Racing with Henry
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.
Henry was soon “bunny-hopping” over blown-down limbs on the trails and speedily remounting like a pro. When the knotty roots hiding beneath maple and beech leaves loosened my bike’s old fork and made continuing impossible, Henry kept going, completing another lap. I waited for him by the pond, and waited, and waited some more. He should’ve been back by now, and when he finally returned, his leg was bleeding. “I might’ve hit a tree,” he pointed out. “Think the bike’s going to be okay?”
The season was almost over. He was really flying now, and he signed up for the last race at Fitchburg. I said I’d do it if I could find a dependable bike. The bike shop owner, Marc, perhaps sensing that I needed a nudge, proffered his own. I registered online hours before the deadline.
“Really!?” exclaimed Henry, when I told him I was in. “Really?” Before I could get a low-expectations word in, Henry was game-planning for the race, putting together tactics, and promising to sacrifice his well-earned position near the front of the mass start to join his first-timer dad in the back. It wasn’t that he needed to look after me, he assured me, but together we might be something special. I had the feeling he was imagining the cycling equivalent of Manny and Big Papi. I got nervous all over again.
The week before the race I rode almost every day, and when not riding, I was thinking about it. To acclimate myself to the cold, I went out mountain-biking in 20-degree weather. The next day I “crossed” in the woods. On Saturday Henry and I went out together; he was pushing me now, on the road, in the woods. The day ended with both of us tearing around the local park–using the steep slopes to practice carrying our bikes uphill, then gleefully bombing down. Evidently I bombed down a little too hard. “I think your tire is flat,” Henry informed me gently. “I hope that doesn’t happen to us tomorrow.”
On race day, we woke at 6:00 and were on the road 20 minutes later. I fixated on the dashboard thermometer, wincing when it crashed into the teens. Meanwhile, the few cars on the road featured ski racks and drivers wearing parkas. I pointed this out to Henry. He raised his clenched fist to mine for a bump: “This is what we do,” he intoned.
The Fitchburg course, defined by orange plastic fencing, rolled across a long, low city park. As we tested the course before the start, we reached its signature feature, “the Flyover”: a 10-foot-high pyramid with steeply ascending and descending ramps. Slats were nailed into the “up” side as footholds, and a race volunteer was using a leaf blower on the green faux carpeting to melt a tongue of ice.
When the gun went off, there were 36 in our men’s Category 4 grouping, the bike-race division for the least-experienced riders. Henry dressed in shades, black tights, and a Centraal Cycle team-issue jersey. I was wearing underlayers and a blue Team Gloucester running jersey. On its front was the image of a big fat cod.
The plan was for us to ride in close proximity so we could encourage each other and help if we got into trouble. Unfortunately, I made the “rookie” mistake of trying to be safe at the start instead of blasting off. Safe in racing equals slow. Henry was gone before I knew it. A few minutes into the first lap, I realized with some horror that I was last. After the guy in front of me lost control of his bike in the volleyball pit and pitched into a steel fence, I was next to last.
Then a funny thing happened: I picked off a few riders. I survived the Flyover and even passed a team-affiliated racer at the hurdles–getting an “Attaboy!” from a course marshal. During the easier stretches on flat pavement I made myself shift to a bigger gear to gain more ground. I was racing now.
Then it was the last lap, and I finally saw Henry. Because the course doubled back on itself, two riders could be far apart in terms of time but still be in close physical proximity. So it was with the two of us. I was heading toward the parking-lot side of the course and a series of winding corrals, while he was en route to the finish, only the hurdles between himself and the end. I gave him a “Good job, Henry!” He beamed and flashed a thumb’s-up.