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Leader of Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition seeks peace and safety

The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat: Leader of Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition seeks peace and safety on two wheels

By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
August 17, 2013, 3:46 PM

Gary Helfrich makes a point of listening to the complaints and the rants, the calls and emails of people upset by cyclists who don’t follow traffic laws or who clog narrow roads.

Helfrich, the head of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, knows that bicyclists can do better at following traffic rules, but said that doesn’t give a motorist the right to drive dangerously, or assault a cyclist.

“It’s amazing how this disconnect happens. Suddenly it’s OK to be a vigilante,” he said. “Suddenly it’s OK to kill someone with your car.”

Road-rage incidents such as the one last year when an 82-year-old man rammed a cyclist with his car after chasing him onto the Oakmont golf course are the extreme. But that incident, along with a series of fatal bicycle accidents in Sonoma County and ongoing reports of cyclists being harassed, helped Helfrich build a campaign that has gotten Sonoma County, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol to pass “vulnerable user” ordinances to better protect cyclists and pedestrians.

The ordinance makes it easier for cyclists and pedestrians to sue people who harass or assault them. Critics, who fear that will lead to frivolous lawsuits, helped shoot down the proposal in Windsor and Healdsburg.

If nothing else, the vulnerable-user ordinance is intended to deter harassment and make the roads safer.

“I think there’s a message there: educating people. You have to share the road with bicyclists. We all need to be more patient,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who worked with Helfrich to bring the ordinance to the Board of Supervisors and get it passed.

“Cyclists aren’t perfect at following the rules of the road,” she said, but if they get into altercations with motorists “bicyclists will always lose.”

“I’m waiting for the day when someone riding a car is killed by someone riding a bicycle,” Helfrich said of the uneven match between a two-ton vehicle and someone on a bicycle.

Helfrich, 59, head of the bicycle coalition for the past two years, is on a mission to shift the culture and attitude toward cyclists.

“It’s much more important than putting in a bike lane. If you put in a bike lane and still have a culture that’s hostile to folks riding bikes, the road isn’t any safer. It’s just a designated area to be run over,” he said.

The bearded, corpulent Helfrich is not the stereotypical avid cyclist, yet he is somewhat of a legend in bike-building circles. Bike Magazine called him “the godfather of bike titanium” for his pioneering use of the metal, and he was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame 20 years ago.

His career path has taken some unusual turns.

A roadie for the rock band Aerosmith in the 1970’s, he would go to Sonoma State University in mid-life and become a planner for the County of Sonoma.

His hand in writing the county’s pedestrian and bicycle master plan was a convenient segue to becoming executive director of the Bicycle Coalition when the $50,000 job came open.

In an interview at the Bicycle Coalition’s cluttered offices off Mendocino Avenue just north of College Avenue, Helfrich played with an Allen wrench as he spoke.

“I’m very much a tactophile. I like tools a lot," he said. He’s fascinated with how things are made, such as a piece of shiny steel tubing that he was holding. “We’re disconnected from manufactured objects,” he said. “You just don’t pick this out of a field. Someone made this.”

Whether he’s making a bicycle, tinkering with a generator, switching out the plug ends on an electrical cord or fixing an espresso machine for a bike event, Helfrich keeps busy with his hands.

It was his prowess at welding, something he learned in art class in high school in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, that led to one of his more interesting jobs.

Helfrich’s father was a Department of Defense affiliated engineer on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which made Helfrich eligible for an MIT scholarship. Instead of MIT, he chose a small liberal arts college, then dropped out to join the road crew for Aerosmith, becoming the worker responsible for the sound system and the big lighting trusses at concerts.

His welding skills made him valuable, as did his ability to innovate. When the drummer grew tired of being obscured by his drum set and jealous of the guitarists getting the spotlight, Helfrich came up with a solution. He built a radio-controlled riser that propelled the drummer to the front of the stage for his solos.

“It was so much like Spinal Tap,” he said of his experiences with Aerosmith, a reference to the classic movie that parodied the genre in a fake documentary of a rock band. Sometimes, he said, the drummer would get stuck and they had to push him and his drums back from the front of the stage.

He also did a tour with Meatloaf.

Helfrich doesn’t hide the fact that hard partying and drugs were a big part of the scene.

