Out of the Wind

A cyclist’s memoir.

I didn’t care about bicycles when I was a kid. My world wasn’t made for them. The house I grew up in sat on the outskirts of a small town in the Canadian prairies. Our driveway was steep and gravelly. The only road ran long and flat and boring through fields of wheat and canola. My parents bought me a 10-speed at some point (Christmas, probably). But I had no need for wheels; there were plenty of kicks to be had on foot, exploring the steep riverbanks and ramshackle barns that surrounded our acreage.

It never occurred to me that riding a bicycle down our unending un-curving potted road could be more fun than clamoring through haunted hay lofts or hunting ninjas in shoulder-high grass. So my bike was banished to the corner of our garage, alongside the detritus of other short-lived hobbies and athletic false-starts; hockey nets, badminton racquets, a GT Racer, snorkel fins, a Skip-It (my brother’s), a Pogo Ball (mine).

But thinking back, I always felt a pang of envy whenever I saw the suburban TV kids racing around curved cul-de-sacs on big colorful Schwinns. Elliot from E.T., Kevin from The Wonder Years, The Goonies. Those guys had it made.

Bicycles didn’t get their chance in my spotlight until my mother announced she was leaving my father. The divorce was ugly. Our home life oscillated between bouts of stifling passive-aggressive silence and explosive emotional tantrums; not an ideal environment to be raising two pre-pubescent boys. My mother’s escape plan was to up and move 2200 miles east to Toronto. The glass towers and concrete sprawl of Canada’s financial and cultural center were about as far from the lifeless marriage — and metaphorically dull prairies — as she could get. And she was taking my younger brother and me with her. The change was sudden and painful. I was twelve.

We arrived in Toronto in the fall. The following summer I returned to my childhood home to spend a month with my father, per the shared custody agreement. It was during that first tense visit that he did what I imagine many distraught divorcees do, he bought his kids expensive gifts. In my case, a 21 speed GT Tequesta; A rugged mountain bike with a double-butted chromoly frame, bullhorn handlebars, rapid-fire shifting, big black knobby tires, and a metallic purple flecked paint job. This was the beginning.

“Tequesta” is both the name of a town in southern Florida and the Native tribe that once made the area their home. But neither seem like a good candidate to name a mountain bike after. Florida is essentially a flat plateau barely above sea level — noticeably bereft of the mountains required for mountain biking. And the Tequesta people were decimated by Spanish invaders 100 years before the bicycle was even invented. No matter. All I cared was that “Tequesta” looked wicked cool in hot orange serif.

It was the early 1990’s and I was coming of age in a pop culture era where everything was to the max, dude. X-treme sports were x-ploding into the mainstream. The media was overrun with amped-up adrenalin junkies who just loved to smash ’Dews and Get Vertical. “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.” That was my motto, according, at least, to the giant block letters on my favorite No Fear brand t-shirt. It was a great time to be 13.

I spent that first radical Tequesta Summer ruining family backpacking trips. Pleasant nature walks became grueling slogs as we pushed our bikes up steep switchbacks weighed down by heavy packs and gear. Even the downhills were joyless body-breaking grinds. It’s no wonder my brother never took up the sport. No nine year old should be forced to carry a 15 pound bike over a log bridge in the rain; That’s how mental scars are formed. But I was hooked. I loved my bicycle. I loved the idea of it. I just hadn’t figured out how to love riding it.

My brother, left, trying not to die as I gaze at my beloved.

I returned to Toronto that fall to start the 9th grade in a new school with a new sense of confidence. I was now a mountain biker. And I was sure that mountain biking, like all extreme activities, was universally recognized as a super cool thing practiced by super cool people. I couldn’t wait for my new classmates to welcome me as an action sports hero.

But Central High was a long way from the rural public school where I had spent the previous eight years. For one thing, it was in a city — a big city. Kids walked to school or rode public transit. I didn’t know how to do either, so my mother drove me the four blocks, both ways, every day. Very un-extreme.

