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Fri, 30 Nov 2007

Dog Story

When bicycle riders gather together to socialize, the most popular conversation theme is how they contracted their last case of "road rash", a euphemism for the bruises and abrasions one receives from a spill. Telling these stories involves a sort of oneupmanship; the more gruesome the injuries, the better. Top marks go to stories where the rider BIFFs: an acronym that implies he or she was launched over the handlebars and Bought It Face First. An alternative theme, almost as popular, is their favorite dog story. For some reason unknown to humans, many dogs feel compelled to chase bicycles. Thus, nearly every bike rider has both a favorite crash story and "dog tail to tell, sometimes one in the same. Since I've already spun my favorite crash story (which did not involve any dogs), I need to complete the prose "bi-cycle" with a sequel featuring my favorite canine chase.

The setting for my dog story is the Mohawk Valley of central New York State. I hope you'll forgive me if I take some time to describe this interesting setting. Needless to say, my story is hardly the first tale set in "Leatherstocking Country". The Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor Commission, one of the plethora of non-profit riparian "greenway" commissions that seem to be springing up in river valleys faster than Japanese knotweed, calls the area a "Valley of Stories". In this case, the MVHCC non-profit-commission-speakism has far less than the usual fraction of over-exaggerated, taxpayer-funded mock enthusiasm. There really have been lots of stories set in this area. The unique topography of the region made it a critical frontier in the 18th century, and an industrial pipeline in the 19th century. Various entities battled over this valuable right of way, and battles always sow a big crop of stories.

The first such battle story is the geologic battle that formed the valley itself. The Mohawk valley is a convenient gateway through the Allegheny mountains, a barrier to commerce that stretches south to Georgia and north to Maine. At one time the southern and northern portions of this mountain range were connected by a wall of rock across central New York. To the west, there was a quarter-continent of glacial ice. About 10,000 years ago, the globe warmed and all that ice "suddenly" melted.

Much of the meltwater puddled up in a giant glacial lake geologists call "Lake Iroquois", many times the size of today's Lake Ontario. This vast lake (a sea, really) put enormous pressure on the dam of rock across New York that was holding it back. The crumbling dam gradually gave way, forming a ghastly river – a kayak run magnitudes beyond the worst run imaginable today.

For a few centuries the drainage from glacial lake Iroquois poured through chasms, waterfalls, and rapids, eroding a 25-mile channel through the solid Adirondack rock. After all that nasty business calmed down, the end result we see today is a long, smooth, fertile valley dotted with flatwater lakes and lazy streams connecting the Atlantic with the Great Lakes. A town with geological in-joke name "Little Falls" at exit 29 on the New York Thruway a few exits east of Utica is the only memento of the cataclysm. Native American Indians were the first to settle the newly formed valley, and they moved in immediately after the torrent of water became a manageable river. They did just fine, unmolested for about 10,000 years. Then a new torrent, this time a torrent of of European settlers, washed through the valley in the other direction, sweeping the Last of the Mohicans out. Maybe they were swept as far west as Las Vegas where they pawned their moccasins, learned how to "use every part of a dollar" and return to open the casinos that are scalping the great, great grandkids of those same Europeans that usurped their ancestral home.

The peak of the flood of Europeans occurred in the first half of the 19th century, shortly after the completion of the Erie Canal. In 1825, Governor Dewitt Clinton officially opened the Erie Canal. By 1841 over a million bushels of grain were carried through the canal; Over 50,000 people directly relied on the canal for livelihood; New York City became the busiest port in America funneling the commerce of half a continent through the Mohawk Valley. Almost every major city in New York State is alongside the Hudson-Erie Canal route, the exception appears to be Binghamton, but Binghamton was actually connected to the Canal system via the Chenango canal.

In the second half of the 20th century, use of the Erie canal dropped off rapidly. Other than the casinos preying on retirees, there isn't much reason for new industry to settle in the Mohawk Valley these days. Modern roads and tractor trailers made the Erie Canal irrelevant. Nowadays, unless it won't fit in a 40 foot trailer, if you want to ship something from New York to Chicago, it goes directly due west via truck on I-80, via the many tunnels drilled through mountains that are 150 miles south of the Mohawk Valley. The modern route avoids that wasteful northward detour up the Hudson, not to mention the Thruway tolls.

