This is the true story of how biking had a profound impact on my life, leading me all over the country. Saddle up kiddies, as this is going to be a long one, and a last chance to indulge.
By the end of my freshman year of college, athletics had stopped dominating my life as it they once had. From the earliest age, I was playing sports every day. At age five I used to run laps around the perimeter of our house–I wasn’t allowed to leave our yard–because I had so much energy (and we had no cable). I would do this for upwards of 90 minutes, I recall. Then I would shoot hoops on the basketball hoop I begged my dad for. Recesses and afternoons in grade school were without fail spent playing tackle football while we were still small enough not to inflict (too much) permanent damage. Knowing what we now know about concussions, I suspect my generation will be the last to truly try to tear each other’s clocks off. Little league baseball dominated my summers, until I realized I was the world’s worst batter, took up tennis to improve, and discovered I was much better with a bigger hitting surface and angles & spins than raw power. If I wasn’t practicing tennis, I was still running, qualifying for the USTF national track meet in the 1500, 3000, long jump, and high jump. “Slow twitch” and “fast twitch” were alien terms to me. In high school, I still ran to stay in shape but it was soccer and tennis I stuck with, captaining both my junior and senior years. By then though, my small build and lack of explosive speed became more of a handicap. I barely made the collegiate tennis #3 doubles team as an alternate, and while I graduated with a perfect 3-0 record, my interest in playing sports dissipated in direct inverse relation to my interest in college girls, beer, and pizza. And beer.
I gained 40 pounds by the end of my sophomore year.
One summer night home I attempted to begin a weight loss regimen by running. It lasted one day. An osteochondroma discovered my senior year of high school, just above my knee, rubbed my IT band raw within the first half mile. And I was almost 3 minutes slower in the two mile effort I put in than my personal best. And so the next day after dinner, I pulled my dad’s Huffy down from the rafters in the garage (my sledgehammer’s wheels were out of true, and therefore, I thought, busted).
I took that bike on the farthest route I could on the windy backcountry plains of northern Illinois. In jeans I clearly remember, then size 34x32s, which incidentally, I recently just found and donated to goodwill, since I am now back to 28x32s, in spite of the 100 degree weather and humidity near 60%, in my mind, I was already fit enough to ride that race in France, in spite of my paunch. I was a naturally gifted athlete, after all. I could barely walk by the time I returned, and had to know how many miles I’d just completed. Surely it was a journey of epic proportions I had just completed. I could barely feel my legs and my heart was racing, my head pouring sweat.
If MapQuest (remember Mapquest?!) could be trusted, I had just ridden 10 miles exactly. I googled tour de france. Apparently it was over 2000 miles. OK, maybe after a year of late night Papa Johns, Steak and Shake runs, and something called drunken dress-up commando boob-shirt Friday (TM), I wasn’t in shape. My paunch wasn’t just some hibernation padding. I had, as my girlfriend, who was a beanpole, finally broke it to me in plain speak: a pudgy little beer gut. I studiously avoided tight clothing or many pics emphasizing this gain, though I can find one where I only wish the second chin could be blamed on the angle of the camera.
I wasn’t fat. And what I would give to have that thick of hair once again. But I the image I had of myself as an athlete, in shape and motivated, still able to run better than just about anyone I came across, didn’t match reality. This hit home after I could barely walk the next day after that ten mile ride. But that night, I got back on the bike and did it again. The same ten miles. That whole summer, I rode just about every night. I lost twenty pounds by the fall.
But then, disaster struck. I went on a semester abroad with 30 other 19-22 year olds–Rome, Paris, London, Oxford, Munich, Luzerne, Vienna. It was the trip of a lifetime. It was gastronomic heaven. And I walked everywhere, and held off the weight gain I saw some of my friends succomb, giving into the lure of Monsieur le Crepe, as I called him, off the Glacier station, or the Millenium gelato near the Via Candia outside the Vatican Walls. Had I been Bush, I would have raised my Mission Accomplished banner then and there.
But, again like Bush, it would have proved premature. I grew a bit homesick by the end, and began eating as way of comfort. And I was so happy to return stateside for the holidays, I celebrated and partied. “Car Bomb our Livers” might haven been the wickedly clever rallying cry of the Euro-themed party we threw upon return to school. The twenty pounds I had lost thanks to my dad’s bike came roaring back with a vengeance.
