Racing with Henry
Cyclocross isn’t a standard undertaking–and not just because it’s a series of bicycle races held exclusively in fall and winter. (Obsessed French and Belgian professionals originated the sport as an off-season cross-training alternative.) The lap course’s design is like a steeplechase, with hurdles to leap over, icy ladder-steep climbs to trudge up, and sandpits to plow through. Most of the time you’re on the bike, but the hurdles and run-ups require “flying dismounts,” which is exactly as treacherous as it sounds. With sprint-style races 30 to 60 minutes long, the cardiovascular demands are fierce.
But there’s also a free-spirited ethic at the core of the sport–the all-for-one, one-for-all spirit of folks who know that they’re doing something few others dare to. A midrace fall is greeted with “You okay?” from a rival. Maybe having been through the grind of highly competitive youth soccer, Henry might’ve been simply thinking, “Looks like fun.”
I wasn’t sure it was something I needed, however, and I steered clear of Henry’s first races in October. A part of me rationalized that this was Henry’s thing–stay out of it. A part of me thought it looked scary. And a part of me, not as emotionally agile as my 15-year-old son, was still consumed by the soccer-prodigy episode. Call it selfish, but I knew the immersion that was coming. He’d soon be teaching himself Flemish. I wasn’t sure I was ready yet.
I delivered Henry to the bike-shop owner at 5 a.m. on a Saturday in front of his store in Beverly, Massachusetts. Henry’s age category raced at 8 a.m. in a faraway place at the other end of the state. With a biting coastal wind whipping down Cabot Street, even Marc Bavineau, a former racer himself, looked at me and said, “Are we really doing this?”
But Henry was all in. He did well that day and had fun. He loved it, he said, phoning me to describe the course in surgical detail, especially the part where he accelerated up a launch ramp and sailed over a set of railroad ties. Could he sign up for the next one?
He set up a noisy indoor bike trainer upstairs, and before first light rode 10 miles before school. On weekends, he asked me if I wanted to join him. Henry seemed careful not to make me feel as though I needed to go with him–“If you have other things to do, no problem, Dad,” he said–but I began to understand that he might actually want his “whoop-de-do” partner again. Soccer had been different. It was all him; all me watching him. Cycling was somehow us–and had been from the beginning.
We first went to Gordon College, a private college in nearby Wenham with a nice combination of campus terrain and fast forest roads. Henry had his team-issue 2010 bike, me an ultralight 1970s Raleigh I’d reclaimed from the curb years ago and restored. Now the rust had returned–an apt metaphor for my racing condition–but it still possessed a glimmer of its former panache.
In the shadow of the chapel’s white steeple and the red-brick library, we did loops of the quad’s fields and used long aluminum soccer benches as hurdles. The idea was to approach fast, jump off our bikes at full gallop, and shoulder them as we leapt up and over.
“I want to bunny-hop them,” Henry said. “Can I?” A bunny hop is an advanced, highly risky move, and in my “Not yet–okay” plea I wondered whether I was being sage or stifling. Allowing a three-year-old to ride or a teen to fly was fraught with exactly the same fatherly recrimination: reluctance to let go.
The next weekend we added the narrow paved roads from our house to Gordon, a five-mile warm-up in 25-degree cold. We started quietly, both of us trying to ignore the stinging discomfort in our hands, feet, and faces. We warmed just before Gordon, and from that time on, we rode as if we’d been granted a wish. A planned 45-minute ride expanded to two hours. We linked more trails together to create our own timed woods-to-road-to-pond circuit. We talked about recording our times, then charting them, to compare our improvement as the weeks passed. Actually, no, that was me.