In my 20’s a “bike voice” in the back of my subconscious said biking was for me. I ignored it. My biking experience up to that point had been adventurous, for a small town Iowa boy, but seemingly typical. My mother saved her babysitting money to buy me my first bike when I was five years old. My faded memory is one of a chopper style bike, vintage 1970, with a yellow paint job and a banana seat. Home movies, watched long ago, capture the reality of my first pedal strokes and a crash into the white fence that separated my yard from Mrs. Diehl’s. The bike gave a 5-year-old boy freedom to roam the streets of Iowa City, Iowa.
I recall riding the empty bank parking lot after school with my best friend, Steve. We would run over pop cans, brake skid marks on the pavement and launch off curbs. Although my parents set limits for where I could ride, my first rebel instincts pushed me regularly across those boundaries. There seemed to be few locations in town I couldn’t reach while clutching the black-gripped chrome handle bars. Later in my childhood, I found myself using parts from discarded bicycles to build other bikes.
I used these misfits to cruise through construction sites in my new neighborhood and fly over mounds of dirt. The nervous energy would build up in my gut each time I approached a jump and the outcome often justified the anxiety. As I grew older I remember getting a Kabuki 12 speed which was later replaced by a Panasonic 18 speed. For whatever reason, I can picture those bikes in my mind but seldom does a memory of their use surface.
While I was in High School my mother began cycling seriously. Her weekend mornings were spent traveling down narrow two-lane blacktop towards small Iowa towns. Once her group arrived at their chosen destination they would typically devour a cinnamon roll, gulp a diet soda and head back towards home. All this endured to prepare for multiple tours of Iowa’s RAGBRAI. I remember visiting her at one evening RAGBRAI stopover. The smell of Ben Gay joined with whiffs of draft beer indicated cyclists were willing to do whatever it took to ward off the pains of the day. I couldn’t ignore the pangs of envy knowing my 40-year-old mother was in better shape than me. My brother even joined the RAGBRAI fun one year. I knew I was missing out on something special but cycling couldn’t be cool if it was something that interested Mom.
I continued to suppress my inflexible bike voice that suggested cycling was something I’d enjoy. Later in my 20’s I walked away from college life into corporate America and assumed the responsibility that comes with age. One Christmas my wife and I bought mountain bikes. Ironically, we used money Mom and Dad had given us. One quick visit to a Kansas City bike retailer and I had a new Specialized Hard Rock Sport with climbing bars and pedal clips. We purchased our new bikes with grand plans to ride regularly and work off the excess weight college life left behind. A few ambitious rides were followed by dust gathering activity in the garage.
My bike voice continued to be ignored.
My big breakthrough occurred when a lifelong ambition became reality.
This Iowa boy wanted to move to the mountains. A fortunate opportunity came my way at work and I relocated to Highlands Ranch, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. The paved trails and bike friendly atmosphere of Denver were begging for my attention. My bike made the trip in the moving van but continued to collect dust once unpacked.
As I made new friends I began to discover the bike culture. Although none were hardcore, many of the people in my neighborhood biked regularly. I couldn’t avoid seeing groups depart on their freshly lubed rides for a spin around town. My bike voice began to scream.
One day I was invited to ride along with the pack. My bike could do the trick, so I thought. I hung with the crowd for the first few miles before falling behind. I remember the pack waiting for me at several stoplights while I argued with myself about being out of shape. It was an awful ride. I felt pathetic and relatively sure I would never be invited to ride with them again. I was angry at my bike voice.
After the humiliation wore off I decided I needed a new bike. I saw how my friends on road bikes easily cadenced down the street. My bike was a blacksmith’s anvil compared to the newer bikes I panted to keep within reach. I began to research bikes. I evaluated components, brands, frame material and styles. I built spreadsheets that allowed me to compare different specifications. I analyzed all the data I could find to understand how I could get the best bike based on my budget.
