In July of 1977, I was just 8 years old, and I was already a ‘bike rider,’ I just didn’t know what that meant yet. I had a black, red, and yellow Raleigh ten speed with 24 inch chrome wheels and relatively narrow tires (at least as compared with my BMX bike) that I began riding on local AYH rides with my father, and then began attending longer supported rides on the weekends together.
My dad was a former telegraph delivery boy in his youth and had rediscovered bike riding in the past few years. He had tried a couple century rides the previous year and had decided to bring me along. Seems that like him I had a penchant for suffering and he found pride in my ability to weather through a 7 or 8 or 9 hour day on the bike. I was in it for the snacks (candy bars every 10 miles!) and I didn't really know any better - at first it was just something to do.
I do, however, remember a particular 2 day, 200 mile ride we put in that summer. We rode from Detroit to Lansing, stayed in dorms on the Michigan state campus after the first 100 miles, and then headed back on a somewhat hilly route on the return (I think it was called “Helluva Ride” because it passed through Hell, Michigan.) Along the way, an elegant older couple passed us on a tandem, and slowed to take a look at me - this tiny, boney, scrappy 8 year old following desperately in his dad's draft (I learned early how to survive) into a headwind as we completed the long slog back to Detroit.
The couple were both interested and complementary - slowing to spend some time talking to my father, to encourage me. I remember Dorothy’s penetrating blue eyed gaze – like she was looking right through you to your soul – with just a twinkle of amusement. The couple was none other than Clair and Dorothy Young, parents of national and world champion cyclists and speedskaters Roger and Sheila Young.
It was then, that I heard Clair say those infamous words that changed my whole world and the rest of my life in a half a second, "He’s a good bike rider - he should be a bike racer - bring him to a race," in that clipped direct way Clair has. The way Clair says “bike rider” is also somehow unique – when he said it, it meant more than someone who is capable of riding a bike – it had panache. I wanted to be whatever that was…
I ponder now, 32 years later, what my life would be like if those words had never been uttered. My life, in its entirety, would have been completely different. I had no grand ideas about anything – much less of being an athlete. The concepts, beliefs, activities and confidence that were to come: of competing in the state championships, of driving across the country to the national championships, of qualifying for the world championships – none of these ideas had ever passed through our heads - we were just ‘regular’ people. The very idea of the Olympics was some great mystery reserved for those ‘other’ people that had money, contacts, and talent.
But in a flash of care, understanding and engagement, these two people changed my whole life. My father managed to remember the location and timing of the race (Dearborn Towers, Dearborn, MI) and he and I showed up to race with Frankie Andreu (9 time Tour de France finisher), Celeste Andreu (10 time national champion) and Jamie Carney (3 time Olympian and my arch-nemesis to this day – whether he knows it or not.)
Here are my impressions of that fateful first day:
Flashback: August of 1977.
I am 8 years old and my father and I are pulling our GM Beauville van into the parking lot of the Dearborn Twin Towers office buildings where I was to participate in my first ever bike race. It was pouring outside and I remember not wanting to get out of the van into the cold rain. I dressed in the van into my wool jersey and black cotton and wool shorts (with a real leather chamois), my leather “hairnet” helmet and gloves, and then, with my father holding the umbrella, I climbed outside the sliding door and onto my bike, goosebumps standing out on my shiny forearms.
He suggested that I “warm up” by riding around the parking lot a few times, and I did but I was immediately back under the umbrella and back into the van, shivering from the cold and wet. We waited until almost race time before heading toward the start/finish area. With his plastic raincoat on, and holding the umbrella, my father walked and I coasted on my bike over to the start finish line where a stocky, bald, grumpy older man with glasses and a mustache was yelling instructions to the parents, “Midgets! – midgets – you have to roll out your bikes before the race! – bring them over to Clair…C’mon Andreu – you know the drill!”
