Author Archives: Chris Harold

Elliot Camrock

The In-Betweens: Bike Racing, Stolen Moments, and the Beverly Hillbillies

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy”

Driving along in our truck, just the two of us, time opens up and conversations can, and often do, go anywhere. On the way to Camrock Elliot and I were having one of those free, twisting and turning, talks and somehow we landed on the subject of the Beverly Hillbillies. Elliot had never heard of, or even seen a passing glimpse of, the show. I couldn’t believe it. Was I a failure as a father? I began to try to describe it to him and really warmed to my subject. I sang the theme song – “Listen to a story about a man named Jed, …” I explained the backstory, described each of the characters in detail, recalled some of the funniest bits I could remember. As I told all this to Elliot, it was like the show came alive to me again and I remembered how funny it was. And then I remembered, as if I was back there again, how happy we would be, my Dad and I, when we watched it together. Sometimes he laughed so hard tears would squeeze out of the corners of his eyes and roll down his cheeks. He’d rub them away with the soft heel of his rough brick layer’s hand, as if the touch of those tears on his fingertips might be too intimate to bear.

When Elliot and I arrived at the race, there was so much to do I forgot all about the Beverly Hillbillies. Registration, a warm up pre-ride of the course, eat a quick bite, roll up to the starting line, give the last minute advice on the course, and then, find a place for those all-important photos. The steep grass hill climb that starts the Camrock course has a false top, turns to the right, and then sends the riders up another steep gravel climb before finally leveling out into twisting, swooping, singletrack. I installed myself at the top of the grass hill and waited for the bellowing “Goooooo” from the timeless and eternally unchanging race director’s pre-race speech. Elliot showed a new maturity by holding back on the start, rather than going off like a rocket and using his tiny self to full advantage. If you’ve ever seen Elliot climb a steep hill ahead of a pack of kids who are all at least a foot taller than he is, then you know why power to weight ratio is real.

Elliot Camrock

But this wasn’t to be Elliot’s best race. I jumped on my bike and pedalled up to the next section of track where I could see him pass by – through the prairie grass field just before the trail turned into a tunnel of trees. As soon as I saw his face, I knew he was in trouble. That panicked look, holding back tears and yet still bearing down on the pedals. He gasped out broken words as he went by but I didn’t understand. Another parent standing beside me turned, “I think he said ‘can’t breathe?’” Then I knew what that panicked look meant – asthma attack. I raced back to the truck, found Elliot’s inhaler, and then rode the course trying to catch up with him. I didn’t find him until he was halfway done with the race. He stopped, took a quick puff, and was off again. He was almost a minute behind the first place racer. I jumped on my bike and rode to the next spot where I could see him pass by. This was after punchy climbs and tight snaking singletrack in the dim dark of the riverside woods. The first place rider passed me and I began to count off the seconds. Elliot came through looking fresh and determined and now was only 25 seconds behind the leader. In the end, Elliot made up all but 14 seconds and came in third in his age group. Afterwards he told me how, in addition to his asthma distress, his chain kept derailing from the front chainring and he would have to slow and back pedal to re-engage it.

I suffered through my own race, cramping like an old man on the last switchback climbs and finding myself stranded, unable to move my legs on the side of the loose rocky trail with less than a quarter mile to go. I managed to somehow remount my bike and soft pedal to the finish and that was the extent of my glory for the day. Another weekend spent driving hundreds of miles and racing so that I could see my name on a results sheet way down at the bottom end of my age group. My aspirations are only to get to the middle of the pack – no more podiums for me. Why do I do this?

On the way back home the truck was quiet. I was brooding over my results and Elliot sat listening to music on the radio. Then, after driving for nearly a half-hour in silence, Elliot asked from the back seat, “Dad, do you think when we get home we can watch the Beverly Hillbillies?” I had forgotten our talk about the show and was surprised that Elliot had remembered it through the excitement of the day. “Sure,” I said. “We can probably find some episodes on YouTube.” “Okay,” he said and went back to listening to the music.

