The Punching Bag Punches Back

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

All Raphael Clemente wants is to not risk his life every time he hits the streets. He's been screamed at and spit upon. He's been pelted with coins, McDonald's milkshakes, and full bottles of water. He's been punched, knocked into the dirt, and run off the road. He's been hassled by cops and threatened by folks who don't cotton to him or his ilk.

You see, Clemente is a bicyclist.

"I ride with the assumption that I'm invisible," says the athletic 36-year-old senior planner for Palm Beach County's Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), responsible for coordinating the region's bicycle/pedestrian pathways and its system of greenways. Statistically, South Florida is one of the most dangerous places in the nation to ride a bike. For years, safety watchdog groups like the Surface Transportation Policy Project have rated Palm Beach County one of the toughest places to be a bicyclist.

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

Says Clemente, "I've ridden all over the world -- South and Central America, Europe -- and I've been harassed here more than anywhere else."

The incidents Cle-mente describes are not unique to him. Fatal bike/car collisions are all too common along county roadways, especially along A1A, which has become ground zero in South Florida's bike-lane debate. It's a national issue as well. In 2003, disc jockeys at Clear Channel radio stations across the country came under fire for inciting listeners to mow down cyclists.

The Lake Worth bicycle activist -- some would say vigilante -- estimates he rides his bike to work four days a week. "The vast majority of motorists see someone on a bike and think, 'I gotta get over.' Then you've got people who are just oblivious. And then you've got this very small slice of the population who are just raging idiots, who see a person on a bicycle as prey. As a toy."

Unfortunately, Clemente has come into contact with more than his share of idiots.

In 1990, he says, while riding on A1A in Boca Raton, he was struck from behind and sent flying. Witnesses got the plate number of the Cadillac that hit him, and its drunken driver was quickly arrested.

The following year, he was on A1A in Juno Beach with other cyclists. "A car came by, swerved at us," he recalls. The driver started hurling a few choice epithets at the riders. "A few of the guys went up alongside his car and yelled back. And he winds up reaching in the glove box, pulling a gun out, and putting it up against his window."

Clemente and the other bikers rode to the fire station and called police. Within minutes, a Juno Beach squad car had the driver pulled over. He turned out to be a Lake County cop who said he felt threatened by the angry pack of cyclists. "Everything got smoothed over then," Clemente laments, "and they sent him on his way."

That wasn't the last time law enforcement didn't work in his favor, he claims, something that "offends me to my core." On December 4, 1993, Clemente was riding along the beach in Lake Worth. Two men who worked on a nearby drift boat drove by and started heckling him. When Clemente told them to beat it, he says, they forced him off the road, then pulled him off his bike. As they pummeled him, one smashed a bottle over his head, and his nose was broken. He also suffered a cracked rib. Witnesses signed statements with Lake Worth police, and the two men were arrested. It was only 10 o'clock in the morning, Clemente remembers, "and I smelled alcohol on their breath. They were just a couple of rednecks."

But court records show that the charges against the pair were dropped a few days later. "They said I had intimidated them," he fumes. "Those guys beat the shit out of me and walked."

Furious, Clemente fantasized about street justice: "I had a police report with their names and addresses on it, and I struggled with not going over there with a baseball bat. I was so pissed."

Instead, he bought a can of pepper spray to keep in his jersey pocket when he rode. A few months later, he got the chance to use it.

"I was on A1A in Gulfstream when a Ford van came up alongside of me," he recalls. "The guy in the passenger seat said, 'How's it going?' and I said, 'It's going fine. '" The van slowly merged into Clemente's lane and knocked him into the grass. The men laughed, hit the gas, and vanished.

Infuriated, Clemente jumped back on his bike. "They didn't bargain that I can go 28 or 30 mph for a pretty good stretch," says the former professional racer. He spotted the van on Woolbright Road, first in a line of cars stuck at a drawbridge. "My adrenaline started flowing," Clemente says. "I pulled out the pepper spray and rolled up on the driver's side of the van."

Smoking a cigarette with the window down, the driver had no time to react when he heard Clemente's foot pop out of his toe clip, so he got hosed squarely in the face. The man yowled in pain and scrambled to climb in the back of the van. His passenger desperately tried to unbuckle his seat belt and run, but Clemente sprayed him too. Clemente got back on his bike and rode home as fast as he could. "At the moment, I felt great that I'd got those guys," he says, "but ten minutes later, I was like, 'What is this coming to?'"

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.

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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