Friday, September 10, 2010

Bittersweet Biking

For a long time I was a young man. Then later I wasn't.

Young that is.

I am not "old" yet, hopefully by quite a stretch, but definitely somewhere in between. Evidence of not being "young" anymore is plentiful, whether it is my waistline or my mortgage (neither of which is getting much smaller) or the fact that I have celebrated 21 anniversaries with the same wife. Similarly, it is a stark reminder of one's age to have two teenage sons. I am deeply happy to have these two chaps in my life, but it is hard to keep up the pretense of being a spring chicken when your children are large enough to beat you up and old enough to then drive you to the hospital.

This weekend I went on a remarkably quick road ride with both of them from one end of the Fish Lake trail to the other and back. It was fun to ride along with them and start the initiation process of making them into "riders". There is a sizable gap between the process of toodling along a trail with them on 400-lb "mountain" bikes versus going on a road ride with them. We talked about trail etiquette (yes, it does exist sometimes), the process of riding in a pack, the need to ride in a straight line (or for you old school types, "Hold your line!"), about gearing and hand positions. It was low-key and fun. I was, and this may be an important point, able to ride along comfortably with them and even caught the older one when he tried to "break away" from our pack. Just good clean "father and son" fun and nothing bittersweet about it.

The next day, however, was different.

My older son and I took a quick mountain bike ride along the bluff trails. My son led the way and he wanted to go ride a steep downhill set of S-curves that I had showed him a while ago.

Now here I am going to recount a conversation we had as we rode up the first long hill. I admit that I sometimes use artistic license in recounting conversations, but this is as accurate as I can be. As we rode up the hill, my son looked behind him to see where I was. I was still right on his wheel and I said, "I'm right here. You haven't dropped me yet." He laughed and my fifteen-year old said, "Dad, it will probably be ten years before I can drop you." My response, "G, I think it is safe to say that in 3-4 years you will be easily dropping me." His well intentioned response (from the mouths of babes, as they say), "It's weird to think about how over the next few years I will just keep getting stronger and you . . ." He paused, not sure how to finish his thought, at least finish it without saying something he didn't intend.

I finished his sentence and added, "Yes, I will just keeping getting older and slower. It's the way of the world."

He protested, kind of, because he had no intention of saying anything unkind or unpleasant. I may even recall through the decades that at times there is a satisfaction that comes from being young and looking forward to being "more" of almost everything. And it is weird to think about, particularly from the perspective of the aging and slowing old guy.

Not long after this we were getting to the top of the section that was his primary interest in the ride. It is steep S-curve section that turns tightly in a little V of ground, so that you ride down into the V and then as you go back up you take a tight turn heading back down to start the process over. For guys on skateboards and in X-treme sports videos, it is the stuff of life. For a 15-year old gaining strength and skill, it is FUN. For a reasonably fit 44-year old, it is rideable, but it isn't the kind of feature I seek out. Clearly, when something used to be FUN and now it is miss-able, like hangovers, it is a sign of maturity, or more bluntly, aging.

A while later I watched my son climb up some ascents that last year would have been beyond his ability and this year just made him eager to get it cleaner or faster.

And then it was time to head home. We rode together to the apex of the downhill back towards where we jump off the bluff and my son casually said, "I'll just meet you at the bottom." Translated from kid-speak, this means, "You go ahead and get a gap and then I am going to blaze downhill and catch you." These are moments as a parent when you have to weigh your options. Do you let Icarus fly too high or put him back in the softly-padded cage and tell him maybe he can fly next time? As a "Dad", I do think there is value in getting to try things for yourself, even when that means there is a chance of failure or even getting hurt. The day before, my younger son wanted to learn to change a flat on his own and ended up with a pinch flat in his tube when he tried to re-inflate it. He learned that lesson much faster than just based on my cautioning.

So on top of the hill I decided it was better to be behind him, so that if he did crash I would be close and not just at the bottom wondering what happened to him. I reminded him of the walkers and dogs and other riders that might be on the trail and then told him to go ahead. I let him get out of sight and then started my own descent. I was a bit behind but noticed on the way down that 1) he wasn't strewn about the trail and 2) I wasn't able to get him back into sight so he was going at least as fast if not faster than me.

As I came onto the last straight-away I thought to myself that I was glad he got to go his own speed and had made it safely. It was just a moment later that I turned off the trail and saw my son separated from his bike, with a look of shock on his face. He had, in fact, crashed his bike as he turned off the trail.

I think we had the same emotion at that point. He was both a little kid and a young man at the same time. He wasn't sure whether he needed a hug or whether he was okay without one and I wasn't sure if he needed a hug or his space. I jumped off my bike and approached him, asking if he was okay. He nodded and held up his arm to show me a large red area just below his elbow along his forearm. Struggling to catch his breath and his emotion, he said he was okay but his face betrayed the struggle to know whether he really was.

I have ridden with lots of guys who have crashed, but not usually with someone who used to sit on my lap and get bedtime stories. I want to both protect my son and help him make his way in the world. I joke about my Mom being worried that I won't return from Leadville in one piece, but it doesn't occur to either of us that it isn't my decision to make. My son is straddling that fence. He is getting older and stronger, and he will be dropping me on the hills soon. He has to figure out on his own how fast and how much and when and how and why and where and very few of those decisions will have anything to do with mountain biking. I've had my chances to make some mistakes and have some successes. I'm looking forward to watching him do the same. Even if I am going slower all the while.

Like I said, bittersweet.


  1. Chapeau. Well said.

    Definitely a balancing act, protecting them vs letting them make their own way.

  2. At least yours would drive you to the hospital...