‘They had nowhere to escape’: Cyclists remain in critical condition after A1A crash as hundreds ride for safer roads

Just as the sun began to rise Saturday morning, hundreds of South Florida bicyclists rode to a stretch of A1A in Gulf Stream and stopped.

Their gathering was brief, but their presence was hard to miss as they lined the dirt on the side of the road in neon cycling kits. Others riding by had no idea why they were there at first, then stopped to join them. They spoke to one another for a few minutes about what happened, and what to do next. Then they were off.

Eight cyclists were struck on that stretch of A1A, which has no bike lane, during a morning ride on Thursday when an SUV veered over the center line of the road, officials say. At least six were hospitalized.

Two remained in critical condition and one in serious condition Saturday according to Andrew Lofholm, a spokesperson for Delray Medical Center.

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“We just wanted to get the cycling community together,” said Felipe Costa, who heads the Brazilian cycling group Galera do Pedal in South Florida, as he emerged from the hospital Saturday afternoon on another visit. As one of the organizers of the early-morning ride, he hadn’t eaten all day.

“That was pretty much our goal today, kind of spread the word out as a community that we came together.”

Attendees estimate that between 300 and 500 cyclists attended.

Costa said he knew six of the riders in the group that was struck, who are also Brazilian. A husband and wife are among the three in the most serious condition, he said. When the SUV came towards them, “they had nowhere to escape.”

The woman was taken out of an induced coma and woke up for the first time on Saturday, but the man remains in a coma, Costa said. He was able to see her, but so many cyclists have visited the hospital each day and tried to check on the husband that doctors and family members have had to ask them not to go in the room. The third victim suffered several broken bones but had a successful surgery.

Two others with more minor injuries are still “very much in shock,” Costa said.

That shock has resounded through South Florida’s tight-knit cycling community in which everyone knows each other and many have ridden down the same stretch of road. Even though incidents happen somewhat frequently in South Florida, people who ride often forget the dangers.

“A lot of us are riding three four times a week, and you sometimes just sort of become immune to the unsafe conditions that we have,” said Cameron Oster, a cyclist from Boca Raton who owns the event production company 3R Cycling Experience. “But then this happens and it kind of pulls you back in really quick to remember these things are happening because of the unsafe conditions that we just sort of live with.”

The latest tragedy has “reignited” the conversation. Oster said he and others like Costa have made a commitment to advocate harder and meet with local officials to try to get something to change.

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Already, Oster has begun looking into why A1A is one of the only major roads in South Florida to have no bike lane, even though it is also one of the most popular among cyclists.

When most roads in South Florida are repaved, they are required to follow updated Department of Transportation codes that require bike lanes, Oster said. But when it comes to A1A, local municipalities are able to dispute that. Often, those leaders are influenced by the interests of homeowners and other private groups.

Recently, residents of Palm Beach urged their town council to fight a state plan to widen a bike lane along their stretch of A1A, claiming it would present safety concerns for cyclists, according to local news reports, though critics said that their real concern was aesthetics.

South Florida cyclists have few choices, advocates say. Despite the lack of a bike lane, they often prefer A1A because it is not a commuter road like some of the busier roads that do have bike lanes, Oster said. The speed limit is supposed to be around 35 miles per hour.

In the immediate future, cyclists want better signage like “sharrows” that indicate drivers must share the road. Long-term, however, they want to try to improve the relationship between cyclists and drivers, and unravel the series of obstacles standing in the way of a bike lane.

“We just have to figure out how to start the right conversations with the right people, that really know the inner workings of where the roadblock is,” Oster said, “so we can try to develop that mutually beneficial plan.”

Some have argued that a bike lane would not have saved the group of bicyclists struck on Thursday because of how the crash happened. It remains unclear why the driver swerved into the wrong side of the road in the first place; Florida Highway Patrol is investigating.

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But cycling advocates strongly disagreed. The area where the cyclists were hit has no paved shoulder, and the edges of the road are “crumbling and deteriorating,” said Mark Hassell, an accident investigator for Bill Bone Bike Law. ” … in that stretch of road, there’s really nowhere to turn.”

If the cyclists were in a bike lane, the car would still have driven onto the wrong side of the road, Oster said, but there’s a good chance it would have not hit them, or perhaps hit one of them instead of an entire group.

“It really worries me that people are even suggesting that in this specific incident, a bike lane wouldn’t have mattered,” he said. “Because it would have mattered.”