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Where they went

Learning new tricks with a bike, a leash, and man's best friend

Email|Print| Text size + By David Arnold
Globe Correspondent / October 8, 2006

OXFORD, Maine -- My partner is Alta, a 61-pound, 3-year-old German shorthaired pointer. A lanky young lady with a loping gait, she is pulling my mountain bike at about 20 miles per hour down a country path.

Alta drives hard. Dirt, jettisoned by her paws, is spitting in my face. I am making my first attempt at bikejoring -- which is dog-powered mountain biking and one of New England's newest recreations -- and I am feeling pretty slick until a sharp, sandy turn springs into view ahead. I suddenly find myself taking stock of the situation.

I'm tethered to a speeding dog, bikes wallow in sand, and I haven't got the slightest clue what I am doing.

``Back off!" I shout. This is musher speak for slow down. I had just learned the phrase. Alta accelerates and hits the turn with a 45-degree bank like a greyhound on the far corner of the track. I feel fear.

I am not afraid of landing on my face. I am afraid of letting down the dog. I want Alta to be proud of me, to know that I am doing my share of the work, to appreciate the fact that the old human at the other end of her leash can still learn new tricks.

But I am also in trouble, and therein rests the essence of bikejoring. It is not just the ultimate clean, free ride through the countryside; it is the challenge, indeed the obligation, to prove one's worthiness as dog's best friend.

Born of a need for mushers to exercise their dogs off season, bikejoring (a term adapted from the Norwegian sport of towing skiers) uses one or two dogs to pull a rider across generally flat, unpaved terrain. A competition course typically might be four miles long, and participants, starting at one-minute intervals, race the clock.

Five years ago the sport was basically unknown, according to Paul Therriault, president of the Down East Sled Dog Club. Now as many as 50 New Englanders may compete at levels ranging from novice to professional.

Four weeks ago, the International Sled Dog Racing Association made bikejoring an officially sanctioned event in the United States. And today more than a dozen competitiors are expected to attend a bikejoring demonstration at the Down East club's annual fall trade show. The event is slated to be held at the Oxford County Fairgrounds here, about 40 minutes north of Portland.

``With no slight to my wife," said Therriault, ``this may be the ultimate partnership, a symbiosis between human and dog working together toward the same end."

What dogs make the best bikejoring partners?

``In the end, it's all in the genes," said Jessica Doherty of Boston, who for 20 of her 30 years has been racing sled dogs that she trains off season on snowless terrain.

A general rule of thumb: Pointers have exceptional focus, loyalty to their masters, and stamina, and Alaskan huskies have strength and a strong work ethic. So on the dry land competition circuit, racers frequently have pointer/husky mixes -- perhaps cut with some greyhound. At the recreational level, Doherty said she sees many Labradors, setters, and even a few Dobermans.

``In dog-powered sports [in addition to bicycles, competitors now attach dogs to scooters, buggies, and themselves over the snowless seasons] , you really do not know what kind of a dog you've got until he or she is in a harness. Nothing is guaranteed," Doherty said.

Looking for a guaranteed ride, I arranged a rendezvous on a recent cool afternoon with Jeff and Heather Brannen, who frequent bikejoring competitions and were willing to trust that I could ride behind one of their dogs without plowing into it.

Jeff is a builder and frequently races ``canicross," an event in which a dog pulls a runner. Heather is an administrator for a local development company and focuses more on bikejoring, which took her to the world championships in Belgium last year (a sick dog prevented her from starting). In their early 40s, both appear as lean as the 11 dogs they own and train to race.

Bikejorers use mountain bikes without elaborate suspensions because the trails are generally clear of logs and boulders. Attached to the stem of the bicycle with Velcro straps is a short, plastic pole, which keeps the leash, strung from the end of the pole to the dog harness, from fouling in the front wheel.

``You can be an elite bicyclist and do OK," Heather said. ``Or you can have an elite dog and do OK. But you won't win without both."

One thing was clear as the Brannens introduced me to Alta, a leggy racing machine with a velveteen black coat, a gigantic tongue designed for heat loss, and a passion for speed. The only elite member of this team had four legs.

I grew up during television's early years admiring ``Sergeant Preston of the Yukon" as he talked about everything short of Soviet politics with his lead dog , Yukon King. As Heather snapped Alta onto my bike leash, I asked her for some simple commands. She explained: ``Pick it up" was accelerate, ``back off" was slow down, ``on by" was pass, ``haw" was turn left, and ``gee" was turn right.

``But don't worry," Heather added. ``The dog knows the trail. And I'll be following."

And then we were off -- and suddenly the world turned to one of near-silence. We had just left behind a hubbub of barking dogs; now the loudest noise was the whoosh of air washing over my helmet because dogs giving 100 percent do not bark.

Oddly, the view from astern of Alta was akin to driving a motorcycle in a video arcade game. While the landscape flew past, my distance from the dog never changed. She leaned left and right with varying degrees of angle as the geometry of the turns dictated. I was basically along for the ride, at times flailing to stay aboard. If I pedaled -- it was difficult to keep up -- I was driven by guilt, nervous that Alta might glance back to observe me sitting there like a sack of kibble .

About a quarter-mile down the trail, we hit the aforementioned turn. Think fast.

Plan A: Yank on brakes for a full stop. Alta will go airborne like a dog at the end of its zip wire. Bad for dog, bad for me with the loving dog owner right behind.

Plan B: Apply enough brake to reel Alta in. Kill her momentum and humiliate myself. I chose the latter, managing to squiggle upright around the corner while enduring a backward glance from the dog that asked, ``Huh?"

Then onward she dashed. At the end of our mile-long jaunt, during which I braked far too often, I tried to make amends by hugging what had become a very slobbery pooch. She accepted my advances, but in the end I left still feeling guilty.

We humans can be so incompetent, particularly when we team up with a competent dog.

Contact David Arnold, a freelance writer in Milton, at northwester@comcast.net.

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