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Cyclists' deaths flag safety concerns

The Globe and Mail, July 4, 2008

By any measure, the Trans-Canada Highway a few hundred kilometres west of Winnipeg should be a cyclist's dream. The prairies roll gently, the road tracks relatively straight, the prevailing wind offers a strong eastward nudge and long days are bracketed by luminous sunrises and sunsets.

But for the hundreds who cycle cross-country every year, pedalling the 300 or so kilometres of national highway snaking east from the Saskatchewan border to Winnipeg has long been considered a “death wish.”

On Sunday, a car struck and killed two eastbound cyclists along that very stretch, near the town of Virden, fulfilling a grim prophesy that thousands of other riders have narrowly avoided for years.

“Local riders, they won't go to Virden, the highway is so unsafe out there,” said Stephen Stanley, manager of A&L Get Active, a sporting-goods store in nearby Brandon. “They just don't ride it. It's not worth it.”

Fifty-year-old Daniel Hurtubise and 45-year-old Robert Carrier didn't have the luxury of local knowledge. The men had been pedalling alongside Mr. Hurtubise's son and daughter when they were hit while traversing the country to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Mr. Hurtubise's son and daughter were injured in the incident.

The details of the accident remain unclear, but initial reports said that a Honda Civic sideswiped the group.

If that proves true, the incident could lend credence to long-standing complaints by cyclists about the lack of paved shoulders over Manitoba's portion of the Trans-Canada.

Just 40 per cent of the national highway features paved shoulders within the province, according to Doug McMahon, acting executive director with Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation. Of the 1,200 kilometres of unpaved shoulders on the Trans-Canada Highway, he added, close to one-quarter lie in Manitoba.

One month before Mr. Hurtubise and Mr. Carrier died along the highway, another group of cross-country cyclists nearly met the same fate.

Kyle Braatz, who is pedalling cross-country on a trip to honour those who have battled cancer (typicallycanadian.com), recalled that stretch of road as he cycled through Quebec City this week. “A couple of us ate dust in Manitoba on a few occasions.”

Mr. Braatz said that most vehicles gave him and his three teammates ample room, but some “angled us right into the gravel shoulder. And it's impossible to keep a bike with skinny tires upright in that stuff. Manitoba was by far the worst part of the trip so far.”

An RCMP spokeswoman said there had been four car collisions along the highway near Virden in 2007, but no bike fatalities.

Since the cycling accident, cross-country bikers yet to reach Manitoba have been scouring maps for alternatives to the Trans-Canada route.

“We heard about Virden being a real problem spot before we ever started,” said Vin Heney, who's roughly a week from Manitoba as he and a friend cross the country to garner notice and funds for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of Canada (poweredbycommunity.org). “But now we're kind of dreading it. It's a death wish not to have a shoulder.”

Since hearing about the accident, Mr. Heney and his teammate have bumped up safety measures, wearing brighter clothing and paying closer attention to road conditions.

Before they embarked on the trip, the CCFC took out special insurance on the two riders.

Other groups acquired safety permits to employ spotter vehicles with flashing lights that divert traffic away from riders.

One group of wheelchair athletes rolling across the country for spinal cord research (wheeltowalkcanada.org) wear safety vests and strobe lights, and fly bright flags.

Manitoba has been paving shoulders on its stretch of the Trans-Canada for years, but only in spots where the road is already undergoing resurfacing.

“We weren't aware of this area [near Virden] as a problem spot,” said Mr. McMahon, who estimated the cost of paving shoulders at $200,000 a kilometre. “Now that this kind of incident has happened, we'll keep an eye on it.”

That's little comfort to cyclists.

“It is a shame that we don't have more pride in our national highway,” Mr. Braatz said. “If you travel it by bike, you see so many sections that look like back-country highways.”

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