Cyclists can't always stick to the shoulders, not when they can become blocked by dead deer, stalled cars, shredded truck tires and slower cyclists.
But switching to the driving lane requires a trip over the ground-out gouges of a roadside rumble strip. And that can be a bumpy ride on skinny tires.
“It's extremely jarring and, in some cases, it can be dangerous,” said Julie Harris, executive director of the Nebraska Bicycling Alliance.
That should start changing next year. After months of working with cycling advocates, the state Department of Transportation is redesigning its rumble strips to give highway bikers a smoother and safer ride.
First, instead of building highways with continuous rumble strips between the driving lane and shoulder, the state will start to break them up. New and resurfaced roads will have 40-foot stretches of rumble strips divided by 10-foot stretches of smooth pavement — room enough for cyclists to avoid roadkill and other debris.
“Having a gap allows a person on a bike to pick and choose where to get on and off without having that dangerous, jarring feeling,” Harris said.
Next, the state will change how it grinds roadside rumble strips, so they’re not identical to center line strips. The result: A vehicle hitting the divots along the shoulder will make a distinct sound, so cyclists will know whether an approaching vehicle is swinging wide or bearing down behind them.
“That’s a really big deal for a person on a bike,” she said. “Now we’ll be able to tell: 'Is that a good sound or a bad sound?'”
Finally, the state will add uniformity to where it puts rumble strips, giving cyclists more predictable shoulders. If a shoulder is at least 6 feet wide, the strip will be 16 inches wide and placed just outside the painted stripe on the side of the road. If it’s less than 6 feet, the strip will be 8 inches wide and put directly over the stripe.
“We wanted to make sure the placement of the rumble strips was consistent,” Harris said, “and not in the middle of the shoulder.”
And that's, in part, what started this.
Last year, Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann started biking across the country, starting on the Washington coast. In Montana, cycling is allowed on the interstate, and he reveled in the extra-wide shoulder — even with all of the trucks and traffic flying by.
“It’s busy, it’s noisy, but having an entire lane to ride in on the right-hand side? That was heaven. I’d take that any day.”
He didn't have the same experience in Wyoming: The rumble strips were all over the place, turning the shoulder into a guessing game.
“It looked like they'd had a drink the night before and it was weaving all over,” he said. “That was really uncomfortable. That almost forced you to ride on the road, whether you wanted to or not.”
Hilkemann wouldn't finish his cross-country ride; he crashed near Aurora, breaking his hip and collarbone. But he didn't forget his experience with wide and narrow shoulders and inconsistent rumble strips.
He contacted the Department of Transportation, scheduled a meeting, and was joined by Harris and Brent Davis from the Nebraska Bicycling Alliance, and Susan Larson Rodenburg, whose annual Tour de Nebraska takes hundreds of cyclists on five-day rides through the state.
They came prepared with research from the Adventure Cycling Association and success stories from other states, Harris said.
“We started having the conversation, and it was good timing. They were very open to our suggestions.”
It took a few months, but the department approved their proposal with few, if any, changes.
Cyclists who have already heard the news are happy, she said.
“I think rumble strips are something that people who bike are very familiar with,” she said, “and it’s something that drivers of cars may not give a second thought to.”