When I was in 4th grade, I did a social studies report on the small countries of Belgium and Luxembourg. It was the early part of the 1980s, and memories of the greatest cyclist of all time, Belgian Eddy Merckx, were still fresh -- it was impossible to do a research report without including some mention of the man who would eventually be named "Belgian of the Century" for the 1900s.
Thing is, somewhere between memorizing the average temperature and the population figures for the "Low Countries," my imagination was captured. I fell in love, hook, line and sinker: The stories of Merckx's then-record-tying five Tour de France victories soon had me doodling pictures of bikes in my notebook and dreaming of the day I could whisk through the French countryside, speeding past the sunflowers as I sprinted for victory on the streets of Bordeaux and the mountainsides of the Alps. I actually wrote poetry about riding my bike.
Jeff was my best friend at the time, and to this day is one of the smartest people I've ever known. He shared my passion for bicycles, though as a natural-born inventor, he was fascinated by the mechanical side of the sport rather than the athletic side. That simply demonstrated the diversity of the bike: We would spend hours riding around town, discussing just how amazing the bicycle was as a machine, imagining the freedom we would have as we grew up and could ride anywhere we wanted.
Thing is, dreaming of being a professional bike racer wasn't the most, um, accepted thing in my rural/suburban hometown. I still remember in 6th grade being teased about whether I shaved my legs. Finding a copy of Bicycling -- then a halfway decent magazine and the only link to European racing we had -- involved day-long rides and sketchy side trips along four-lane highways. Even a visit to the nearest bike shop was like something out of Stand By Me. My mom steadfastly refused to even think about organized racing.
But Wide World of Sports covered Le Tour and RAAM. A very early rails-to-trails conversion happened just a few blocks from my house. A new bike shop opened in town. I grew up, and grew stronger, and those day-long rides suddenly became an end, not just a means. I was free.
And then cars, girls and cigarettes intervened. I had bought my first "adult" bike (an early Miyata hybrid) at 14, and by 16 it had become a way to sneak out for a smoke. By college, my bike was a convenient laundry drying rack in my dorm room. I tried riding once or twice, but the passion was gone: I lost interest in cycling and cycle racing, completely missing the Miguel Indurain years and barely registering when a young Lance Armstrong abandoned the Tour in July 1996.
But then something magical happened. Thanks to the inspiration of a soccer game, of all things, I got healthy -- and one day, while on a group run from Evanston to Highland Park, saw the colorful peloton of the Judson ride go speeding by me. It was an "Aha!" moment, as I suddenly realized that though I enjoyed running, the very core of my being wanted nothing more than to be speeding along the road, wind in my hair, legs furiously pumping the pedals with the quiet hum of the tires in my ears ...
A couple of years later, I found myself in that very pack. I bought my first real road bike in 2000, and in August of that year, with much prompting and support from Kim, tried my hand at racing. Finishing half a lap down at Downer's Grove in the Citizens race was humbling, but from that moment forward I knew there was nothing else I'd rather be doing. My only goal in life became the desire to race Downer's Grove on Sunday -- meaning I would have to earn my way to Category 2 ... I couldn't even dare to dream that I'd ever race the elite national championships as a Category 1.
I realized this week as I started preparing for the 2011 season that it's been 10 years since I started training seriously for bike racing in that winter of 2000-2001. Next year will mark my 11th full season of racing, and I found myself suddenly in a reflective mood about my first decade of racing. When Troy, Todd and the others on the weekday morning Judson ride dropped me (badly!) on the "hills" of Sheridan Road on my first group ride many moons ago, I never would have imagined that I would surpass my wildest childhood dreams and experience a life and lifestyle that has transformed me in so many ways. As they say, it's been the highest of highs and the lowest of lows ... but I wouldn't have it any other way.