We have given out the Belgian Award at our annual award ceremony for several years now. It has typically gone to the man or woman who evinced the kind of relentlessness, toughness, and big miles that bike racers associate with the one-day classics like Paris-Roubaix Tour of Flanders.
This year the award went to a guy named Gary Washington. Gary’s a new kind of Belgian in that he wasn’t chosen because he rode 20,000 miles a year through rain and sleet, or because he pounded for hundreds of miles across dirt and gravel in Dirty Kanza, but because he showed the kind of resilience, commitment, and desire to change his entire life by becoming a committed rider, which is probably the toughest thing of all.
Gary started riding five years ago, after more than thirty years had passed since he pedaled around as a kid on a Schwinn Varsity 10-speed.
He was talking with some friends at the race track when one of them, Gerald Bond, mentioned that he rode a bicycle. Like most non-cyclists, Gary laughed and kidded Gerald about his avocation. “Man, you’re in your 40’s and riding a bicycle? For real?”
But something about his friend’s cycling struck him, so a few months later, after a day at the track when the horses had been especially good to him, Gary went to Sports Authority and plunked down $200 on a Columbia mountain bike. After a little bit of practice, Gary took Gerald up on an invitation to “go for a pedal.”
And we all know what those “friendly invitations” mean …
The two friends rode together for a bit until Gerald decided it was go-time. “Come on,” he said, upping the pace suddenly and then easily riding away. After a long time Gerald slowed and let Gary catch up, exhausted and embarrassed and beat to hell, and at that moment Gary had the realization that so many of us have had at the hands of a “friendly” beatdown.
“NEVER AGAIN,” he said to himself.
Knowing that the only way he’d improve was through practice, Gary took up riding full bore. For the next one hundred consecutive weeks he logged a hundred miles minimum every single week, an astonishing feat of consistency and commitment for someone who had just taken up the sport. The fact that he did it on his $200 MTB showed even more clearly how dedicated he was, and his passion was evident to others–his buddy who’d gotten him into cycling was now suddenly too busy to go out and try to repeat the “friendly” invitation.
Soon another friend began pushing hard for Gary to get a road bike. This friend, Anthony Griffin, also encouraged him to join the local Cali Riderz club, which he did. “Best $1,800 I’ve ever spent,” is Gary’s verdict two years later.
“This sport/hobby has improved my life tremendously,” Gary says. “I used to get the flu between September and March anywhere from 2-3 times every year, but since I started riding I haven’t been sick with the flu in over five years. I used to be quiet and reserved, but I talk all the time now. I used to just go with the flow, but now I’m dedicated to inspiring and motivating others.”
It’s this last part that has taken on a bigger and bigger part of Gary’s life, because he knows that our communities are filled with people who are desperate to change their lives with exercise and better habits, they just don’t know how or where to begin.
“I used to ride to get myself better, but now I want to coach and mentor others so that they can improve and change their lifestyles, like my friends helped me change mine.”
In 2019 Gary is on track to rack up 7,500 miles, and it has been a major commitment on his end because he works evenings and even though that lets him ride in the day, it means he has to go from ride workout to work grind, a tough combo if there ever was one.
With hardman rides like Crystal Lake under his belt, and a 163-miler to San Juan Capistrano and back, he shows no sign of letting up. As with so many people transformed by the bike, Gary’s friends and family support him as well. But unlike riders who will tell you that the hardest part of cycling is increasing wattage or performance gains, for Gary the hardest thing in cycling is “To get others to start riding.”
“That’s the hardest part,” says, “but the part I enjoy the most.”
With mentors like Gerald Bonds, Anthony Griffin, Mike Thompson, Glen Banks, Mark Trumbach, Marty Blount, and countless others who have helped him on the way, Gary keeps pushing on to spread the gospel of the bike. That’s a Belgian tough guy, make no mistake.
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