I came back from Sebring on Monday night, set my phone down, and started writing a few things for the upcoming week. When I looked at my phone again it was blinking furiously with messages from people trying to reach me: via Instagram, through my brother, through mutual friends. I called one of them back. “There’s no easy way to say it,” he told me. “We lost Nick tonight.”
My God, I thought, some idiot killed him in his own car. Nick was in the process of trying to sell his one-owner 2004 SRT-4. Since he’d never harbored any ill will towards anyone, Nick always assumed the same of others. He must have let some kid test-drive the 400-horsepower Neon on those Kentucky backroads. Must have gone with him to explain how the car worked. Things must have gone wrong. For a moment, I fervently hoped that the driver had suffered unimaginable pain before dying himself.
But it wasn’t so. Nick had been training for the next BMX race on his rollers, right next to his wife on her elliptical machine, when the heart attack happened. He didn’t make it to the hospital.
I’ve written about Nick in the past. What I didn’t say then was this: Nick was the best friend that a man could have. The best person that any of us could know. I never heard him say a harsh or unkind word about anybody. When his son was born with a crippling nerve condition, Nick just put his head down and worked harder to pay for therapy. When his wife was diagnosed with cancer, Nick just shouldered more of the burden himself until she beat the illness. At the age of forty-eight, having trained as an artist in his youth and having worked for decades in a profession that was automated out and sent to China ten years ago, he was working in an Amazon fulfillment center. It was hard. He didn’t like it. But he never really complained. He just went to work and he paid his bills and he looked after his family.
I never beat him in a BMX race, or down a long mountain bike trail, fair and square. Not once. He was always the better rider. Stronger, more durable, more talented. He could do things that I couldn’t. Eliot called Pound il miglior fabbro and on the bicycle that was how I saw Nick. Even when I was at my fittest, in my twenties when I could run four miles then turn around and ride my trials bike for six hours, Nick was simply better, always left me in his wake, gasping for breath.
He indulged all my insanity, all my weird ideas. Rode on my bike shop team for nothing but a jersey and a hamburger even when he had other, better, options. Did design work for my Generic Superbike project in 1991, hours of drafting and calculations, for no reward. Listened patiently to my stories, my complaints, my often insufferable mid-life recitations of money spent and things bought and women conquered. Together we traveled thousands of miles to races, often not speaking much after the first half hour, settled into a companionable silence that only ended when we arrived at the track and evaluated the surface, the weather, the competition.
Women liked Nick but he never noticed. Or if he did notice, he didn’t care. He was in love with the girl he’d started dating when he was fifteen or so. Married right out of high school, bought a house, settled down and had a child while I was still in college. Never expressed any doubts, any wish that things had been different. Never wasted money or acted out of temper. He owned a couple of Camaros of which he was justifiably proud but he treated them with the same careful deftness with which he handled a bike or his infant son.
A few years ago he got hurt on the bike for the very first time. Broke his collarbone. It would have been a career-ender for any other middle-aged man with a physical job and a family to support. But Nick just healed up quickly and went back to winning races. He seemed to be forged from the mythical adamantium. I didn’t really think he could be hurt. He existed in one piece. Humble, kind, well-liked, envied by no one because even though he had talent and strength and success he never gave even the slightest offense that usually serves as resentment’s seed. He never used drugs. I never saw him take a drink, not even a beer at the end of the race weekend or the long trail ride.
We were supposed to go riding this weekend, Nick and my son and me. I don’t want to go without him. It’s not fair, that he should die and I should live. He will be missed by everyone who ever shared a track or an evening or a meal with him. And there’s one more story I’ll tell, because I always tell it about him. We were at a Pro-Am event near Dayton, Ohio. There was a hot-shot 17-year-old kid with some burly trucker dad. Nick and I were already in our late twenties, as were most of the other riders. The kid was really fast and strong. He won the first two races easily. Started talking some smack on the gate each time. In the third main, one of us — I don’t remember who, might have been me — put the kid on the ground pretty hard. Just to remind him that he should show a little respect to his elders.
Well, the dad came over swinging this monkey wrench and cussing and we all kind of backed off a bit because this guy looked like he was going to kill somebody and he was built like Hulk Hogan and he was covered with light-blue jail tats. The dad started yelling at Nick, who had not been involved in the wreck and who hadn’t been paying attention. So Nick puts his bike down and kind of draws himself up to his full height and he says, very quietly, in this high-pitched voice,
“I don’t like the way you’re talking to me.”
The whole track went silent because we’d all raced together for a decade and nobody had heard Nick express displeasure with anything. At that moment we realized that maybe it was a bad idea to get him angry. The dad realizes it too. He freezes. Drops his wrench. Apologizes to Nick. Turns around and punches his own kid in the chest. Drags him to the car. Nick looks at us. “What are we going to do about dinner?” he asks, like nothing had happened.
I hope that everybody who reads this meets somebody like Nick some day. I hope that I have the chance to meet him again. I know that there’s a track somewhere for us to ride. He’ll be smiling like he always was, and he’ll drop me to the first turn, and we’ll laugh about it afterwards. Like the song says: I believe it, even if it is not true.