and drivers is beyond David's concern.

"Unfortunately, it's seeing somebody broken on the side of the road that brings us back to our sense of frailty," he says, "that reminds us we're all capable of wiping the smugness and arrogance off our faces when we're using the road."

On a snowy day in January, Betsy Hodges stands at a south Minneapolis street corner and removes her gloves. Although the temperature hovers around -5 degrees, the new mayor needs a better grip on her paper proclamation — a celebration of the city's bicycling community.

Those who ride year-round, she says, "are more resilient, more hearty, more Die Hard gritty, just plain tougher, and much better looking than the bicyclists from all those wimpier cities."

A small crowd of supporters smile beneath their helmets. It's only her second day in office, and already the mayor is reaffirming the city's campaign to increase the share of bicycle commuters from 4.5 percent to 15 percent by 2025 — an increase of 42,000 riders.

It's an ambitious goal, but only the latest declaration of rights for the city's bicyclists.

Until 1976 it was illegal — yes, illegal — for Minnesotans to ride in the street if a bike path was nearby. Those paths, however, were confined to parks and often poorly designed, some ending in random places, at least one obstructed by a light pole. Phil Voxland, a competitive cyclist who helped rewrite the law, remembers a bike path that ran along the back of a tennis court. "If someone stepped out of the court to fetch a ball," he says, "wham!"

Ask anyone who biked the streets in those years and you're guaranteed to hear stories of fear and loathing. Consider the extreme example of Joe Hoover, who works for the Minnesota Historical Society. As a teen, he rode in south Minneapolis while attending the Academy of Holy Angels. One day, he recalls, a boy opened a school bus window on Lyndale Avenue and pissed on him.

Rocks, bottles, even crutches — such flying objects became part of many a cyclist's commute. Chris Kvale, a well-respected frame builder who lobbied alongside Voxland, says, "I learned to be invisible."

The next generation has been less inclined to let the harassment and violence go unchecked. Ward Rubrecht, a writer and former City Pages staffer, faces the problem head-on, lecturing drivers when he's not blowing an air-horn in the offending car's window.

The city isn't sitting on its hands either. Minneapolis has been investing in protected bike lanes for years, though the risk of injury has not diminished. On First Avenue, for instance, one is forced to navigate the tiny space between a curb and a parked car. If the passenger door suddenly opens, the rider has two options: break his face, or dive onto the crowded sidewalk.


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