One Thing Is For Sure
“Dad, I think I want to join the Mountain Bike Team at East.” Those words, uttered by my then just-turned-16-year-old son, were some of the happiest of my life. “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “Are you sure you’re sure? Because if you say ‘yes’ again, you’re all in.” “Yes.” The influence of a few friends coupled with zero pressure from me (despite having ridden in some capacity with him since he was three) brought this to be. “One thing is for sure though,” I told him, “I’m not going to coach.”
I can’t imagine having spent time with my parents in the way that I’ve been able to spend with my son over the last 6 months. This isn’t to say I didn’t want to or it would have been negative, but it wasn’t the kind of relationship we had. Spending this time with my son was not only something I couldn’t imagine having experienced personally, but something that was incredibly beneficial to us. Each week for 4 hours on Monday and Thursday nights, we had time to chat, have fun, heckle one another, bond and have great father/son discussions. Not “how was your day, son” discussions, but real, meaningful talks about serious life subjects: growing up, dating, developing and expressing preferences, parental relations, his educational future, etc. None of this required any effort; it just happened. Most of the time, on our drives home, we were really able to dig in and I was able to learn a lot about him; things I may not have previously known. These were subtle details about his friendships and the ways he sees the world. Without this time together, it is unlikely I’d have learned what I did about him. Of course, I was able to offer him bits of myself as well and more than once, he said something along the lines of “I think you know a thing or two…” What kid says that? Needless to say, we are closer now than we were before. The miles on my truck, the gas, and the cracks in my windshield were all worth it.
Despite the confidence I gained in my relationship with my son, I can’t say the same thing happened on the bike. This isn’t to say I feel bad about myself – I don’t – rather, this is to say I began to see what real talent on a bike looks like at a young age. During our first race in Price, Utah, an old coot I was standing next to while spectating said “seems like a whole lot of ruckus about riding a bike.” Never mind my personal thoughts about his stance on this, what his statement brought up for me was how hard racing really is. By itself, riding a bike is already a feat, but riding it at maximum effort for an hour or more? That takes skill. Add to that skill, the ability to do this at an incredible pace and it is yet more impressive still. I’ve been riding seriously for 16 seasons now and have learned a lot during those years. As I age, in many ways, I become a better rider; more judicious, confident, and faster than I’ve ever been (I’ll hold on to that as long as I can, thank you). Watching young people who have many of those skills at nearly 30 years my junior, is really humbling. I joke that on endurance rides it’s “Zone 2 for them, but not me,” but their youthful advantage alone can’t along explain the improvements I’ve seen them make through their perseverance. I can push many of them and keep up with some of them (even bought a new bike to help me do so), but wow…some of the kids are skilled. How awesome it is that they can build such a amazing fitness foundation at this age. I’ve said countless times this season that I wished something like this existed while I was in school. Despite my own lamentation, I’m certainly glad that High School cycling exists today.
Watching Kids Grow
I’ve heard it said that at the first of the season, some kids had never really ridden a bike. As I worked primarily with the High School kids, I never got to see this first-hand, but I know there were a few kids who at the start of the season were definitely “new riders.” The kids I worked with were of varying skill and fitness and each week, they grew. Some kids were on high-end race bikes, some kids were on “team bikes.” No matter what brought them, the team made sure they had a bike to ride and we rode hard with them. My son experienced his first podium and of course, all of the riders got faster and more skilled, but the real growth was within them. Often, we would talk about goals or their preferences and desires. We differed politically, religiously, and in other ways, and none of that mattered. Through our time together, hearts and bones were broken, goals missed and achieved, and new relationships forged. I guess it’s hard to go backward on a bike.
Thursdays, the New Fridays
In May of this year, I began working a modified work week. Rather than five 8-hour shifts, I moved to four 9-hour shifts. This shift was monumental for me, but not as monumental in the number of times I reveled in the sunset, thinking about the goodness of everything I was experiencing as I tore downhill with my ride group in tow, anticipating the three days of rest I had ahead of me, and asking myself if there’s any better way to end a week. The answer, for me at least for now, is that there is not. It’s true that this likely biased my experience of Thursday nights and this new arrangement certainly speaks to my good fortune, but good fortune or not, that thought was repeated week after week, and it allowed me to be fully present with the team and to give them all I had to give.
Just like there were differences between the kids and I, the same would be said about the parents and coaches as we come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some people are of means, some less so. Different family structures, family orientations, and professions make for what may seem from the outside to be an unusual group. Twice a week though, none of that mattered; why we were together in the first place did.
One of the things I worry about as an adult is the failure of institutions. The last decade – and the last several years specifically – have seen many changes across American society. Church attendance is down, marriage rates are falling, fewer people are having kids, and clubs of all kinds are seeing dwindling membership. My own lack of religious affiliation and political stance aside, these things bother me deeply. The pressures of life today are often concentrated within intimate relationships and partners and spouses feel more pressure to be all things to their partners than ever before. Gladly, my marriage is not subject to these stressors. Why? Well, being part of the East High School Mountain Bike Team is part of that. As coaches, during our time together each week, our differences don’t matter. We gather for a reason that is beyond ourselves and our differences to find the things we have in common; the love of bikes and most importantly, giving meaning to the kids who show up, week after week. As for the kids, some who are victim to these institutional failures found a place of safety and belonging. Simply put, coaching is simply one of the most meaningful things I’ve done in my entire life, second only to my family and on-par with my work as a Social Worker. it’s the best parts of my family and my work, crammed together and found somewhere I didn’t expect to find it.
As it happens, my 16 seasons of riding have been accompanied by a curiosity about bikes and my need to understand exactly how they work. Early on my in cycling career, as a poor social worker, I had to learn to fix my own bikes as I couldn’t afford the labor at a shop. Of course, in hindsight, those savings on labor were likely offset by the number of parts I broke while learning, but all that learning has continued to serve me well long into my cycling career.
When race season started this year, I was happy to put all this knowledge to work. Race days, as I learned immediately, are very long days and usually end with me being hoarse and extremely dirty. Being one of the more mechanically-oriented people on the team also meant that there was grease and grime on top of that dirt. Though the load lessened with each passing race, a steady stream of bikes often flowed my way each race day. Though it was a lot of work, the fixed hub cones, tuned derailleurs, lubed drivetrains, and properly-pressured tires and suspension bits meant that our team had fewer mechanicals than I could have imagined. All season long, not a single racer DNF’d because of a mechanical. I’m extremely proud of what I did to help our riders’ bikes rolling. I even have a “student apprentice” lined up for for 2023.
Eating my words
I can’t identify what exactly cause me to change my mind, but I do know that if I was going to ask my son to be “all in,” then I too had to be. My initial sentiment is certainly not lost on my son as he heckles me often about it as a reminder of what I might have missed. Two nights ago, we celebrated our time together with an end-of-season banquet. I can say I wasn’t prepared for some of what I felt that night, but I remembered that “lasts” are often as important as “firsts.” The last team get-together of the season left me somberly missing the warmer days of summer as I began looking forward to doing it all again next year. “Coach Jad” is a term I’ve begun to embrace and without a doubt, Coach Jad will be chasing kids on bikes next year as they become better and faster as I ride, learn, grow and find new meaning in life as the coach I never wanted to be.