By Patrick Sullivan
What should have been a peaceful, quick ride down Front Street in Traverse
City on a spring evening turned ugly last month when a motorist apparently
decided he didnt want to drive behind someone riding a bicycle.
Joel Gaff, Jr. was riding in the right vehicle lane at around 18 miles per
hour when a car crept up behind him and the driver laid on the horn. The
31-year-old wasnt in the bike lane, but he was riding as fast as the car
ahead of him, he said.
I was traveling at the speed of traffic, Gaff said. Often I find it
safer to ride in the vehicle lane when you travel at 18 or 20 miles an
Thats because in the bike lane, car doors and pedestrians can pop in
front of riders without warning.
As long as youre not impeding the flow of traffic, its actually legal
to ride there, even if there is a bike lane, he said.
The motorist behind Gaff apparently didnt believe he had a right to be
After honking and waving for Gaff to pull over, the man pulled aside the
cyclist, as if to intimidate him.
I cant say for sure, but I can say with about 99 percent certainty that
he was trying to assert his position over me, Gaff said.
First Gaff put his hand on the passenger side window as a defensive move
so he could push off if the car pulled closer. Finally Gaff said he felt
threatened and he pounded with his fist on the window several times.
It wasnt meant to be an offensive thing, it was meant to be a, Hey,
youre not doing what youre supposed to be doing here, sir, he said.
Whatever Gaffs intended message, things got more serious.
The driver pulled in front of him, blocking his position in the road, and
Gaff says the man sped up and slowed down several times, as if he was
trying to get Gaff to crash into the back of his car.
The driver stopped, got out and started hurling the f-word at Gaff, the
cyclist said, telling him he had no business on the road and that he was
angry because Gaff punched his car. Gaff unclipped one of his feet and he
said he attempted to talk to the man and stay reasonable.
The man was probably a little older than Gaff and a little bigger.
Im by no means a fighter of any sort; Im not looking to pick a fight
with anybody, Gaff said. Im a tall, skinny bike rider.
The man shoved Gaff before he got back in his car and drove away, Gaff said.
Gaff, a road cyclist who clocks around 200 miles per week during the
summer, took down the license plate, called police and made a report.
He hasnt heard back from the Traverse City Police Department about the
incident, which happened May 13. Given the seriousness of the encounter,
Gaff hopes police at least contacted the driver and took a statement.
There is bad behavior on the part of motorists. And there is bad behavior
on the part of cyclists. Seeing both viewpoints, Fred Schaafsma said a few
years ago he attempted to improve relations between the two sides.
I saw it myself as a cyclist, I saw it myself as a motorist, Schaafsma
Schaafsma, who lives on the Old Mission Peninsula, said he witnessed and
heard about bad behavior -- whether it was a cyclist who flipped a middle
finger because he thought someone drove too close or a driver who laid on
the horn because she got stuck behind a cyclist on a curve.
Schaafsma was able to convince members of the Cherry Capital Cycling Club
that something needed to be done.
The cycling club sent out a letter to around 600 Peninsula Township
residents who lived on roads popular with cyclists -- Bluff Road, East
Shore Road, and Peninsula Drive.
We asked to get responses and do you know what? We learned a lot from
it, Schaafsma said.
He said the responses were mostly constructive and that residents were
pleased the club was opening a dialogue.
Only one response said cyclists dont belong on the road, he said. One
person sent an email and said, Oh, I just love all of these colorful
jerseys and seeing people have a wonderful time.
That was around 2007, and Schaafsma believes cyclist-motorists relations
I would tell you that, without having hard facts, its dramatically
better, he said.
Rob Manigold, Peninsula Township supervisor, worked with Schaafsma and
also believes the initiative helped.
Freds an avid cyclist and at the time our deputy was an avid cyclist,
Manigold said, referring to the Grand Traverse Sheriffs deputy assigned
to the township.
It may be time for a refresher course for cyclists and drivers, however.
The complaints had died off significantly until just recently, and, I
hate to say that, but Ive gotten two in just the last couple of weeks,
One was from a woman who complained that a cyclist had stopped to relieve
himself near her home. Another was about a dispute caused after two
cyclists blocked the road and a driver slowed to complain.
Im hearing it from people about the bicycles and then they say, How can
I turn them in? They dont have a license plate on them. ... but I think
its a minority doing it, Manigold said.