The school population seemed to be divided into two rival gangs. One wore teal colored uniforms featuring a bee, the other wore red with a bull. I was terrified. Apparently, the rabid NBA fanaticism of the 90’s hadn’t found its way to the small white-bread towns of the Canadian west quite yet. I was clueless.

My carefully paired silk vests and colorful tucked-in t-shirts (celebrated by my old farmer friends) did not get the kind of attention I had hoped for. Even my new undercut hairdo was a few years behind the curve. I thought every one of my classmates was a thug. I was sure that I would be mugged at my locker. There was no way I would ever ride my prized Tequesta to Gangland High.

My mother had other ideas.

Being from a rough working-class city in England, my mother understood the social dynamics of the school yard far better than I ever could (or would). She was going to Beatles’ concerts, rolling cigarettes, and bleaching her own hair with actual bleach by age 13. So when I came home from my first day of school panicked that I didn’t have the right clothes and that my punishment was sure to be a throat-punch (the bully threat de rigueur), she didn’t hesitate. She knew Cool mattered. We drove straight to the mall and found one of those puffy red jackets with the bull on it. She even made sure I got Starter brand (knockoffs were not tolerated, the clerk assured us).

For a middle-aged woman who was newly single, newly unemployed, and trying to raise two boys on her own in a new city, her commitment to making us feel at home astounds me to this day. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to help us feel better about our new lives — no puffy jacket she wouldn’t buy. And she sure as shit wasn’t going to let her teenaged son suffer the daily humiliation of being dropped off at school by his mother.

The first day Mum forced me to ride Tequesta to Central High I was absolutely sure that she would be stolen from the bike racks. Why had I spent an entire Sunday cleaning and polishing her? She was an easy target now. The smart move would have been to cake her with mud, tie on a big wicker basket, and maybe add a tall orange flag to the back. But it was too late for camouflage. She was gorgeous and the world could see it. I spent the entire day slumped in my desk envisioning the various ways thieves would cut her two locks and joy-ride her through town on the way to their drug dens. Or maybe they’d just wait for me with with crowbars and chains. That’s what street gangs used, right? Chains? At least my new red jacket would hide the blood.

The walk from the school to the bike racks was excruciating. Every kid was a suspect, even the one Lakers fan. When I finally reached the racks, I could barely bring myself to look. There, among the tangled, rusting mess of other kids’ department store bikes, Tequesta stood unharmed, her purple flecks gleaming in the afternoon sun. You’ve never seen hands unlock a bike so fast. But I wasn’t fast enough. As I yanked her out of the racks, a voice stopped me cold, “Cool bike.” I froze, waiting for pain, death, both. But none came. No chains. I turned. There were no gangbangers. Just a skinny kid wearing an ill-fitting Tommy Hilfiger button-down and a giant denim backpack. He was unlocking his own mountain bike, a rugged green steed with shiny silver stickers. I didn’t know the brand but I could recognize a well-loved bicycle. Even the tires were clean. He grinned, “We should go biking some time,” and rode off.

That was Sean. We spent the rest of high school riding our bikes together. And I met lots of other kids who were bike obsessed, too. At first we just cruised town looking for dirt patches to skid our tires in and curbs to bunny-hop off. Then we discovered a network of dirt trails in the forest behind the local library. We took turns racing through the bermed sections and catching a few inches of air off the tabletop jump some older kids had built. We had our own little gang. And we didn’t need matching jackets. We had mountain bikes.

My favorite memory of that time is really more of a sensation. Riding at night through city streets with a pack of friends, we’d glide along and turn our pedals just fast enough to stop the freewheel from making that clicking sound when you coast, but not so fast that the bike was creaking or the tires were digging at the ground. The goal was to just float, in the black, completely silent — a reprieve from the anxiety and shame and loneliness and desperation and fear that come with those first years of teenagehood.

On the best nights, you rode along at pace with the summer breeze, so not even the wind was pushing back.

