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Athletes, drivers advised to ride, drive carefully on congested Kona roads

October 11, 2017 - 8:36pm

KAILUA-KONA — A couple weeks ago, Konawaena High School math teacher and triathlete David Wild was running at the track after school, where three teams of students were practicing cheerleading, cross country and football.

While there, Wild witnessed a man, another triathlete, “deck changing,” or using a towel to change clothes without going into a facility.

Wild said a student had also noticed and the teacher went to speak with the man, asking him to change in a restroom rather than on the field.

Not long after, Wild logged onto Facebook and asked his friends: What grievances or friendly suggestions do you have for athletes coming to town?

Responses poured in from friends, community members and parents of his students, all with something to say or share.

Wild collected those thoughts and last Thursday posted “An Open Letter to Ironman World Championship Athletes,” which has since been shared dozens of times, including by Ironman’s official Twitter account.

With tips ranging from “Obey all traffic rules” to “Do not urinate in public view,” Wild said his letter is a sincere effort to bring attention to the issues that come with a surge in visitors flying into town for the annual event.

The championship race brings 2,400 athletes, who bring thousands more friends and family, and the swell can make Kona’s small streets seem jam packed.

As a triathlete himself, Wild said, he has a lot of respect for the athletes who take part in the annual race. But at the same time, he wants to communicate that coming to the island is a privilege.

One big reason? A bad experience with any triathlete can leave locals with a bad taste for all athletes, including those who call Kona home.

“Whenever a bad interaction happens with an Ironman athlete and a local, we’re gonna feel that throughout the year,” he said. “This is home; we’re not leaving this place right after Ironman.”

Other locals getting involved

Wild is one of many athletes and enthusiasts in the local community working to keep up a positive relationship between visiting athletes and those who make Kona their home.

Franz Weber, who sits on the board of People’s Advocacy for Trails Hawaii or PATH, said there are many ongoing activities to improve safety and reduce the chance of negative encounters.

For example, the organization created a short safety video about the construction area along Queen Kaahumanu Highway north of town. The video was distributed to all triathletes and also posted on Facebook.

Additionally, a flyer of “dos and don’ts” about swimming, biking and running was distributed at the airport.

Finally, a new program called “bike ambassadors” is putting local cyclists on the road to directly interact with visitors to the region.

For a couple hours every morning, cyclists go on Alii Drive and the highway to encourage cyclists to follow traffic laws as well as be courteous and mindful on the road.

“So kind of ease the tension,” said Weber. “That’s, I think, our main goal.”

And for the most part, Weber said, athletes are receptive to hearing the proper rules of the road.

“I think the very few that are really disrespectful, it’s a very small minority,” said Weber. “But those are visible. Those are the ones that everybody sees. But all over, I really hardly ever met an athlete who doesn’t understand when I explain it.”

Michael Breyer, who is in Kona for his fourth time participating in this weekend’s competition, said his experiences in Kona have been positive so far, but acknowledged there are a lot of bikes, athletes and cars in the area.

“You just have to be super careful,” he said on Alii Drive Tuesday afternoon, and specifically pointed out the construction north of town. “It’s really incumbent upon the bikes and the cars to be really thoughtful.”

And while he said he has seen people snap on the road, it’s a rare occurrence he’s only witnessed once or twice in his four years coming to Kona.

“The vast majority, 99 percent of the people, go out of their way to be courteous and safe around the athletes,” he said.

International differences

Weber said for some international athletes, there can be some unfamiliarity with local rules and road customs.

In many countries, he said, cyclists have the right of way and some countries mandate cyclists ride side-by-side rather than single-file.

“So there’s a different culture, and that may result in very different riding habits,” he said.

Two cyclists from two different countries said Tuesday that traveling on the right-hand side of the road was another thing to which they had to adjust.

“For us, riding on the right-hand side of the road is foreign, because obviously we’re usually riding on the left,” said Jamie Edwards, a coach from Melbourne, Australia. “So obviously, being a bit cautious because you’re in a different environment.”

Mariette Hattingh, an athlete from South Africa, also said she was used to driving on the left.

“So this is now new for me to be on the right side,” she said.

Accidents, close-calls, tips

On Monday, a cyclist traveling along Kuakini Highway struck the passenger side of a vehicle while the vehicle was making a left turn into King Kamehameha Mall, according to Hawaii Police Department Maj. Robert Wagner.

Wagner said the cyclist, 63, sustained some injuries, but none that were life-threatening. She was not a triathlete, he added. No citations were issued.

Community policing Sgt. Roylen Valera said police have witnessed many close calls with not just bikes, but also pedestrians.

“People are just not aware of their surroundings,” he said.

He said motorists need to be very careful when checking their mirrors, looking behind them and when approaching crosswalks, regardless of whether there is a pedestrian crossing at the time.

The same holds true for cyclists, even when they are traveling in a marked bike lane.

“Even though there are marked lanes for bicycles,” he said, “it doesn’t provide a wall of protection. So cyclists need to remember that even though you’re where you’re supposed to be, it doesn’t mean the vehicle has seen you.”

That means cyclists need to do a head check before making any movements and use hand signals.

“And for the most part, in my patrols around town, I have seen a good percentage of the bicyclists using hand signals, doing the head check, staying within the bike lane or riding to the right side of the roadway,” he said. “It’s just a few that all of a sudden, they think that they’re indestructible, and they just dart into a lane or they make a lane change without signaling or doing a head check.”

For everyone to remain safe, it takes effort on everyone’s part.

Breyer suggested cyclists go slow on roads like Alii Drive and consider going on practice rides during times traffic is less busy. And for drivers, he said, the biggest thing he’s seen is distracted driving and asked motorists to give cyclists space to the side.

“We’re human beings on bikes that weigh 20 pounds,” he said. “And it’s scary for us. We’re taking risks every time we go out there, and we know it.”

Additionally, Weber said local cyclists could consider starting their training farther outside town where there’s less traffic.

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