An innocent flip through the Saturday sports section identified a local retailer with an off-season “Bike Blowout.” A quick call to a friend, Jimmy, and I had a companion for shopping. I was overwhelmed walking into the sales complex. There was merchandise everywhere. People were crammed around racks and tables shuffling through discounted, and seemingly outdated, bike accessories.
Rows and rows of bikes ran off in all directions. After navigating through tight aisles I finally caught an idle salesperson, which seemed to be a minor miracle. After a brief conversation I was straddling a LeMond Buenos Aires. The components were right and the Reynolds steel was appealing, although the frame felt a bit uncomfortable. I’m not sure what I was expecting given it had been 15 years since I straddled a road bike. The color was an obnoxiously bright yellow, which seemed to match the yellow of my very first bike. At the time I would have preferred a slightly smaller frame but everything else about this bike felt perfect.
Irrational impulses took over and I made the purchase along with pedals, shoes and the obligatory jersey. A few minutes in line, a quick safety check by a shop tech and I was heading home. I was finally listening to my bike voice.
My first ride on the LeMond wasn’t what I expected. I was left in the dust by the pack on a relatively short hill. That hill would eventually occupy a mid-ride challenge on my favorite 20-mile loop.
One night, while the LeMond still glistened in my garage, the phone rang. Jimmy called asking if I was interested in doing Ride the Rockies, a week long group ride through the mountains. It was an unthinkable question. I just started biking and this type of ride would take prodigious effort riding daily over mountain passes. My ego said yes but my brain said no. Maybe next year, but I needed some time to work into this biking thing.
My first year of real riding was a grand adventure. Getting used to clipless pedals involved the inevitable fall in front of my family. I think that fall is just one of the necessary steps required for initiation into the cycling fraternity.
I subscribed to Bicycling magazine and educated myself on the latest gear and components. I swapped out pedals, bought a new saddle and began collecting tools. I must have washed my bike twice a week during the first year. The LeMond was always spotless, lubed and ready to roll. One overzealous cleaning effort forced a quick visit to the local bike shop so a tech could rebuild my front hub. I also became keenly aware of the dangers of cycling.
It is amazing how hurried and seemingly oblivious people in cars seem to be. I made it a point to promote goodwill between bicycles and autos. Anyone who yielded to me in a car received a smile and a wave of thanks. I made it a point to obey all traffic signs which, amazingly, is required by law but obviously optional.
Throughout the next three years I rode every inch of town and much of the Denver area. I found routes into the foothills and climbed mountain passes regularly. After my first year in the saddle, Jimmy asked me once again if I was up for Ride the Rockies. This time I was in. I had to get in serious shape.
I got in serious shape. I logged countless miles in the saddle preparing myself for the 2003 Ride the Rockies route. My weekly routine included a full day of work, a quick drive home, dinner quickly devoured and a 1 to 2 hour evening ride. My weekends were filled with progressively longer rides including a century ride and several climbs over mountain passes.
The Ride the Rockies route started in Cortez, Colorado, located in the Southwestern corner of the state. The week didn’t start as I expected. My cycling buddy and I opted for the bus ride to Cortez. The grueling bus trip took no fewer than nine hours. Our bikes traveled in boxes loaded in a truck. We made it to Cortez but the bikes didn’t. We waited for hours at the starting point only to discover the truck carrying our bikes overheated on the way to Cortez.
Our kidnapped bikes were now scheduled to show up at 5:00 am the morning of the ride. Not a big deal unless your bike was disassembled and in a cardboard box, which was the case for us. We would have to arrive early, assemble our bikes, hope that everything worked properly, saddle up and head off for the first day. It all worked out in the end.
The first day was a trip of 77 miles from Cortez to Telluride. The opening ceremony involved a spiritual blessing of the ride by a local Indian Chief and then we were on our way. The trek included 4,000 feet of vertical gain and took us over Lizard Head Pass which looms at 12,126 feet above sea level. The approach to Lizard Head was steep and certainly provided a challenge late in the day when my legs were aching. The descent into Telluride offered much needed rest and an end to the first day of riding.