We considered ourselves hard-core mountain bikers, but we really weren’t. We were with just city kids with bikes. After school we’d descend on The Brant Cycle Shop. Not to buy, just to look; the latest RockShox suspension forks, old copies of Mountain Bike Action, a poster of downhill goddess Missy “The Missile” Giove. She wore a mummified piranha on a string around her neck. “Why didn’t girls like that go to our school?” we’d moan.

The shop manager had probably had enough of our zitty faces skulking around and scaring off customers. He was a pudgy 40 year old man with a greasy black mullet. I still struggle to imagine hime astride a bicycle. “Why aren’t you boys out riding The Bruce?” We didn’t know. We weren’t real mountain bikers. He pulled out a map.

The Bruce Trail is a massive network of dirt trails — 800 miles worth — that run from the Niagara River to the tip of Tobermory, Ontario. And it was just a few miles from our school. From that day on, any spare weekend was spent either riding the trails, preparing to ride them, or talking about riding them. The Bruce had everything; Flowy singletrack, gnarly downhills, technical rock gardens, ladders, log rides, even a dirt jump track. Mile after mile of meticulously designed and well-maintained mountain bike park. Right in my own back yard. My home away from home.

Bombin’ The Bruce.

By the end of high school my self-identity was tightly wrapped in Mountain Biker (capital M, capital B). I took pride in the weird tan lines created by my fingerless gloves. For a class assignment, Sean and I created a business plan for a guiding company we called Totally Radical Mountain Bike Adventures. My bedroom was plastered with posters of the sport’s iconic figures: John Tomac, Tinker Juarez, Gary Fisher (I was too awkward and embarrassed to put up a poster of Missy). I even clopped around school in filthy clip-in cycling shoes. I remember asking a girl if she thought they were cool. She said they were very “Me.” I took it as a compliment.

In the summer after 10th grade, my father brought my brother and me along on a family vacation to Australia with his new girlfriend and her two young daughters. I was there against my will. I was a moody teen and not at all excited about gallivanting with a new family around some lame country doing lame tourist junk. I wanted to be on The Bruce. But I knew the Mountain Biking World Cup was to be held in Cairns that year. I smelled an opportunity. I spent the entire trip begging my father to take us to ride the new course. I was relentless. I sulked like only a 15 year old boy can. Eventually, after just a few weeks, he gave in. Thinking back, I suspect he had always intended to set aside some bike time for us. He just liked to watch me squirm. We ditched the girls and spent a day riding pro-level trails. It was fantastic. Seeing my mood swing from black to effervescent at the mere suggestion of a day spent mountain biking inspired my father to brand me with a nickname that he still uses today: Bike Brain. Again, I took it as a compliment.

I don’t come from a family of cyclists. But I turned us into one. My father was the first to convert. He recognized that mountain biking was a way to connect to me. Trips to visit him were organized around mountain bike adventures in Banff, Whistler, and southern California. We even rented bikes on a trip to the Caribbean. He always had the latest equipment and was eager to jump on the trail with me. I now know that he didn’t share my obsessive passion for bikes. For Dad, cycling was a means to an end. He probably would have been as enthusiastic about karate or astronomy if they had offered the same opportunity to spend time with his oldest boy. But familiarity breeds liking; do something long enough and you’ll actually start to enjoy it. Last year he rode in a two-day bicycle marathon for charity. I wasn’t there. I didn’t find out about it until after it was over. He did it because he wanted to. He did it for himself.

My younger brother’s interest in bikes was never as intense as mine or even our father’s. Maybe he was too damaged by those early bike-hike experiments. Or maybe it just wasn’t his thing and we were close enough that we didn’t need common interests to find common ground. Either way, he was always game to join in on a ride whenever he could tell I was really jonesing. And these days he regularly commutes through the streets of London in his career as a photographer. Whether he’d admit it or not, he’s a cyclist.

