One of my favorite places to ride is a stretch of pavement within a local state park. The most traffic it ever gets is kids on training wheels, mountain bikers, and joggers. No cars are allowed. So I like to go in there and do a few laps and practice being aero. I think of it as my own semi-private wind tunnel with a view.
Three years ago, I had some unexpected company. Two big cats checking me out as I came around a bend. I wasn’t sure if they were mountain lions or bobcats. I stopped in my tracks. They gave me a long stare. My heart raced. I was petrified. It was Valentine’s Day. I wondered if I’d ever get my romantic dinner. I left Todd a message on his cell, letting him know where he could claim my body.
After those cats looked at me for what seemed like a minute or two. I hopped on my bike. I was still rehabbing my left leg, but managed to get up 24 mph on a grade and some flats for a couple of miles. When I got home, Todd and his brother Brad informed me that some gentle bobcats lived in the bushes down there and were harmless. Ever since, this regular workout has been dubbed, “Bobcat Pickups.”
Inspired by some words of advice from pro Jessi Stensland on the Zen and the Art of Triathlon podcast, I headed out to do a ridiculously slow zone-2 bike ride. I was determined to take it easy on my normal pickups.
Then on my last lap, I spotted the biggest cat I’ve ever seen walking down a dirt trail away from me. He looked at me nonchalantly, like he was saying “Whatever.” Then he took a sharp right and headed up a little kicker parallel to where I was riding. I got a really good look at him since he was only about 25 or 30 feet away.
He was tan, shorthaired and much taller than most big dogs. I saw a tail, but was even more struck by his beefy muscular shoulders. In my mind, I saw a mountain lion. With my volunteer training at El Moro, I knew it was a good sign that he had initially walked away from me. If one comes toward you, you’re supposed to stop and lift your bike over your head to look big. I didn’t do that though. As he matched my slow pace, he looked at me. I looked at him. Like a sprint start waiting to happen at the end of a Tour de France stage. And then, I decided I didn’t like this feeling of being looked at by the big fella and I booked it for a mile.
I rode back to Todd’s where his brother Ken greeted me. He was about to head out for a ride. When this adventurous soul who has spent a lot of time camping in Death Valley heard my story, he quickly decided he wanted to go out and find this cat and his tracks. Oh great! Look what I started. Of course, I felt 100% sure it was a mountain lion this time, but it would have to be verified – preferably by the ranger.
Ken went down there with a camera just before dark and found the fresh prints. We waited anxiously. We were beyond relief when he got back. He captured this shot. We Googled the tracks of different cats over beers and recounted what I saw – with my eyes, which let the record show aren’t 100% correctable. I didn’t sleep great.
Here’s the thing: We love this park because it feels pretty safe there. We don’t want to have to start watching out for mountain lions there. I didn’t want to start any rumors that weren’t true. On the other hand, what I saw had to be reported.
So I went down early this morning and talked to the ranger. He was cool. He explained most sightings are bobcats. I explained that I hadn’t seen any bobcats with broad shoulders and features like this one. Then he pulled up a database of two large bobcats that have been caught on the park’s infrared camera. The two biggest ones weigh 65 lbs. I looked at the photos and still can’t say for sure it was one of them. I didn’t see any spots on this animal. It could’ve been the lighting. The tracks were definitely that of a large cat.
The ranger said he’d check it out and look for more proof. He said he’d move some cameras around to see if he finds anything out of the ordinary. But I really don’t want to be right.