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I heard the dogs before I saw them – two snarling masses of brown fur with full heads of steam and, one would imagine, sharp canines. They bore down on me as I rode my mountain bike along a narrow path in Kandal Province, instantly turning a tranquil Sunday morning jaunt along a rural trail into an all-out sprint.
It’s been awhile since I’ve used my legs’ fast-twitch muscles in a sprint with stakes of this nature. Time was, I could handle myself off the saddle in a field sprint of lycra-clad cyclists and adequately go from casual speed to breakneck pace. But that was 20 years and a few more pounds than that ago. And this was on a mountain bike, not my sleek road frame.
But desperate situations tend to prompt trained responses, and I was out of the saddle and geared up as soon as I heard the first dog. I glanced back, thinking an aggressive counterattack might be the solution but quickly decided otherwise when I saw the pooch’s wingman. Outnumbered, I realized that out running these hounds was probably the only alternative to feeling the business ends of their teeth.
As an avid cyclist, I’ve been the target of many a heartless chase by dogs over the years. I like to refer to Cambodian dogs as more cat than dog, listless wimps that they are. Many dogs often will back down when you yell at them or spray them with water, and most Cambodian dogs cast bored glances my way as I ride past – it’s too hot to chase.
I’ve come to know the difference between half-assed demonstrations of aggression and a dog in attack mode, and his wasn’t the first time that my gut told me to hit the gas rather than stand and fight. It was, however, the first time I’ve been outnumbered by ill-mannered four-legged critters.
What makes a dog attack? Experts say displays of fear by a human can prompt aggression. Some dogs dislike being looked in the eyes (my friends’ easy-going Shiba Inu, Izzy, goes from wussy to attack dog when you lock eyes with him). But I never so much as saw these guys before they catapulted out of nowhere and locked onto my wheels.
Territorial invasion? Whatever the cause, it dawns on me that I may be too old for this stuff.
There I was, ambling along a winding path about a foot wide, about half an hour after stepping off the ferry from Phnom Penh and into the rural arms of Kandal Province. I passed the familiar farm run by a guy and his wife, said hello to his kids and was less than 50 feet past the house when I heard the first growl and sensed trouble from behind.
Another 20 feet along, I heard the second assailant join the chase.
And now they were gaining on me.
I shifted up, straining against the handle bars for more torque and picked up another level or two of pace. I glanced back and realized there was one dog at each foot, and their snarling teeth came within inches of each of my heels as I frantically upped my revolutions. I thought about trying to kick them, but both at once?
Where’s my frame pump when I need it? And water bottle? Damn the Camelbak water system that has replaced water bottles – plastic missiles that, tossed with some precision – tend to dampen a dog’s enthusiasm in a hurry.
I figured a bike ridden by someone who knows what they’re doing can outrun just about any dog, certainly the short-legged mongrels that populate Cambodia. So I set myself to the task at hand, lowered my torso and focused on gaining more speed.
So far, so good. They were still there, but they seemed to be as close as they were going to get, and I was still picking up speed.
I rounded a bend in the path and glimpsed with horror at a five-foot wide mud hole blocking the path about 20 feet in front of me. It’s rainy season in Cambodia, and holes like this can stop a bike or toss a rider even at an easy pace. At full speed, this wasn’t going to end well, and with nowhere else to go the options were limited.
No time to think. Just react.
Once again instinct took over and I tugged the handle bars up while yanking both legs toward my chest – thank the gods of cycling for clipless pedals – in a perfect bunny hop that took me over the puddle. My rear wheel landed in the muck, but my momentum carried me onward and I remained upright.
Good thing, I thought to myself as I noted the barbed-wire fence to my left and the rock-strewn field to my right.
At that pace a crash would have been ugly. Never mind that it would have made me easy pickings for the two dogs so bent on catching me.
As for them? The mud hole apparently dissuaded them from pursuing me, or they’d had simply had enough. They stopped, as I was able to determine after shooting a glance over my shoulder and beginning to back down.
It took me several hundred yards of easy pace to bring my heart rate out of the maximum zone and back to reality. Adrenaline is a wonderful drug when you need it, and venting your system after a rush like that takes some time.
About a mile further I encountered a male dog that lowered its ears and stared at me as I approached. I let out a banshee scream and scared the thing half way to Battambang.
“Enough!” I shrieked, along with a couple words unsuitable for publication, as if the dog hightailing away from me at full speed would understand.
Today I’m headed to the local bike shop to pick up a new water bottle. Not for me. For the next dog that decides I might be worth a chase.
Too old for this stuff? Me? Not. Quite. Yet.