I grew up surrounded by comfort, luxury and opportunity in a suburb outside of Denver called Greenwood Village (James Watt, before being made Secretary of the Interior, lived down the street). In my neighborhood there existed a distinct pressure, felt more by my parents than by me, that young boys need to be involved in sports, no matter how unsuitable or un-athletic they may be.
As a child I was small and slow to develop so I was made to repeat kindergarten. It was a secret I successfully kept. I didn’t want it known that I “flunked” kindergarten. My real shame though, came with puberty. My mother took me to embarrassing visits to the doctor to see why, at age 14, I was yet to “mature”. My body was fine, the doctors eventually determined, simply a late onset of puberty. It’ll come sooner or later, they said, you’ll be thankful when you’re 40. The mental anguish of the “sooner or later” was horrific. Each and every day I would search for pubic hair or the smell of body odor from my armpits. Each day brought nothing, leaving me further and further behind everyone else. Try taking a shower in gym class as a sophomore in high school in my condition. In the 9th grade I was 15 years old (a year older than my classmates due to the F in kindergarten) weighed 65 pounds, and looked like I was 10. More than once I was stopped by teachers in the hallways assuming I’d lost my way from the nearby elementary school. Add the typical teenage insecurities of trying to fit in and fractured identify, man, I don’t know how I got through it. I thought there was something deeply deeply wrong with me physically and mentally. I knew God had abandoned me because I wasn’t good enough. I obviously was born broken like my younger brother that died.
Yet I was forced to try out for sports. Soccer, Basketball, Baseball, Wrestling, and worse, Football ( my mother still apologizes for this one). I was painfully out of my league. This was a blue chip stock of football players. Kevin Baird, our quarterback, would go on to a number 2 quarterback position at Stanford University, where he played behind and roomed with John Elway. My team went undefeated and won the championship, no thanks to me. I stood on the sidelines and froze my ass off. I remember my father bringing me a jacket during one game because he could see I was cold and I wouldn’t be playing a single play. The coach came over and told me to take it off, that I couldn’t wear it because no one else had one. He called me at home after the game and apologized, realizing he didn’t play me once, that he was too focused on winning and would make it up to me next week. That’s all right, I said. I’d rather he cut me so I could stay home and watch Gilligan’s Island.
As far as I could see I had no athletic talent whatsoever. I had no eye, no game, no insight, no strength. I just ran around when they said run and stopped when they said stop. I tried to stay out of the way so I wouldn’t get crushed by a peer or smacked with a ball. Sport being the glue that friendship required to bond boys together, I started feeling more isolated as I avoided competition whenever I could.
You would think that having an older sister as a prom queen and a younger sister as a varsity cheerleader would elevate my confidence, but the opposite was true. It made it impossible for me to disappear. Imagine the most beautiful girls in the school coming to your house and treating you like some curious doll, a cute pet, a deaf ******, a mute eunuch. The jocks that routinely came to the door were nice because they had to be. In the halls at school they’d give me wide eyed stares and whisper things to each other after I passed, pretty much leaving me alone.
I met Dave Beach when I was a sophomore. Dave had a ‘68 VW Bug, a Cat Scratch Fever 8 Track and tiny metal pipe. Wanna try? Being Catholic I wrestled a bit with the idea of sin, of disappointing my parents, but what the ****, God obviously thought I was a piece of **** and my parents powerless, so I tried it. It felt good. God gave up on me so I gave up on sports, on school, on any chance of a girlfriend or even feeling good about myself. I hated my parents for ****ting out another piece of **** like me. I spent the rest of high school in my room with a pipe and the Beatles, confusing the difference between fantasy and reality.
By my senior year my room was becoming more like a cage and the pressure to do something, anything, kept increasing (my parents were very concerned and had secret meetings with priests, therapists, radio talk shows, monkey trainers or whoever else might help). Oliver, the kid next door, said his father just bought a Masi, but Oliver’s father wasn’t the Masi rider I cared about, the one I cared about was Dave Stohler. The Beatles made my cage comfortable but it was Breaking Away that gave me sunshine.
I emerged from Breaking Away converted. It wasn’t the romance with a beautiful woman that could possibly love me, it wasn’t the bond of friendship that I longed to alleviate my loneliness, and it wasn’t that a nobody outcast came from nowhere and beat the arrogant jocks at their own game. Instead, it was something minor, something many may have missed. It was something the mother said in the middle of the film that shot deep into my soul, past my defenses, past the hurt the shame the bong and the Beatles. Something that began a correction of my anguished adolescent thinking. When Dave’s mom said, “he was a sickly boy until he got that bike,” it made me think that maybe this guy had problems like me too and that he’d gotten through them and was doing okay because of his bicycle. I didn’t cry, but if I did, they wouldn’t be tears of torment or tears of desperation (I had successfully managed to bury those), instead, they would have been tears of relief, of finally finding a way to break out.
I graduated from high school and my parents gave me my first high end bicycle.
The second I got on that bike I knew I had found a type of salvation. I found a livable place between regret and worry: a joyful present. I knew instantly I had talent. I could make the bike go fast and could ride long distances with relative ease. Rode with an ex racer one day in Washington Park, matching him effort for effort and he said, “hey kid, you’re pretty good, you should race.” A change began occurring in my head. The bike got me out of my room and was the first argument for giving up smoking so much pot. I noticed the appearance in my psyche of a small, hairless, shy but growing impulse which refused to go away that I was pretty sure was called pride. I rode nearly every day, building strength and endurance; searching for what I needed, searching for what I missed, searching to fill the hole, searching for the chance to touch the divine.
