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The troubled beauty of Skyline Boulevard

The 26 miles of Skyline Boulevard between Highway 9 in Saratoga and Highway 92 in San Mateo is used by some as an adult playground for vehicular pastimes.

With gentle ascents and descents, long sweeping curves, sparse traffic, elevation above the smog and not a single stop sign, it's a ribbon of two-lane blacktop with few peers in the Bay Area. There are great views and a convenient midpoint, at Skylonda in Woodside, to eat, socialize and refuel.

Complimenting those attributes are belts of tall trees that line either side of this winding road, creating shade and a mute and enfolding peace, a sense of privacy in a public space. Sitting in a parked car with the windows open, it's easy to hear bicyclists' conversations well before seeing the bicyclists. It's not uncommon to hear a motor vehicle 15 or 20 seconds before it comes into view. It could be a country road.

Except that it is not. On weekends, there are moments when it's a motorcycle racetrack in all but name, with riders on high-performance bikes at high speeds seeking optimum lines of travel through all those inviting curves.

The curves are numerous, they are varied and they are challenging -- and make for sparkling conversation after an exhilarating ride. And not just for motorcyclists. Bicyclists and sports car enthusiasts also like the curves. As for the residents, the beach-goers and, on weekdays, the construction workers and the delivery truck drivers, they take the curves as they find them.

Unfortunately, unlike a racetrack, there is traffic in two directions with vehicles of all kinds in all states of repair. Many of Skyline's curves are blind. Unlike a track, the pavement is not scrupulously cleared of sediment and moisture. There is cross traffic. There are bicycles, but there are no bike lanes and no room to create them. The road's borders are peppered with hard landings where a racetrack would normally have hay bales.

Driver behavior ranges from prudent to foolish to insane. Any vehicle can easily end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So much for illusions of peace and privacy.

According to California Highway Patrol accident records, between 2003 and 2012, there have been 205 accidents on Skyline Boulevard between Page Mill Road in Palo Alto and the northern edge of Woodside (roughly mileposts 3 and 17). About half those accidents have involved two-wheeled vehicles: bicycles in 18 of them and motorcycles in 92, with fatal injuries killing two bicyclists and eight motorcyclists.

On Sept. 18, 2013, the number of bicycle fatalities grew by one with the death of Joy Covey, a Woodside resident, cyclist and former Amazon CFO, who died when her bicycle and a delivery truck collided at the intersection of Skyline and Elk Tree Lane. Records show that this is the second accident involving a cyclist near Elk Tree Lane, the other being a nonfatal incident in May 2005 when a northbound cyclist was sideswiped by a passing vehicle.

The other area of Skyline Boulevard showing multiple accidents involving bicycles is the vicinity of La Honda Road (Highway 84), with four accidents over the decade. In July 2006, about a third of a mile north of the intersection, a sideswipe incident resulted in the death of 65-year-old Portola Valley resident Thomas Colby Maddox.

The responsibility comes down to the individual cyclist, CHP Capt. Mike Maskarich says when asked about cycling on Skyline. He spoke with the Almanac at an Oct. 24 outdoor ceremony honoring the memory of yet another cycling fatality -- the November 2010 death of Los Altos Hills resident Lauren Ward.

Ms. Ward and a tractor trailer collided on Alpine Road in the shaded darkness as Alpine passes under Interstate 280. The outdoor ceremony was called to recognize the recent opening of two new bike lanes designed to increase safety for cyclists traversing this intersection and its busy freeway ramps.

Cycling on Skyline can be particularly dangerous, Capt. Maskarich says. The pavement is more likely to be wet and there are more situations that complicate cyclists' efforts to be seen by motorists. "Visibility is a huge concern," he says. "(Cyclists) may be putting themselves at greater risk than they would be if they were riding elsewhere." He recommends that they have and use bright flashing running lights that can be seen during the day.

Riding a ridge line

"If a motorist doesn't see a cyclist, it's not the cyclist's fault," says Corinne Winter, the executive director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. "There's a lot of education we can do (on both sides)."

Trends show, Ms. Winter says, that motorists frequently think they can safely turn ahead of an oncoming cyclist. But cyclists can be traveling a lot faster than motorists think they're going, she says, and on Skyline, that's particularly true on long downhill stretches.

With the odds permanently stacked against the bicycle in a collision, the best course is not to have one. Flashing daytime lights are a must, she says, a small investment with big safety returns in that the lights give motorists a clue.

Why do bicyclists even ride Skyline? There are no bike lanes, hardly any shoulders and it's dangerous. But on dry weekends, there are hundreds and sometimes close to a thousand cyclists up there, she says. They do it because it connects the routes up and down the mountains, Ms. Winter says. "Sometimes after you climb a big hill, it's nice to go on the ridge line. It's beautiful."

"It's a challenging road in the sense that there's really high motorcycle speeds and vehicle speeds and there's no shoulder," she adds. The driveways are also challenging, as is the surface of the road. The state used coarse stones in its latest resurfacing between La Honda and Page Mill roads, Ms. Winter says. "In the minds of most cyclists that I have talked to, the road surface has been significantly degraded."

A rougher surface makes quick maneuvers on a bike more difficult, she says. The bike coalition is talking with state Assemblyman Rich Gordon's office about the resurfacing and a texture that would be more accommodating to bicycles, she says.

The coalition is also pushing for lower speed limits on Skyline, an uphill climb. Traffic authorities determine limits by measuring the speed of 85 percent of traffic and setting limits to the closest 5-mph increment. The 85-percent rule can be sidestepped if a community really wants a lower speed limit, Ms. Winter says. "It takes a little bit of effort."

Road signs are another option. The bike coalition has been working with Stanford hospital and law enforcement for about a year to devise "really good messaging," Ms. Winter says. "We're trying to come up with something good."

Racing safely

Asked to comment on Skyline as a high-speed venue for motorcycling, Tim Scarrott, director at large for the American Federation of Motorcyclists (AFM), noted that racing on a track is much safer. The AFM conducts "track days" and actual races for Bay Area motorcyclists to "test their skill in a safe and controlled environment better suited (than Skyline) for the performance and capabilities of the modern motorcycle," Mr. Scarrott says. "Riding at the racetrack is far cheaper than a speeding ticket and obviously much safer than riders testing their skill in an uncontrolled environment (street riding)."

"Skyline Boulevard is certainly both famous and infamous," he adds, "and as a former Oakland police officer (retired) I can tell you that Skyline Boulevard has been the site of many tragedies over the years."

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