When you grow up you’re going to ask about your father. You’re going to ask how he died. You’re going to feel the wordless pain of going through life without your dad. You’re never going to have the guy who gave you half your blood, half your genes, and all of your heart standing next to you at those moments in life when you most desperately need a father. Little kid, you’ve lost half of the most important thing any kid can ever have before your life has even begun.
Your dad died racing his bike in a stupid weekend crit. And you want to know why, and no one’s been able to explain. How can anyone explain something as senseless and pointless as dying in a weekend bike race, chasing the glory of a candy bar prime and twenty-five bucks in prize money?
Why we race
Before I try to explain why he died, let me try to explain what he was doing when he died. Your dad, who had been racing his bike for years, was taking a risk, a big risk, a life or death risk, and he knew it. He even signed a piece of paper that said he knew the risk was so big it might kill him.
But here’s the thing, little kid: He knew it, but he didn’t really believe it. If he had known, or had any idea that getting killed in that bike race might actually happen to him and leave you behind without your dad, he would have never been in that race. He wanted you and your mom at that race not to watch him get hurt, but so you could watch him compete and maybe even win. You were only a couple of years old, but you were so excited by the race and seeing your dad in it that even after he crashed, each time the pack came around you pointed at the peloton and said “Daddy! Daddy!” It was so cute, before we found out that your dad had died. After that it was heartbreaking.
Your dad was well known and respected in his bicycling community. He raced his bike for the same reason we all race our bikes: To see how good we are compared to the other people that day, that time, that event, when we stick the safety pins into our numbers and mass at the start line. To see how much we can endure. To battle with our friends without fighting them. To put everything on the line.
Why you were at that race, little kid
If we just looked at that bike race and at what you’ve lost, there’s no way it was worth it. No stupid hobby is worth dying for. No little kid deserves to lose his dad like that.
But it wasn’t just a stupid hobby, little kid. These people who were around him when he died, they were his friends. They were the people who helped him when he flatted on training rides, they were the people he helped when it was they who had a mechanical.
They were the people he laughed with. The people he suffered with. The people he sat down with at day’s end and shared a beer with.
Little kid, living in a community, whether you’re lucky enough to have a community of friends, a community of family, or both, is the only thing that makes life worth living. Without people around you to love, and to share the good, to help fend off the bad, and to laugh at the absurd, we’re not living. That loneliness of not having a community of friends can kill people, little kid, just as surely as a blow to the head killed your dad. It’s the loneliness that took the life of someone I loved, too.
But your dad, he lived. And when he entered the world of bike racing he entered the world of a bleeding, life or death intensity that those who haven’t done it can never understand. It’s a world of fear, of loathing, of pain, of exhilaration, of speed, of triumph, of defeat, and of unmitigated battle. It doesn’t make you better, or smarter, or even happier, but while you’re doing it you’re as completely, intensely, and thoroughly alive as anything else you’ll ever do, living so that your mind and body expand to fill the entirety of the time and space you occupy. You become, so briefly, the moment itself. When it’s done, you can only vaguely believe that it ever really happened.
That was your dad’s world, and the people he did it with were his people. What’s funniest, little kid, is that in our bike racing community, we’re friends even with people we’ve never even met. And I’ll try to explain that part, too.
Passing the torch
Your dad loved you more than you’ll ever know. How do I know? Because I’m a dad. Dads love their sons deeply and profoundly and wildly and also with the recognition that the little kid is going to be a man some day, and the man that the little kid becomes will outstrip the dad. It’s pride and love and expectation and respect and even a little chagrin, all mixed into one.
Your dad loved you so much that he wanted you to be part of his community. You would have grown up around bikes and bike racers and you would have learned some lessons, lessons like “The correct number bikes to own is n +1, where ‘n’ equals the current number of bikes you own.” Lessons like “Don’t sneak new bike purchases on the credit card. Discuss it with the wife first, then buy it.” Lessons like “Beer goes with bikes, but don’t overdo it.”
You would have learned other things, too, crucial ingredients that go into the recipe of making a little kid into a man.
“There is no ‘try.'”
“Give it everything you’ve got.”
“Overcome your fear.”
“Don’t give up.”
“Help your friends.”
“Take big risks.”
And the biggest one of all: “Teach by example.”
That’s the biggest one of all, little kid, because through his community and his hobby your dad was setting you up to learn all those lessons. He was setting you up to learn about adversity, about good times, about doing your best, about taking big risks, and about friendship. So when you ask why your dad had to die doing a stupid weekend crit, there’s part of your answer. He loved you and knew no other way to teach than through example.
Whether you ride bikes or race them later doesn’t matter. What matters is that you know how much he loved you, and how much he wanted you to learn those life lessons that every man has to learn in order to make his way.
The wheels around you
After your dad died, it created an earthquake of shock in his bicycle riding community. People who knew him and people who didn’t immediately thought of you, little kid. We thought about you because some of us have little kids, too, little kids who clap and cheer in between soda pops on race day. But those of us without kids had you uppermost in our minds, too. We love you, too, little kid, even though we don’t know you.
We love you because what happened to your dad could have happened to any one of us, and we know it. We felt the awfulness this way — “That could have been me.” — and we, because we’re part of your dad’s community and therefore yours, want you to know that you’ll never be alone.
We can’t replace your dad, little kid, or even come close. But your dad’s life will be memorialized, and he’ll have left behind something for you that’s worth more than any insurance policy: A legacy and reputation in his community, a community of friends who won’t ever forget him, and a community of friends who will be there for you if grow up and decide to follow where he led.
Peace out for now, little kid. We’ve got your back.