It takes 9,000 pounds of force to shatter a windshield. Helen Zurek Holtrop’s hot pink helmet, and her head inside it, bore the brunt of that impact when her bike slammed into a silver Nissan pickup as the truck made a left-hand turn in front of her while the Team USA triathlete was on a training ride in 2020.
“Before that, I never had the thought of getting hit by a vehicle. Never,” said Holtrop, who has been road biking for 30 years and is a four-time national champion. “I never thought that. And now I think it.”
It’s a thought, not a fear, Holtrop clarified. But it’s ever-present. And the trauma of the crash, and its effect on her brain, have been life-altering in other ways. Unable to ride past the site and unwilling to take her cues from pro triathlete Andy Potts, who trains almost entirely indoors, she and her husband decided last October to leave their Northern California town.
They googled “bike-friendly cities.” Then they moved to St. George.
The Greater Zion region, and Utah as a whole, has begun marketing itself as a mecca for cyclists. One of the reasons St. George was so eager to host the Ironman 70.3 Championship triathlon last September and the full-distance Ironman World Championship — the only one to be held outside of Hawaii in the event’s 40-year history — in May was to encourage cycling tourism in the area.
But the cycling scene in the state isn’t as rosy as it might appear in the Google reviews. In 2020, Utah tied its record for most fatal car accidents involving cyclists with eight. In just one month this year, five cyclists died after being hit by a car — two of whom were brothers competing in a race in St. George.
Since 2015 Utah has dropped from being the fifth-best state in the nation for biking, according to the League of American Bicyclists, to the 10th. Even a figure as imposing as Shawn Bradley, the 7-foot-6 former NBA player, can be broadsided.
So as Bike Safety Month (May) and World Bike Day (June 3) converge, the question must be asked: When people like Holtrop come to Utah, will they find safety in numbers or a state struggling to live up to its bike-friendly aspirations?
In Zion, ‘Cycling’s Holy Grail’
Bike safety isn’t an issue that only affects the lean, Lycra-clad athletes who can be seen pedaling up Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City and streaking down state highway 18 into St. George.
Outdoor recreation boomed during the coronavirus pandemic, and cycling was near the front of the pack (ask anyone who tried to buy a bike in 2020). That combined with the increased popularity of electric bikes, which make a variety of terrain and longer distances more accessible, resulted in nearly 4 million more people riding bikes in the United States in 2020 than in 2019, according to statista.com. More than 12 million people — or four times the population of Utah — are pedaling down the road than in 2006. And even more may join the peloton this year, nudged to their bikes and trikes by the rising cost of gas prices.
Utah, and most specifically St. George, have been trying to capitalize on that increased interest in two-wheeled transportation for years.
When Washington County hosted its first Ironman race in 2010, the Ironman Foundation invested in improvements to the course. Over the years, more of that investment and advocacy from groups like the Southern Utah Bicycle Alliance led to wider shoulders and better road interchanges. That, in turn, caused more cycling races and triathlons to spring up while also prompting people to come to the area for more leisurely rides. By 2018, St. George had adopted an active transportation plan to further improve the bikeability of the area.
That cycle of increased access followed by increased tourism led Kevin Lewis, the director of the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office, to believe that the Ironman World Championships could supercharge the area’s reputation as a cycling haven. If given the chance to witness the beauty and brutality of a ride through Snow Canyon State Park, the tens of millions of people who stream the Ironman World Championship on YouTube would find it enticing — and perhaps irresistible.
If that wasn’t enough, media hype of the area was enthusiastic. A Forbes article dubbing the 112-mile Ironman course “Cycling’s Holy Grail” and “The World’s Best New Bike Ride.”
“People from all walks of life will get a taste of this and they’ll listen to the stories. They’ll feel the inspiration of the event. They’ll see the beauty and the colors and the majesty of the place,” Lewis said. “It just introduces them to a place that they may not have known about. And now they have a reason to want to go find out.”
But even during races, Utah’s streets haven’t been a safe haven for cyclists.
