Riding the curves - This crooked part of East Mercer Way is rife with vegetation and bike riders

By Diane de la Paz

Surrender to the curves, and they'll sweep you away from the rat race.

East Mercer Way, with its lush forest canopy, lake vistas and S-curves, seduces cyclists from all over the Island -- and beyond -- all summer -- and beyond. And if you have the guts to pedal hard and fast through the narrow section between S.E. 43rd Street and the 5900 block, you're in for 2 miles of thrills.

Tour de Mercer, as it were, is ``really rolling,'' says avid cyclist Soren O'Malley, 34. ``So you can kind of rock through there. It's like a roller coaster.''

O'Malley, a staffer at Bike Works in Seattle, adds that Mercer Island roads feel safer to him than those in other suburbs such as, say, Bellevue. ``There are a lot of other cyclists on the road,'' on the Island, ``so the motorists are used to them.''

``The best part about (East Mercer) is that you don't have to stop,'' says Tracy Conway, a 40-something Mercer Island mom. She's been riding around the Island ever since her husband gave her a bike 16 years ago, and can complete the East-West Mercer loop in about an hour. It's an ideal workout that she can fit into most weekdays.

Islander Tim Wettack, 62, commutes by bike to his office 12 miles away in Seattle, and encourages others to likewise tap their inner gas tanks. ``Just try (cycling); it's a piece of cake,'' he says with a smile. To tune yourself up, do the Mercer Island loop. ``It's a good in-city ride; it's quite varied,'' in its scenery. And the route presents no difficult climbs, so you needn't be anything like Lance Armstrong.

Occasionally, however, cars and bikes struggle to get along, as drivers grow impatient with the 25 mph speed limit and the narrow roadway

``Just take it easy,'' Conway wants to tell motorists. ``It's not worth it,'' to speed around a curve just to get past a cyclist who's going slightly slower than you are.

At the same time, Conway acknowledges that some bike riders also break traffic laws. She often sees them in packs, three or four abreast, ignoring the state law that prohibits more than two side-by-side riders.

East Mercer doesn't have a lot of room for everybody. But Don Sandstrom, a frequent rider, driver and walker along this stretch, says bike lanes aren't the answer.

Once they're put in, they're usually abandoned by city maintenance crews, and end up littered with glass, debris and overgrown foliage, Sandstrom says.

``So they don't work for the person who's trying to get exercise,'' says Sandstrom, 65. Besides, we can get along fine on the road the way it is, he adds.

East Mercer does afford some thrilling action sequences performed by athletes with thighs and nerves of steel. On a recent Monday afternoon, a young male cyclist was hurtling around a bend a few feet in front of a construction truck. It looked like a chase scene that needed the ``Mission: Impossible'' theme under it. A few miles south, another guy on a bike had moved into the middle of his lane to stay just ahead of a red sport utility vehicle, perhaps in an effort to teach the driver a lesson about slowing down.

While some guys seem to like the thrill of proximity with fast-moving cars, some Island women aren't as wild about the scene.

``A lot of people are afraid to ride here,'' says Karen DeArias, a 15-year resident of East Mercer Way. She belongs to a women's group that goes for bike rides elsewhere, though she often takes walks near her home.

City planners have taken notice of East Mercer's diverse ecosystem of cyclists, pedestrians and drivers. According to city transportation planner Nancy Fairchild, the City Council budgeted $200,000 for shoulder improvements between the 3800 block and S.E. 43rd Street to be finished this year.

The work isn't meant to turn East Mercer into a designated bike route, Fairchild stresses. ``This is a shared-use facility.''

DeArias adds a hint for everybody on wheels.

``Patience,'' she says. ``You gotta have it.''

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