Marion County Sheriff Ronnie "Bo" Burnett said he's gotten calls from out-of-state residents who threatened to stop coming to the Chattanooga area because of an alleged assault on a cyclist that happened on Raccoon Mountain over the weekend.
The incident has sparked anger and fear amongst the local cycling community, and some residents worry that it will hurt the city's reputation as a cycling destination.
And some people are expressing concern for the general safety of riders.
Philip Pugliese, director of Active Living & Transportation Network and board member of the Chattanooga Bicycle Club and Bike Walk Tennessee, said he sees this as more than a bicycling issue.
—Always tell someone where you will be riding.
—Consider wearing a bracelet/tag (similar to medical alert tags) that has pertinent information, such as name, birth date and emergency contact.
—Wear brightly colored clothes.
—Consider getting a bike mirror.
Source: Outdoor Chattanooga Executive Director Philip Grymes
He said that all road users should be free from harassment or assault and that those types of actions affect both the immediate target and have a "pervasive negative impact on the community at large."
"As Chattanooga has been recognized as a bicycle-friendly community and hosts such premier events as the Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial Championships and Ironman competition, it is especially important that this type of behavior is not tolerated," he said via email. "Such illegal actions can have significant personal and broader economic repercussions."
Burnett said his office has been accused of sweeping the incident under the rug, which is upsetting to him.
He said he is neutral about the incident, doing his due diligence and trying to get all the facts. He's assigned an investigator to the case. And he said his team hoped to be doing interviews Thursday afternoon.
"I want to make sure we are covering all our bases," Burnett said Thursday. "I don't want to rush this thing through, take the case to court and then lose in court because we were pushed into doing something."
Area cyclist Anders Swanson reported the assault after it occurred, and he detailed it on Facebook. Then, a Times Free Press columnist wrote about the incident, as did Herbert Krabel with SlowTwitch.com.
The incident has prompted warnings about riding on Raccoon Mountain, and some cyclists have remained mum on the issue for fear of being the target of aggressive behavior.
Click here for a New York Times column that highlights problems that occur between cyclists, motorists and police.
Because the reported assault is currently under investigation, authorities said they couldn't comment much about the specifics of the allegations.
Originally, a Chattanooga police officer responded to Swanson's report. But the incident happened on the Marion County side of the mountain on Tennessee Valley Authority property, TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said.
That means that Marion County authorities are working with TVA police to investigate the incident, Hopson said.
Hopson also said that—although TVA is federally owned land—there is no federal assault law, so this sort of incident is handled by local law enforcement. If a bigger crime occurred on TVA land, authorities could work with the U.S. attorney general, he said.
Burnett said that his office got the report from the Chattanooga police responder Thursday and that investigators may need to talk with that officer to get more information.
"We are taking our time and trying to interview everybody," he said. "It's on our radar, and we are working on it full time."
Outdoor Chattanooga Executive Director Philip Grymes said he thinks that Chattanooga has come a long way as a bicycle-friendly community.
And he acknowledged that it'd probably be easy to talk to several cyclists and get stories about adversarial experiences when riding in the surrounding region.
"[This incident] certainly has grabbed a lot of people's attention," Grimes said, adding that maybe the attention will prompt positive action from politicians or other leaders.