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Blacktop Battle Pits 2 Wheels Against 4

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Full disclosure, gentle readers: The keeper of this corner of Page Three rides his bicycle quite a lot, and he never rides on the "scenic bike path" that would keep him out of Tony Harris's way. What's more, his cycle racing team wears lime green uniforms with black striped pants, so there's a reasonable chance this "angry cyclist" was his teammate!

Although the movie would soon start, I assured my girlfriend we'd be in our seats before the previews started. I began listing the gear added to my tiny convertible to improve its on-time performance: Racing tires, ceramic racing brakes, adjustable racing shocks, racing stripes. . . .

That didn't convince her we'd get to the theater on time, but it worried her that we might die trying.

Switching tactics, I pushed taking a shortcut through the park.

My girlfriend smiled, still unconvinced but pleased that I wasn't looking for an excuse to skip her foreign, subtitled movie.

We entered Rock Creek Park just below the Carter Barron Amphitheatre and joined a long line of cars trailing a solitary bicyclist, who was rolling along at a leisurely pace, taking in nature. I know, I know. Bicyclists can legally pedal down any road in the park from Maryland to the Watergate. Still, the bicyclist seemed to be boorishly tying up traffic on this narrow stretch of Beach Drive, especially since a clearly marked, paved and equally scenic "Bicycle Path" meandered alongside the same road.

Other motorists in our column honked impatiently and pounced on any chance to pass the road-hogging cyclist by crossing into the northbound lane, a dangerous, reckless maneuver on the road's blind, winding curves.

Next up, I pulled my small car around the bicyclist without crossing the median, crowding him or using my horn -- no mean feat. In passing, though, I shouted some friendly advice: "Use the bicycle path!"

The bicyclist looked up, frowning. He shook his fist and yelled back an obscenity.

My girlfriend said: "That guy is mad. He's trying to catch us."

In the mirror, I saw the guy hunched over the handle bars, furiously pedaling toward us, as if in a tour time trial. He was no recreational rider. A big man with huge biceps, this athlete wore a lime green spandex bodysuit with black stripes down his pant legs and a number emblazoned across his chest. He rode a sleek, ultralight, 50-speed bike.

Hmm. Sleeper race car vs. racing bicycle. Mentally reviewing my convertible's tweaks, I liked my odds. Plus, I had a head start. The big, angry athlete was now at least a half-block behind and fading.

Ahead, however, was all red brake lights. Traffic was backed up through the tunnel before Rock Creek Parkway and South Waterside Drive. As we slowed down, the engine stumbled and lost power.

I glanced at my girlfriend. She was scared; so was I.

To avoid stalling, I revved the engine, shifted into a low gear and took the only exit, a right turn into the National Zoo. My car lurched up the long, steep hill to the zoo entrance before the motor died, its fuel pump shot. Momentum carried us slowly rolling into a lucky open space in a nearby parking lot.

The mad cyclist hadn't bothered tackling the hill but continued riding into the tunnel.

After a while, my girlfriend shook her head and said: "You cheated. The zoo wasn't on the race course."

-- Tony Harris, Washington

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