21 years ago, I found myself in agony in a ditch on the side of the road staring at the pavement between my legs. I had just crossed a finish line and my bike lay next to me as pain coursed through my body. I’ve been in a ditch on the side of the road many times, but this one was different. After racing 120km through Quito, Ecuador, cramps had paralyzed my legs 5km from my adolescent dream, World Jr. Road Race Champion. As I faltered on the penultimate climb, I’d lost my final chance to earn the coveted World Champion rainbow stripes. At 16, I rode at Worlds in Greece. At 17, in Australia. Now at 18, in Ecuador, I had my best shot with both age and experience playing in my favor. But things didn’t come together perfectly and I wouldn’t stand on the top podium block. Since finding my love of bikes with the most incredible kid’s cycling program that ever existed, the Red Zinger Mini Classic, I had won a handful or so of US National Championships and found my specialty in stage races. But nothing has the cachet of the Rainbow jersey.
Four days earlier, I had come within two seconds of that jersey. Two seconds! Riding the Individual Time Trial, I had fought back from a 50 second deficit halfway into the race to finish second to Dean Rogers of Australia. That ride earned me a US national record that stands to this day and serves as the highlight result of my not-exactly-a-bike-racing-career. Even though I had excelled in time trialling since my first national championships at 13, I’d always been focused on the road race. So this silver medal performance was wholly unexpected and momentous for me. It wasn’t the pinnacle of experience, but it was close.
Here’s something you need to know. For me, and most likely others, bike racing at an elite level was a life of meticulous dedication, sacrifice and discipline. Most of the time, the reward was heartbreak. But every once in a while the reward was an experience of pure joy.
That joy would come in many different ways over my seven years racing. Sometimes it would come in “easy” gifted ways. Waking up to my first “real” bike, a glossy black Nishiki 10 speed, that my parents had snuck into my room overnight would elicit a rush of that joy I fondly remember to this day.
Other times, that joy would be “earned” and come in a difficult way. After the idea of bike racing found me at 11 years old, I quickly entered my first event, a circuit race in Boulder, Colorado. I was so excited to race and had spent hours reading Bicycling magazines in preparation. The gun went off, I got into my toe clips and straps, and within a mile I was dropped and soon after lapped. Heartbreak. The next day I got back on the bike. Riding from my home at the base of Colorado’s Front Range, I headed straight for the biggest mountain within my parent-prescribed radius. This was a 12 mile ride with a steep, curving, sun-baked climb of about 4 miles before topping out at a beautiful lake. As hard as I tried on that first ride, I could only make it a half mile or so before having to stop, sit by the side of the road and rest. Then I’d try again. A half dozen stops later, I finally reached the lake exhausted. I found no joy at reaching the top and I was displeased by the many stops it took me to get there. This was completely unacceptable so I did the only thing that seemed reasonable. I rode home and tried it the next day, then the next day, then the next…. It would take weeks before I could ride the whole mountain without stopping. But on a mid-summer day, when I had pushed as hard as I could, after weeks of trying, after not stopping once on the climb up, I rolled over the top to see the lake in a new way. As the sun’s rays bounced off the water through a canopy of Ponderosa pines and into my eyes, I experienced my first “earned” serving of pure joy by bike.
After many more races, wins and losses, crashes and drug tests, airplanes and foreign countries, awesome people and assholes, I would suffer and sacrifice myself to a lot of heartbreak, but also a lot of joy. As I sat in that ditch in Ecuador having finished a disappointing 6th place in the road race, I looked at my bike and realized that I had missed my chance at a last helping of joy from cycling and sadly I wouldn’t have a chance at it again. I would have expected to feel that familiar heartbreak, but this time I didn’t. Because it didn’t really matter anymore.
Six months earlier, my best friend (who also raced at an elite level) and I had decided to walk away from bike racing and move to Alaska. I’d always dreamed of wild Alaska and had been evaluating a change in life over the previous months for quite a few reasons. Unbeknownst to me, he had been thinking of his future and Alaska was in his mind also. On a serendipitous morning spring ride, we had a conversation that would last for several hours and stretch across many days. But it started kind of like this, “So, I’m thinking that Alaska looks cool and maybe I’ll move there.” “NO WAY, that’s totally what I’m thinking!” “DUDE.” (Ok, we didn’t really talk like that, but that’s kind of the gist of how things started.) While he immediately hung up his bike, I had decided to try to end things with a World Championship win. After flying home from Ecuador with a silver medal but no rainbow jersey, I packed for the momentous drive north away from the “career” that never was. We headed up the Alcan to a new life of adventure, and I was overwhelmed with excitement. As I looked in the rearview mirror, I was perfectly content that there was no bike in the familiar place strapped to the back of my Jeep.