The same rule applies to black bears and homeless people. If you intend to avoid confrontation, do not–under any circumstance–make eye contact. Walk down Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley with your gaze fixed astutely on the concrete pavement just in front of your feet. Blast Pandora’s ‘Summer Hits of the 90s’ through your over-sized headphones–that gargantuan, ridiculous Skullcandy headset you wear over your ears to announce to the world: I have tuned you out. I can’t hear you asking for my leftovers or inquiring if I can spare a buck. I’m staring at the ground. You don’t even exist.
When riding a bike, however, visual acuity is crucial. Eye contact with the dazed driver pulling out of a parking lot can save your life. New cyclists are told to constantly scan their surroundings. So on last week’s solo lollipop ride around scenic Lake Willoughby, I had my eyes wide open for danger. The pavement on Route 5A alone provides enough sensory stimulation to keep my brain firing in overdrive. Deep gully, grass-filled crack, pothole, low shoulder, gravel, manure: take your pick. And just when I’ve adjusted to the rhythmic bumping and uneven surfaces, I pedal to the telltale curve in the road when alarm conditionally sets in as if Pavlov himself is ringing a bell in my ear. Rapidly approaching on the right side of the road is every cyclist’s nightmare. The Dog House.
In my mind, the Dog House is owned by a nefarious, tattooed man who has an entire dresser drawer dedicated to chains and chain-like accessories. His toenails are painted black. From the varied and distinct barks that emerge from this property every time I approach, I have concluded that the Dog House owner is raising no fewer than ten angry, flesh-eating canines for sport. Luckily, they are all on leashes or behind fences, but each time I ride by, I still employ a Fabian Cancellara-esque time trialing effort to ensure my personal safety. I also hold onto my water bottle and prepare to spray at will if necessary.
The Nintendo game Paperboy trained me to know that every dog, no matter how mellow and well-trained, is bound to chase after a moving bicycle, especially if you are trying to deliver newspapers while outrunning a tornado. It also taught me that people place garbage cans in very ill-opportune locations. What I have never been able to figure out, however, is why tires rolling down a driveway are such a common hazard to the everyday cyclist.
I have always successfully eluded the frothy-mouthed, rabid Dog House protectors, but they remind me to stay on my toes throughout the ride. After circumnavigating Lake Willoughby via the Crystal Lake addition last week, I was well on my way to the point of the journey where I tell myself I’m practically home. While this point is actually seven miles and nearly 1,000 feet of climbing away from home, it is still the instant that the ‘You’re nearly there’ mantra begins to play on repeat as my inner monologue.
I was roughly a mile from the home free marker and the town of West Burke when I caught a glimpse of an unleashed black dog on the left hand shoulder of Route 5. My typical approach kicked into high gear, and I unconsciously picked up the pace. I reached down to find my fuller water bottle as back-up arsenal. As I got closer to the canine who had its back turned to me, I thought, “That’s one BIG dog.” And as I passed the big, black dog and it turned its head to meet my eyes, I lost my breath and a regular heartbeat for a moment. It wasn’t a dog at all. It was–instead–a big, black bear.
I geared down and started hammering, and when I thought I was well past the bear, I looked over my left shoulder. While it was not particularly close, the bear was running down the road directly behind me.
My friends have since informed me that black bears do not chase, but this bear was close enough behind me and running fast enough to launch me into panic mode. I glanced at my speedometer. I was traveling 24mph. I thought, “I’m on my bike–this is good–I’m on my bike–I can get away.” And just when I had convinced myself I was going to be fine, I recalled reading somewhere that bears can run up to 30mph.
After pedaling my bike as fast as I am convinced it can go, I looked back again to see that the bear was gone. Not a trace. But its image and the associated fear was still ever-present in mind. And as I cruised into the sleepy hamlet of West Burke, I reminded myself of the universally applicable rule: never make eye contact with the homeless.