Utah’s on pace for a record number of cyclist deaths
For Adam and Matthew Bullard, bikes were just an extension of their bodies. Adam, 49, had gained acclaim, and a fierce nickname, by logging more than one million feet of elevation gain each year. “The Hill Slayer’s” brother Matthew, 48, meanwhile, worked at a Southern California bike shop called The Cyclery.
The two, who were both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, came to Utah in April to test themselves in the Spring Tour of St. George. They had been riding together — as always — in the bike lane on Telegraph Street in Washington when a woman struck them with her SUV, killing them. The woman allegedly told police she was on medication and having a medical issue when she swerved onto the shoulder.
The Bullard brothers’ deaths on April 9 were the second and third in a month in which five cyclists would be killed in collisions with cars. The first such death of the year in Utah occurred just three days earlier, when Gustavo Nieto-Morales, 55, of Midvale, was struck by a car on a road in Midvale. On April 23, James Christopher Pinko, 38, was killed near the Layton Hills Mall by a car exiting Interstate 15. And three days after that, Eli Mitchell was killed after a truck hit him while the 13-year-old was riding his bike through a crosswalk near his home in West Jordan.
With still half the year to go, the state is on pace to tie or exceed the eight fatal bike-car crashes that Utah saw in 2020. That itself tied a record for the most in at least a dozen years. But it’s not just a Utah problem. Across the country, the number of cyclists killed in collisions with cars rose 5% in 2021. That abruptly ended several years of decline in such deaths.
“It seems like it’s getting less safe, especially since the pandemic,” said Desmond Jensen, the road captain and safety officer for the Bonneville Cycling Club, one of Utah’s largest cycling clubs. “I mean, even just driving, it feels — for me anyways — way less safe. But cycling, especially. It’s like drivers are increasingly more distracted.”
That sentiment isn’t unfounded. For one, Jensen had his own near-death experience last year. While crossing 3300 South on 2000 East in Salt Lake City, he looked up to see an SUV about to barrel through the red light. The driver, he said, was looking at length at something in his rearview mirror. Jensen also was hit by a car last year, his only such accident in a decade of riding.
In addition to the anecdotal evidence, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported accidents involving distracted driving rose 9.9% from 2018 to 2019. More recent statistics were not available.
Jenn Oxborrow, Bike Utah’s new executive director, said she sees distracted drivers as the greatest threat to cyclists. Right under that, she said, are drivers who don’t see bikes as vehicles. She said the people with that mindset don’t seem to realize that cyclists help pay for the roads with their property taxes as well as through gas taxes, since most also own cars.
“The mentality that motorists are entitled to a road that is free of cyclists in any way,” Oxborrow said, “that contributes to a lot of hostility.”
Holtrop had nowhere to go when the silver truck turned left in front of her across two lanes into a parking lot. She ended up going up, flipping onto the hood of the vehicle when her her hot pink-and-black bike, which matched her helmet, rammed into its side. The driver maintained he didn’t see her. She’s not convinced. But now she’s considering wearing even brighter jerseys with slogans like “Drive Like I’m Your Daughter” and “Give Me 3 Feet,” a reference to the state law requiring cars give at least a 3-foot cushion to cyclists when passing.
An accomplished triathlete who won four national championships at various distances in the Athena division (women of more than 150 pounds), she said her hopes of racing in the Ironman World Championship in May were derailed by the brain fog she still suffers. She has reset her sights on the 70.3, or half Ironman, in St. George next year. To train for it, she is still able to get out and bike — in part because of safety measures she is taking herself and in part because of some being taken by the state to ensure cyclists receive safe passage.
Grading Utah’s cycling safety
Gone are the days when cyclists needed just a helmet (maybe) and two inflated wheels to go for a ride. Now the checklist often includes a bright-colored kit, a high-tech helmet, a rearview mirror, flashers on the front and the back and maybe a rear-mounted radar that warns a rider when a car is coming up from behind. Jensen said he also recently bought front and rear cameras.
“In case I get murdered on the road,” he said, “there’s hopefully evidence of who did it.”