His name was Mike Walden and I disliked him immediately. Clair, however, I recognized. Clair Young, wearing his referee uniform, was the reason I was there in the first place. After Clair's intervention on that ride it was only a matter of a few calls, and there I was at the Dearborn Twin Towers just outside Detroit in the pouring rain, checking out my gears (12 and under or “midget category” racers were limited in their gears so as to not injure their knees) by “rolling out” my bike backwards for a full revolution of the pedals between two tape marks to ensure that my tenth gear was not too big (this was in the time where bikes still only had “ten speeds”) 10 minutes, and an eternity in the rain later, they lined up the boys, and then the girls behind us on the line.
There were about 12 of us boys, to the right of me was the tallest of the group, with dark hair and a fixed expression, seemingly unfazed by the rain. Next to him was a hyperactive boy who was badgering his father, “This rain is freezing me – why can’t we start? What are they waiting for? Frankie’s going to win anyway – why did we come?” Next to him was a pale, hollow cheeked boy of 10, whose father, like mine, hovered over him with the umbrella, guarding him as best he could.
And so we lined up, myself – a few days before my 9th birthday: the tall one - Frankie Andreu – age 11 (eventual 9 time tour de France finisher and 4th in the Olympic games), the hyper one: Jamie Carney – age 9 (3 time Olympic team member, my arch-rival for decades to come,) the pale Englishman: longtime friend Paul Jacqua – age 10, and a number of other boys, readying for a short 3 lap, 3 mile race.
In the old Italian tradition Mike, (or was it Clair?) announced, “Torreador, Attencione, Go!” and within seconds Frankie had disappeared into the mist while I was still trying to get my foot in the toeclips. Once I finally did, I could see the outline of two riders ahead of me in the rain, roostertails kicking up high with the water flying off their rear wheels. Frankie was nowhere to be seen and I was left strugging through the downpour with Jamie and Paul and we headed through the darkened corners of the course, wheels whizzing with water and rain, pain and breathing only matched by wonderment of “where did he go?”
I was not used to being beat – the fastest kid on my block during tag, and the fastest kid at school during recess, I felt a frantic, almost asphyxiating rhythm take over my pedaling and breathing. There was pain in every pore of my skin and my lungs were on fire but I was fixated on the mysterious disappearance of the rider ahead. Jamie and Paul and I shortly established the pattern known to racers the world over as a “paceline” pulling into the wind for a short distance and then moving aside for the rider behind to pedal through, blocking the wind for the riders behind.
For perhaps the only time in my career, I took the role of a “roadie” and would pull through faster, chasing the elusive Frankie, or even making attacks to the side of our little peleton. 2 laps into the race and suddenly a dark figure appeared and quickly disappeared outside our little group. It was Celeste Andreu – Frankie’s sister, and she had already made up the 1 minute start gap provided between the boys and girls, and passed us. We made a fruitless effort to chase, but resolved back into the loosely formed paceline we had formed after the start, Paul doing most of the consistent work, and Jamie and I occasionally trying to sneak away off the front.
We came by the start finish with one to go and the few parents remaining in the rain cheered and then disappeared and we continued our route around this urban maze. As we headed out of the last corner, Paul sprang out into the lead and as I started to follow, Jamie slingshotted past him. But I had grabbed his wheel (i.e. gotten into his draft), and as our tiny gears spun, and out little feet rotated at over 200 rpms, I passed Jamie just before the line to win the “field sprint” and come in 2nd establishing in that 3 mile microcosm a pattern in the world that would be significant in my life for the following 30+ years.
After drying off (and the rain stopped) there was a medals ceremony followed by a trip to a tent where the sponsor of the race from the local bike shop provided me with my prize – a heavy, chrome plated bottom bracket tool kit. I didn’t know what a bottom bracket was, but I could tell that this was a significant prize by its weight and shininess and I resolved to really like bike racing. I still have this bottom bracket tool kit, now 32 years later, and it has never been used as far as I know. But it is still shiny…
Thank you Clair and Dorothy – for bothering to notice a skinny kid dangling in the wind on a hot windy July day. I’m sure it was par for the course for you, but it made all the difference in the world to me.
PS: 29 years later I discovered that I had inadvertently “paid it forward” to another athlete – Alex Izychowski – and so the circle of life continues. http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/02/19/torino-journal-9-epilogue/