The best education is one that teaches you…encourages you…to ask questions. I have said before that I have been the benefit of a world class education…BA, MA, MM, DMA…I’ve studied at some of the world’s finest institutions, with some of the leading professors and experts in the fields of music, theatre, humanities, history, education, policy analysis and formation, etc. – The University of Michigan, Boston University, The Julliard. Every single stop along the way I was taught to question everything. Everything. The truth of what I was reading/being told. The usefulness of the same. How any of it applied to the past, present, or future. And, most importantly, why.
As a cyclist, I am still learning what questions to ask. The first major bike purchase I made as an adult came in November of 1995. Before that point in time, I had only owned cheap, department store bikes that were heavy and normally mountain bikes with straight handlebars. I had no idea about fit, saddle position, weight, components, etc. I, like my wife, based a bike’s usefulness on appearance, and, number of gears available.
At that point in our lives, I was enjoying a bit of a physical renaissance. I had put on some weight in the late 80’s and ballooned from the 185 pounds I weighed when we got married up to about 260. In 1988 I started my career in education by accepting a job as a junior high wrestling coach. It got me physically active again, as I had learned to never ask anyone under my leadership to do anything that I wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t do myself. So I did all of the drills, conditioning, and other physical demands I asked of my wrestlers. Over the course of the next few years, the weight came off until I was back to within a few pounds of that weight again. That fall one of my paternal uncles became seriously ill. He had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a pernicious disease which he has fiercely battled over the last quarter century. We wanted to do something to help, and we took note that an organized, two day bike ride from Phoenix to Parker Dam, California, was being organized as a fundraiser to battle MS. Somehow, I knew this was something I wanted to do.
Unfortunately, I didn’t ask the right questions…like “should I? What physical demands is this going to place on me/my body? What kind of equipment is it going to require?” I did know that fundraising was going to be expected as a condition of registration. I knew that literally thousands of people were going to be taking part in the event, and that one of them was a professional cyclist who lived in the Valley and had already made quite a name for himself – Michael Secrest. I, like other people who rode bikes in the 80’s had followed with joy as Greg LeMond became the first American to win Le Tour de France in the late 80’s, but I followed his exploits in the sports pages – there literally was no television coverage of Le Tour in the US back then. So I didn’t/couldn’t appreciate the speed generated by, and the physical demands placed on, these phenomenal athletes. The fact that Secrest just a few years before had won the Race Across America (RAAM) – a 2,816 mile, time-chipped race from Huntington Beach, CA to Atlantic City, NJ – for the second time, finishing in a record time of 7 days, 23 hours and 16 minutes, really meant very little to me or my wife. What DID matter was that Secrest was a native of Flint, MI – her hometown – and she wanted to see me in action for the first time in our married lives against competitive athletes.
All we had at the moment were a pair of department store mountain bikes. To that point, I had been doing rides around the neighborhood and surrounding desert of between 25 and 35 miles. To be sure, these rides were relatively easy as there was little real climbing in that area of the Valley we lived in. My knees, however, had issues towards the end of these rides, and I knew the first stage of the “MS 150 Best Dam Bike Ride” was going to be a shade over 100 miles and would end with some major climbs out of the Valley and towards the Colorado River Plateau. I knew I would need a better bike. So we went shopping the night before, once I had finished my share of fundraising and knew I would be able to participate.
The shop was located just a few blocks from our house. We informed the shop owner, with all four of our daughters in tow, what I was doing and what we were looking for. I can’t tell you just how far his eyebrows were raised when we were finished, but I can tell you that to this day I never knew that eyebrows could recede into your hairline! He asked questions himself. What’s your longest bike ride to date? What kind of physical activity have you done in the last year or two? What is your athletic history like? How much do you weigh? What’s your height, inseam, and reach? Following our answers he started to round up a few bikes for me to try out and muttered something like, “I should have asked about your life insurance policy….”
The first bike was a brand new Diamondback carbon fiber bike. White. 20 speed. Light. Gorgeous. I started to get on it when I noticed the price tag and gulped. I embarrassingly had to inform him that our budget was much smaller than that. He then had me try out another bike, an aluminum one as I recall, also a 20 speed, new, light. This one was about half the price of the Diamondback, but still out of our price range. Once we cleared up what we COULD afford, he showed me a Centurion Accordo – a 1987 lower tier touring model that was 12 speeds and he had taken it in on trade. It had a price tag of $300, but, looking at our girls and noting that I was a teacher and my wife was finishing her education degree, he said he would cut the price by taking my cheap mountain bike on trade (he was just going to cannibalize the components, he said – I had no idea what that meant), and customize the Accordo and make sure it was ready to do the ride.
