There’s something surreal about that fraction of a second between the moment one realizes they are going to take a spill on the bike and the next moment when they find themselves slumped, baffled and bloody in a ditch – that fraction of a second when they go ass over tea kettle on a fleeting and gravity-doomed flight. It’s a moment of pure clarity, when time slows frame by frame, when thoughts of the asphalt, rushing in to dominate your field of vision, are pushed aside and your mind becomes a surprisingly calm and collected pilot, doing his best to bring in a crippled aircraft. Adjust attitude for nose-up landing, seek out vegetation to soften impact, avoid wingtip strike, adjust groundspeed and use normal landing configuration (full flaps, landing gear down), identify objects in approach path, etc.
It was Friday and we were on the first day of the annual Cycle North Carolina Spring ride in the tiny and charming coastal hamlet of Oriental. Tim and Marti, Rich, Chris, Mark, Melissa and I had completed around thirty of our planned fifty miles. Passing a CNC rest stop in the even tinier town of Arapahoe, we decided to pick up some extra mileage by going 2.5 miles out and then back down a country road (which was off of the event course) before making a stop in Arapahoe and heading back to camp for the day. On the 2.5 out, we passed two houses – one on the right and one on the left – with dogs obviously not enchanted with cyclists who went into a frenzy of barking and territorial posturing. The dogs to the right were chained and were not a worry, but the dog on the left – a beagle – was untethered and stalking the shoulder of the road menacingly (yes, even a beagle can be menacing when you’re on a bike). He didn’t run into the road though, so I assumed he may have had an electronic collar. The road got uglier from there, as we rolled past acre upon acre of downed, rotting pines – the whole place looked like the aftermath of some decades-past hurricane or possibly a Truman-era nuclear bomb testing site. It was hardscrabble, and the sense of foreboding – at least for me – was strong. It felt as though we had entered some forbidden and unforgiving land.
We made the turnaround at 2.5 and started back toward Arapahoe. As we approached the area where we had previously passed the dogs, everyone was expecting another furious cannonade of barking, but not much else, though we still we slowed down in anticipation of what could be. And just when we thought we might be out of the woods we saw at least three – maybe four – different dogs run out into the road from the yard where the beagle had been. These dogs were small in physical stature but possessed bravery and surliness of such grandiosity as to more than make up for their size. They darted around like demonic, furry pinballs – breaking here and there in erratic and unpredictable angles, all the while shrieking in malevolent barks that spoke of trespass and vengeance and hard living. Their eyes were red, like pinpoints of hell fire and they smelled of loamy soil and spilt bourbon. Still though, I thought we might get past them by accelerating, as is often the case of dog-bike encounters. Just when I thought we had cleared them, one of the dogs took one last violent jog back toward my bike and in a blinded craze, stepped right underneath my front wheel. I had a water bottle in my right hand with which I had attempted to squirt the dogs (to no avail), leaving only my left hand on the handle bars. Between the sudden stop, thanks to the furry speed bump, and the unbalanced handle bars, I was pavement bound and within a split-second, I was down.
Courtesy of the previously mentioned landing calculations and, no doubt, a bit of luck, I made a three point landing – knee, elbow and hip – which, though leaving those areas bloody and beaten, took a full-force landing off of any one bone or joint. By the time I stood up, Melissa was there by my side, closely followed by the others. With comic timing, as I surveyed the damage to my knee and elbow, the owner of the dogs shuffled out onto her driveway, waving and yelling reassuringly in her North Carolina Coastal Plain drawl, “Maaay dawgs okaaay”!”, which left me ever so slightly disappointed. I walked over to my bike and, finding it in working order, was ready to get the hell out of there. I reassured my wife and friends that I was ok and within minutes we were on our way. I felt surprisingly good and took some bizarre satisfaction in the fact that I was riding with road rash and an increasingly widening rivulet of blood flowing southward from my knee and eventually disappearing into the already blood-colored U.S.C. Gamecock cycling sock.
That was Friday. From there, things got infinitely better. We arrived back at camp a short time later, sipped beers, ate dinner and welcomed Lori and Karen, then later, Terry and Bill. After dinner, we settled in around camp, joined by our Charlotte friends, Malcolm, Tom and Patty and laughed while telling stories about cycling events past and my dog encounter (by now the dog had morphed into some rabid St Bernard/Pit Bull hybrid). Around 11pm we were admonished by nearby campers to shut up and go to sleep. This often happens to us as the median age of campers at these events tends to be somewhere just shy of deceased – they bed down early – but they exact revenge on us by rising at 5am, ruining our peaceful slumber with violent jerkings of tent zippers, retaliatory clanging of coffee cups and excited talk of cycling at first light.
A cool rain finally drove us to bed around midnight where we slept that restless, dream-filled sleep of noisy night sounds, flapping nylon and the occasional slamming port-o-john door unique to nights spent in tents at events such as these. The next day – Saturday – would be our longest ride and the biggest test of the early cycling season…