Bikes or books?

I went to a banquet last night for my youngest son’s high school speech and debate team. I haven’t been to a banquet in years and was surprised at the format. After a brief series of introductions by one of the teachers, the incoming president of the club invited each of the twenty graduating seniors to the lectern and they all made a speech.

Most had no idea they were going to give a talk in front of about eighty peers and adults, but if they were nervous they didn’t show it. And speech/debaters or not, they proved this bit of wisdom: Mark Twain, who recovered from his frequent financial disasters with speaking tours, and who was the funniest and most skilled public speaker of his time, was once interviewed about the art of speaking in public.

“How long does it take you to prepare for a five-minute speech?” the journalist asked.

“About four hours,” Twain said.

“That’s incredible,” the journalist remarked, awestruck. “And then how long does it take to prepare for a two-hour speech?”

“I can do that right now.”

Brevity, according to one who knew, isn’t merely the soul of wit, it’s the most challenging form of it. Some of the speeches involved direct or indirect bragging about college acceptances, some mentioned how their minds had been formed by debate, most talked about the mental beatdowns they’d been exposed to at debate tournaments, all expressed thanks, one evoked tears. None of the students mentioned their devotion to bike racing.

I’ve seen a lot of young people fall off into the abyss of competitive cycling at a young age. With help from their parents, friends, and coaches, they have foregone things like debate in order to race a bicycle. Whereas the intellectual residue from debate, like music and art, stays with you for life, little remains once you quit riding around in circles for trinkets. In fact, people who quit cycling at any age are often aghast as they gaze around the garage at the bikes, the wheels, the clothing, the racks, the trainers, and the endless pile of gadgets that now have no meaning, no use, no application to anything, and no value except what they can claw back on e-Bay.

So ever since I ran across a kid fully soaked in the Kool-Aid who seems to be at the right age to make all the wrong decisions, I have thought about pulling him aside and saying, “Get off the bike. It won’t take you anywhere. You’ll never make a livelihood at it and it will derail every other meaningful opportunity currently in front of you. If you want to race something, race your mind, and race it with books.”

But I didn’t.

Instead, I’ve thought about the kids at the debate banquet and what they have ahead of them–four years at some of the best colleges and a “bright future.” But how bright? I graduated from one of the best debate programs in the history of the NFL — which was christened the National Forensic League decades before the pro football merger — and I don’t think any of the people I went to high school with have better lives than some of the young people I’ve seen grow up as bike racers. And if they do have better lives, I don’t think you can pin it on their experiences in debate.

Moreover, what is a better life? More money? Bigger house? More bragworthy college for you or your children? And unlike youth, which is the only time window that you can reach for the stars as an athlete, aren’t books and education available throughout your life?

And what about that small handful of kids who are filled, consumed, obsessed, absorbed with passion? Sure, it’s sad to see kids pushed and prodded through cycling by vicarious-thrill-seeking parents who themselves don’t/won’t ever pin on a number, but what about the ones who do it in spite of their families, the ones who you can tell from a mile away that they live to ride their bikes? Isn’t that pursuit worth the weight of every book ever written?

I think it is.



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20 thoughts on “Bikes or books?”

  1. Two comments:

    1. In fact, people who quit cycling at any age are often aghast as they gaze around the garage at the bikes, the wheels, the clothing, the racks, the trainers, and the endless pile of gadgets that now have no meaning, no use, no application to anything, and no value except what they can claw back on e-Bay.

    yes, Oh, dog yes….exactly.

    2. A “better life” — defined — (for 5/27/2018 only) .. Half a bottle of Le Parliament (A French White) with hummus and those funky whole grain pita chips, followed by home cooked burgers topped with home grown jalapenos, lettuce, and tomatoes, washed down with a bottle of Yellow Dog Red syrah (also made here), while viewing Stage 19 of the Giro (Dutchie crashes in the snow!)

  2. IMO, you’ve done your job as a parent if your kid finds something to be passionate about and pursues it. Your job as a parent is to support that pursuit.

    That doesn’t mean being a stage parent though. As a parent you need to be clear that it’s their pursuit, not yours, and you are there to help them figure it out.

    Maybe interests change, but that connection/meaning seems to help.

  3. Barbara Radnofsky

    Modern debaters aren’t just a bunch of kids from privileged neighborhoods where the aspirations are a bigger house or going to the most prestigious National Forensic League schools. Check out, a wonderful charity serving well over 500 urban schools nationwide. 86% of the kids are students of color and 72% are from low income families. Debate transforms lives; 85% of urban debaters attend college. One of this nation’s inspiring urban debaters is a young Hispanic woman from the Los Angeles Metropolitan Debate League; she was honored at the NAUDL National Tournament in Chicago in May. She was quoted as saying “through debate, I found my voice mattered,” and believes she has defied stereotypes, proving women of color can be smart and powerful. I think the world of cycling can coexist with the world of NAUDL, which exists to teach urban kids to think, communicate, collaborate and love learning.

    1. Yes, but few can excel at both simultaneously. And most kids would benefit a hell of a lot more from a dose if debate than a dose of EPO.

  4. I agree that you’ve done your job if they treat people well. You’ve excelled if they have a passion for something and live it and you mostly get out of their way but support as needed. My kids all have that and I’m very proud.

  5. Balance is the key to life, like riding a bike. Keep moving is life, just like riding a bike. What I discovered on the bike is deeply personal rooted in the tissue and bone of pain and equal joy/satisfaction. The achievements and awards of business success have never felt like that. The only other comparison to what the bike taught me in heart and head is the love of my child. And she never rides her bike and does not debate but could kill those kids with Wit and Sarcasm. Maybe I did something right.

  6. ‘There are three kinds of men: The ones who learn by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves’ – Will Rogers And did I ever tell you that the tip of my johnson is carbon black? I’m a piss poor slow learner!

  7. I don’t know if I have a dog in this fight, as my life was already mis-spent & ruined from following another non-remunerative avocation by the time I discovered bicycle racing. “In for a dime…”

    PS When you hear that clicking noise, that means the fence is on.

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