The weeklong experience was literally life changing. I learned things about me that I hoped were true but until that time were unproven. I traveled roads I would never choose if traveling by car. I met people who proved small town American is still very much alive. Each day was filled with new challenges and adventures. With only a glimpse at a photo or a memory jogging comment from Jimmy and I can recall each day with vivid detail, as if playing a DVD in my mind.
404 miles later, I descended into Copper Mountain. The descent was dangerously fast. My bike computer pushed 50 miles per hour down the road from Freemont Pass. Speeds like that put you in such a position of vulnerability yet it defines the freedom you have on a bike. People passed me, I passed people and we all arrived in one piece. The highlight of the end was my wife and two sons waiting for me at the finish line. My first glimpse of them waving signs sent an overwhelming chill of pride down my spine.
I did it.
I hadn’t won the Tour de France. I hadn’t taken a podium finish in a race. I hadn’t really achieved anything more than proving to myself that I could set a goal, train and succeed. That was enough.
Two years later I had thousands of training miles logged, a well used copy of The Lance Armstrong Performance Program book, dozens of photographs and countless memories of two tours of Ride the Rockies.
My road experience opened my eyes to another opportunity. Mountain bikes began to occupy my thoughts, dreams and Excel spreadsheets. The analytical side of me surfaced again as I analyzed mountain bike options. Components, frames, brands and prices were all sorted in a variety of ways to identify the best value for my money.
I made it a point to support the neighborhood bike shop. It really was the neighborhood bike shop, as it was less than 2 miles away. I could get there easily via car, on bike or with a short hike. My family would eventually buy four different bikes at that shop. Although the owner never remembered my name or offered me the type of personalized service that would warrant my loyalty, I felt an obligation to support his local establishment.
One winter day they had a sale. I had been looking at Trek mountain bikes among a variety of other standard names. I walked out that day with a new Trek Fuel 98 complete with a rear carbon triangle, new pedals and climbing bars. My biking buddies already had mountain bikes so we immediately began finding new adventures.
The skill that is required when navigating boulders, creek beds, roots and gravel was much different than I had imagined. Numerous embarrassing falls resulting in cuts, bruises and snow soaked shorts taught me many lessons of momentum and confidence. In one instance I crashed right in front of a husband and wife out walking on a soggy, rock strewn trail. The wife’s gasp, as I fell, only drove the dagger of embarrassment deeper into my ego. With only a few rides under my belt we decided to head to a mountain biking mecca, Fruita Colorado, for the Fruita Fat Tire Festival.
I knew little about Fruita but what I read only increased my excitement for this adventure. Guided rides would allow us to get a feel for the typical routes. The crowds meant I wouldn’t be left for days after being thrown over the handlebars and breaking my leg.
I vividly remember my first ride through the trails. The guide was patient and informative. I dismounted and walked at times while building confidence. Each mile of singletrack gave me more experience and courage. One run in particular, the Kestle Run, was something we repeated several times. The snaking turns through a dry riverbed brought a level of excitement and thrill I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. I couldn’t believe how much fun I was having.
We slowly graduated to more difficult trails as the weekend progressed. One route in particular haunted my thoughts as I drifted off to sleep one night. There was a section that presented a series of descending rock shelves that ended in a sizeable drop back onto the singletrack. I froze the first time I approached this feature. I couldn’t muster the courage so I walked over the barrier. I couldn’t erase that failure from my mind.
The next day we decided to spend time on the same route. I knew that feature was approaching, but despite my mental preparation, I froze again. Determined, I backed up my bike and rode down the rock shelves. I navigated the final drop clumsily but stayed upright. I dismounted and rode the feature again, this time with more confidence and grace.
