Nick Coleman: Painful crash turns bicyclist into activist Critical Mass convert

Patrick Guernsey was too mad to realize how badly he was hurt.

Published September 15, 2007 by Star-Tribune Minneapolis-St.Paul 
By Nick Coleman 

Patrick Guernsey was too mad to realize how badly he was hurt.

Another bicyclist bites the pavement.

It happens every day, and people who pedal are getting p.o.'ed. So on this day of the inaugural Minneapolis Bike Tour (with 15- and 41-mile routes that will be closed to motorized traffic; see www.minneapolisbiketour. com), Patrick Guernsey's story helps explain why bikers are demanding their rights to the road and why the ranks of activists like the ones who stage "Critical Mass" rides to push for bike-friendly cities are growing.

Critical Mass got a new convert at 8:15 a.m. last Monday. Like many converts to the cause, this one was limping.

Guernsey, 43, was commuting to his job as a Hennepin County probation officer, riding from his home in St. Paul. He has been biking the 7.2 miles to his Minneapolis office for 11 years, and was in the bike lane on the westbound side of Summit Avenue when a green Mazda passed him on his left, crossed the bike lane and pulled to the curb.

Guernsey, cruising at 20 miles per hour, was suddenly like a bug on a windshield.

"I had no time to react at all," he said Friday from his home, where he was recuperating after missing a week of work. "The car came from behind, passed me and cut to the curb. Bam! I slammed into the side. I made some pretty big dents in the passenger door, and my handlebars left a big scratch along the side of the car. I hit the ground and rolled over a few times, landing on my back with the wind knocked out of me and looking up at people who were calling for help.

"I was really angry."

Guernsey is a single dad with six kids. As he was realizing how close his kids had come to not having a father, the adrenaline kicked in. When he was helped to his feet, he wanted to go off on the driver with an obscenity-laced tirade. The driver, however, was very upset, and offered him profuse apologies. The cops came, and although they found that driver inattention and failure to yield had "contributed" to the accident, she wasn't charged.

Guernsey was cleared of responsibility for the accident, but needed 20 X-rays and a CT scan. He turned down a ride in an ambulance, afraid it would cost too much, and got a ride from a colleague. There were no broken bones, but Guernsey had deep bruises, a sore back and various cuts, scrapes and road rash.

He was alive, although his $900 bicycle was totaled.

Guernsey was following all the road and safety rules. He was in the bike lane, obeying traffic signals, wearing a helmet; he had a strobe light on the front of his bike and a flashing red light on the back. Still, he had been run over by "the right hook," one of the most common bike-car accidents, usually caused when a car driver underestimates how fast bicycles are traveling.

(Star Tribune Roadguy Jim Foti recommends www.bicyclesafe.com to learn how to avoid accidents. A tip of the helmet to you, Roadguy!)

"When are drivers going to learn?" a still-sore Guernsey wants to know. "People are in such a damn hurry. When are drivers going to start paying attention? I could have been paralyzed; I could have been killed. … Why do those who choose to drive treat bike riders as a nuisance rather than equal users of the road?

"Pay attention, people."

A probation officer, Guernsey has many friends in law enforcement. Although the cops have had run-ins with the riders of Critical Mass (Minneapolis police arrested 19 riders near Loring Park on Aug. 31), Guernsey has gone over the handlebars, and over the wall.

"I didn't really approve of them," he says. "I wasn't a big fan. Then came last Monday.

"Now, I'm on their side."

Nick Coleman • ncoleman@startribune.com