My wife and I loved the color scheme. Like all Centurion models of the mid and late 80’s it was a two-tone. In this case, blue and silver. It had ram handlebars, downtube friction shifters, handlebar brakes, and 27 inch Araya wheels. I believe the components were a Shimano RX gruppo. He had me climb on the bike while it was mounted to a trainer in his shop and adjusted the saddle height for me – something I didn’t previously know was a consideration. Then I took off around the parking lot. It was rush hour in Phoenix, and 59th Avenue and Bell Road is NOT a place, then OR now, you want to ride a bike on in those conditions. So he gave me a crash course on how to get into and out of the toe straps, shift gears and brake. The bike was smooth, and although significantly heavier than the other two I had looked at, was still the lightest bike I had ever owned by far. Pedaling it was smooth and enjoyable. No pain. But I felt very unsteady in the forward position with the ram style drop handlebars. We agreed to a price of $200, if he transferred my mountain bike handlebars to the Accordo. He threw in a pair of thorn guards (a hard tire liner that protects against tube puncture) – one for each tire. I added a purchase of mountain bike bar ends (an attachment that sticks out 90 degrees from the handlebars and allows you to change hand position) and a water bottle. He told me to take the family out for pizza next door while he made the swaps, adjustments, and added some extra cleaning and lube to get me ready for the race.
The details of how that ride went I shared in an earlier post, crash and all. Secrest finished the entire 190 miles before sundown on the first day. Despite the crash, I managed to finish the ride among the first 500 riders out of over 2500 – even with broken thumb and road rash. The following year, Secrest would set the world record for a 24 hour period by cycling 532.74 miles in a velodrome at Cal State University. I will say that that ride to California taught me how many questions I needed to ask. How many water stops? What kind of medical and SAG support is there? What is the pace expected? Is it a shotgun or individual start? How much climbing is there? It also taught me to ask questions about bike weight, fit, components, etc. Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to learn what I was physically capable of and see/hear the admiration of my wife when she and the girls greeted me at the finish line in California!
By the way, I still have the Accordo. It served as my only bike for almost 17 years, and countless fundraising events for the MS Society, American Diabetes Association, American Cancer Society, etc. Our oldest daughter was so impressed with the event in ‘95 that the following spring, she took part in her very first bike ride for the ADA Tour de Cure in Scottsdale. She pedaled 25 miles on her own at the age of 11. My wife and her sisters pretty much followed her along the route while I pedaled the metric century route. She finished about an hour before I did. It was my turn to be so proud! The following year, our three oldest did the Tour de Cure along the Lake Michigan shoreline while my wife SAG’d them, and I did the century route. So proud of them all! We biked several times through their childhood. They had cheaper bikes, my wife still had her mountain bike (why we brought it from AZ I’ll never know!), and I rode the Accordo.
After my bariatric bypass, I knew I wanted to ride for causes again to regain my health and teach my students that community comes first. I knew that I probably should begin to look for another bike – a lighter bike. This time, though, I could afford one. After some research, I settled on a 1987 Centurion Dave Scott Ironman Expert. About three pounds lighter than the Accordo. Better components (Shimano 105). Still had ram style drop handlebars, down tube friction shifters, and was a 14 speed. I was stunned when my average speed went from 14 mph to nearly 17 mph.
The following fall, when I was forced into teaching a double overload – effectually a single year, $32,000 raise – I said to myself “If they’re stupid enough to pay me that kind of money, I’m stupid enough to spend it.”
Armed with cash, and a series of well-informed questions, I began the search for a top end bike. Centurion had been bought out by Diamondback in the 90’s, then collapsed. So I had to find something else if I wanted new and ultra light. I was looking for fit, body geometry (determines body position while riding – some bikes’ geometry stretches your body into a long and low position, while others put you more upright), componentry, weight, road absorption, etc. We traveled to several retailers and tried most major brands – Cannondale, Raleigh, Giant, Bianchi, and Trek. The one that I liked the best was a Trek Domane. It was similar to many of the others that I had test ridden, but additionally it had a dampening system (not shock absorber in the manner of mountain bikes) that made the ride more comfortable. Before I could tell the shop owner that I would be paying cash for the bike and while I was out test riding it, he ran my driver’s license through Trek credit for preliminary approval. When I got back, he asked to see more ID and informed me what he had done by saying, “According to this report, you’re dead!” I informed him that my father had just passed away a couple of years prior, that we had the same name, and how dare he run a credit check without my authorization? He informed me it was a matter of procedure when loaning out a $6000 bicycle. My wife and I left, but I noted the model and size. The bike was the closest thing I had found to what I wanted to be my dream bike, and I made up my mind that I would find another Trek dealer to purchase it from.
