Bicyclists see more buzzing since Ironman

A cyclist talks with an Aiken County sheriff's deputy at the M4 gas station on Sandbar Ferry Road about a pickup that "buzzed" him.

Most cyclists will tell you that close calls with cars go hand-in-hand with the thrill of an open road.

"It's just part of the game," said Glenn Hogan, who's been pedaling the back roads of Aiken and Richmond counties for 25 years.

Until recently, instances of cars "buzzing" bicycles were rare. Hogan said that changed in the months before the ESi Ironman 70.3 when large groups of bicyclists practiced on the route and took up more lanes of traffic than was normal.

Hogan said that ramped up the tension between cyclists and motorists, especially in the area of Beech Island in South Carolina.

"I knew it was going to aggravate people," he said. "It's been really bad since Matt."

Hogan was referring to Matt Burke, one of five cyclists struck by a Dodge Durango on Oct. 1. Burke, a U.S. Army major and surgeon at Fort Gordon, has been transferred to Eisenhower Army Medical Center.

His condition has not improved since he was struck, family said.

An investigation by the South Carolina Highway Patrol is ongoing; troopers say the Durango's driver, Daniel Johnson, told them he was distracted before he hit the cyclists.

Another group of cyclists was buzzed in that area Saturday. Richard Swann said he was in a group of seven riding single-file on Sandbar Ferry Road near Cary Drive when a white pickup truck came within eight to 10 inches of the cyclists.

The cyclists confronted the truck driver when he pulled into a nearby gas station and called the Aiken County Sheriff's Office.

Brett Audrey, the owner of Outspokin Bicycles, said the driver didn't say much but mumbled that he didn't know he was that close. Three deputies showed up and gave the driver a warning, Audrey said.

Swann said Saturday's incident is especially frustrating because Sandbar Ferry is a four-lane highway, and he thinks there was plenty of room for the driver to pass safely.

"All he had to do was touch somebody and the whole group would have gone down," Swann said.

South Carolina's Bicycle Safety Act states that a driver must maintain a "safe operating distance" between the vehicle and a bicycle. It also says it's illegal to "harass, taunt or maliciously throw an object" at cyclists; motorists who do so face fines of at least $250 and up to 30 days in jail.

Audrey said he is meeting with Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt next week to discuss the law and make sure both deputies and cyclists are acting responsibly.

Laddie Williams, who averages 150 miles a week on bicycle, agrees that buzzing has become more common. A lot of times it's just careless motorists who don't realize how close they're getting, Williams said, but you can tell when it's intentional.

Cyclists are comfortable riding virtually shoulder-to-shoulder and it takes a lot to make one nervous, he said. But when the car comes close enough to tap you with a mirror, "it spikes your adrenaline."

Williams made a cross-country trek in 2007 to raise money to honor the nine Charleston firefighters who died in a furniture store fire that year. He made it as far as Gainesville, Ga., before a car deliberately veered off the road to buzz him.

The car's mirror struck his elbow hard enough to make him swerve and crash. The car didn't stop. Williams wasn't badly hurt, but it was a close call he couldn't ignore.

"It was enough to make me just go home and see my wife," he said.

Arnold Barrett has strong feelings about bicycle buzzing after witnessing a cyclist struck and killed by a car 20 years ago.

"I freak out when cars do something weird," he said.

Barrett said the spot where Burke was struck is the most common spot for buzzing on Beech Island Avenue. Typically what happens is that a car or truck will come up close behind a group of cyclists and honk loudly or rev the engine. Other times, a truck will swerve directly into the path of the lead cyclist.

"They want to show you who is boss of the road," said Barrett, who, like others interviewed, has been hit by objects thrown from cars.

Barrett added that he also has been threatened by a homeowner wielding a baseball bat on Beech Island Avenue.

Megan Scott has been commuting to work by bicycle for 32 years. She echoed the sentiment that generally motorists and cyclists get along, but said there are bad apples in both groups.

"Most experiences are moderate or good," she said.

Some intentional buzzers have driven close enough to punch Scott in the arm. Others have driven too close and apologized. Scott said cyclists have just as much an obligation to be visible and try to stay out the way.

She keeps two flashing rear lights on her bicycle and a quality light on the front, especially this time of year when darkness falls early.

"It's just my responsibility," Scott said.