Error: I'm afraid this is the first I've heard of a "comments" flavoured Blosxom. Try dropping the "/+comments" bit from the end of the URL.

Sat, 22 Dec 2007

Dog Story (Part 2)

Then I heard the barking...

It was way off in the distance, a deep, throaty yelp. Part howl, part growl, horrifying in its passion. And cut short, like the last cry of a hanged man as the noose snatches away his life, only to be resurrected a few seconds later and send out his staccato cry of agony again and again.

I was in some small agony myself. I wasn't nearly crying out in my death, of course, but this was a very long hill. Now every pedal stroke was an effort. I was in my easiest gear, and I was seated, but my heels were dropped low, better to drag down the pedals with a plodding rhythm. Calves relaxed. Drag, drag, drrrag.

I might have been in a 42x21 gear, 42 teeth on the front ring, 21 teeth on the back cog, a 2:1 ratio that is pretty stiff to pedal up a hill by today's standards. Most racing bikes nowadays are 24, 27, or even 30-speed bikes. They have triple chain-rings with a very easy "granny gear" at 28x28, a 1:1 ratio, or ever easier, allowing riders to climb the steepest wall with a relaxed spin.

But back then, all racers rode with a "ten speed": double chain-rings in the front and a "corn cob" set of 5 cogs in the back optimized for high speed riding. If the hill got too steep, we would just suck it up with a heels-down seated style, or, if necessary, get out of the saddle and use a "honking" style, pulling up on the bars while standing on the pedals. We'd never walk.

Had the barking become louder? I wondered about its source, still quite far away. What a terrible sound! Could someone be whipping the poor dog? It was definitely behind me. Maybe it had become just a bit louder. I wasn't moving up the hill that quickly, but I was moving up. The hill was very steep and I was conserving my energy. Maybe I was going up at just above a walking pace 4 or 5 mph. Yes, the sound was definitely getting louder.

I would never dream of actually dismounting and walking up a hill. My pride as a bike racer wouldn't allow such an admission of defeat even if I couldn't continue. I'd rather fall over first. In any case, I wasn't totally exhausted. I had climbed these sorts of big hills before. If I kept my current conservative pace, I'd make it to the top without stopping no matter how long the hill.

Such a statement about never walking may seem haughty, and there is no doubt that my climbing skill at the time, not to mention my hauteur, was considerable, yet climbing hills on a bike can be a lot easier than most people realize – given that the climb is not a race. You see, if the hill is steep, the pedal force is too much, and your stamina is fading, on the assumption you aren't in a hurry, it's just a question of pedaling slower. No rush. Don't work as hard, use an easier gear, or both.

I've seen 99 year old great-grandmothers climb 20 percent grades while they happily chatted to their riding companions. As Will Turner said, "It's all a matter of leverage and the proper application of force." Yes, your speed up the hill will be glacial in comparison to what people might normally think of as reasonable biking speed – literally slower than walking – but comfortably on the bike you will remain and up the hill you will go. Even great-grandmother bikers are too proud to walk.

Of course, in order to be able to go slow, one must be able to go slow without falling over. Oddly, it is the fastest bike riders in the world that are the best at going slow. Maybe you have seen the very strange match sprint bicycle race. Heavily muscled riders compete in a three lap race around a track. The total distance is a kilometer or less. The starting gun fires, but there is no urgency. They spin slowly away from the starting line, keenly watching each other. Sometimes they continue to roll forward slowly; sometimes they stop entirely. The riders may dawdle ten minutes or longer until one of them makes a tactical error – maybe one of them pauses too long with pedals straight up and down, a dead spot – and the other rider pounces on the opening. Suddenly they are sprinting at near 40 mph and cross the finish line in a few more seconds.

It's not that hard to develop the ability to stop and stand on a bike, or at least to go as slow as you please. I highly recommend that riders develop this skill, especially if they ride in the hills. Why suffer? Take your time. Hills are often beautiful places with vistas worth pausing to admire.

In my case, I had no plans to sprint. I was happily dawdling up the hill and would dawdle to the top, no question about it. My hard work was done miles ago. All I wanted now was a hot shower and a bottle of Matt's beer.

More time passed. I was about halfway up the mountain, still slogging along in the saddle, heels down, holding a pace within my limit but uncomfortably close to it. As I eased the speed down ever slower, I noticed that horrible yelping from behind was even louder. It was very strange. I began to make out a scraping sound, like the sound of millstones grinding scrap metal. It served a percussive counterpoint to the bark. Yelp! Scrrrrind! Yelp! Grrrink! The sound was very close by and straight back. I should be able to see its origin.

One of the biking skills I've lost over the years is the ability to turn my head. Nowadays my neck is old and stiff. Back in my racing days, I could spin my head around like an owl and look almost straight back, keeping my body almost motionless so as to stay in perfect form. Yes, I know the quip, "don't look back, something might be gaining on you," but knowing how much a lead you might have on a chase is always of tactical importance. If you are too close and will be "swallowed up" by the chasers, it's usually sensible to relax and not waste any more energy in a doomed attempt at a breakaway.

The phrase "swallowed up by the peloton" is just biking jargon for being enveloped by a large group of chasing riders. It has no literal association with being eaten. It's more like relaxing back into cozy comfort, as your solo labor has ended and the pack will now sweep you along in its draft. You can rest. However, on that crisp winter day when I turned my head, what I saw chasing me was in no way cozy or comfortable; it might indeed have had a mind to make a meal of me.

It was a dog. Well, maybe it was a dog. I was no expert on dog breeds and I didn't feel inclined to get close enough for DNA testing to be sure. Maybe it was a wolfdog. I understand that gray wolves are sometimes crossed with German Shepherd dogs, Siberian Huskies, and Alaskan Malamutes. My quick glance saw a mixed breed dog, moderate in size, maybe 50 or 60 pounds with pointy ears and a relatively short, light brown coat. It had sharp teeth, was frothing a little at the mouth, and was barking at me furiously with murder in its eyes.

The dog was chained. It's wide leather collar was hooked to a length of 1 inch steel chain, perhaps 20 feet long. The other end of the chain was looped through the webbing of three, large concrete blocks.

The dog was dragging the blocks up the middle of the road. He was dragging them up the steep hill. He was gaining on me.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing. This was some kind of crazed Alaskan Husky, more than a match for the Sisyphean labor of dragging that hunk of stone up the grade. What could motivate him so? I kept looking back. Each time I looked back he was a few feet closer. His strength and determination were astounding.

Despite my admiration, I had no desire to pet this pooch. Whatever was going through his canine brain, it didn't seem like his goal was to be my best friend. I shifted up a gear while holding my rhythm, and thereby picked up the pace.

But it wasn't enough. He must have been half Husky, half Cerberus, this damned hell hound just kept getting closer. My speedometer showed that I had definitely increased the pace, but the dog apparently had called my increase, and raised it. If anything, he seemed to be closing the gap more quickly and I was starting to wonder if I could hold him off. It had been a long day and I was very tired. My breathing and heart rate were red-lining. And on he came. Those blocks were practically bouncing up the road after him.

He was less than 10 feet away when I crested the hill. Racers are taught to "finish the hill", pedaling hard over the top rather than relaxing at the summit. Under normal circumstances, skipping the breather after a climb requires discipline, but these were not normal circumstances. When I saw the slope begin to moderate, I shifted up. Then up again. And again, until I was moving fast down the other side and the evil sled dog quickly became a small angry dot in the distance.