My mother hates bikes. Every bicycle she has ever owned has been cursed with mechanical issues. It’s all the more infuriating because she loves bicycling. A few years ago, when she left Toronto for a seaside village in England, one of the first things she did was buy a used coaster bike. Now she spends summer days cruising up and down the boardwalk with a feisty group of women her own age. And when Christmas comes, she rides 2 hours on the train to a trendy cycling boutique in London to find me a gift. Like my father and my brother, cycling started as a way to connect with me, but now it’s part of who she is.

In high school, a crucial part of the Mountain Biker identity was to hold a burning hatred for road cyclists. We called them Roadies, Weight Weenies, or Lancey Pants (in reference to the chief of the Spandex Clan, Lance Armstrong). In our view, the only cycling worthy of existence was mountain biking. It was challenging, thrilling, freeing, dangerous, and in tune with nature. Roadies wore spandex, we wore old concert t-shirts. Roadies shaved their legs, we embraced werewolfism. Roadies raced, we rode when we wanted, were we wanted, for as long as we wanted. Mountain biking was Rock & Roll. Road cycling was Adult Contemporary.

I joined the university newspaper my freshman year and met a different breed of cyclists: Couriers. They earned money delivering packages and letters for us on their stripped-down sticker-caked road bikes. They were fearless and painfully hip; racing through traffic on brakeless fixed-gear bicycles dressed for a CBGB show. If mountain bikers were Rock & Roll, bicycle couriers were Punk.

The couriers celebrated cycling not just as an activity, but as a culture. They self-identified not as athletes but as activists. They passed around petitions demanding City Hall install bike lanes on major thoroughfares. They organized student groups to join protest rides like Critical Mass. They held illegal midnight races through city streets called Alley Cats. They raised funds for charities that sent bicycles to children in Africa. These people loved bikes for more than just an adrenalin fix, they understood the power of a bicycle — any bicycle — to connect communities, build relationships, and make the world a bit better. My singular devotion to mountain biking seemed suddenly childish. I sold off most of my collection of mountain bikes and built a fixie.

Through university and into my career, cycling remained a part of my identity, if not part of my daily routine. Work and Life just got in the way. I commuted through Toronto on a simple single-speed bicycle and occasionally dusted-off my one remaining mountain bike for a trail ride, but my interests expanded into travel, photography, music, career, and relationships. For the first time since I was twelve, my Bike Brain took a backseat to all my other brains. Then I moved to Seattle. I was 32.

If there is a God, He most definitely designed Seattle as soon as He got home from a sick mountain biking trip. The Guy collapsed on His couch — amped on the rush — and committed Himself to joining a local team, getting in serious shape, and maybe even buying one of those techy new full-suspension bikes He saw in the rental shop. Then, so stoked on His new passion, He opened His sketchpad and got to business designing the cyclist’s paradise that we call Seattle. The Post-ride High is real, and God obviously had it bad.

Seattle is about a quarter of the size of Toronto, is impossibly green, and has shockingly easy access to some of the best off-road cycling in the world. Riders have an embarrassment of terrain options: The alpine summits in the Cascade mountain range, the lush rainforests on the Olympic peninsula, the arid deserts of the eastern plains, the mossy shores of the Puget Sound, or the rolling hills that rise between the dense network of lakes and rivers. It never gets too hot and it rarely snows. If you can endure 200 days of cloud cover and a never-ending Nirvana soundtrack, Seattle is an outdoor athlete’s dreamscape.

So when my wife and I took jobs in a small Seattle creative agency, I was sure that trading the cold concrete of Toronto for the wooded slopes of the Pacific Northwest would rekindle my relationship with mountain biking. Nope.

My new workplace wasn’t filled with a rugged crew of mountain bikers as I had expected. But there was a group of dedicated cyclists: Roadies. If I wanted to get back in the saddle and ingratiate myself with my new colleagues, I would have to find myself some Lancey Pants.

New city, new me, right? I swallowed my deep (deep) seated prejudices and decided to give this road cycling thing a try, if only temporarily — just long enough to convince everyone that they were missing out on a far superior form of cycling. I started slow. No spandex. No shaved legs.