The locks on the Erie Canal still operate (maintained by a subsidiary of the Thruway Corporation), but aside from a very rare commercial barge carrying something to big to ship by truck, the canals remain only to amuse pleasure boaters and tourists. Unlike the Thruway, most traffic pays no tolls on today's "New York State Canal System". I guess taxpayers must see value in maintaining this remnant of the historic "heritage sootway".

Anyway, my dog story is set in this fascinating Mohawk Vally. Specifically I was spending the winter working in Utica, NY as a rest between bike racing seasons. As was my habit back then, I had landed a wintertime temp-job at the old General Electric plant on Broad Street in Utica, NY. Fifty years earlier, (just as the Erie Canal was beginning its decline) Utica was the "Radio Capital of the World", with GE employing half the town. But by 1985, the year I was there, GE had moved its radio business to the Orient and the building I worked in was soon to be shut down.

Regular GE employees were very cynical, expecting layoffs any day. And the winter weather in central NY is harsh, to say the least. Nerveless, the grimy, salt-slush filled streets of the city, and the depressed morale of my co-workers had no effect on me. The work was easy; the pay was excellent. I was happy as a clam, making enough money to charge up my bank account to a level that would keep me in pasta and power bars through the 1986 racing season (I was 27 years old and 1986 would turn out to be my best year on the bike).

I joined the local Utica/Rome bike club, but given the weather, I wasn't able to ride outdoors with them all that much. Actually, I rode rollers quite a bit – rollers are a sort of a "bicycle treadmill", a more faithful simulation of real riding than the typical stationary bikes you find at gyms. I even won a series of roller races held indoors by the local club. Also, I was learning cross country skiing from a fellow GE employee, an ex-ski racer that had been on Clarkston's team. So, I kept pretty busy when snow and ice covered the central NY landscape.

But on a lucky weekend when it was ridable outdoors, I would ride. Sometimes I'd head south and east to Glimmerglass State Park. As I pedaled I'd seek historic markers and museums commemorating James Fenimore Cooper's famous stories. Other times I'd strike out north along the beautiful West Canada Creek. But most times I'd just go, pedaling without any set plan.

Because of the topography of the region, all bike rides out of Utica began with a relatively flat spin along the Erie canal or Mohawk "River Roads". This was easy riding, but unlike many scenic spins alongside rivers, riding along the Mohawk is decidedly unpleasant, given the immense quantity of auto traffic channeled through the corridor. To have any escape from cars and trucks whizzing by, just inches from your left hip, the bicycle rider must leave the corridor.

But therein lies the rub: the Mohawk Valley is, after all, a valley – a deep valley carved perpendicularly through a 200 mile thick mountain range. Now, while I must admit, objectively speaking, the Adirondacks aren't the Himalayas (and today's Mohawk isn't the Tsangpo), to a tired, hungry rider, saddle-sore on a bicycle, the "cliffs" looming over both sides of the "Mohawk gorge" can be intimidating. Most riders remain almost exclusively on the canal towpaths and river roads, only making limited explorations that remain within a few miles of the river horizontally (and a couple hundred feet vertically).

At the time, however, I wasn't "most riders". In 1985 I was in top physical condition. There wasn't a hill outside my ability to climb. Still, as strong as I was, climbing out of the Mohawk Valley was still a serious endeavor. There's well over a thousand feet of vertical rise on the easiest routes, and the tougher exits may have over twice that quantity of climbing by the time you are free of the valley. Many routes have long traverses, or multiple switchbacks to moderate the slope, but not all do. Some roads set out nearly perpendicular to the river, brutally climbing out on ten, fifteen, or even eighteen percent grades.