Others see hostility focused in the opposite direction.
Jim Birch, a 69-year-old triathlete, said in recent years hes been yelled
at on his bike, been the recipient of obscene gestures and has had cars
and trucks encroach dangerously upon his rear tire. Once, a couple of
years ago, a motor home crept up behind him and someone told him, through
a P.A. system, to get off the road.
The bottom line is theres room for all of us, and if we just show common
courtesy we shouldnt have any problems, Birch said. Its going to ruin
everyones day if you hit a biker.
In recent years cycling club members have been paying more attention to
serious crashes where the motorist is found to be at fault.
Three years ago, a cyclist from Williamsburg was killed in a crash in
Schaafsma got involved within a day or so when he saw a newspaper article
and believed the road death did not get the attention it deserved.
The cyclist, Carl Ray, was riding on the paved shoulder of Rapid City Road
when a driver left the roadway and stuck and killed Ray at around 8 p.m.
on a July evening.
What happened was, nobody said much of anything. I said. Hey, wait a
minute, this is a big deal, he said. Most people are like, Somebody
got killed on a bicycle, so what?
Schaafsma stayed on top of the Kalkaska County Sheriffs Department and
then-Sheriff William Artress to make sure charges were brought against
Stephen Michael Ciarkowski, the 52-year-old who was eventually held
responsible for Rays death.
He wrote letters to the prosecutor, Brian Donnelly, and to the circuit
court judge, Janet Allen.
He let everyone know the case was being watched closely.
Michael Dettmer, a cycle club member and former United States Attorney for
the Western District of Michigan, said this kind of outside advocacy
should get the attention of local officials.
I think theres a presumption that the cyclist is a second-class
citizen, Dettmer said. Thats why were attempting to do that, when
theres a meritorious case.
Ciarkowski was convicted of negligent homicide and acquitted on a charge
of operating under the influence of drugs causing death, the more serious
charge. He tested positive for methamphetamine use after the crash.
He was sentenced to 14 months to two years in prison and is currently on
probation in Antrim County.
Schaafsma is frustrated Ciarkowski was not convicted of the more serious
charge, a charge with a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
If its an illegal drug and its in your system, then it seems to me
thats a violation. He left the roadway. That was established, he said.
Schaafsma blames the acquittal on the lack of a standard in Michigan for
levels of methamphetine in a persons blood to establish intoxication.
I wasnt satisfied that the process worked there, I think that motorist
got a pretty good deal there at the end of the day, Dettmer said.
In addition to harsher punishment for motorists responsible for the death
of a bicyclist, Dettmer believes cyclists themselves can make the roads
safer if they create goodwill through their own behavior.
I think any bicyclist thats out there really needs to follow the law,
Dettmer said. Thats important to me, that we all try to follow the rules
of the road.
Sometimes cyclists are the worst ambassadors for cycling.
Take this years Zoo-de-Mack ride from Boyne Highlands to Mackinaw City, a
leisurely organized ride that bills itself as a huge party.
Emmet County Sheriff Peter Wallin said this year the event prompted eight
calls to his department and more to the state police.
Wallin says the problem might be that riders start out in a concentrated
Generally, most bicyclists do follow the rules of the road, but when you
get 3,500 or more it tends to get out of hand a little bit, and those are
the ones that generally give bicyclists a black eye, Wallin said.
In the past two years at the Zoo-de-Mac, cyclists have failed to get out
of the way when ambulances needed to pass to catch up to injured riders,
Weve given bicyclists tickets before. Have we done it in the Zoo-de-Mac
before? No, we try to work with them, Wallin said. Were going to have a
sit-down with the promoters and try to work this out, I mean, we want
everyone to have fun, believe me, but we believe in safety, too.
Nonetheless, throughout the summer, on M-119 between Harbor Springs and
Cross Village, a stretch referred to as the tunnel of trees, there is
relative harmony between cyclists and motorists along the popular route,
Wallin said, at least based on the number of complaints.
Evidence of the hostility some drivers feel for cyclists is not hard to
Comments left on the website for the Petoskey News-Review under a story
about cyclists misbehaving during this years Zoo-de-Mack were lined up
squarely against the cyclists, with one commenter seeming to advocate
violence against bike riders.
I didnt know primates could ride bikes, one commenter wrote, ...they
dont want to have to buy insurance in spite of causing accidents, and
they dont want to be ticketed.