I avoided riding until the following summer, when again I stepped on the scale to see the damage done. Back out came the huffy and the single-minded dedication to losing weight. I quickly regained the form I had had the previous summer. Down ten pounds after three weeks, I was chatting with a buddy on AIM (is mine the last generation to remember AIM?!) and it came up that he had bought a road bike, the Trek 1000. I invited him to ride with me. Thinking he would drive up and we’d go ride, I was surprised when he rode twenty miles to come meet me instead. Must have taken him 2 hours, I thought. No way he could be faster than me. I was always a way better athlete back in high school. He was pudgier than I had ever been. But immediately upon riding, it was clear he was simply too fast for me. He had to wait atop every small roller. He’d easily cruise past me on the flats even as I struggled to push the biggest gear I could. How could this be? He told me he’d been training six months to do a triathlon. But that couldn’t be it. Obviously, he was only faster than me because of the bike. Had to be the bike.
Clearly I hadn’t even heard of Lance’s biography. Nevertheless, within days I had gone out and made the biggest purchase of my life, a $700 Trek 1000.
It. Was. Fast. I loved loved loved it, and began riding harder and faster and farther every day. I did a 25 mile ride one day, riding to my community bandshell for our summer concert series rehearsal, and then back. But one night at a dress rehearsal for our community theater production of Moon Over Buffalo, I accidentally stepped off the back of the 8″ elevated stage during a scene change, severely spraining my ankle. I was done riding for the foreseeable future.
My senior year, I met a girl who has become the love of my life. I wanted to stay in shape for her, and began lifting weights, and i took three P.E. classes and a blow-off biology 101 class in my final term. (I was really good at scheduling easy springs when the weather in Rock Island, IL was gorgeous.) One of the P.E. classes was cycling. I was back on the bike. And I was riding even during school. I couldn’t believe I could keep the weight off as long as I rode 3x a week. And man could I get places faster. Healthier and happier with a girlfriend than I’d ever been with any prior, I was truly enjoying life. And biking was part of that enjoyment. And so when I moved to Chicago briefly to take a job working at an antique store between graduating and moving to Philadelphia for graduate school, my rare days off–1 a week at best were spent riding along Lake Michigan. But I commuted every day, and I rode that commute as hard as I could. It was the first riding like training I’d ever done.
When i moved to Philadelphia on exactly August 1st, I was alone in the world. School didn’t start for a month, so I knew no one. 15th & Dauphin wasn’t exactly the best spot to meet friendly neighbors and go out for a pint. I had no cable, no internet. My itunes library, a copy of Infinite Jest, and my phone were all I had. That, and my bike. I rode that bike probably every single day, no more than past Manayunk, until one day I discovered the Valley Forge Trail. I made it to Metz park and back, coming home utterly shattered. The very next day, I was spotted locking my bike to a bike lock outside the Paley library, where I’d go when I couldn’t stand teh heat of my un-air conditioned apartment, when the then-founder & president of Temple Cycling spotted me. He was the first live person who wasn’t behind a counter selling me pasta sauce or oatmeal to address me in a month. “Nice bike man. Wanna join the cycling team?” Some people to talk to? Potential friends? Bikes? Absolutely!
He was an interesting character, and went on to describe how great cycling was, how I’d shave my legs and race and wear spandex all the time. I chuffed at his words, but took him as a nice guy with good intentions. Not effing likely! I privately thought. But I came out on the first Temple Cycling Team ride the following Saturday. It was the highlight of my year. Weekdays became filler between those future Temple team rides. I met UPenn and Drexel and Villanova cyclists through that ride as well. Some of those people I met through those rides I will stand aside on the alter as we groomsmen watch yet another friend-through-cycling get married this September.
I did my first race on March 1st, 2008. A month later I was hired by Breakaway as an eager young cycling enthusiast. I am fortunate that an amazing man, Joe Wentzell, spotted something in me–a passion, a drive, a spark, something–that indicated just how important cycling would come to me in the future. It is funny how such small decisions, like deciding to lose weight (who hasn’t resolved that at least a dozen times?) can ultimately lead to such profound life changes. I am not a spiritual person, though I have perhaps discovered my vocation–my calling. At Augustana College, we had a center for vocational studies. Its spiritual bent turned me off, but now I get it. Cycling and I are a perfect match. I have fallen head over heals with the sport and the lifestyle. I just love to ride. I ride to stay fit, to compete, to commute, to get around, just to have fun. I ride rain or shine, snow or sweltering heat. There is a bike for all seasons.
A new season is dawning for me. This is my last blog post for Breakaway Bikes. I am moving on to take the position as director of the cycling team at Midwestern State University. Collegiate cycling has had a profound impact on me. It has fundamentally changed me, and for the better. And MSU has one of the best programs in the country. I go there with a lot of pressure, a lot of expectations. But I am up for it, come hell or high water.
As I write this through blurry eyes, I am reminded of a piece of wisdom. It comes from a dear friend, who told me “you love it here not because of the liberty bell or rittenhouse square- you love it here because of the people you have met and the relationships you have formed.” You can take me out of Philly, but the people here I’ve grown to love over the past five years I will never forget and always be thankful for.
Lux et Velocitas 2010 KOM