Towns hear triathlon complaints

LEICESTER — They may have to agree to disagree.

The Leicester and Salisbury selectboards held a joint special meeting on June 14 to address concerns of a handful of residents in both towns regarding the annual Vermont Sun Triathlon series. While race organizers said some minor changes may be made to appease the residents, it all comes down to coexistence.

The triathlons, which are run on four Sunday mornings each summer, include a swimming portion in Lake Dunmore, and biking and running legs on Route 53 and other nearby roads.

At issue is the alleged misconduct of a few racers each year and the inconvenience the events pose to residents who live along the race route, comprised of narrow rural roads with little or no shoulder. Over the last five or six years, there have been complaints of racers pounding on cars that stop short or drive too close, swearing at drivers, and littering. Other residents complain that they can’t leave their driveways due to so many racers going by their property.

Roughly 15 people attended the 90-minute gathering at the Leicester Meeting House, including Vermont Sun owner Steve Hare; Lt. Gary Genova, commander of the Vermont State Police New Haven barracks; and Addison County Sheriff Don Keeler. The meeting was moderated by Richard Reed.

Now in it’s 27th year, the triathlon series begins and ends at Branbury State Park in Salisbury on Lake Dunmore. Athletes swim in the lake for the first part of the race, then jump on their bikes and ride out of the park and onto Lake Dunmore Road, wending their way to neighboring Leicester via Fern Lake Road, onto Route 7, and down to Route 53 and back to the lake. Competitors run the final leg of the race, also using the roads around the lake in both Salisbury and Leicester.

The distances range from a 600-yard swim, 14-mile bike and 3.1-mile run to a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run. The first triathlon was run this past Sunday. The others are July 15, Aug. 5 and Aug. 26. They generally start at 8 a.m. and racers are off the roadways between 10 a.m. and noon. The final race of the year is the longest, and racers are on the road as late as noon, but are very spread out.

Roughly 200 people compete in each of four triathlons, and they all take place on Sunday mornings.

Each year, Hare must apply for a permit from the Vermont Department of Public Safety because the races take place in a state park and use the waters within a state park. Although Hare does not necessarily need the permission of the towns for the permit, the application requires that he provide the towns with the dates of the races and the routes to be used.

Hare hires three deputies from the Addison County Sheriff’s Department, who post themselves with a cruiser and lights on at key route changes during the races, such as the intersections of Fern Lake Road and Route 7, and Route 7 and Route 53.

At the June 14 meeting, Hare made his presentation first, touting the safety record of the series. He said there hasn’t been an accident in the 27 years the triathlon series has been held at the lake.

“We’ve held 110 events in that time,” he said. “I chalk it up to good luck and also good preparation, working with the Vermont State Police and the sheriff’s department to make it as safe as possible.”

Salisbury Selectmen Steve Parkes and Ben Fuller both commented that they had discussed the issue with a number of people who said that the triathlons are also an economic boon, with racers staying in hotels and eating in restaurants in the neighboring towns of Middlebury and Brandon. Hare acknowledged that he has never tracked the economic aspect of the races, but added that the competitors have money to spend.

“These people have income and they have disposable income,” he said. “They are also the most skilled at handling these bikes and running the roads because they’ve been doing this a long time.”

Hare, 55, lives in Middlebury but was born at Camp Keewaydin on Lake Dunmore. His father, Alfred “Waboos” Hare, left a legacy of 54 years of camp leadership at Keewaydin when he passed away last year. Hare said he gives a pep talk to the competitors before each race, telling them that they are to conduct themselves appropriately.

“I tell them that yelling and swearing at motorists doesn’t help, it just makes the drivers mad,” he said. “I remind them that this is hallowed ground to me and that they better respect this area.”

One major sticking point seems to be the placement of competitors’ racing numbers. Hare explained that there are numbers attached to the front of each racer, and there is a number on the bikes as well. But Leicester Selectman Ron Barker asked why Hare refuses to have racers wear numbers on their backs, making them more easily identifiable should any misconduct take place.

Hare argued that an average citizen riding their bike on a public roadway is not required to wear any identification and that the triathletes are held to a higher standard.

“These people are not criminals,” he said. “They already wear two numbers when they’re on the bikes, they are already policed by sheriff’s deputies and race officials, so to ask them to wear another number is unnecessary and unfair and says, ‘We already think you are a criminal.’”

But Leicester selectboard Chair Diane Benware said that regardless of the triathlon’s safety record, area residents are losing patience with the event.

“Yes, there hasn’t been an accident,” she said, “but the tolerance level of people living on the course is much less than it used to be and I’m afraid it could erupt into something bigger.”

But Hare argued that those people are the minority, that he has spoken to many more residents living on the course who look forward to the races each year.

He added that the triathlons also help promote wellness and physical activity, and that he donates $1,000 in services to the Leicester and Salisbury elementary schools through his Vermont Sun Fitness Center in Middlebury.

The public comment period drew stark differences of opinion about the races.

“I’ve watched these races for 23 years,” said Ann Dittami, who is also the Salisbury town clerk. “It has gotten a little bit better, but I still can’t get out of my driveway those mornings. I don’t understand the resistance to numbers on the racers’ backs. We have seen racers do some not-very-nice things. We don’t think they are criminals, we just want to know who they are.”

Another resident detailed her experience with a runner who hit her car with her fist while the resident was out looking for her dog. She also asked why Hare wouldn’t compromise more.

Hare said he spoke to the competitor in the car-thumping incident and that she had been afraid the resident was going to run her over. He also said that he has compromised, that the series used to be seven triathlons and now it’s down to four.

“There are plenty of people who want to stop the New York City Marathon because they don’t like it,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s going to stop.”

Salisbury Selectman Fuller suggested that Hare make a more robust pre-race speech about the expectations of the racers and the need to share the road.

“It seems like some of the volunteers and competitors think they have exclusive access to the roads,” Fuller said. “I think talking to the competitors and making it clear that they do not have exclusive access and to be respectful would go a long way to resolving some of these issues.”

Sheriff Keeler weighed in, saying he checked with deputies who have worked the races and said that over the last three years, no resident has registered a complaint with a deputy about a racer in that time.

Gabriel Cameron of Salisbury said that residents around the lake should gain some perspective.

“It’s a Sunday morning, folks,” he said. “If you can’t take an extra 20 minutes to get around our beautiful lake … what’s wrong with you?”

He went on to say that four days out of the summer is not much and that people should be more patient.

“Our society is so rushed,” he said. “Take a deep breath and slow down. What difference does it make? It’s four days, four or five hours each day, out of the whole year. I just don’t understand what the big gripe is. I don’t care what event you throw, you’re going to have people who are disrespectful. Slow down, do the 18 miles per hour around the lake and enjoy it. It’s a beautiful spot, that’s why Steve Hare has the races here.”

But Leicester resident Kate Briggs had a different take, highlighting the cultural issue that seems to be at the root of the controversy

“We’re more about work than working out,” she said. “There’s a cultural difference here. These little roads in our town are overrun by cyclists all summer. They take up half the lane and they don’t move over. It’s about other people’s recreation at our expense. There’s more going on here than just the race.”

Lt. Genova of the Vermont State Police said that although the permit doesn’t require the towns’ approval, he would like to see all parties on the same page.

“There really should be a level of comfort with the towns,” he said. “Everyone should have some say about how the process goes forward. The stakeholders should have some say. If that’s not 

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