The Punching Bag Punches Back

Cycling activist Raphael Clemente has had enough idiot-induced wipeouts to last a lifetime

Accustomed to logging 400 or more miles a week on Palm Beach County roads, Clemente almost quit riding his bike after that. Which would have been a shame, because he went on to become an Olympics contender in 1996. He had a shot at going to race in Atlanta that summer. "I did my best," he explains, "and placed 12th."

But while in training, he was faced with more trials. One April afternoon in 1996, Clemente and a group of friends were cruising down A1A when they rode through the town of South Palm Beach. Dan LaDuke, a police officer from the small municipality, drove past, got on his loudspeaker, and commanded the cyclists to ride single file. Clemente yelled back that they were, in fact, riding single file. "'You're wrong,' I told him," Clemente explains. LaDuke stopped the entire pack -- and wrote Clemente a ticket for obstructing traffic.

A week later, Clemente was riding through the same area with another pack of cyclists when LaDuke rolled up. Clemente insists he greeted the policeman with a pleasant, "Good morning, Officer LaDuke." In his report, however, the cop wrote that Clemente said, "Fuck you, Officer LaDuke." As the other riders protested, Clemente was handed another ticket for obstructing traffic.

Pedal steel: Bike activist Raphael Clemente
Colby Katz
Pedal steel: Bike activist Raphael Clemente

He challenged the citations in court. "Officer LaDuke showed up with witnesses who were never there, with a completely concocted story," Clemente alleges, "and lied under oath." Both tickets were dismissed. "The judge saw through the whole thing," Clemente says with a triumphant smile.

In April of 2003, Clemente got his chance to act as a defender of the cycling public when he was hired by the MPO as its bicycle coordinator. "I saw it as a fantastic opportunity to improve the conditions on the road," he explains. He admits he started the job with an agenda but adds, "Whether it's anger or frustration, I use those motivations to try to do positive things."

One of his first self-appointed missions was to act as an outspoken proponent of lanes on the Delray Beach stretch of A1A. "Raphael is the best thing that has ever happened to Palm Beach County as far as pedestrians and cyclists are concerned," says Jim Smith, a Delray retiree who has made a career of petitioning, pleading, and politicizing in an effort to get local officials to improve safety along the beachfront road.

Yet Clemente still has obstacles to dodge. Just a month after he landed his new job, he attended a Florida Department of Transportation-sponsored "Civic Awareness Meeting" in Delray Beach. Galvanized by the events of his past, he took the podium to speak about the need for bike lanes but kept his emotions in check. "I just used facts," he insists. A Delray resident in her 60s later took the microphone to vehemently oppose the plan.

"As she was going back to her seat," Clemente says, "she told me that I'd better watch out. She said, 'If there's a bike lane on that road, I might just use it as a passing lane. '"

A few bystanders heard her threat. "That was the explosion that sent the meeting over the top!" Smith recalls.

Clemente admits that he became over-zealous as the issue became more and more contentious, until his MPO bosses had to reel him in. "When it reached its peak, I was probably pushing harder than I should have. I was told to calm down."

Now that a compromise has been hashed out between bike-lane opponents and hard-core cyclists, Clemente has steered clear of Smith's A1A petition drive or efforts contrary to the resolution. But that doesn't mean he hasn't made enemies.

"I got an e-mail one time from Raphael Clemente," Delray Beach Vice Mayor Jon Levinson says. "It was very derogatory toward me. It was an inappropriate e-mail. Had he been my employee, he would have been fired on the spot for writing to anyone like that, let alone an elected official."

Clemente insists his memo was nothing less than professional but admits some may perceive him as walking (or riding) around with a chip on his shoulder. He says he's working to change that and has even mellowed out when he's pedaling around town.

"There was definitely a time when I was not calm. I was quick with the finger and the insults. Now people say whatever they want, and I just wave."

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