The Open Road
“A bike is freedom; freedom from rules and freedom from adults.” (Lance Armstrong)
When I was four years old, I got a bike. It was blue with black knobby tires, black seat black pedals and black handlebar grips. I rode that bike in endless circles around our col-de-sac. I’d pretend I was racing or that I was riding a motorcycle. I did my best to pop wheelies or jump the bike over curbs, but I wasn’t very good at it. I just liked going fast.
I first learned to ride without training wheels on my younger sister’s bike. One of her training wheels had fallen off and her bike was leaning against the garage wall. My bike was hanging up from hooks on the ceiling. Everyone else was inside watching TV and I felt like riding. So I grabbed Kelsey’s bike and rode it with one training wheel. I think mom came outside to look for me and then talked me into taking the other training wheel off. Now I was riding on two wheels. I felt alive. I was able to push my bike as fast as it would go.
When I lost my sight at age six, I didn’t think I’d ever ride a bike again. Meeting Erik Weihenmayer though opened up my eyes to the possibilities before me as a blind person. Rock climbing was of course at the top of that list, but probably second was tandem cycling.
My dad spent several months looking for the right tandem. There were several bike shops in Jacksonville but not many carried tandems built with a seven-year-old stoker riding in the back. Finally, though we found one and I felt my old excitement of going fast. The tandem was black with knobby tires. I called it a mountain bike but it didn’t really have any shocks and I later discovered that it wasn’t so hot off the road. But for the time being all I had to do was sit on the seat, hold the handlebars and push the pedals as hard and fast as I could. And that was all I cared about right then.
We began doing family bike rides around the neighborhood. Eventually, my friend John Norville was deemed trustworthy enough to get on the front of the tandem and pilot me around. John and I rode a bunch together. It was a way for us both to get out of the house and hang out together. John and I liked the idea of pushing ourselves as hard as we possibly could. We started venturing off of the paved roads and over grass, then a few dirt trails.
On a boy scout trip to Standing Indian, North Carolina, dad loaded the tandem in our camping trailer and we tested the tandem’s mountain capabilities on a few steep mountain trails. It was a terrifying but exhilarating experience. All I had was a T-shirt, gym shorts and sneakers. With no shocks we hit roots and rocks, I felt my butt come off the seat more than once as we seemed to fly through the air bombing downhill at speeds more than 30 miles an hour. All I could do was hang on for dear life. After that mountain biking experience we never took the tandem offroading but I wasn’t done cycling. I was actually just beginning.
The Orange Crush
When I was 11 I appeared as a surprise guest to Erik Weihenmayer on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Shortly after that dad was contacted by World TEAM Sports (The Exceptional Athlete Matters) and they invited dad and me to participate in a bike ride that would go from Ground 0 in New York City to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. a ride covering 280 miles in three days. I don’t know if I’d ever ridden further than five miles up until then but I was willing to try, even though 280 miles sounded inconceivably long and miserable. I thought about how my butt ached after a couple hours of fun riding with John around the neighborhood. Dad of course said we’d do the ride and started looking for a new tandem, because “Blacky” just wasn’t going to cut it.
Dad found the perfect tandem for our endeavor, a sleek orange Cannondale road bike. This thing just looked faster than Blacky and I couldn’t wait to ride it. I was in the midst of my second season of competitive rock climbing then and was growing used to the idea of training for performance, but climbing was still more fun than anything. My coaches were good at making up games and pitting us against one another in competitions to make us better. Apart from some basic core exercises I didn’t really do much “training” for climbing other than just climbing harder and harder routes. Cycling would begin to introduce me to actual training for sport and the foundation of cycling would build a tremendous base for when I stepped into long distance hiking, wrestling and eventually triathlon.
Dad started us out easy just going for a six mile ride. I felt weird in skin tight cycling shorts and a jersey. I also didn’t understand why on earth I had to wear these shoes with plastic soles and massive clips on the balls of my feet. I couldn’t walk at all in them. Couldn’t I just use regular pedals and have that strap that tightened over my shoe?
I was very self conscious about how I looked in my cycling kit. I felt like I was wearing nothing but underwear, but I eventually got used to the feeling. Dad and I would ride every couple evenings when he got home from work. There was no way in heck I was getting up early to ride, that just sounded crazy. Our rides became steadily longer from six miles, to 10, to 20. Then dad felt I was ready for a 30 miler.
He found a bike path called the “Baldwin Trail” which was an old railroad that had been converted. Dad picked me up from school one afternoon and we drove to the trail, making it there around 3:30. I changed into my cycling kit in the car and then clipped into the back pedals on the “Orange Crush” as our brilliant orange colored tandem was called. My butt always hurt after rides, I didn’t like the racing saddle I had to sit on. How was I going to sit on this thing for three days of cycling?