I've always used the bicycle as a way to explore a new area. Cycling gives you a much better feel for a place than a car ever can, though not as good a feel as walking; on the other hand, walking is slow. If you only have a few days to explore, and you want to maximize your experience, wandering on a bike is your best bet. But exploring exits from a river gorge by bike is an exercise in commitment, especially in those dark ages before cell phones were in widespread use, and no one had yet dreamed of handlebar mounted GPS receivers filled with live downloads of topo maps overlaid on satellite imagery. In those offline days, when you choose a route out of a valley, all you usually had to go on was a crude line on a paper map – if you even had a map. Often I would see a road that seemed to lead up, out of the valley, and impulsively take it. A couple hours later with the sun low in the sky (and 3000 feet of climbing in my legs) the most direct way back into the valley may be on the other side of yet another massive climb.

Yet it's exactly this sort of challenge that makes cycle touring such fascinating sport. In a way, it's like fishing or hunting. You are pitting your abilities and the performance of your 'weapon' against a "gentleman of the opposition". Your weapon is not rifle, bow, or rod, but rather tire, rim, and pedal. The opposition is not a living animal, but rather it's the merciless topography of the land assisted by unpredictable weather from the heavens. And the "game clock" is the sun. If the sun falls below the horizon before you get back to home base, you lose.

On this particular day, however, it was still fairly early in the day. Maybe it was eleven o'clock in the morning. The sky was a clear blue and the air was a crisp 40 degrees with mercifully little wind. All in all, it was a day about as good as it gets for Mohawk Valley bike riding in the winter.

Just as important as the weather, the roads were mostly clear of snow. There had been a thaw cycle the week before, and this had exposed dry, salt free pavement on all but the least maintained of roads. Mountain bikes were just coming into vogue in the mid 80's and I did not yet own one. These days I can tromp around on snow with le velo tout terrain, but back then I was exclusively a road rider with only a skinny tired road bike. Such bikes don't do well on snow and ice.

Thus it was that I was pedaling happily along in high spirits that perfect Saturday in 1985. I was heading west out of Utica on the north side of the canal. I didn't have a particular goal in mind when I set out, but as I discovered where fate had randomly pointed me, I started to think about the possibility of climbing north out of the valley part way up Marcy Hill, west to Griffis AFB to watch some B-52s land, south through Rome, a town I had yet to explore, then back east along the valley through Oriskany site of the Battle of Oriskany, the Bloodiest Engagement of the American Revolution, then home for a hot shower, warm cotton clothes, and a bowl of "Mushroom Stew", a local Utica delicacy.

This was a brilliant plan, but you know what they say about plans, that they never survive the first encounter with the enemy. The terrain out of the Mohawk Valley heading north is, of course, hilly with several steep climbs. A series of ill-advised turns and other navigational blunders led me deeper into the hills to the north, quite the wrong direction to be going for an easy tour to Rome and back. But the day was invigorating, and I discarded my plan with hardly a thought. I raced along on country roads, dry leaves crunching under my tires, zooming down and up the rolling hills with confidence. It was glorious.

I've always been a good descender. It's not a difficult skill for anyone to develop. You don't need any physical strength or endurance. You just need to stay relaxed, knees bent, alert, with a good aero posture, and ignore the immanent possibility of sudden, violent injury. When I fully tuck I can drop down a steep hill like a falcon swoops down off a high cliff. I love to see what top speed I can reach.

I was doing exactly this, screaming down a mile long hill getting near my record speed of about 48 mph, when I suddenly heard a sharp series of dog barks not far off to my right. I came up slightly from my tight tuck, turning my head to see a medium sized, mixed breed dog running like a thoroughbred greyhound. He was streaking across a farm field parallel to me, somehow matching my velocity. My break from perfect aerodynamic form began to slow me and the dog took advantage of this, as he began to angle his course rapidly inward towards me.

My speed was still quite high, however, and there was a long distance to the bottom of the hill, facts that gave me a decided advantage over this rocket dog. In most situations, a bike rider is well advised to stop completely, dismount, and sternly address the beast. Faced with a stationary, assertive human, virtually all dogs will snap out of whatever insanity possesses them to chase and attack. But in this case, I had other options.

