Nothing ever changes. This past Sunday, I lined up on the starting gate of the Dayton, Ohio indoor BMX track next to a fellow named Brian. Thirty-one and a half years ago, Brian was the hottest 14 Beginner at Phase IV BMX in Pataskala, Ohio, winning three races in a row and effortlessly dominating the two dozen or so kids who would show up on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings to challenge him. I was a whippet-thin, sullen-faced kid on a hastily-assembled bits-and-pieces special, strong and fast but perilously unbalanced. It took me through the long summer and into fall to finally beat him, which I managed to do maybe twice before I turned fifteen in November and he did not. I can still remember crouching over my Patterson Pro next to his Diamond Back Silver Streak, eyes forward, waiting for the lights and horn to sound.
Everything changes. Brian and I have children now — his four-year-old son who wants nothing to do with BMX, and my eight-year-old boy who after just a few weekends has internalized the rhythms and the statistics and the casually bloody heart of the sport. I quit riding in my early thirties and redesigned my life around the automobile; Brian stayed with it and just kept getting better, mastering that deft touch some people have that lets them soar into the air then place their wheels back on the ground with the delicacy of a Nureyev or Baryshnikov. He was at the race to win a thirty-six-inch trophy and further his standing as a top-ranked 45 Expert. I was there because of a fiction I created, one in which my son and I are just racing because I want to do it and therefore there is no pressure on him to win. In this fiction, which is a mirror image of reality, he is merely my fellow traveler in a BMX journey that I decided on a whim to reanimate after fourteen years without so much as a practice lap.
A few slots down from us on the gate was another old soldier, a man who had been both a champion pro rider and a homeless alcoholic, now returned to the sport with a young man’s fervor but with a body broken by years of substance abuse and indifferent medical care. Yet there were moments in practice where you could see him ride up the face of a jump, rear up and balance his brand-new DK Professional on its back tire, then lean it into the next turn like a MotoGP superstar at Suzuka. We had briefly met at the registration desk earlier in the day, chatted for a moment, then walked towards the paddock with the same sort of cripple’s limp, each of us secretly and cruelly hoping the other fellow had less cartilage in his knees.
“Everybody ready?” the starter asked, and we all nodded. Brian, the other fellow, and I nosed up to the gate and sat there balanced, both feet resting on pedals, eyes forward, hands tensing then relaxing on the handlebar grips. The first two of us to cross the line would go on to the main event. The third-place racer would go home. Alright riders, the electronic voice intoned, random start. Riders ready… watch the gate! Four lights, four horns, and three men going from zero to 130 revolutions per minute in the space of four hard shoves at the pedals.
Ah, but we can come back to this race later. It’s not the important one.