Some of my earliest memories aren’t just of my dad, they’re of my dad and bikes. Growing up, my brother, Wes, and I lived to go pedal around the block with our dad. I remember those early pedal strokes vividly; I even remember the exact day our dad, Joe, took the training wheels off my 12″ wheeled Murray BMX bike and pushed me through the front yard.
And directly into the neighbor’s shrubbery. We got the hang of it eventually, however, and graduated from rides down Ninth Street to Deering’s for 5 cent Tootsie Rolls to joining him on his ‘training rides’ behind the State Hospital. You have to give him plenty of credit for patience. We couldn’t make it up the hills, nor could we be trusted to safely get down the rough and steep descents. Joe picked out a very short loop and told us to stick to the lap. At the time, I guessed it was maybe a mile long; today, I can assure you that it wasn’t more than 100 yards, maximum. Still, after one lap together, he’d take off, doing dozens of laps in thirty minutes, with Wes and I plodding along and wondering if we’d ever, ever be able to keep up with the man who, we assumed, was the fastest bicycle rider in the world.
When we had a babysitter, we’d get to go the to the races and watch him. He raced at Shanty Creek, Sugar Loaf, all those early 90s events in Northern Michigan. Wes and I would be so proud to see our dad out on the course at the same time as riders like Tinker Juarez; we didn’t really get all the categories yet. I know it meant a lot for him to have us there, too. I remember after one race, he joined the queue of riders at the results board (they used to print them out on paper way back in the day, kids!) and turn around with the biggest smile on his face I’d ever seen and shout, with both hands flashing three fingers, “Third place! Third place!”. Sport class hero, but hey, he was my hero.
As we got older, we got faster. I will never forget the first time we dropped Joe. We used to ride the Leelanau Trail to Suttons Bay on the weekend. The way out was Stage One, the return leg was Stage Two, and we’d grab Clif Bars or Pop-Tarts at the gas station as a break in between. In those days, the trail wasn’t paved all the way north, and we imagined that dirt and gravel stretch as a secteur of cobblestones, like we’d seen on TV watching Paris-Roubaix. It was a hot, dry day and when I countered Wes attack, Joe couldn’t go with me; I rode up to Wes’ wheel and we stayed clear all the way to Suttons Bay. I can distinctly remember looking back and seeing my dad’s teal Giro helmet and dusty, dirty face just barely visible in front of huge cloud of twisting, thick dust being kicked up behind him. He was giving it all he had to catch us, and I don’t doubt the immensity of the moment was lost on any of us.
In high school, Wes and I got away from cycling. Baseball, football, track all flew by, but cycling, and our dad, was waiting for us on the other side. It was my dad that let me borrow his bike to race the first-ever Barry-Roubaix, the first spring I was riding bikes again. He made it to almost all of our races, combining the roles of coach, soigneur, mechanic, and cheerleader. He’d hand us water bottles during races, clean our bikes when we got home, and no matter what the result was, he’d ask us if we had fun. To this day, that’s the question he asks first; win or lose, it was about enjoying it.
Joe hasn’t been able to ride much the past few years, and it’s maybe a little fitting that one of his last big hit-outs was his first-ever Iceman Cometh Challenge. November is really late in the year to stay fit, so he’d never tried it before. I finally just signed him up and told him he was racing. It was 2014; every racer who was there knows how that day went. Through the cold, the rain, the frozen fingers, he finished, though I never doubted he’d do anything other than try his best…and have fun.
Today, take a second to thank your dad and maybe get the old man out for a pedal. Even if it’s just around the block or down the street for some ice cream, we are incredibly lucky to have a sport that we can share with the people we love for our entire lives.
From everyone at the Iceman Cometh Challenge, have a very Happy Father’s Day, and we’ll see you in the woods soon.