We took off from the parking lot and hit the trail. It was mostly shaded by trees and almost perfectly straight for 15 miles. We settled into our rhythm and passed several groups of cyclists who were pedalling along leisurely. We picked up the pace at the five mile mark, then the 10 mile mark.
We flipped around at 15 miles and began heading back. I wasn’t sure I could make it, but dad was yelling his customary “MUSH SLUG!” his nickname for me while on the bike. And so I mushed as hard as I could. We made it back to the parking lot after just over an hour and a half of cycling. I was hot, my butt hurt, my legs hurt, but I also had this weird feeling of accomplishment. I liked pushing the pace and learning to suffer through the aches and pains to reach the end as fast as I could. Plus there was something cool about riding nearly 20 miles per hour on a bike.
We ultimately didn’t do the ride from New York to D.C. But we did not stop cycling instead setting our eyes on another goal—The PGA Tour Cycle to the Shore MS 150. This charity bike ride raises money for MS research. I had a great uncle, with whom I shared a birthday, who had MS and it was much closer to home than the World TEAM Sports event had been.
Dad and I spent an entire year just riding the tandem. We picked several routes through Jacksonville that we’d ride once or twice a week. Most of our rides ranged from 20-40 miles. Sometimes we got together with other cyclists, sometimes we rode on our own. We always enjoyed it more in a pack though because of the drafting effect, but somehow dad and I always seemed to wind up on the front of the paceline. Dad was also fueling my competitive spirit with little phrases like “Are you really going to let Mr. Dawson beat us in this sprint again?” or “What you say we try to catch and drop Mr. Stenson?”
The most fun we had was probably when we’d go to the Baldwin Trail for time trial work. A time trial is just you against the clock. You go all out as fast and hard as you can. And because the Baldwin Trail only had a few street crossings where we had to look out for traffic, it was a great place to practice going all out for 30 miles.
One memorable day we were riding with our usual neighborhood group at the trail. Dad and I of course wound up on the front of the pack and just started hammering at the pedals. At first the guys hung, but slowly a gap appeared. When we flipped around at the 15 mile mark the group was only a few seconds back of us. That was when dad told me to “MUSH!” and we took off like we were shot out of a cannon. We seemed to just fly. I felt light on the pedals and perfectly comfortable in my cycling position. We made it back to the parking lot a mere one hour and 18 minutes after we’d started the ride. It took the rest of the group more than 10 minutes to catch up with us.
The MS 150
We arose early in the morning the first day of the MS 150. The start of the ride was at the St. Augustine airport, about a 45 minute drive from our house. We arrived around six AM for the seven AM start and took a picture with the rest of our team—comprised of people from dad’s office—with us all decked out in our Bubba Burger cycling kits.
Our best cyclist, Andy Stenson, was bouncing around and eager to get on his bike and to the front of the pack. The rest of us grouped together and started the ride off easy. I was a little antsy too and wanted to absolutely crush it. However, I’d never done a ride longer than about 40 miles, and I had 86 to travel today. Dad did his best to keep me reeled in. After all, I couldn’t exactly go faster than he’d allow since he was piloting the tandem.
We cycled with the rest of the Bubba Burger team for a while until we all started settling into our own pace groups. Dad and I latched on to a group of men and women who appeared to be very strong cyclists. We all took turns swapping leads for about 20 miles. We averaged close to 25 miles an hour. Then we hit the halfway point and dad and I pulled off to grab something to eat. I was tired and wasn’t sure how I’d make it the rest of the way to Daytona. But after a sandwich and gatorade I knew I had to try. And so we set out again.
A couple of hours later we rolled across the finish line five and a half hours after we’d begun. My butt hurt, my legs hurt, my neck hurt, everything hurt and I just wanted to curl up in a ball and go to sleep. Mom and the girls met us at the finish line and helped us get up to the hotel room where we showered and fell into bed for a long nap.
That night we made it down to the hotel restaurant for some dinner. As the waitress went to hand me a menu, dad—in his befuddled and tired state—said “He doesn’t need that…he can’t read.” (Oh, what she must have thought of us.)
We got up the next morning but were too sore and exhausted to attempt cycling back to St. Augustine. So we instead drove back as did all of our team except Mr. Stenson. The MS 150 had been a phenomenal and humbling experience.
We returned the following year with an even larger Bubba Burner cycling crew, including mom. We rode more as a team until dad and I got ants in our pants and took off after lunch. We finished this year’s ride slower but stronger. The next day instead of fatigue keeping us from riding it was bad weather. We elected not to fight strong winds and potential storms. Those two years of cycling with my dad and the Bubba Burger cycling team were great. I’d fallen in love with the sport of cycling and begun building a solid foundation for my later adventures.