In the wake of a 13-year-old Spokane boy’s death, the state is telling cyclists they can no longer race on open highways in Spokane and eight other Eastern Washington counties.
News of the regional crackdown spread quickly, outraging racing clubs and drawing a protest from the United States Cycling Federation.
For years, the Department of Transportation and Washington State Patrol have looked the other way, allowing dozens of “illegal” highway races to be held.
But on July 3, the day after Cooper Jones died, local clubs were notified in writing that the open-road races will no longer be tolerated.
Cooper was riding in a Baddlands Cycling Club time trial last month on state Highway 904 west of Cheney when he was run down from behind by a Cadillac.
That’s the reason the state is cracking down, cyclists believe. Three Spokane-area clubs are meeting tonight to draft plans aimed at lifting the open-road ban.
“The reaction is more disbelief than anything else - at the heavy-handedness that has come down all of a sudden,” said Spokane racer Jordan Keough.
“We have been riding on local highways for years,” he said. “Then a few weeks ago, when Cooper died, they stopped all of the bike racing over here.”
Not so, say state officials.
“It is a painful coincidence that this comes in the midst of a fatality,” said Al Gilson, spokesman for the Transportation Department in Spokane.
“But this is not a result of the accident. It is purely a safety measure.”
Asked why the law wasn’t enforced until now, Gilson said: “We are not an enforcement agency. That’s a question for the State Patrol.”
WSP Sgt. Chris Powell said Cooper’s death played a key role.
“Perhaps in the past we weren’t aware of road racing,” Powell said. “But obviously an event has occurred that has brought attention to it.
“We, as an enforcement agency, cannot say it’s OK to do this. The law is very specific. It does not allow exemptions and exceptions.”
The races, officials say, have been illegal in Washington since 1991, when bicycles were classified as vehicles. The warning notice mailed by the Transportation Department, Gilson said, is an attempt to clarify the law and make area highways safer.
Under state law, a maximum of two bikes may travel abreast on a roadway open to traffic, making any mass-start race illegal unless a special permit is issued to close the road.
“An open highway is not a race track,” Gilson said.
Eastern Washington cyclists claim they’re being unfairly singled out.
It would be different, cyclists said, if open-road racing was banned statewide. But racers in Western Washington are still competing without major restrictions on state highways.
After learning about the East Side crackdown, United States Cycling Federation officials in Colorado Springs immediately became involved.
“We are very concerned about this,” said Randy Shafer, technical director for USA Cycling, which oversees USCF activities. “People are looking to us to become involved. We have sent letters, dealt directly with the state.”
USCF racing official Phil Miller is in Spokane today in hopes of mediating the dispute and returing cyclists to the highways.
“This is obviously an issue that hits very close to home,” said Miller, who also works for the King County Department of Transportation.
The cyclists need to listen and play an active role in reshaping Washington laws, he said.
If they don’t, he fears competitive cycling in the area will end.
“It would be a greater tragedy if the loss of a cyclist forces cycling to be lost,” he said.
Gilson said it’s not the department’s intention to end racing in the region. Transportation officials want cycling clubs to either find a closed course or apply for road-closure permits prior to holding highway races.
“If they want to close the highway, that will be fine,” Gilson said. “They just have to follow procedures.”
But closing the roads comes at too high a price for local clubs.
Although the permit is free, clubs must pay the cost for law enforcement officers to direct traffic through detours and for road workers to install the detours. The expense is expected to force the three cycling clubs in the region to end weekly races, run every year from late spring to early fall.
Since being notified about the highway crackdown, the clubs have been racing at Spokane Raceway Park.
Seething members are convinced Cooper’s death is being used as an excuse to restrict their highway-racing rights.
Miller is sympathetic.
“There was a time in the sport when races just happened. There was not a great deal of thought given to the regulations,” he said. “Obviously the death of a 13-year-old was used as a catalyst. That’s why there is anger.”
He hopes to have local cycling clubs help develop more specific guidelines for road racing in Washington.
“The history of bike racing in Spokane is glorious,” he said. “Local clubs need to pull together so that Cooper’s legacy will be one of ultimately strengthening cycling in the state - to give other Coopers every possible opportunity to fulfill their dreams of cycling.”
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