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Despite fatal crash, county highway to remain favorite for bike rides

Two cyclists ride south of Argusville, N.D. on Traill County Highway 81 on Sunday, June 22, 2014. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

FARGO – For 30 years, hundreds of students from North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota have raced bikes north up the county highway where a cyclist was fatally struck by a car on Saturday. It’s a weekend go-to for cyclists, amateur and racers alike.

Due to little traffic and a long, flat ride, County Road 81 – once the path of U.S. Highway 81 and also known as Old Highway 81 – is a favorite route for cyclists. And though members of the local biking community mourn the death of avid cycler David Hawkinson, they say his death likely won’t push riders to another route.

“It is a sobering thought,” said Tom Smith, owner of Fargo’s Great Northern Bicycle Co. “I don’t think that we can blame this type of tragedy on any one thing.”

“There is nothing dangerous about that piece of roadway as compared to other roadways in the region,” Smith said.

Law enforcement officials in Cass and Traill counties can recall just one other incident involving a cyclist on that stretch of county highway, which runs closely parallel to Interstate 29: a hit-and-run in 2009 that sent a woman flying off her bike. Jennifer Walla was hospitalized with a concussion, a twisted ankle and a cut on the back of her head.

Statewide, 10 cyclists have been killed in accidents with vehicles since 2003, according to records from the North Dakota Department of Transportation. Ninety-two North Dakota cyclists were injured in crashes in 2012, the most recent year with complete injury statistics.

In Saturday’s accident, Hawkinson, 50, was riding his bike south on Traill County Road 81 when Justin Jalbert struck Hawkinson’s rear tire with his pickup truck about a mile north of Grandin, throwing Hawkinson off his bike and killing him.

The crash is under investigation, but the North Dakota Highway Patrol believes distracted driving was a factor. Jalbert, 26, wrote an apology on his Facebook page stating he was reaching for something in his glovebox when he struck Hawkinson.

Smith and others said the dangers of commingling with cars are an unfortunate but unavoidable part of the ride.

“We’re out there with the motors all the time,” Smith said. “It’s something cyclists live with. We’re very thankful that we don’t live with it often.”

Members of the Newman Centers at NDSU and UND have raced north on County Road 81 for almost 30 years running as a fundraiser. The Rev. James Cheney, who helps coordinate the annual race, called Hawkinson’s death a tragedy but stressed that it’s a safe route – especially on Saturday mornings when their races are held.

Rick Laliberte, an avid cyclist from Fargo, said the ease of riding on the county road have made it a favorite destination. He said it’s too early to tell whether Hawkinson’s death will have a larger impact on the cycling community and the metro.

“I certainly hope it doesn’t keep people off the roads. It won’t keep me off the road,” he said. “Hopefully, it creates a lot more awareness within the community, both on the cyclists’ side and on the motorists’ side.”

And while Fargo-Moorhead’s cycling community has grown rapidly – to double or more what it was just a few years ago, by his estimation – Laliberte said it still has a long way to go.

“I think the bigger picture is Fargo is definitely not a cycling-friendly community,” he said. I think motorists, for a variety of reasons, ranging from not seeing to just being downright frustrated that they have to share the road with somebody, creates an environment that isn’t all that friendly toward cyclists.”

Kyle Potter
Kyle Potter is an enterprise reporter at the Forum. He came to Fargo-Moorhead in May 2013 after stints at the Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minnesota Daily. 
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