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Hurts So Good

By Dale Garrison
© 1999 Dale Garrison Editorial Services

There's a saying in cycling: sooner or later you're going to crash.

Usually the results are not too disastrous, although there are exceptions. However, any event is likely to be unpleasant when it involves my flesh meeting hard pavement, dirt or rock.

A road rider at heart, my most common nominees for some video show involve variations on a single theme: I am sliding across pavement, leaving various quantities of my hide on the rough asphalt. The result is called "road rash," a pleasant term for what is often equal to any blood-curdling tortures devised over the centuries by uncivilized peoples.

Novice cyclists and other naive individuals don't realize that disaster and cycling are intimately intertwined. You next crash is a matter of when, not if.

I consider myself relatively skilled at keeping my helmet pointed skyward. I have in fact made an effort at this. Long ago, I read that good handling skills could be learned by dodging light poles in empty parking lots and bumping shoulders with other riders at low speed. The idea is that such maneuvers develop the REFLEXES to handle real emergencies.

But reality is another matter. You can practice trick riding all you want, hone your reflexes to the sharpness of knives sold on television, even train endlessly with Olympic gymnasts. None of it will matter. When your time comes, you're gonna slap pavement.

One year I was plagued by a host of crashes. I had put in something like 5,000 or 6,000 miles by August-nothing spectacular, but certainly enough to be comfortable on a bike. Then one day I pedaled to a friend's house. Rounding the last corner, I hit a wet spot. I went down so hard that seismographs in China recorded the impact.

After more or less regaining consciousness, I examined this wet spot because, you see, I had not seen it. Actually, I don't think anyone would have seen it. It was just dampness in the road surface, humidity in the asphalt. Yet as I leaned into the corner, this slight slickness was enough to send me flying across the road like a human tiddlywinks.

That was only the start of my woes that year. A few weeks later I was still carrying the rather large scar (actually a still oozing wound, if you must know). Undaunted, I decided to take a long ride. It was Saturday and despite a hearty south wind, I had that old urge to "go somewhere."

The ride started well as I covered the first 45 miles into the headwind. I turned to begin making a large loop, not so much from fatigue but because I figured that an 80 or 90 mile day was plenty. Unfortunately, this was only the ride god's way of luring me far from home. Once injured, I would have to limp back 45 miles.

Half way through my cross-wind stretch, I approached a plank bridge over a railroad track. You know this kind of bridge, they've got two rows of boards running lengthwise with cracks in between just big enough to swallow your wheel. One could ride safely in the middle, where the boards run crosswise, but that would be an admission of defeat. Besides, I had been riding planks like that for 10 years.

Problem was, I forgot that 30 mph crosswind. About halfway over the bridge, a gust blew me off the 4-inch-wide plank into a crack 1 mm wider than my Mavic rims. My front tire came to an immediate halt and in less time than it takes to say "stupid," I was performing a somersault over my handlebars.

It's fascinating how the brain speeds up at such times. A split-second crash becomes a minutes-long dance. I had time for considerable reflection as my helmet hit the bridge and my feet went flying through the air. In fact, at the exact moment of standing on my head in the middle of that bridge, I noticed that the little finger of my right hand had become wedged in that same crack that had already swallowed my wheel. I thought, "How interesting. What a coincidence." As I continued my somersault, I realized that if I didn't remove that little finger rather quickly, it was going to be snapped off. Some motorist would come by that afternoon and see the stub of my right pinkie planted in the bridge!

So as my feet continued their graceful arc through the rural Missouri sky, I began to wrench my finger out of the bridge. Fortunately, by the time I came to a thudding halt on my back, I had pretty much succeeded. Though jammed, hyper extended and turning purple, my finger was still attached. All of this took about 1.2 seconds.

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I lay there for a while, looking up into the sun, waiting for the buzzards to arrive. None did, so I got up and noticed that my Styrofoam helmet was no longer one piece. I also noticed that I had several places on my body that were starting to hurt somewhat. My pinkie, of course, and my neck, and my back. But I discovered I could swing my leg over my bike, and pedaling didn't seem to make any of this worse.