Another commenter said: When bikes are on the road, they can cause
problems. Not all of them, but way too many of them. They crowd the roads
like they have more rights than the Almighty Himself. Then when they get
hit, they are always pointing their fingers at the motorist. Sorry
bicyclist, it just doesnt work.
One commenter took an extreme position: They have a brush guard on those
big SUVs right? Use them.
Man cries foul over cycling ticket
By Patrick Sullivan
Even many people who ride bikes believe cyclists, when they disobey the
rules, should get ticketed more often by police.
Jon Butler believes that, in general.
Butler disagrees, however, with the ticket he received Memorial Day from a
Traverse City Police officer as he rode with three friends on Union Street
Butler was headed south at around 8:30 p.m. He said he and his girlfriend
and another couple were riding in a scattered pattern, two abreast, when
three or four cars backed up behind them near State Street.
In order to avoid doors opening from parked cars, they rode as far out
into the street as the right wheel track that vehicles would follow,
Butler said he sensed the woman who was driving the car nearest the group
was growing frustrated.
She was getting really close to the person who was in the back of the
group and revving her motor, Butler said.
The cars eventually got around.
At around 10th Street, however, a Traverse City Police cruiser rolled up
behind the group. The officer sounded his siren to make the first two
riders move over, Butler said. About 60 feet up the road, the officer
sounded the siren again, this time at Butler and his girlfriend.
Butler said he was frustrated, and as the officer drove past, he threw his
arms in the air.
I was like, whats the problem, you know, and he pulled right over,
Butler said. He goes, Gimme your I.D., and he goes back to the car and
he writes me up.
The officer, Joseph Soffredine, wrote Butler a ticket for impeding traffic.
According to the ticket, Butler was cited for riding in the middle of the
road, not moving for traffic, and causing traffic to go left of the center
PLANS TO CONTEST
Butler plans to fight the ticket in front of a magistrate.
He doesnt believe he could have safely ridden any closer to the curb.
A booklet about cycling published by the League of Michigan Bicyclists
recommends cyclists ride in the right wheel track of vehicles.
I ride year-round, Ive been riding for years and Ive never had an
issue like this before, Butler said. I actually rebuild old bikes and
collect bikes, so its not like Im an amateur cyclist here. I know
whats going on.
Curtiss Gulash, Butlers friend, witnessed the encounter.
He thinks Butler got a ticket because he argued with the officer about
My opinion was that he didnt like that Jon was being a little defiant,
Gulash said. It really surprised me, because Traverse is touted as this
bike-friendly community, and thats part of the reason why my wife and I
fell in love with Traverse City.
LEGAL GRAY AREA
Traverse City Police Capt. Stephen Morgan said he doesnt know what
prompted Soffredine to write the ticket, but he said police have
discretion when determining whether a cyclist is impeding traffic.
I think you have to look at the totality of the circumstances going on,
Morgan said there are probably a lot of cyclists that get away with
violations in Traverse City and dont receive tickets.
For his part, Butler agrees.
I agree with that cop, theres a lot of cyclists that probably should be
ticketed, I see it all the time, Butler said.
Morgan and Butler disagree about Butlers ticket, however.
Morgan said state law is pretty clear. It prohibits cyclists from blocking
On impeding traffic, the law says a person ... shall not block,
obstruct, impede, or otherwise interfere with the normal flow of vehicular
or pedestrian traffic upon a public street or highway.
Another law says cyclists traveling slower than the speed of traffic on
roads shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge
of the roadway, except in a few circumstances, such as when the far right
side of the road is unsafe.
Another law says cyclists may not ride more than two abreast, a law that
would seem to sanction riding two abreast and contradict the law about
riding as close as possible to the right side of the road.
Grand Traverse Prosecutor Alan Schneider, speaking not about the facts of
the Butler ticket but about Michigan cycling law in general, said he
believes the law is contradictory.
Simultaneous laws that both require cyclist to ride as close as safely
possible to the right and then spell out that its OK to ride two abreast
cause confusion, said Schneider, himself a road cyclist.
In general, to avoid trouble, cyclists should remember they need to follow
traffic laws just like cars.
Bicyclists themselves have a misunderstanding, they follow many of the
same rules that motorists do, but not all of them, Schneider said.