As anybody who’s ever watched an episode of You’ve Been Framed knows, animals are crazy. Our four legged friends are almost as much trouble as the oblivious pedestrian. We cyclists must be alert. Riding the city streets our eyes are everywhere. It is no exaggeration to say our lives can depend upon it. Potholes, pedestrians, drivers, other cyclists, poor road layouts, glass in the road, wet manhole covers, you name it, we need to avoid it.
Animals too must be added to that list. Come on, they’re fluffy and cute, you don’t want to hurt them now do you? Or scratch your brand new paintwork, more to the point. Here in the UK we must contend with many a moving target. Sheep, dogs, cats, cows, horses, hedgehogs, rabbits, bats, foxes, pigs, pheasants, deer, badgers, low flying birds, and in one strange encounter, a ferret*.
*I’d be interested to hear from non-UK readers. Our list of animal encounters seems rather docile to perhaps those in Australia or South Africa. Giraffe anyone? Amusingly, the Department for Transport in Australia has published advice for cyclists on its website called “Why magpies attack“.
Animal collisions on the bike
The question of animals and cycling hit the blog thanks to one of my two readers who is not my mother, PRSboy, who wrote in after his own near miss with a dog and asked for any animal related cycling thoughts or advice.
A good question. Scared, angry, dopey and sleepy, animals have a lot in common with cyclists. You have but a mere moment to make a decision and consider more factors than your average algebra student. The size of the critter. How wet are the roads? How fast am I going? Is there a car behind me? Which way will the blighter move? Can I bunny hop it? What will hurt more, crashing due to swerving or crashing due to impact with this hairy impudent thing? That’s a lot of thinking. Best to avoid early mornings when many animals are still roaming after a night of adventure.
So what to do? I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rules, your judgement depends greatly upon your speed. Where possible simply stop. Even if it’s a snarling dog snapping at your heels. Stop and stare the beast down, Crocodile Dundee style.
Hold your line and you’ll be fine™
Of course, stopping is a luxury we don’t always have when speeding along only to be surprised by an animal leaping out of nowhere. Split second judgement time. Who will move out of the way of the other? Who flinches first? Hold you line or swerve? Such duels are somewhat akin to the game of ‘chicken’ popularised by petrol heads in Hollywood movies of a certain age. Who loses their nerve first? Who is quickest to react?
Chances are, nine times out of ten the animal’s survival instincts will kick in and the furball will do all of the avoiding for you. Hold your line and you’ll be fine™, which was indeed the course of action our dear reader took in his animal encounter in deep dark Wales. Such a cycling maxim holds true in many a circumstance, be it cycle racing, cornering or aiming during a crowded toilet break (sorry).
“A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”
The key when deciding whether to hold your line or not, is the ability to spot if the animal (or pedestrian for that matter) is going to be the exception to the above rule. There’s three criteria for this. How i) crazy ii) stupid or iii) unaware is the animal you face? In a split second you need to gamble with nothing but your instinct to guide you. Good luck if that choice comes at the end of a metric century ride.
In encounters with both pedestrians and animals I usually hold my line if they haven’t seen me. Shouting* can go one of two ways. If given enough time, the offending roadblock will hear you and move aside.
*I have no bicycle bell because a) it is easier, quicker and safer to shout than to change your grip on the handlebars and b) cycle bells sound so, well, petty.
Leave it too late to holler however and you’ll simply freeze the confused animal or pedestrian, who are then more likely to remain where they are, and then, upon seeing you swerve, will step directly into your path. And so the dance of deliberation begins. You know the one. When two people meet head-on in a corridor, when you go left, they go left, and so you then go right, and low and behold they follow. Bah. On foot you smile at one another, shrug your shoulders and question the ridiculousness of it all. On a bike you crash.
Crashing is not pretty for anyone. Squirrels jammed between wheel and forks is a bike cleaning job too far for most (reader beware – don’t click if easy offended). Bigger animals and it’s you jammed between a tree and a fence.
There’s more animal avoidance tactics in your armoury than the simple stop, swerve or continue strategies. I for one admit to mooing and baaing at sheep and cows. Barking back at dogs is also one of my fortes. It takes practise to nail the perfect sarcastic bark as you ride past a howling dog going berserk on the other side of a massive fence. Ha, I win.
Should you find an animal giving chase, then simply speed up and pretend you’re on the Champs-Élysées. Too tired or slow for such manoeuvres? Hurl a banana at your pursuer, or sacrifice an energy gel or two to distract them perhaps, assuming of course you packed your jersey with the meat and gelatine flavour energy gel. Oh, that’ll be why dogs always chase me now I come to think of it.
Some folk say you should try to look as big as you can to intimidate the animal, which for a hill climbing whippet like me, just ain’t an option, not even when wearing winter layers and booties.
Close your eyes and pray
Sometimes, there’s simply nothing you can do when the animal in question has decided it doesn’t like you or that you’re simply in its way. Just pray your fast approaching fatalist is not a high flying buck as in the video below.
Cyclist chasing sheep
Writing this blog post, a couple of my own memorable animal-bike encounters came to mind. The first was in Wales, just like our dear reader. Hurtling down a lonesome country lane with my brother, two sheep ahead in the road, the lane oh so very narrow and fenced in on both sides.
Which way will the sheep move, we wondered, slowing down? Left or right? Neither it turned out and so we ended up gently rolling behind the two poor galloping and poop dropping sheep for about a mile until the poor things could turn off into an open gate. I hope they found their way back.
Dog cheering cyclist
My second memorable animal encounter was in France, at the base of Mount Ventoux. A huge dog, a massive Irish wolfhound, emerged from a wooded area and began bounding towards me.
Not only was the dog built like a horse, it was loud too even though there was no barking. The owner had tied an enormous cowbell around its neck as no doubt this hairy pooch had form for running off and chasing down Lycra clad whippets. Ding-dong rang the bell with every bounding stride. This is the nearest I am ever going to get to being cheered on by a fan, the bell applauding my every pedal turn as we winched our way up the base of the mountain.
If this had happened at the top of the mountain I may have assumed it had all been an hallucination due to fatigue but no, this was actually happening. Initially I panicked and thought the canine colossus was chasing me, but he/she soon settled down and seemed content to stay close by my side, each of us panting loudly as the road rose above us, our tongues out, each of us grinning like lunatics. Cycling brings many a special moment but this really stands out for me.
Dog by my side I overtook other cyclists who must have assumed the mutt was mine. Onlookers and car drivers gawked at us, the oddest couple on the mountain that day for sure (which is saying something when you see some of the folk climbing Ventoux). Sometimes the giant dog would get a little too close for comfort but I needn’t have worried for he/she knew the maxim and so held his/her line. I was disappointed when the dog left me a mile or so up the road and retreated back into the trees. Farewell old chap and thank you.
What about you? Share your tales of animal run-ins in the comments below. Who got the better of the other? And no, roadkill spotting doesn’t count…