As I headed home, at least I had the benefit of a 30-mph wind behind me. With that boost, I could average more than some of the local traffic. Best of all, the blood that was now oozing out of my pinkie didn't land on my Descente shorts.

The only problem was, besides being in a bad mood on what had been a nice ride, I couldn't brake too well. You'd think that one little finger wouldn't make much difference, but I was finding it hard to squeeze my right brake lever. Since that controls my rear brake, the one I rely on the most, I was somewhat cautious riding through a town I soon passed on my way home.

But heck, I'd ridden these roads and there was nothing to worry about. At least that was my theory as If rounded a downhill corner at something like 36 mph. Then I realized there was an odd place in the road ahead. Say, there never used to be gravel there!

Too late I realized that someone had made a "cut" in the road to lay pipe. The result was a six-foot wide strip of gravel cutting across the road. For several seconds, I thought the gravel was the packed kind, the stuff you can fly over without worry. But when I hit it, I realized it was deep, very deep and loose. In less time than it takes to say "real stupid," I was plowing a furrow through that gravel with the remainder of my already reduced skin area.

I came to a skittering halt, too angry to feel pain. I looked down, and my left side resembled a gravel truck, pieces of rock sticking out all over. Then I noticed a farmer nearby plowing a field. He was rolling along on his tractor, sort of staring at me. He probably wondered if bicyclists do that kind of thing on purpose. I hoped his tractor would burst into flame.

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Finally I stood up and got back on my bike. I didn't have much choice, I was still about 25 miles from my car.

The worst thing about such collisions, assuming one is lucky enough to ride away, is that you have to spend the rest of the day looking at the results of your mistake. By then I resembled Wily Coyote riding a bike. My little finger was still oozing blood, my helmet wouldn't sit straight and it was missing large chunks of Styrofoam, and now my left side was torn and bloodied. The bike, my beloved Guerciotti, had bits of rubber, dirt and plants hanging from its now dusty skeleton. Handlebar tape was torn, computer cables flapped in the wind and the seat, a new all-leather Italian beauty, was shredded. I was not a pretty picture.

Nor was this a ride I laughed about later. For over a month, I would suddenly feel an itching in my arm or along my leg and, rubbing the spot, pull out a piece of gravel. I never realized that after they've buried themselves in your hide, those nasty little devils actually move around in there. Rather interesting.

There is one positive note about all of this. Except for that farmer, who probably didn't know a cyclist from a cornstalk, no one saw me! I did not fall in front of 20-odd riders on a club ride, or crash near a sidewalk full of shoppers. For that, at least, I can be thankful.

Animals Are Our Best Friends...Yeah Right

By Dale Garrison

© 1999 Dale Garrison Editorial Services

As we enter the glorious days of REAL biking, it's natural to anticipate the lovely miles of cycling that await us this season. We can say good-bye to rides that are 40 minutes longer than normal because we must wrestle on wicking underwear, itching tights, binding jackets, gloves (where are my gloves?) and other assorted gear. Now we can venture forth wearing gossamer-thin Lycra shorts and jerseys. The wind brushes our skin and cycling becomes the sensual experience we know and love.

But there is something else out there which occasionally brushes our skin--brushes it, and sometimes chews on it. Animals, especially dogs, often look upon bike riders as just an odd form of prey. Yes, spring and summer bring us warm weather and beautiful days of cycling, but they also can bring a few moments of stark, raving terror.

Personally, I've had a lot of animal experiences. One of my most horrible occurred in a scenic, rural area 40 or 50 miles from home. This region is filled with beautiful cycling. However, its rural beauty is accompanied by some rural beasts.

Some years ago this was evidenced by the large number of roving dogs. Indeed, near one community, packs of semi-wild dogs had actually devoured one resident (this is no joke!).

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Largely ignorant of such history, I sallied forth one day on my trusty Batavus for a country tour. All went well until I was laboring up one of Ray County's particularly steep hills (there are many) when I was suddenly surrounded by dogs.

I know you have probably been chased by a dog, or two, or even three. That can be truly awful, and I'm not trying to belittle such experience. But what I am discussing here is another matter: On this day I was literally surrounded by dogs, maybe 12 or 15. And all of them eying me like a piece of hamburger.

