• Tue April 21 2009
  • Posted Apr 21, 2009
Des Moines by Marc Hansen A week after the accident, it takes Doug Smith forever to move from the hospital bed to the walker to the door. But at least he's alive and eventually he will recover. The broken pelvis and fractured skull will heal. The ruptured muscles in his lower back will stop throbbing. The cuts and scabs on his arms, hands and face will disappear. And Smith, 46, a husband and father from Des Moines, will be back on another bicycle on another country road in a few months. "As soon as I can," he said Friday from his room at the Iowa Methodist Medical Center. "But I might look at some other states for training. Maybe pick a place that's more bike-friendly." Smith, along with the 500 cyclists who rallied at the Statehouse this week in response to his April 11 accident, have their doubts about Iowa. During the current legislative session, lawmakers considered a bill that would make the roads safer for bikers. They talked about expanded passing and following distances. They looked into other measures that might help people like Smith, but the talk never became action. What might never mend, Smith worries, is the rift between the motorists and cyclists who share the roads. The relationship is beginning to feel like a holy war on wheels. The morning Smith was run down by a truck on a two-lane rural road in Madison County, Tim McCoy was riding alongside. McCoy framed the discussion like this: "How do we get fellow motorists and cyclists to see each at the core of who we are - human beings?" Smith, a commercial photographer, doesn't have the answer. The Iowa that makes targets out of cyclists, he says, isn't the Iowa he knows. While Smith lay broken on the highway, the residents from nearby farmhouses brought blankets to keep him warm. "That's what Iowa is to me," he said. "Not the mentality that says we can use our cars to run over you. I don't know where that mentality comes from. That's the hardest thing for me right now. If I'd been alone, I could have bled to death." Smith knows he is vulnerable on a bike. He knows he is taking a risk. Last September, Smith had the right-of-way on a green light when a driver turned into him. "It was pretty minor," he said. "The guy flat-out didn't see me. That was truly an accident. It happens." On one hand, Smith said, you have the 1 percent who drive around angry. These are the drivers who intimidate and threaten the cyclists - the ones who honk and glare when they pass or slow to a crawl or throw things. "They do it to mess with you," Smith said. "I kind of wave them by: OK, I get it, you don't like me. I don't understand where the mentality comes from. That's the hardest thing for me right now. We're not confrontational people. We're riding around in our underwear." Smith's group is more hard-core than most. Some are competitive racers who train more than 20 hours a week. When he was invited to ride with them, he saw their dedication, skill, discipline and fitness and decided that was the lifestyle for him. Smith isn't at that level yet, but these are people who go on RAGBRAI to take a break from training. They say the bike trails don't work for them. The trails are filled with mothers and kids and strollers and dogs. To train properly, they need an open expanse. They need the hills and the distances the trails don't offer. The road to Winterset seemed like the perfect track. Smith doesn't remember much about the accident. When he opened his eyes in the hospital, someone he didn't recognize was holding a cracked bicycle helmet and saying this is what saved you. That's when it started to come back. He was with a group that left Rasmussen's Bike Shop in West Des Moines at 7 a.m. on April 11 and rode toward Winterset. When they arrived, eight riders headed back to Des Moines. In an e-mail to friends, McCoy described what happened next. The group was riding two-abreast near the side of the road. A man in a truck hauling anhydrous ammonia was honking his horn and approaching from behind. Smith was next to McCoy, who was riding close to the white line on the right edge of the road. They were going about 20 miles per hour. McCoy suddenly felt pressure against the left side of his body and bike. He thought he was about to crash. "The next moment I heard screaming as the truck raced past us," he wrote. "The force pushed me to the side. ... I looked back, and there was our friend Doug in the middle of the road." People screamed, cursed, cried and prayed. As they waited for an ambulance, a rider held Smith's hand and took his pulse. Two drivers pulled up from the opposite direction and said they had seen a truck pulling tanks of anhydrous ammonia. One of the drivers took off after it. John Lynch of Cumming returned to the scene, was ticketed for unsafe passing and fined $35. Not everyone agrees, but 500 cyclists at the Capitol thought he got off easy.

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