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Get on your bikes and ride this Friday

It’s Bike To Work and School Day, and pedal pushers will be taking to the streets.

Starkly juxtaposed against black leather and the rumbling chatter of motorcycle engines, they are the silent, florescent blur that leads the frenzied charge from the ferry deck each commute.

They wake no neighbors, emit no pollutants and spend nothing on fuel.

Still, despite the many known advantages enjoyed by bicycle commuters, most people would rather pay to pump gas than pump their legs for free.

“A lot of people are reluctant to ride their bikes,” said Gordon Black, vice president of Squeaky Wheels, the Bainbridge Island bicycle advocacy group, and a teacher at Bainbridge High School. “People invent barriers, from rain to their busy schedule, that prevent them from riding their bikes.”

But Black, along with students and fellow faculty members, wants to eliminate those barriers as part of nationwide, month-long campaign to encourage bicycle commuting.

May is Bike-to-Work month, and bicycle advocates across the country are asking their neighbors to trade four wheels for two. Still, while more people are catching on, the U.S. continues to lag well behind others when it comes to bicycle use.

Only 1 percent of U.S. commuters bicycle to work, compared to 50 percent in the Netherlands and 77 percent in China, according to Seattle-based Cascade Bicycle Club, the country’s largest, with over 4,500 members.

For Black and others at the high school, it’s about providing incentives and leading by example.

Black, who rides his bike more than five miles to work several times a week, challenged his colleagues to find an alternative way to work by turning it into a two-week competition.

The staff could sign up to be part of teams, which consist of four to 10 people. Teams register on a web site and log commute miles for each day they ride their bike. The teams were divided by departments, with four of the 10 departments competing.

Cascade Bicycle Club will give prizes for the team that logs the most miles.

Black’s hope was to create a fun and friendly rivalry while championing the benefits of bicycle commuting.

“You don’t have to ride to work every day,” he said. “There are days were it isn’t possible because you have other obligations or the weather is bad. The point is to encourage people to make riding a bike part of their routine.”

The students followed suit.

Ariana Taylor-Stanley, 18, said a similar competition exists among her and several classmates.

She admitted that many were, for one reason or another, reluctant to get out of their cars, but said she hoped improving weather and continued efforts by her and her classmates would help even the bike-to-car ratio.

“There are still a lot of cars in the parking lot,” she said. “But this morning we filled three bike racks, which is pretty impressive.”

Taylor-Stanley said she lives near the school and rides her bike to do her part for the environment.

Carl Herman, 17, rides his bike five miles to school, three days a week. He has a car, but only uses it when he really needs to.

He said several local businesses offered gift certificates and other items to provide incentives for their cause.

“Most people are pretty skeptical,” Herman said. “But some students try riding their bike and end up getting hooked.”

Which is the point of all Bike-to-Work month efforts.

This Friday, Washington State Ferries will waive the bicycle surcharge on several routes, including Seattle to Bainbridge.

Black said Squeaky Wheels focused its efforts this year on raising awareness about the viability of bicycle commuting, both on and off the island.

“There is a dedicated and growing core of cyclists who live and work here and want people to realize that a bike is a good option.”

But many still refuse to ride, and one concern is safety. Statistics are difficult to compare because the number of bicycle commuters is much smaller than the number of car commuters, but both modes of transportation have their perils.

Between 1990 and 2000, 786 people a year died in bicycle accidents according to the League of American Bicyclists.

Car commuters fared much worse by comparison, with car crashes listed as the leading cause of death for four- to 34-year-olds in 2003 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Black said there are a number of ways to be safe on a bike, including the proper equipment, attire and discretion. But the best way, he said, is to practice.

“You can start out on a quiet road and work your way up from there,” he said. “It’s like any activity. The more you do it the more comfortable you feel and the safer you are.”

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And wear a helmet!

Think you have a good excuse not to be riding your bicycle?

Think again. Here are some answers to common questions and excuses, courtesy of Gordon Black and Squeaky Wheels.

Weather: If the sky looks ominous, don’t ride that day. If you’re already at work when things go sour, catch a ride home with a colleague who drove or leave your bike at work and find another way home.

Clothes: Drive to work on Monday with enough work clothes for three days so you’re set for the week. Leave a pair of shoes at the office. You can dress and freshen up in the bathroom once you get to work.

Gear: You don’t need special gear, just a helmet. Loose fitting clothes are most comfortable for beginning riders. Bring a jacket.

Busy schedule: You don’t have to ride your bike every day, just as often as you can. Black said he sometimes rides to work and gets picked up by his wife in the evening.

For more tips or information about other Bike-to-Work events, see www.squeakywheels.org or the Bicycle Alliance of Washington at www.bicyclealliance.org.

Wheel on over

Squeaky Wheels will give away water bottles and food at the ferry bike waiting area, 5-9 a.m. Friday. Mayor Darlene Kordonowy will ride the 7:05 ferry to discuss transportation issues, and bike commuters will run an information booth on the ferries.

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