My one thought, as I muscled and heaved up this wall of a hill, was that I could not stop. Several of the mutts were trying to gnaw at my ankles, but my biggest worry was that one would run into my front wheel and I'd hit asphalt. I knew I'd never get up. I'd be like one of those wildebeest you see devoured by hyenas on the Discover Channel.

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Sometimes it only takes one or two dogs to provide trouble. Chows, especially, are a breed that seems to have cyclists' number. They apparently have an instinct for hunting herd animals that goes like this: two chows will cut out a weak cyclist like wolves descending on a wounded deer. One will run in front of the intended victim, gradually slowing down, while the other sneaks up behind to tear at your haunches. I've been in that spot and, again, I can sympathize with those African wildebeest.

You can understand, then, why I pretty much consider any dog is dead if it comes near me while I'm on my bike. It's not that I don't like animals or even dogs, it's just that I don't like being assaulted when I'm on a public thoroughfare. If I venture into their yard, it's my problem. But if they attack out on the road, it's going to be their problem.

Of course, my first rule of dealing with doggies is to say "hi!" That may sound silly in view of the above, but I have found it remarkable how often a "hey, fella" will stop a charging Doberman in its tracks. I've theorized it's because a dog doesn't "see" cyclists as people. We really are some kind of new deer or sheep on which Darwinian evolution has replaced hooves with Mavic rims and Specialized tires. When one of these herd animals suddenly starts speaking in the same tone as those who fill its feed bowl, the dog is jolted out of its attack mode.

Of course, some dogs do bite the hand that feeds them. That's why my next step is to say, "NO!" using the same inflection your boss uses when you ask for a raise. I must admit, this is not something everyone can do. Women riders, especially, are often not able to produce the whiplash crack of consonants needed to make this two-letter word effective (if you've got children, you may have the prerequisite training). A few experiments should tell whether you've got the vocal chords to make this work, but I suggest you try it on Chihuahuas, first.

Unfortunately, there are times when nothing auditory will work. Some dogs simply give you no time for "conversation": they come at you like a guided missile, aiming for your jugular and hoping for a dinner. The worst ones literally set up an ambush- I've actually seen dogs lie in a ditch or under some bushes preparing to body-tackle a hapless cyclist. I've even had dogs jump for my face, suddenly coming from nowhere to burst up at me like a cannon shell with teeth.

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It was just such an attack that resulted in the invention of the "Dale's Dynamo Knuckle Knock." I was twirling the pedals up a hill, eyes glued to the stem in some discomfort, when all of a sudden a rather large German Shepherd burst from the bushes. All I remember was a lot of white teeth and about 75 pounds of fur.

Did I feint? Did I fall over? Hell, no! In one smooth but powerful movement, I whipped my arm across my chest and into the dog's face. At the end of the swing, I snapped my fist into the dog's nose with a sharp flick of my wrist. It was like one of those Marine one-blow kill moves. The cartilage in the dog's nose went "crack," and the mutt collapsed on the concrete.

I'm not kidding. This really happened. For several hundred yards I spun along looking over my shoulder to see if the dog would get up. Finally he staggered to his feet and sort of shook himself. You could almost hear him say, "What the hell was that?"

I must admit, it was luck. It happened so quickly I did not have time to think; the move was pure reflex. But it did unintentionally teach me a valuable lesson: a dog's nose is apparently fairly sensitive. I've used this three or four times since then (and almost fallen over once when I missed). But as a last resort, when the damn thing is right in your face, it can be worth remembering.

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More tried and true methods include flailing away with a frame pump. In this day of mini-pumps, that may be bad advice. But one of those old, heavy Zefãl pumps can work wonders with a belligerent canine. Once I even sliced open a dog's nose with the sharp plastic rib that fits to the frame (Hey, that dog had bit my wife the week before, so I felt no remorse whatsoever!).

One of my all-time favorite Dog Defenses occurred on top of a steep hill that is perfect for training. In a 42 x 21, I'm forced to stand for more than two minutes just to reach a point where I can turn the pedals sitting down. When I finally reach the near-flatness of the final 100 yards, I'm in no mood to have a dog dash out and attempt to rearrange my skin. Unfortunately, one of the residents atop this scenic hill likes to keep dogs, but not to control them.

