A Trail of Rage
Sure, Mountain Biking on That Path Was Against Park Rules. But Then, So Was What the Jogger Did to the Rider
By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page HE01
My friend Bill and I look up a steep, heavily wooded footpath in Rock Creek Park. We're finishing an hour of fast mountain biking on a crisp Saturday. We figured we'd have one more lung-burner before heading home. Not today.
We are riding slowly, almost at walking speed along a flat, wide path that runs along the creek about a half-mile south of the U.S. Park Police's Rock Creek substation. Bill and I know mountain biking on these trails is illegal and we therefore don't do it often, although the dirt, root-bridled paths are ideal for high-speed rides.
"That's the same guy," Bill says. I glance up ahead and see a shirtless runner slowing, about 100 feet in front of us.
I think little about this. We had passed the guy earlier in our ride on another trail and he apparently had said something to Bill about not biking on the trails. Such minor exchanges between hikers, joggers, bikers and dog-walkers are common, and Bill said this guy had been neither incendiary nor especially adamant.
I pedal onward. Bill drops back. But as I approach, the runner is standing still in the middle of the trail. I begin moving to my right -- conscientious lawbreaker that I am -- to indicate that, hey, we may carp at each other, but we're all out here to have fun.
In the 1990s, I frequently rode my mountain bike illegally on Rock Creek Park's hiking trails, especially after learning while researching an article in 1994 that biking does no more trail damage than hiking -- at least on dry trails -- and far less damage than horseback riding. Older and at least slightly wiser, I now do most of my biking on the legal trails of the Schaefer Farms trail system in Germantown, Patapsco Valley State Park in Ellicott City and Gambrill State Park, west of Frederick. But every now and then, when I crave a ride and am pressed for time, I duck into Rock Creek for a quick hit.
Park Police don't have an estimate of how many people pedal the trails. Based on my observation over 15 years (since mountain biking began flourishing) I'd call it no more than a few dozen. Whether biking, running or walking, I rarely see another rider on the trails, but I do see numerous mountain bike tire tracks that I know are not my own.
I also know from experience that many Rock Creek Park walkers and joggers view trail bikers with disdain, and thus I am always polite -- slowing down when approaching people, ensuring they see and hear me before I pass, offering a casual greeting. That is my strategy today.
But the jogger steps to his left, toward me. I move further right. He shifts further left. We are now three feet from each other and it now appears he wants to do more than talk. Aside from being a generally peaceful guy, I have another issue: I am still clipped into my bike pedals (damn high-tech shoes!) and have slowed to a crawl.
It is suddenly clear from this guy's body language that he has decided to attack me. But deep down I still don't believe it will happen. As I move yet further to my right -- off the trail and into the brush -- he starts coming at me.
"What's the problem, Ashcroft?" I ask, but he is already lunging, leading with his shoulder. I turn my shoulder in to meet him and just like that, we are fighting. I roll with my bike and somehow click out of my pedals. Looking up, I see the jogger in full flight above me, headed for my torso with a pointy knee and fists flailing.
I also notice something odd. This grown man has not a single hair on his body, like some alien attack mannequin. Nor does he appear to have much in the way of muscles, an observation confirmed when he punches me in the face. I barely feel it. But I do feel his knee as it connects with my ribs.
Still on my back, I repel him with two kicks and spring to my feet ready for a real brawl, the type I haven't engaged in since high school almost 25 years ago. My heart rate is up, pupils dilated. The fight-or-flight verdict is in. I start to charge.
But I am stopped in my tracks by a stream of burning spray -- do I taste cayenne? -- that floods my eyes and nostrils. I pause just as Bill sprints up to help out; he too is blasted with the pepper spray. Even as my eyes sear with the fiery pain, I realize that this confrontation was not unplanned.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company