The dog was matching my speed, which was now below 40 mph, running side by side with me, not twelve inches from my right pedal. He was barking furiously and was clearly intent on biting my leg. I could tell his thinking by how he angled his snout inward toward me and made attempts to lower his shoulders in preparation for a leaping grab. Yet, the pace was still to fast for that. His sprinting ability was prodigious, but his canine biomechanics simply would not allow him to both keep pace and set up his lunge. If he was a cheetah, he could have managed it, but whatever he was in his lunatic fantasy, he wasn't a cheetah in reality. Each time he began to crouch, he instantly fell back and had to return to his best running form to catch back up.

Once I realized his constraint, I relaxed back into my tuck ever so slightly to put him on the very limit of his speed. I then unclipped my right foot.

The year 1985 was somewhat of a breakthrough year for bicycle technology as the first clipless pedals became available. The modern safety bicycle had been invented over a century earlier, and almost all mechanical innovations that could enhance the performance of such a bike and its rider already had been developed and incorporated for decades. The last invention of significance, the derailleur, had been available for nearly 50 years. Of course, bike companies annually advertised all sorts of gadgets in an attempt to make a buck, but until Look began marketing their new pedal and cleat in 1985, nothing that actually made a difference had emerged.

Toe clips and cleated shoes had been around 80 years or more, so the idea of firmly attaching feet to pedals was hardly new. Since clipless pedal systems, like the Look brand, do the same job as clips, many bike traditionalists initially ignored them as yet another frivolous reinvention. I didn't agree. I immediately saw the advantage of a "twist lock" ski-binding attachment rather than the toe-numbing strap system traditionally used. I remember calling the bike shop in Utica weekly to see if their first shipment had arrived. When it finally arrived, I immediately bought a set, installed them, threw my old shoes, clips, and straps away, and never used straps again.

So I did not have Binda straps on my feet, but rather my shiny new set of Look shoes snapped into quick-release Look pedals. If I still had the old clips and straps on, I would have needed to reach down with my hand, an inch or two from the fangs of rocket dog, and undo the leather strap – clearly not a prudent option for someone who relies on his fingers to earn a living. Instead, all I needed was a slight rotation of the ankle to free my foot.

What I did next may be judged cruel by animal lovers, but I'd like those of you that empathize with other species to consider that the same dogs afflicted with a mindless desire to chase bikes, do typically chase all sorts of moving things on the highway with the same blind impulsiveness. This puts them in harms way. I don't know of any scientific study, but I'd wager that a good fraction of the dogs killed by cars are struck as they dart blindly into a road in hot pursuit of something or other. Dogs need to be discouraged from chasing things on the road.

Now free of the Look clip, I thrust my foot out low, under the dog's chin, and kicked up, flipping him into the air. He did a half somersault, landed on his back, skidded, twisted sideways, and finished with a barrel roll. All in all, his acrobatic form wasn't nearly as good as his running prowess.

I clipped back in and finished the descent. Soon the slope eased as the road reached the creek at the base of the hill. I looked back and saw the defeated pooch limping back through the field toward his home. Maybe next time he would think twice before darting out into the road.

The excitement of my battle with rocket dog, turned acrobat, had my adrenaline pumping. The day was still glorious, and I spun along effortlessly for quite a while. But eventually I started to tire. I was in good shape, but I don't care how good shape you are in or who you are, Lance Armstrong even, those Adirondack hills will eventually get to you. I was getting got to, and there was still one really big climb to conquer before I got to the final descent back into the Mohawk Valley.

The last climb was one of those steep and windy country roads with a murderous average grade and several false flats. I started off OK, but after the first quarter of the climb, my legs began to feel like lead. No worries, I thought. The ride was nearly over; I was in no rush; I could just shift down, ease back in the saddle, and gradually grind my way up the hill.

Then I heard the barking...

Posted Nov 30, 2007 at 19:45 UTC, 3445 words,  [/danPermalink

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