Narrow bridges

Flying squirrels, missing bridges and other uncommon cycling hazards in North Carolina

BIKE BEAT

By Michael Schwalbe

Funny things can happen when you’re biking in North Carolina. Like the time I almost got hit by a flying squirrel. Here in Orange County.

I was driving down Kimbro Road, under clear blue skies, when a squirrel landed on the sidewalk a few feet in front of me. I passed him, then turned to take a closer look. It was either a squirrel or the remains of a squirrel. I guess the squirrel took flight in the talons of a hawk that didn’t like cyclists or had a sense of humor. The lesson was clear: always wear a helmet.

On another drive years ago in another county, I found backhoes, bulldozers, and men wearing helmets where I expected to find a bridge. I drove to the point where the road turned into air. It seemed hopeless. I looked up and down, imagining that maybe I could carry my bike and hop it to the other side. Just then, a young man in boots and muddy overalls approached me and said, “Do you want to cross?

I was starting to explain that I had no alternative route when he picked up my bike, turned around and started to ride the twenty foot gap on a narrow aluminum plank that I didn’t even have. not seen. He nodded to indicate that I should follow him.

I had only walked a few yards, dragging in my crampons like a terrified penguin, when I looked up and saw the workers on the other side of the stream staring at me. I froze and considered turning around. What if I had to ride an extra ten miles to get home? Wasn’t that the point of being on my bike? I was too scared to try to turn around, so I dragged, the board flexing beneath me.

On the other side, the young man handed me my bicycle. I thanked him for his help as I ascended. “Have a good trip,” he said, returning to his work before I could say another word. I left confident that I had left it to the next rider to make a better impression.

Then there was the time I got into a James Dickey novel. It was the summer of 1988 and I was still living in Raleigh. I was an ultramarathon runner at the time, so I racked up a lot of miles. One day I was in Johnston County somewhere west of Smithfield when I needed to refill my water bottles.

I arrived at a small gas station and a country store. It was two pumps and a cabin that needed painting. There was no sidewalk, just gravel. The station as it was seemed to belong to the old farmhouse which was about 50 feet away. I parked my bike, grabbed my bottles and walked in.

Two white, weather-beaten men with short hair leaning against chairs. A third man, looking much the same, leaned forward on the counter next to the cash register. I inferred from their expressions that cyclists in skin-tight spandex didn’t fall over so often.

“Help you?” said the man at the counter. I asked if there was a restroom where I could refill my bottles. He gestured to the open window behind him. “Round the corner of the house,” he said, “there’s a tap you can use.” I thanked him, left, and headed home.

I didn’t see the dog until he came towards me. He stopped at the end of his chain, trying to tear me away from his territory. “Calm down boy,” I said, in my best alpha male voice. I took another step and the dog became more agitated. I heard a noise behind me and turned to see three smiling faces at the cabin window. The man behind the counter said, “He seems a little testy today. I think you better bring your water here.

Even my first ride in North Carolina was memorable. Driving from Riverside, CA to Raleigh, I decided to spend a night in Asheville so I could ride the Blue Ridge Parkway the next morning. Did a forty mile loop with no problem but got lost after getting back to town. I stopped and was looking at the map I had taken from the motel when a woman pulled up next to me in a van. She asked me if I needed help.

I told him that I couldn’t find my motel. “Well, bless your heart,” she said, pointing the way, “it’s right there.” It was my first southerner: bless your heart. I remember how sweet it sounded. It wasn’t until later that I learned that, depending on how it’s said, it can mean something like poor fool. I prefer to remember it as sweet.


Michael Schwalbe is a retired sociology professor and non-retired cyclist. He has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990.