Even before bikes, I had loved to read, and was not much for the pain of even casual contact sports. I also had two left feet after my pre-teen growth spurt, and a lack of confidence that made it worse. And on top of that, a couple of my brothers were natural athletes. Combine it all, and what ever the sport, I was always the last one picked, or left sitting on the bench.
It didn’t mean I didn’t try, playing little league and basketball, eventually making the high school freshman basketball team. But height and spirit were not enough. So while I biked all summer, my last three years of high school were limited to running cross country each fall. I enjoyed the team experience and running through the woods and parks we trained on (and I never enjoyed running distance in track). In cross country, I even found limited success, lettering 2 years and running 7th man, but in a small town, it was never the same as being in the real sports.
After high school it was on to part-time college and work, and more bicycle riding. On my days off I was likely to do an all-day ride across the county, or to ride a multi-day tour when ever my schedule allowed. I never got the racing bug, but I was riding 3-4 a centuries a year. Those early centuries were all-day affairs of 10-12 hours, with long sag stops and a lunch in the middle. These were the original “Fred” rides, including collecting patches. I even had a patch jacket that I had started filling up, though I soon learned that the patches did not hold up well in the washing machine.
And despite not being interested in racing, very early on I picked up a used racing bike, an early 70’s Raliegh Pro. This was my light sport bike, since I decided fenders and racks needed to stay on my touring bike. And I picked up more of the fast gear of the day, leather cycling shoes shoes with nailed on cleats, and wool shorts with leather chamois. I did enjoy fast rides and watching the clock when I wasn’t carrying all my gear. But it was just faster touring and sport rides, not real competition, or so I told myself.
Soon after meeting Linda, along with more time on the tandem and group rides, I was also going on more fast rides, both short club rides, and longer rides and centuries. My centuries came down in time, with 6 to 7 hours becoming the norm.
By our third year of marriage, Linda and I had the The Tandem Shop going full tilt, and we sold a tandem to another couple at Purdue, Rich and Laura, who were just a few years younger than us. Rich had been a high school wrestler and baseball player, and was very competitive. He was relatively new to cycling, but was strong. We started doing more rides together on singles, and pushing each other. (The four of us also pushed each other on tandem rides too.)
One morning Rich and I met at 6 AM, and just headed out for a long ride. Before we knew we were 40 miles out, averaging 20 miles an hour. We finally turned back and ended up with 90 miles, an unplanned century. When we got back to Linda and my apartment, Linda was just getting up. (To be fair, she had a 14-hour work day on Wednesdays, and always slept in on Thursdays!) In any case, it was an epic ride, especially since I had to clean up and ready to work from Noon to 8 that day!
The four of us got together for pizza the next night, and both our wives were carrying on about how crazy we were, and with Rich’s wife adding I was really great to have another athlete pushing Rich into shape.
“I am not an athlete”, I replied - it was just bicycling. Years of imprinting had never let me think of my bicycling as an athletic pursuit, a real sport. I had never moved beyond that.
“What you talking about!” was her reply - “Yes, You're an athlete. You are one of the most athletic people I know. Both of you are!” she went on “You ride 200 miles in a weekend, and the two of you (Linda and I) just finished an 18-day 1,000 mile bicycle tour, and you bike to work every day, and you think you aren’t an athlete?”
Then Linda looked at me said I was just as much an athlete as she was.
I had always thought of Linda as an athlete for her running in cross country and track, as a state high school champion and national ranked college distance runner. But for whatever reason I had never applied that standard to me, and especially not to my cycling. Up until that conversation, I was just a kid out on a bike. Even when it for rides 50 miles or more non-stop, at 18 or 19 MPH.
But her statement and the conversations that followed had a profound impact on my view of myself. Despite everything I had accomplished riding, I had never given myself fair credit. Having some tell me “You are an athlete” was something I never expected. I was not only active, I was improving and challenging myself.
In the years since I realized that I was no longer on the bench or the last one picked, I was still in my game while so many others had moved off the field. I was fortunate enough to have found in bicycling one of the true life-long sports that allowed you to be athletic for years, if not decades, if you are so inclined.
And since that evening many years ago, I have always smiled inside with each new milestone of time and distance, for being in the arena, and never doubted that I am still an athlete.