As the weekend wore on I began to challenge my abilities and aggressively took on increasingly more difficult sections of the trail. Sometimes I failed but many times I succeeded. For me, mountain biking is a great exercise in concentration and determination. It causes you to clear your mind and focus on your fears. I can’t wait to get back to Fruita; I still have a few sections in my personal accomplishment wish list.
My career path eventually led me away from Colorado.
Missouri is much further behind Colorado in terms of embracing and promoting alternative forms of transportation. Thanks to the numerous dedicated cyclists and organizations, there is hope.
The best lesson learned in my biking experience has to do with people. Biking seems to be a sport that attracts people interested in enjoying life. Happiness sits on the faces of the bikers I’ve met; that holds true for a ride around the block or the 99th mile of a century loop. Biking is a simple pleasure in life enjoyed by those willing to take the time.
There’s something special about the unspoken bond that connects a group of strangers in a small shelter waiting out a storm so they can complete that day’s mileage. They seem to get satisfaction from the simplicity of their situation. Those things are true in Colorado, Missouri and the world, I imagine.
During a trip back to Colorado, a news station reported a teenage driver hit a 63 year-old male cyclist. The rider had been spinning down a familiar route of mine. The teen was allegedly text messaging on his cell phone while driving.
Despite the well-planned and sufficiently sized bike lanes, the car drifted across the marker and hit the biker. The biker eventually died from his injuries. Such a senseless, preventable action led to an innocent man’s death.
I also visited a friend. In his garage sits my old Specialized. I sold it to him for a small token fee in hopes of creating another cycling devotee. I couldn’t help but take a quick inventory of its condition. A quick adjustment of the sagging saddlebag and a test of the tire pressure were all that was necessary to assure me it was ready to ride. I wonder — what happened to the banana-seated chopper that I had when I was five.
“eBay”, whispers my bike voice.
Time allows wisdom and experience to change our perspective on the world. My 20 years of helping achieve the corporate dreams of others provided me with a great deal of business experience and enough financial rewards to provide for my family along the way.
My bike voice took on a different tone last year as I began to research owning my own bicycle retail store. I hope to do my part to support the economy, promote trail building and help people enjoy the sport of cycling. I know from my past experience that a world with more cyclists is a better world.
Cyclists go through life at a pace that allows them to observe things from a different perspective. They follow roads less traveled, they understand the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and they understand how cycling can positively affect a person in so many different ways.
I hope you’ll stop by the store and share your story with me. I’m anxious to get to know you and hear why you love cycling. The story isn’t over.
April 28, 2012 marked our five year anniversary. It was a busy Saturday, typical of what life has been like the past half decade. The day started with a 7am trip to the store for supplies — really cool stuff like toilet paper, towels for the bathrooms, new mop heads and peanut M&Ms. The highlight of the cargo – the M&Ms – were post ride treats for our women’s ride happening later in the day.
A regular shop ride took off at 8am a the store was open at 9. Bikes rolled in and out of the doors and the 6pm closing time quickly arrived — along with exhaustion. A brief look at the optimistic business plan that I originally assembled shows reality wasn’t far from plan. The journey, however, could not have been predicted.
Every economic challenge possible has been thrown our way the past five years: ever increasing gas prices, economic meltdown, high unemployment, painfully slow recovery and a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the economic turmoil, one thing has remained consistent. People want to ride. Every one of our customers has a story guiding them through our door; health, fitness, gas expense reduction, competition, coercion from a significant other – you name it, I’ve heard it.
We just try not to get in the way and help in any way we can. We have a great staff and great customers. Without either, we couldn’t survive.
What about that bike voice?
I can’t get it out of my head. It seems as if everything I do these days involves biking. I work countless hours at the shop, most of my vacations involve biking, I mountain bike with one son and carve out time to play golf with the other. Which is better, a four hour bike ride or a four hour round of golf? Doing both with my family would define my perfect day.
So, the bike voice I suppressed in my youth is now a never ending infomercial swirling in my brain.