The next week, we were informed by my local club that a dealer had just agreed to be a club sponsor and was giving special discounts to club members. He was a Specialized dealer and we headed over. I knew immediately. The body geometry was so comfortable, the fit was so perfect, that it felt as though I was pedaling through air. The bike was four pounds lighter than my Dave Scott, about $1000 price difference for each of those four pounds! After a round of adjustments, I laid out the cash and I pedaled that bike the 44 miles home on an early fall afternoon. The only discomfort I felt was the sweat rolling down my face. Not from the exertion, but from the sun and warmth of the 80+ degree late afternoon. I was shocked again when I got home and discovered my average speed had now moved from 14 to 17 to 21 mph! Not in the league of a Mike Secrest, but definitely a pretty fair amateur speed for 44 miles! Sometimes it pays to ask the right questions. And sometimes, it’s too late.
Over the past two years, I have kicked myself in the arse for not asking the questions I should have of my mother and paternal grandmother. These were two of the strongest women I ever knew. My grandmother raised a family of nine children, while simultaneously housing a daughter and her husband after my grandfather died in 1942. Three of my uncles enlisted and fought in the Pacific in World War II. Grandma never remarried. Never dated. Yet she managed to keep a roof over all of their heads despite the fact that my grandfather left almost no life insurance and had only worked in low-skilled, hourly jobs. Grandma lived for another 41 years without her partner. Similarly, my mom lived seven years after my dad passed. Due to some financially irresponsible advice from a family member, she was forced to leave her home of 55 years six years after his passing. It is no surprise to me that she passed within a year after we moved her to another home.
Missed opportunities to learn the source of their strength. How did they deal with the loneliness? How did they deal with that ache late at night and first thing in the morning? What memories carried them through? What goal or goals kept them going? Was there something they learned during their marriages that they felt they should pass down to help us in the tough times? Sometimes it pays to ask the right questions. And, sometimes, you just know.
Thirty-seven years ago tomorrow night (February 12th, 1983) we went to our first dance together. We had gone on our first date on January 15th – we saw “Tootsie” and, when I dropped her off at her home and turned away to go, she spun me around and kissed me! I was shocked (I never kissed on the first date) and so was her younger, 15 year old brother, who was peeking through the curtains at us! This dance was going to be our first, all day long, romantic date. I had already begun to develop some serious feelings for her. She was funny, highly intelligent, more talented than I (see last weeks’ post with a video of her singing), and stunningly beautiful. She was also kind and loving to everyone she interacted with. Dancing, though? It was my weakest area. I was terrified and didn’t know how she would respond to my klutziness! She, after all, had taken years and years of dance as a kid (one of the first things she told me when I noted how gracefully she moved on stage). She was teaching an aerobics class in her complex every night. God, she was stunning in that leotard and tights! I took the class just so I could enjoy the view, and I wasn’t the only one!
The dance was a disaster at first! She was so damned beautiful she glowed when I picked her up. She was wearing an intoxicating perfume – at least it seemed like it to me at the time – and I couldn’t get my head straight. I couldn’t get my sense of rhythm or beat, and, after a few attempts at faster dances I asked her if we could sit down. Tears started rolling down my cheeks, only making matters worse, as I felt the shame. I knew I had blown it. She saw. She always saw. She left her chair, came over, put her arms around my neck, sat on my lap, looked me in the eye, and said “It’s ok. Really. I love you.” At that moment, the DJ spun his first ballad – Lionel Richie’s “Truly.” We got up, danced, and I knew. I still know. That became the song we first danced to at our wedding reception ten weeks later. It was always our song.
I didn’t pop the question for another few weeks. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact date. But I do remember the exact date we both knew because it was Valentine’s weekend. And I know she knew then, because she kept these for our entire marriage. Sometimes, you just know.
Valentine’s Day is horrible for a widow/widower. I haven’t looked at my phone or been online other than to post these updates in over a week. Between her dog passing, the anniversary of her death, the anniversary of our first dance, and Valentine’s Day…just too much. But love is indeed stronger than death. Sometimes you have to ask the right questions to find out if you are the right fit. And, again, sometimes you just know. Truly.