“Inhaled and everything else,” he admitted, although he said he didn’t get into intravenous drug use. “Whatever was free and available,” was how he described his drug of choice. “I drew the line at glue.”

But he realized he was likely to end up in a body bag if he didn’t clean up his act, especially as he saw the casualties mount. “It became clear there was no one over 30 doing the job.”

It was while setting up the sound and stage at the big arenas that he began to get into bikes as an easy way to get around the stadiums and have fun with his fellow roadies. “We’d have races up and down wheelchair ramps,“ he said.

But the BMX cruisers would break periodically, requiring Helfrich’s welding skills. About that time he also got to know Chris Chance, an Aerosmith fan and a local bike builder in Somerville, Mass. The friendship led to a new career.

In the early 1980’s they founded one of the first companies to make viable titanium bikes, using an advanced welding technique.

Helfrich would go on to become head of Arctos Machine, a frame-building tool company, and also a consultant for a number of bike companies including Trek, Serotta and Ibis.

In 1988, he moved to Camp Meeker and has lived in the same house ever since. He shares it with his “spousal equivalent” of 27 years, Karen Donaghy, a dental hygienist.

In the first part of the millennium, he went back to college and earned a degree in environmental planning at Sonoma State, which he parlayed into a job as a planner at the county for five years.

The abuse he took from the public as a county planner was far worse than he gets as director of the bicycle coalition. “People viscerally hate planning departments,” he said, because they are “in the business of telling people what they can do with their private property.”

Helfrich’s interests vary widely. He can discuss with authority the geology of a west county watershed with its serpentine outcrops and sandstone, or digress into stories of his days hopping freight trains that took him from the Bay Area to Utah and Colorado.

At the moment, he’s building a 17-foot fishing boat in his yard, a traditional New England dory based on original plans and made of Douglas Fir and exotic, tropical hardwoods.

In his job at the Bicycle Coalition, he gets opportunities to put some of his creativity to use, such as constructing in a single day a steel bicycle as part of the Fourth Annual Bicycle Expo being held this weekend in Santa Rosa.

As head of the coalition, he oversees a staff of the four full-time and two part-time workers who make up the non-profit organization.

His budget of $682,500 is 24 percent bigger than last year’s outlay, largely due to expansion of the Safe Routes to School program, which teaches bicycle and pedestrian safety skill classes to 2nd through 6th graders in about 30 schools.

The sources of income are a mix of federal, state and local transportation funds. In addition, the organization raises about $130,000 annually from donations and sponsorships, bike events and providing services such as bicycle parking at Santa Rosa’s Wednesday Night Market.

Helfrich is the one who takes the calls from people who complain about cyclists, whom they see as “militant, childish adults” who should be licensed and pay more taxes for things like bike lanes.

He replies that cyclists are also motorists and property owners and pay their share of taxes toward roads and other transportation.

And there are also complaints about cyclists riding too fast on shared walking paths.

“Are we bicycle Nazis? We’ve been called that. Would it be that we had as much political influence as they think we do,” he said of the vehement critics.

He also hears from people inconvenienced by the big organized bike rides such as Levi’s Gran Fondo for which the bike coalition provides volunteers.

Their ire may be provoked by the streets closed to traffic “because, God forbid, people are having some fun on public roads. They probably get angry at parades too.”

“My job is to listen,” he continued. “What creates the visceral hatred some people have for bikes?”

Finding the answer, he said, “would be like solving peace in the Middle East.” But he adds, “I want to understand where the hatred comes from.”

Helfrich believes the problem stems from a sense of entitlement some drivers have that they can drive as fast as they want without having to share the road with cyclists, or slow for them.

The irony, he says, is that most of the deeds that granted public access to 1,400 miles of Sonoma County’s rural roads were done before the turn of the 19th century and the first automobile.

“Most of the county roads we have conflicts on are not designed to have cars in the first place. Should only horses be allowed?”

He also talks about the need for cyclists to be good ambassadors. For one, if you anger a driver, “your bad behavior may make it dangerous for someone else. They take it out on the next cyclist,” he said.

He also sees some deeper emotional factor at work: high-end bikes pedaled by recreational cyclists can especially irritate some motorists, particularly if the encounter is on a narrow back road with a group of bikes.

