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The Punching Bag Punches Back

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.

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."

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton

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