Elliot Asleep in Truck

I glanced up into the rear view mirror and caught a glimpse of Elliot’s face, shining with the news that we would watch this TV show. And then it occurred to me: The plans and the training and the packing and the camping – even the racing itself – these are all simply the structure that provides the “in between” places where life happens. Like the walls and the floor and the ceiling of a house merely provide the boundaries that must be filled with life and love to make it a home. The race, how it went for Elliot, how it went for me – what place we came in, our speed and pace, the blow by blow of how we circled through the woods rolling on the dirt with our legs and lungs pumping – that’s just part of the structure. Only a few memories are made in the racing and planning. But the planning and the packing and travelling and the racing, they are only a small part of why we do this. We do this because life is what happens in between – in between the moments we are training, traveling, camping and racing. Life happens while we are busy planning life.

And so why do we do this? The structure of our plans, the edifice of our efforts, provide the place for our lives to be lived. It gives us an excuse to go meet other people, like all the racing families from Vision, like Michael at our local bike shop, Race Pace, like all the other racers at every race. Why do we do this? Because it gives an excuse for Elliot and I to simply be together so that when one of those in-between moments of life happens, we will be there to receive it.

Back home we watched episode after episode of the Beverly Hillbillies and I laughed until the tears rolled down my cheeks. We didn’t talk about the race. We didn’t talk about biking. We just laughed and laughed at a silly TV show. But tomorrow we will be ready to get back on the bike, ready to plan our next race.

A Season to Remember

“Did my Dad ever own a bicycle?” I texted those words to my Uncle in Florida. These are the kinds of questions that have started to occur to me – random, simple facts that I suddenly need to know about my Father since he passed away. The reply came back, “No. Not that I ever knew.” My Dad was from a family of seven kids, raised by a single mom, and as poor and as rag tag as any stereotypes of impoverished West Virginian hillbillies that you can conjure. My Uncle followed up with one more text. “But I did build one from parts out of the landfill! And your Aunt J___ won one at church for naming all the books of the Bible.”

My son, Elliot, is shining up his red and white bike, getting it perfectly clean for the first stop of this year’s mountain bike racing series. It’s a new bike for a new season. We opted for a 24 inch cyclocross bike, rather than a purpose built kid’s mountain bike. Elliot only weighs 55 pounds, so we are trading tire width for a racier geometry and overall lighter weight. After purchasing it with the advice from our local bike shop – Race Pace – and having the owner, Michael, replace the drop bars with a flat bar and grip shifters, the little Redline looks like a perfect tiny replica of real Cross Country MTB racing steed. I watch Elliot carefully polish each gleaming surface and think of how this is a world away from what my bikeless Father knew as a kid.

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It’s hard to believe, but this is our fourth year of racing mountain bikes together. Besides racing, we’ve ridden trails all over the country – IL, WI, WV, OH, NC, SC, CO, UT, NM, MI. When we hit the trails for the first time each Spring my heart swells up with thankfulness and we both are grinning from ear to ear. I know my own Father, who never had a bike, made sacrifices so that my life would be a little better than his. This is not a new idea. It’s part of the so-called American dream. Most people think of that “better life” in terms of money. But there is more that my Dad sacrificed and more that I have received than money. These moments on the bikes with my son, they were earned for me by all the moments my Dad sacrificed to work a brutally hard job. All the moments he didn’t have with me, on a bike, throwing a ball, camping – I am now able to have with my Son because of my Dad’s faithfulness to provide for his family.

Elliot is ten this year and we are turning into quite the Father / Son racing team. We are especially excited to be part of Vision Cycling and the chance to ride and race with other biking families. Hopefully we can all learn from each other. One thing we’ve learned is how hard it is to get yourself and a child out the door with everything needed to camp and race – even for just one night! How many times have we been an hour down the road only to remember – at various times – forgotten shoes, underwear, helmets, race numbers, tires, water, medicine, toothbrushes, and cash? So this year I’ve tasked the boy to make a bike packing list. The result is in the photo below. This is one of those moments, one of those precious artifacts of this season, that I always want to remember.

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I’m not yet sure what this blog will be about, except that I want to take the time to write down the moments from this season so we can remember them when this year is long past. Since I just lost my Father, I’m also remembering him and pondering the legacy of our Father/Son relationship and how it has passed on to Elliot and I. So, my working title for these rambling ruminations on biking and Dads and Sons and racing and the memories made will be this: “A Season to Remember.” Thanks for reading and joining us for the ride.

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