By John Rothchild
Take up cycling and you’re sure to get involved with the animal kingdom. In my first 5,000 miles, a mockingbird pecked me in the back, a seagull dropped a present on my head, a bee crash landed in the back of my throat and a golden retriever met with my front wheel (launching me over the handlebars).
This was Miami, where the wildest of the wildlife drive cars. One rear-ended me, and I luckily escaped with just a purple thigh. In Miami, compared with the drivers, the dogs are civilized. On the outskirts of Edenton, N.C., it’s the other way around.
We bought a home in the coastal flatlands: sleepy two-lanes, nice place to road bike. Or so I thought, until my exploratory spin, where I played fox to revved-up hounds from three different farms. I escaped by hitting speeds I’d never reach in a race. Let dogs loose at a starting line, and who’d need steroids?
Figuring I’d pedaled through a bad neighborhood, dog wise, I tried other routes and got chased some more. At the sight of my spandex and two wheels, all but the most arthritic f leabags rushed out. Size was no clue to stamina: Once, a terrier kept yapping at my heels after a German shepherd dropped back.
My inner bikeaholic kept me going —always on the lookout for the sight of a snout, listening for a bark, wary of sneak attacks from the side. “All bark and no bite, all bark and no bite,” I chanted aloud, as I pedaled along. Good thing nobody heard me, I’m new to the area.
Repeat whatever enough times, you begin to half believe it, as I did about biteless barkers–until I joined a group ride in a nearby county. “All bark and no bite, right?” I asked a guy next to me, after a mad scramble to elude a black Lab. He pointed to twin leg punctures the size of pencil erasers, sickly white instead of pink. “That’s from two weeks ago,” he said. “Now, I carry mace.”
I didn’t want to carry mace, but I didn’t want to cycle without it, not after seeing the bite mark, so I set up a training gizmo on the back porch to bike stationary. When the scenery got boring, because it just stood there, I left the porch and orbited a nearby McMansion development, where dogs had air conditioning, diplomas from obedience schools, or were penned in by electronic fences. Too bad the McMansion loop was 1.5 miles–I could only make so many circles before I went bonkers and hit the road again, this time with a partner, Steve Lane.
Steve is a businessman with lots of great ideas plus a few half-renovated properties, and a moderate cycling habit. I never admitted this to Steve, but I figured in an emergency I could use him as a decoy or blocker–keeping my bike slightly in front or to the side of his, so any dog would consider him the moving target.
Maybe Steve was onto my ploy because after a ride or two, he brought reinforcements of his own, including a doctor named Chris Perry. We usually had a foursome, and our group seemed to be the entire Edenton skinny-tire roster. Dr. Perry took over as team leader, with local knowledge where it counted: all the dog locations, plus their emotional make-up. He also came with side benefits: funny stories, a spray can of mace and an in at the hospital, if we needed it.
On our maiden ride, Dr. Perry almost needed it himself. We turned right at a farmhouse, into a three-mutt situation. One peeled off and dove under DP’s wheel, leaving dog on ground, doctor on dog, bike on doctor, dog owner watching from porch. The dog limped away; the owner declined DP’s offer to get vet help; DP did a self-exam on his bruised elbow and grated shin. Putting all this in perspective, I asked him, “How’s the bike?”
“Bike OK,” DP said, as we pedaled away. “I knew those dogs back there. Wasn’t paying attention.”
This lapse bothered him–since his tumble, he’s never a missed an obvious menace over scads of miles. DP loves to put numbers on his bike odometer. He and an old college buddy cycled coast-to-coast, in segments, over six summers. It ended in 2007, with their tires touching the Pacific at Portland.
DP’s still in the afterglow, coaxing me and/or Steve into 30- to 100-mile roundtrips, or, looking at it defensively, 3- to 10-dog roundtrips. I’m not so nervous anymore–if you’re supposed to “know your enemy,” it’s a big relief DP knows ours. As we approach a furry hazard, he gives a running commentary–detailed analysis worthy of Audubon lecturing in a rookery.
“Great Dane at the next corner–looks fierce but too lazy to do anything. Two dogs up ahead, don’t worry, they just want to say hello. Golden Retriever lurks behind that pine tree. That one’s got a nasty glint in his eye. That one won’t set a paw beyond his property line.”
Steve and I can tell when DP sees a real threat–he puts his hand on his pepper-spray holster, ready on the draw. With that, I’m off to the races. Maybe Steve is, too–I’m not looking back. Once, DP pulled the sprayer out and waggled it at two dogs. I was halfway into my sprint when the dogs turned tail at the sight of the can. “Wow,” I said, seeing it was safe to turn around. “What happened there?”
“Sprayed them once, a long while ago,” DP informed.
“They must have good memories.”
On another sprint, Steve and I heard DP yell, “Get off the damn couch!” and a solo dog retreated before the mace was even wiggled. DP clued us in: “Over the years, I road tested ‘stop,’ ‘get back,’ ‘go home’– these didn’t work. Then it came to me: country dogs rarely hear such commands from their owners, so they don’t obey them. What the do hear is: ‘Get off the damn couch!'”
You can’t be an expert about something without liking it, and it’s clear DP has a soft spot for all the dogs that we’ve raced by, veered around, or in the one case, run into. He’s slow on the mace trigger, a last resort nuclear option. He admires the live ones, and when we pass a place where a dead one used to lurk, he mentions its passing.
Usually, the dog was hit by a car or truck–it occurs to me the car/truck did us a bit of a favor–but DP is saddened at the loss. I’m guessing here, but it sounds like the badder the dog, the sadder DP gets when recounting its chasing skills.
On the road to Bethel, a nearby town, I noted a frequent chaser hadn’t come out. “Got killed,” he said, shaking his helmet. “Too bad. That was a 22-mile-per-hour dog.”
The dog map’s in Dr. Perry’s head–I’m trying to get him to put it on paper or the Internet. A Cyclist’s Guide to the Canines of Chowan and Persquiman Counties.