My first foray into the world of road cycling came in the form of a used cyclocross bike I found on Craigslist. Cyclocross, I discovered, is a niche form of bicycle racing that blends both mountain biking and road biking. Competitors race around a rough dirt circuit on a bike fitted with the big wheels and curly handlebars of a road bike, but beefed-up with the knobby tires and rugged construction of a mountain bike. And they drink lots of beer. It was the perfect half-step to get me from the trails to the road.

I tuned-up my new bike and joined in on the work rides; early morning excursions exploring Seattle and the surrounding areas. It wasn’t long until road riding had me smitten (don’t tell Sean). I loved the camaraderie of our tight-knit group. Pre-ride dawn espressos, post-ride patio beers, shared homemade rice snacks in between. And most surprisingly to me, I got competitive.

In all my years riding bikes, I never raced. It was antithetical to everything that I thought cycling was about: Escape from structure, rules, and expectations. My aversion to racing was linked to my hatred of roadies. I thought they were all rigid, soulless, and aggressive. The idea of riding my bike with any goal — save ‘just getting out there’ — repulsed me.

Back in Toronto, a work friend once convinced me to join him in a 24 hour mountain bike race. It was torture. I loved the beer-fueled festival atmosphere of the event and the camaraderie of our team, but I didn’t understand the masochism. Why would anyone willingly subject themselves to such hideous pain? It would be a long time before I learned to enjoy suffering on my bike.

Within a year of moving to Seattle my casual group rides had turned into aggressive training sessions. My used cyclocross bike was replaced by a brand new carbon fiber Cervélo road bike. I was on a team and competing in the local criterium race series. I logged long hours in the saddle trying to improve my endurance and explosive sprint. Our team coach designed me a personalized training schedule to maximize performance gains. The harder I worked, the better I got, and the more I enjoyed myself. Self-imposed suffering was starting to make sense.

“No pain, no gain” is annoying for two reasons: it rhymes and it’s true.

Being surrounded by so many passionate Roadies (they hate that term, by the way), I quickly learned that road cycling has profoundly more culture and history than mountain biking — or any other form of cycling. The mythology surrounding the legendary European races and riders fascinated me. I was especially impressed by the hardened men who rode Paris-Roubaix, a 115 year old single-day race through northern France. For 160 miles, the world’s toughest riders battle over some of Europe’s harshest cobblestone roads. It often snows. According to Irish two-time winner Sean Kelly, Paris-Roubaix is “a horrible race to ride but the most beautiful to win.” They call it The Hell of the North.

From the 1940’s to the 1970’s, Paris-Roubaix, and all of professional road cycling, was dominated by virtuosic athletes who relied on their own physical strength and iron will to carry them to the finish. There were no million dollar sponsorships, VO2 max calculations, carbon fiber wheels, or wind tunnel training sessions. These guys just rode hard, drank wine, smoked cigarettes, loved women, and rode hard again. Grit meets style. Punk meets Jazz.

Fausto Coppi, suffering in style, 1953.

A favorite memory from my early days of road cycling is again more of a sensation: Riding in the peloton.

Those big groups of riders you see in the Tour de France or on local country roads aren’t packed so tightly to make trading stock tips easier — they’re riding in a peloton — an aerodynamic formation that conserves energy. The riders each take turns up-front, enduring the brunt of the wind to give the following riders a chance to rest. A well coordinated pack can travel faster for longer than a solo rider could ever dream.

In the center of the peloton, you’re mere inches from other riders on all sides, tucked in the slipstream. It’s a moment to throttle back, take a drink, and steal a glimpse of the rushing landscape — to just float along.

Racing against other riders was a blast, but my true love was for the stunning landscapes that I found myself in on those long hard training rides. There’s a timeless romance in pitting one’s self against the natural world — the rewards seem richer, more authentic. Gliding through sweeping mountain passes, densely wooded byways, foggy oceanside towns under your own power is its own incredible reward. It’s a beautiful reprieve from the stress and guilt and weariness and panic and reality that come with being all grown up.

