PROVINCETOWN — “Most of the townies I know don’t have cars, they just have a bicycle,” says Ptown Bikes mechanic Silas Barrepski in between oiling a chain and pumping a tire. Out here, he says, “biking is essential.”
But how safe is biking on the Outer Cape? That’s something National Park officials, townspeople, and mechanics like Barrepski are working on.
Barrepski, who lives in Provincetown, was doing free safety checks at the Province Lands Visitor Center last Friday as part of the Cape Cod National Seashore’s 10th annual “Bike Safety at the Seashore” events. Another session will be held Friday, Aug. 6 at the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham.
The Cape is a premier New England cycling destination, in large part due to its bike trails. The National Seashore’s Province Lands trail in the dunes of Provincetown draws thousands of cyclists each summer, according to park ranger Brent Ellis, who says it is impossible to estimate the exact number. The Seashore does not track it.
The state’s 25-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail, stretching from Yarmouth to Wellfleet, attracts roughly 10,000 people per day in the summer and one million people annually, reports the Dept. of Conservation and Recreation at Nickerson State Park.
Another 1,600 riders are expected to finish this year’s Pan-Mass Challenge at the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown this Sunday, organizers say. The event is a fund-raiser for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
With so many cyclists, Outer Cape towns have established bike committees, in part to promote bike safety.
Provincetown’s bicycle committee gets credit for important changes, said Barrepski. “They’re the ones who helped put in motion the bike lanes they painted on the roads, and a lot of the bike-friendly traffic bylaws were introduced by them,” he said. “It’s really nice to have a bike committee that’s made up of people who live here and ride bikes.”
Wellfleet’s Bike and Walkways Committee has been analyzing potential bikeway routes to connect the Rail Trail in Wellfleet to Truro, according to chair Peter Cook. The committee is meeting on Aug. 5 to approve its report to the select board.
“The criteria for the analysis included a number of points, and safety was a significant goal,” said Cook. “We mirrored the safety priorities that are used all around the country in evaluating bike routes.” Among them were limiting exposure to motor vehicle traffic, looking for ways to prevent accidents on the path, and ensuring intersection safety.
For all these efforts, accidents are frequent. “Bike accidents are our number one visitor accident,” said Nicole Taylor, the Park’s health and safety officer. Her purview is the roads and trails of the Park itself, and she estimates that the Seashore responds to 25 to 30 bike accidents each season. So far, Taylor says, summer 2021 has been slightly quieter than previous summers.
Last weekend saw two separate incidents in Eastham that resulted in hospitalizations, Deputy Police Chief Daniel Deschamps said. One person fell off a bike on the National Seashore bike path and a collision occurred on the Rail Trail. “Most of the bike accidents have been on the Rail Trail,” said Deschamps.
In the Seashore’s news release promoting Friday’s safety event, Supt. Brian Carlstrom said, “Every year we medevac cyclists with serious head injuries to Boston hospitals. We need to get the word out about how to bike safely on Cape Cod.”
The event focused on the Province Lands trail, the oldest bicycle trail in the National Park system. “People come here from all around just to ride it, to experience it once,” said Barrepski.
High traffic and varying degrees of experience among cyclists make it one of the most dangerous paths in the Park.
“It’s notorious for major accidents,” said Ellis. A poster reads: “65 percent of visitor crashes occurred on the Province Lands Trail.” Recent accidents have seen cyclists going too fast around sandy corners, spinning out, and hitting their heads, said Ellis.
Park employees and volunteers handed out maps highlighting the spots on the trail with high accident rates due to sharp turns or blind spots.
The National Seashore Park Rangers frequently respond to bike accidents along with emergency service personnel from the Outer Cape towns. According to Ellis, the collaboration between town police and emergency medical technicians and the Seashore has made for impressive response times. In Eastham, he said, “at our Salt Pond land, we can say that it will take somewhere under two minutes for emergency professionals to respond to an incident.”
The main message at the Seashore safety event was consistent with the message at any bike safety event: always wear a helmet.
A poster read: “A fitted helmet is 85% effective at preventing serious head injuries,” and the Seashore employees and volunteers had about 300 helmets on hand to give away free. “We have seen a real upturn in helmets in the last five years or so,” said Ellis, sitting in a chair wearing a snug-fitting helmet. “Ten years ago, helmets were not considered a fashion statement. Now, I really think they are.”
Helmets are required by law for bicyclists under age 16 in Massachusetts. Besides helmets, the Seashore employees and volunteers stressed the importance of good bike trail etiquette. Most important is that riders stick to the right side of the trail or path, bike at reasonable speeds, and let other riders know when they’re passing. With crowded trails full of bikers of all different levels, they said, not abiding by these basic rules can be a significant hazard.
Another element of the Seashore’s safety event was bike maintenance, as Barrepski explained to those getting safety checks how to take care of their bikes. Barrepski knows that many riders overlook the importance of making sure their bike is all set to ride, but he says it can be just as important for bike safety as knowing what to do on the roads.
According to Barrepski, the most important maintenance step a biker can take for safety is routinely checking tire pressure. “If you’re going fast enough and you hit something hard enough,” he said, “a wheel with low tire pressure can fold under you — and that is one of the most dangerous positions to be in on a bike.”
About 250 visitors left the Province Lands Visitor Center parking lot that day with new helmets, and dozens more rode off with freshly pumped-up tires. Still, a group of four was seen that afternoon riding down Race Point Road, hair flowing in the wind, without helmets on. Apparently, no one told them they’re back in style.