One summer I was serious about training. Every Tuesday I'd do hill repeats on this mini-mountain. After the fourth or fifth time up-and the fourth time dodging "danger dog"-I was getting impatient. Worse, the owner didn't even bother to say, "He won't bite." This owner just didn't care.

Finally, after three or four weeks of this malarkey, I decided to take the law into my own hands. I own a 12 gauge shotgun, but decided that was a mite messy (I don't want any slick spots on the road). Instead, I filled a water bottle with ammonia and stuck it in a jersey pocket. When Fido played his usual game of jumping at me from behind a tree, I let him have it.

I know it's sadistic, but the poor guy looked like a three-year-old tasting spinach for the first time. Or worse. But from then on, he kept his distance and I could pedal buy catching my breath without interruption. (A word of warning: don't open the bottle with your mouth; you'll discover why dogs don't like ammonia.)

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I could go on about dog stories, but one of the most bizarre incidents I've ever witnessed involved not canines but a feline. All of us have had dogs chase us, but only one individual I know has had a near-death experience with a cat.

Three of us were heading home from a jaunt that brushes some real prairie terrain southwest of Kansas City. We had a lovely tailwind and were sailing along a flat country road at about 25 mph when up ahead we spotted a cat, obviously stalking mice in a roadside ditch. I made a noise, something unimaginative like, "Hi, cat." But it obviously was the wrong thing to say.

The cat leapt about six feet straight into the air and began running for its life. It apparently mistook us for a new and mobile form of canine, obviously intent on devouring cats. This cat redefined the word, "panic."

The problem was, the cat was on the right side of the road and its home was up ahead, on the left. As I said, we were rolling along at 25 mph and, from what I saw, that cat's top speed was about 24.5. It ran as fast as it could to keep ahead of us, but we -the new and hideous form of mobile canine-were slowly gaining.

Just as we drew abreast of this terrified cat, it decided to make a last-ditch effort to cut across the road and sprint for home. It bolted in front of me, and just barely cleared the second rider. The third member of our troop was not so fortunate.

This poor guy suddenly found the cat running alongside his bike. Every few yards, the cat would make an incredible effort to leap over him. It would run alongside and suddenly jump into the air until it was more or less level with rider's face. There, the cat would flail about like a swarm of bees before falling back to earth to resume its running. This cat looked remarkably like a cross between a leaping gazelle and a Tasmanian devil.

But the cat's panic was starting to spread. The poor rider was trying to pedal a straight line while a cat was leaping at his face, flailing its claws and making loud hissing noises. Not surprisingly, he had drifted to his left in an attempt to put distance between himself and the cat. Unfortunately, that put him in the opposite lane. Although this was a small country road in rural Kansas, they do have automobiles there. As fate would have it, one motorist was in the process of attempting to travel in the opposite direction on that very road. He crested a hill to find his lane filled with a cyclist and a leaping cat.

Fortunately, all of this came to a happy, if dramatic end. The cat leapt between the bicycle's front and rear wheels, somehow managing at 25 mph to avoid hitting spinning spokes, crank arms and cogs. The cyclists veered back into the right-hand lane, managing to avoid both the oncoming car and his now-hysterical cycling companions. The companions were laughing so hard they were completely unable to make any effort to avoid his uncontrolled trajectory. Like they say, God watches out for fools, drunks, children and, on good days, bicycle riders.

None of this compares to those fall rides when the grasshoppers are so thick they jam your freewheel. Or the road race where a panicked horse actually ran through a peleton without knocking over a single rider or injuring himself (The owner screamed at the damn cyclists that this horse was worth HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS--maybe the equivalent of one of the 20 or 30 bikes.)

Still, all of this does make one think. Mother Nature must not be a bicyclist, but she apparently tolerates our presence.

© 1999 Dale Garrison Editorial Services. Everything on these and following pages is mine. Use it wholly or in part without my permission and I will give your name to my friends in law enforcement and the legal profession. On the other hand, if you see something that strikes your fancy, just holler. I'm pretty easy to get along with.
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