Holtrop takes most of those precautions as well. She’s also more choosy about where she rides than she used to be. With the prospect of getting hit always front of mind, she tries to steer clear of busy roads.
“I’m riding the bike paths, which are awesome. And I’m in the bike lanes,” she said. “I don’t have the fear. I don’t feel it.”
St. George turned out to actually be a great place for her to land, then. The Greater Zion area has more than 60 miles of paved bike paths that are separate from roads. Another stretch from La Verkin to Springdale and the mouth of Zion National Park is expected to be completed in about five years. And plans are in place to connect that to an existing bike trail network for a continuous path that starts in St. George’s Bloomington neighborhood.
If tourists come to Utah to take advantage of those improvements, it could help all cyclists by making sightings of them on roads and in towns the norm rather than a rarity.
makes an analogy between bike safety in the state and the proposed trail.
“I think the forecast is good for it. But honestly, there are sections that still need work,” he said. “And I think we need to make sure that the message goes out to the residents and the communities that there will be more people on the roadways because people are more active and more people have been introduced to [cycling].
“And then also a message to the cyclists that, you know, it’s really, really critical that you have some respect in those areas where the roadways haven’t been improved significantly. To, in all areas, make sure that you’re following the rules of the road as a good cyclist.”
The Utah Department of Transportation is also more frequently being directed to keep cyclists in mind when it has to revamp a road or build a new one, several state bicycle advocates said. Those directives typically come from active transportation plans — basically, biking infrastructure blueprints — which have been adopted county-wide or within individual municipalities n 13 of Utah’s 29 counties.
“Part of their directive is to make the roads safe for everybody to use,” Lewis said. “Some of it takes some time. There’s some areas, there’s stretches of road that have small shoulders and they need some widening and improvements. And those are major projects. But they’re not out of the radar, you know? It’s not that people aren’t thinking about that.”
To truly make the roads safer for cyclists, though, cities and counties need to make at least one more spin around the crankshaft, according to Ken McLeod, policy director at the League of American Bicyclists. They need to consider not just what to build, but how people will get to it.
“Utah does a really good job of promoting allocations of state funding for bicycling projects,” McLeod said. “But then it’s not clear that every project improves bicycling. So, you know, it’s great when you do a trail, but if you don’t have a way to bike to the trail, then it’s a harder thing for people to bike regularly and for people to be safe while they’re biking. That’s kind of the disconnect that I feel like a lot of states and cities are at.”
The league has begun assigning a bicycle-friendly ranking to each state. Since peaking at No. 5 in 2015, Utah slipped to No. 8 and now No. 10. McLeod noted, however, that the skid has more to do with improvements made by other states than a decline in Utah’s policies. (The top-ranked state is Massachusetts, the worst Wyoming).
Still, while Utah received an A- in “Evaluation and Planning” and a B in “Education and Encouragement,” it was lacking in other areas. The state got a C+ in both “Infrastructure and Funding” and “Traffic Laws and Practices.”
McLeod pointed out that Utah, according to the league’s data, is last among the states when it comes to spending federal funds, per capita, on biking and walking projects. Utah’s annual allocation? A whopping 15 cents per person. To be fair, however, Utah does invest some state funds in that area.
When it comes to laws and practices, Utah appears slightly better off. It is one of 26 states with the 3-foot rule. Additionally, like all states, it has the “Vulnerable Road User Act” that imparts harsher penalties on people who have collisions with cyclists or pedestrians.
Oxborrow said she has been working with Utah Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, to encourage the Legislature to adopt more laws that would protect cyclists. One would expand on the 3-feet law by requiring cars to completely change lanes, when safe, while passing a cyclist. Another change Ipson has advocated for is more rigorous distracted driving laws.
She’s pragmatic, however, about how far all the laws and policies and bike-lane configurations can take cyclists. They have the ability to vastly improve bike safety and make Utah more inviting to tourists and residents alike. What they can’t do is guarantee cyclists won’t get hit.
“I’m blown away by how much policymakers care about this and want to see the situation improve,” Oxborrow said. “But I don’t know how to legislate kindness and compassion.”
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