When my second son, Kelton, was 4 weeks old, we packed him into the car for a 24-hour drive halfway across the country so I could compete in a mountain bike race. My less-privileged first son, Kieran, had to wait until he was 3 months old to attend his first race, a lowly research-park crit in Madison.
But although he got a late start, by the age of 4, Kieran could accurately name and cheer for the first 20 pro riders at the Portland U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross race (and he would cheer for everyone that followed). And he could identify each individual Telenet-Fidea rider on our grainy Internet feed of the cyclocross World Cup races.
Obviously, we have something of a cycling problem. And that cycling problem has had its own problem lately, as we’ve all been forced to confront our sport’s ugly side.
But I still love cycling. Not because of or despite any particular person, but because cycling is beautiful.
Cycling forces us to confront our failings. As we watched the 2011 Tour de France together, Kieran asked me how Cadel Evans (his favorite rider at the time) had finished the year before. The next question was expected: “Who won?” I said, “We don’t know yet.” And he — of course — asked, “Why not?”
Deciding that he was capable of understanding the answer to a question he knew how to ask, I decided to see where the conversation would take us. What followed was a very mature, thoughtful, and surprisingly detailed conversation about drugs and drug use, honesty, cheating, and fair play — between a father and his 5-year-old son. That conversation continues today, and when he’s a little older, I won’t have to worry about how to start the “drug talk” — the Tour took care of that for me.
Cycling allows us to overcome failure, and maybe more important, allows us to recognize when we haven’t failed. We crash, and we get back up. We get dropped, but we torture ourselves to latch back onto the group. Or we ride alone in the wind because, sometimes, you just have to finish. And we respect every one of those efforts.
My boys have watched me in dozens of races. They have seen me win a few, but mostly they have seen me not win. A few years ago, I returned home from the Cascade Cycling Classic in Bend. I sat down on the couch, and the boys immediately asked me how the race went. I explained how the last stage was probably the most fun I’d ever had in a road race.
“So did you win, Dada?”
“No I didn’t win — in fact, I think I probably came in last.”
“So why was it fun?”
I then shared a story about how Eric was leading the general classification, but that we somehow let a group get away without knowing who was in it. Tony and I had to go to the front and destroy ourselves for 30 minutes before finally catching the break on the feedzone hill. Tony and I blew sky high and crawled home together, 15 minutes after the winners.
“Why was that fun, Dada?”
Because, buddy, we raced as hard as we could as a team and helped our friend win. Now, every did-you-win question is followed by: “Did you help someone else win?”
But I’ll admit, I’m even prouder of a moment that happened a few months later. It had been a mediocre cyclocross season. A few decent results; mostly I was just riding around. But the final race brought the perfect combination of snow and ice, with the right tire pressure, and a little bit of luck. I won my first — and probably last — ’cross race with the fast guys.
But that isn’t the moment of pride. A few days later, I overheard Kieran talking to his friend. “Can you guess who won the race on Sunday? He doesn’t win very much, but he’s a really good bike racer. …” My son understands that you can be “really good” even if you don’t win very much. He may have figured that out before I did.
And cycling makes us better people. My first few years of big-law-firm practice weren’t particularly healthy. My smoking habit was gradually getting worse, and every night ended with a glass, or two, of Scotch. I was getting close to ruining my brand-new marriage, and maybe my life.
But I hadn’t forgotten my early years as a mountain biker, and when the stress of work prevented us from taking a proper honeymoon, we bought mountain bikes instead. My first ride left me near dead on a picnic table at Curt Gowdy State Park, hoping Jess would eventually miss me and come looking for me. She didn’t, and I somehow pulled myself together and survived the climb back up to our house. I quit smoking on the spot.
We started mountain biking together a couple of times a week. We had a few bad rides, but far more great rides. We visited beautiful places together. Whatever problems or anger I was trying to drown in the Scotch began to fade away somewhere along the aspen-lined singletrack. Now, over a decade later, we are stronger and happier. And we get to share those same experiences with our boys.
I believe that cycling has saved my life, at least the wonderful life I have now. It has made me a better person, a better husband, and a better father. It has provided opportunities to teach my boys about life, both the good and the bad.
It has taught them — and it has taught me — how to get back up after we fall. It has introduced me to the best people I have ever met, provided the seeds of my greatest friendships, and shown me beauty I might not have experienced otherwise.
Cycling is hard; it is frustrating and disappointing. It creates impossible heroes, and then it tears them down. For many people, it is impenetrable. Sometimes, it is more than we can handle, at least for a moment.
But cycling is, and will always be, beautiful. And we will always ride.
Editor’s note: Jerrold Long is an associate professor of law at the University of Idaho College of Law in Moscow.