Helfrich, who wears street clothes when he cycles, has seen how drivers give him more courtesy than they do the Lycra-clad cyclists riding with him.

“They get buzzed by cars. But they give me a wide berth,” he said, noting that “I don’t look like an experienced cyclist. They say, ‘There’s a fat old guy who can get in my way. I better be careful.’ ”

“They don’t see me using the country road network recreationally,” he said, adding that someone pedaling a bike in street clothes looks more like “a working stiff” and “not independently wealthy, or retired.”

“We objectify people by their transportation choices,” he said, and that goes beyond bicycles, to judging people based on the type of car they drive or whether they are in a pick-up truck.

But it is the “prejudice” against cyclists that motivates him.

He embraced the Vulnerable User ordinance as a campaign for Sonoma County and its nine cities after Los Angeles, even with its ingrained car culture, became of the first among cities to adopt the law intended to protect cyclists. A handful of others, including Berkeley, Sunnyvale and Washington D.C., have adopted similar ordinances.

Advocates say the measures define harassment and give cyclists standing to bring a civil lawsuit in cases that may not rise to the level of criminal prosecution.

In essence, a vulnerable user ordinance prohibits activities such as threatening, physically assaulting or attempting to assault a cyclist or pedestrian.

If a violator is found at fault, he or she is subject to damages, court costs and attorney fees.

Helfrich said the increasing prevalence of small helmet-mounted cameras makes it is easier for cyclists to document cases of aggression or assault against them.

But Helfrich’s campaign has not been without skeptics. Windsor Councilman Steve Allen was in the majority of a 4-1 vote against the ordinance when it was proposed in Windsor.

“I’m an avid bike rider. I love bicycling and do it quite frequently to work,” he said. “I felt this was more of an opportunity for lawsuits than it was for protection of bicyclists. I didn’t want to encourage that.”

Allen said the ordinance gives cyclists “special rights. There’s enough animosity as it is, without encouraging us versus them,” he said.

So far, it appears there have been no vulnerable user lawsuits, said Helfrich, although he said at least in Los Angeles reports of harassment are said to be down.

Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom and other elected officials give Helfrich high marks for his passion, advocacy and knowledge of the government process.

“He’s got an interesting background: bureaucrat, roadie, cycling enthusiast,” said Supervisor Zane.

Helfrich’s waistline belies the picture of a regular cyclist, but he commutes most days by bike from his home in Camp Meeker to Santa Rosa. His ride varies from 22 to 30 miles round-trip, depending on whether he drives to Graton first before getting on his bike, something he’ll do in the darker winter months.

He also is known as a strong rider who last year went on the five-day, 300-mile plus “Climate Ride” from Fortuna to San Francisco.

Vicki Duggan, a member of the bicycle coalition’s board of directors, said Helfrich’s less-than-svelte look is fine. “We don’t want people to get the idea the coalition wants people to ride road bikes and dress in Spandex,” she said.

The coalition’s aim of getting more people riding bikes more often, is “not to just go out for a 100-mile bike ride,” she said, but to have regular folks riding down to their local store and work.

That’s part of the reason Helfrich gets excited at the growing use of “cargo bikes” equipped to transport things from groceries to children, making it easier to integrate the bicycle into every day errands and shopping. He notes that cars are at their most polluting when they start up and drive a short distance. And by cycling for short trips, he said, it also makes people less sedentary.

His passion still burns for the bicycle, which he describes as close to a perfect piece of machinery.

“We’ve had 125 years of really smart people trying to make it better. The basic double diamond frame and tension spoke wheels can’t be improved on,” he said, although the materials have evolved.

He talks of the iconic images of Albert Einstein riding his bicycle around Princeton, or closer to home “our most famous bike commuter was Luther Burbank.”

“He felt strongly that was part of leading a vital life,” he said of the Santa Rosa plant wizard’s cycling jaunts to his Sebastopol farm on a well-built, expensive Pope 2 model of the time.

Locating one of one Burbank’s bicycles is akin to finding the Holy Grail, Helfrich said, something no one has been able to do. But he said it’s a possibility in Sonoma County where people like to collect vintage and antique bikes.