I fell in love with bicycle racing at just the right time. The Red Zinger Classic just became the Coors Classic , generating loads excitement. It wasn’t the Italians that were coming, it was the Americans, and I studied the names and pictures of my new heroes from my race program: Hampsten, Phinney, Grewal, Boyer, and my favorite, Greg Lemond, with whom I’d have lengthy imaginary conversations while out on my rides (he liked me). There was even a stage in Washington Park, the center of all my rides. These bike racers, I noticed, weren’t required to look like Randy Gradishar to be great. They could be skinny just like me. Out on the road attempting to fly it was easy to imagine I was one of them. I got a job in a bike store, bought my own Masi and did everything I could with it except race. I wasn’t yet ready to test every fantasy in the real world.
I figured with all the crap of my childhood I had the sensitivity and enough decent material to write fiction worth reading; and with my substance abuse I had large gaps in my education. I decided I’d move to Chicago to be a writer and a reader. I left the Masi in Colorado, got a job as a waiter and began endeavoring to bleed on the keyboard.
Lance Armstrong won two Tours de France and I took no notice whatsoever. I never heard of him. That’s how far behind I left the bike world. Yet, he was about initiate the second cycling revolution in my life.
I remember it very clearly. I was taking a break from writing something about something that no one anywhere would ever read, reading the Armstrong book. It was a beautiful day in late spring and my thought snapped a green two by four. What the hell am I doing? Why am I sitting here spending all my time writing a story that no one will ever read when I could be out riding my bike? I was no stranger to these types of thoughts but this time it was different. I had been writing in a vacuum for years, never getting anywhere. Sure, I’d send stuff out, try to get some attention, but nothing, nothing, ever materialized. You have to stick to it, my brain would say, and then it would respond, what, 20 years isn’t long enough? I was past 40 now and saw my life slipping away. Like the weed, like the Beatles, like the books, the writing had become incarcerating. Writing was a dream I had protected for years but could protect no longer. It was getting me nowhere and I wanted to be somewhere. Admit it: I wasn’t going to be famous, wasn’t going to be James Joyce, wasn’t going to eliminate depression with a perfect paragraph. I couldn’t even make the phone ring. Very calmly, I put down the book, shut off the word processor and said “I’m done”. No more writing, no more reading. I’ve given you 20 years, I’m not giving you anymore. I’m going to ride my bike. In a move that displayed how much I meant it, I even joined a team, The South Chicago Wheelmen, because this time I was going to race.
The SCW host weekly training races on Tuesday nights for all levels, and since I’d put in a few months of riding I figured I’d do all right.
I didn’t. My first race started and immediately I was dropped . Worse, it happened every time. All that summer and most of the next. Three races a night, week after week, month after month. Being shy in a new world, I didn’t talk to many people beyond hello, so I’d arrive in silence with my bike and a bit of hope and leave in silence with my bike. Each Tuesday night driving home I had the same thought: there’s no ****ing way I would have ever endured this in high school. No way I could recover from the constant failure . I was older now, the torment of my teen years passed or comfortably dormant, but I was still quite familiar with the pain and had enough personal insight to know with absolute certainty that had I raced as a teenager I would have been overwhelmed with the rejection, with the lack of perfection, with the shattering of fantasy and would have quit.
Getting repeatedly dropped forced me to deal with my imperfection (and let me tell you, I was getting dropped by guys that were...um...fat). I wasn’t going to stop racing, that was a given, but I had to find a way to stop mentally flagellating myself with an extension cord: the old ball-pein massage to the ego. I’d breath through the failure, tell myself not to get too down, not to worry too much, not to see it in absolutes. Accepting failure is very hard work. Finally towards the end of my second season I was finishing races with the peleton. I learned it wasn’t simply training you needed but a combination of training and experience; you had to be smart, had to find places to rest, had to avoid the accordion. I crested the learning curve and was getting comfortable. One night I flippantly told myself that on the last race, with one lap to go, I was going to “take a flyer” and see how far I could get. At the right time, I got into a big gear and pedaled as hard as I could. Feeling winded I looked back, thinking the group was right behind me. Holy ****, I had a huge gap. For the first time in my life I faced the opportunity of winning a sporting event. I pedaled as hard as I could, felt the others straining, but held them off. I crossed the finish line in first place. I was stunned trying to process what happened. In the car on the way home, when every song sounded great, I wished I could share the acomplishment with that hairless 15 year old kid ashamed in the high school gym shower.
The body I cursed as a teenager is today a blessing. I look younger than my years and enjoy the ability to race competitively with guys half my age. Not that it’s easy to say, but it was worth it. I haven’t forgotten the pain and due to this I plan on keeping my body fit and active (and if you offered me a toke, I’d politely decline). And to give thanks to a curse that has turned into a gift. My teenage decision to get on the bike was insightful. It brought a calmness to the storm inside and a tool for dealing with more ferocious storms and anxieties of responsibly that would come with adulthood. Call it mediation, call it prayer, call it tao, the bicycle journey for me is a path to the divine. I’m older today and know the mountain of my life is on the descent now. I’ve reached the halfway point and have started turning downward. I’m not thinking consciously about my own death enough. Perhaps the bicycle can help me.