Today, my world doesn’t revolve around cycling. My career has nothing to do with it, very few of my close friends are interested in it, and I can manage a conversation about stuff other than bikes or biking or bikers or bike trails. I love my life, especially the people in it. And to them, cycling probably seems like just a casual interest of mine. But it’s a determinant piece of me.

When I discovered at a young age that cycling was so much more than my tiny sliver of mountain-bike-obsessiveness, I learned a defining lesson: Keep exploring.

Now I’m an unabashed polymorph. I want to know as much about as many topics as possible. My brother-in-law calls me The Professional Hobbyist (another compliment, I’ve decided). In 20 years I have shamelessly picked-up and put down more arts, sciences, sports, and crafts than I can even remember. The few that have stuck seem to tap into the same emotions and sensations that cycling has taught me to love. Surfing has the glide. Photography has the mythic figures. Drinking has the, let me see — camaraderie!

I live in Los Angeles now and while cycling is no longer my all-consuming do-or-die obsession, it still manages to make life better. I joined a local cycling club and immediately made good friends that guide me to amazing new landscapes. I’ll be attending an old teammate’s wedding in Seattle this fall. Another old teammate asked me to be his daughter’s godfather. I was recently reunited with my old high school friend Sean, who flew to L.A. to meet me for a mountain biking trip. And as I write this I’m on a road trip with my father from Portland to San Diego. Our stated goal is to find as much great riding as we can, but we both know it’s just an excuse to spend some time together.

Out front, for the moment.

I have a vivid memory of a race I rode in the summer of 2013. It was a perfect June day in Olympia; the leafy Washington state capital nestled neatly in the southern inlets of the Puget Sound. The race was a criterium, a high-speed derby on a short circuit through city streets. The course had us winding through the gardens and fountains surrounding the State Legislative Building, an impressive domed stone structure that seems better suited to D.C. than a pacific forest. The crowd was huge and raucous. The racers were tightly packed and the pace was furious. Sixty aggressive riders, all battling towards the finish line. I was well position in the top 15 for the majority of the race. The suffering was paying off.

With only a few laps to go, I turned up the pressure. I dove through turns, drafting off the riders in-front and surging ahead when the moment was right. To pass a rider I had to jump out of his slipstream and battle against the full brunt of the wind. My legs and lungs burned. I was approaching maximum effort and I knew I couldn’t sustain it much longer. But one by one I made my way up through the pack until I was only three or four riders back from the leader. A podium finish would be my best ever race result. A first place finish would be a miracle.

Our coach was perched on a tall WW1 monument, hanging from the head of a steel soldier. He screamed instructions as we rounded him each lap. “Breathe!” “Attack!” “You can win this!” He was right, I had a chance. I dug deeper.

Final lap. Now or never. Attack. I sprang out of the saddle, head down, and sprinted with everything I had left. The roar of the crowd was galvanizing, energizing. I envisioned myself as one of the great European cyclists in the Hell of the North; Eddy Merckx or Fausto Coppi, all panache and mettle. I was the hero in my own film. The crowd, the sun, the stately buildings, the war monuments, the pain, the rushing wind, the physicality of it all. If only my thirteen year old self could have seen this. A feeling welled up inside of me — elation, maybe glee.

As we railed around the final corner my coach screamed from his perch on the soldier’s head, “YOU TRAINED FOR THIS!”

I had. All those hours in the saddle, a lifetime of cycling on dirt and road, in hot and cold, were most definitely training, but not for the “this” he had in mind. I hadn’t trained to win. The “this” I had spent a lifetime working towards was the euphoria of that moment. I had trained to be in a beautiful scene, surrounded by friends, flooded with endorphins, riding my bike, hitting pause on the world.

I wasn’t there to win. I was there to be nowhere else.

I gave everything in that final stretch. But I just didn’t have the legs (or the VO2 max) to out sprint the riders who had the real “this” in their sights. By the time I hit the finish line I was in 6th place, maybe 8th. My system was drained. My body was numb. My grin was ridiculous. I was just floating.

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