Photo: © Roberto Bettini
I re-started riding bicycles in 1989. I originally started riding a bike for fun as a child of course, but I needed a bike while attending college to get to class and work. I'm sure that my choice of bike, a steel framed Trek 850 mountain bike, was partially based and subliminally impacted by a childhood wish unfulfilled.
When my sweet, orange, stick-shift operated, banana seat equipped, 5-speed Schwinn Stingray was stolen the summer after third grade, I was devastated. My Dad filed a police report and I remember looking through the reclaimed bikes at a police garage, but no luck. My parents took me to "Eric's Bike Shop" down the road from us, to 'look' (an timeless parenting tactic) at some new bikes, when it was clear that my solid-tired hot rod wasn't coming back to me. The Schwinn that caught my eye, not unlike the Red Ryder 2000 bb gun in "A Christmas Story' was a $400, red, '10 speed' road bike. It was the one that I wanted. We didn't buy it that day and shortly thereafter I was headed to summer camp for a week, which helped me keep my mind off of my loss.
When I returned home, I was surprised with my new bike. A brown Ross three-speed. I couldn't hide my disappointment, although I tried when I realized that my parents had clearly made a sacrifice in purchasing a quality bike and not some supermarket cheapy. I wasn't until years later that I realized how unrealistic the request for that red 'racer' was in 1977 dollars. Although, like I said I'm sure that my childhood wanting influenced my new red mountain bike some twelve years later.
I was immediately smitten with the rugged machine and I took the shiny ride to its first competition in the summer after a spring initiation of riding concrete sidewalks, jumped curbs, and being locked to steel racks while I was in class and folding sweaters inside a mall. The multi-day "Gonzo' Mountain Bike Festival in Mansfield Ohio, was my first exposure to mountain bike racing. Scott time Trials, hill climbs, and cross country racing were the activities and got me hooked for what would become one of my life's joys.
My level of involvement in racing would increase over the next few years and in 1996 I decided to compete in the NORBA National Mountain Bike cross country race in Traverse City, MI. The appeal of racing in one of the amateur classes at a National Series event, was that you could race the the same venue as the 'big boys' (the Elite Pro riders) and watch how they would tackle the same course. Many of the pros that weekend were vying for a spot for the U.S. Olympic Team in the inaugural event for the sport in Atlanta Games later that summer. You could literally rub shoulders with the best of the best (Tinker Juarez, Don Myraah, Travis Brown, John Tomac) and be part of the 30,000 fans and participants, which in hindsight was probably the sport's zenith in the US.
The highlight for me could have been my the completion (I was something like 15th) of my event, my free installation of the new Gore ride-on cables, or the picture with Susan DeMattei with her arm wrapped around my waist, eventhough I was still sweaty from my effort. However, the highlight that weekend was another chance meeting on a shaded trail with an 19 year old Aussie as we both contemplated our approach to a questionable course feature.
The designers of the Traverse City course had put in a couple of twists to challenge the riders and give the fans and press something to talk about. The first, was an artificial barrier in the middle of a high speed straightaway that really wouldn't even be home on an old school cyclocross course. Made out of 2x6's and reinforced with natural logs, the obstacle forced riders to ride over and if you didn't want to lose time, ride over it confidently at speed. The problem for Travis Brown, who was in the running for an Olympic spot, was that someone changed the ground level on the backside (exit) from a previous practice day, resulting in an unlevel landing, that caused him to crash and break his collar bone, thus taking him out of his probable Olympic bid.
The other 'feature was a route choice that made the racers choose between a longer and more time consuming loop through the trees or a much quicker and fan favorite 30ft water jump. The loop was a safe and prudent choice, the water jump, a risky and potentially dangerous maneuver that was not for the faint of heart. Bob Roll, currently a Tour de France commentator on Vs., but then competing for Soft-Ride, quipped that he wasn't going to ride the jump for the satisfaction for some "hot dog eating mid-westerners." On one of my practice runs, I had stopped to assess the scope of the obstacle that I would encounter in the heat (literally with the stifling humidity present and figuratively) of the race in a couple of days. As I was standing there, a pro and his teammate rolled up up to the spot where I had stopped. You can always tell a pro by their equipment (immaculate, high end machines), their clothes (everything matches) and the lythe slightness of their body types.
The New Zealand Pro's riding companion was recognizable for other reasons though. The first was his accent and for his recognizable face as a rising star in the mountain bike world. Already a multi world and Austrailian medalist in the Espoir category (under 23 years old) disciplines of mountain biking and road, his presence in Traverse City helped add to the bigness of the event. So after briefly welcoming him to my home state, I asked if he was going to ride 'it'. He replied, "I don't think so", to which I said, "Well if you're not going to ride it, I'm certainly not going to." We both laughed, and following his clip-in, I asked if I could tag along for a while, to which he graciously said 'sure mate', and with that, we were off. Although the shared ride didn't last very long. At the first real hill, when I had to shift into a lower gear to struggle up the climb, Cadel effortlessly rose out of the saddle and sped off into the steaminess without wasting a pedal stroke.
I have followed his career arc ever since and was delighted to see him kiss the pretty girls and slip on the maillot jaune today in Paris as the first Australian winner, and oldest in the post war era, of my beloved Tour de France. Then the humble and hard-working family man, celebrated with his wife, child, teammates, country, and fans worldwide.
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