Riders Ready


Twenty minutes into John’s first afternoon at the track, some local kid, shirtless and dirty, on a rusty bike that was two sizes too big, rode into the first turn the wrong way. Avoiding him, John swerved, fell off his DiamondBack, and slid down the asphalt on his hands. I could hear him crying from two hundred feet away.

“I never, ever, ever want to ride a bike again!” And all I wanted to do was pick him up and hold him and tell him of course, you never have to ride a bike again, let’s go home and have ice cream and I’ll snuggle you. But instead I swallowed those feelings and told him,

“That’s fine with me, I don’t care, but you have to stop crying.”

“I want to go HOME!

“No, we aren’t going home, if you don’t want to ride your bike, you have to sit up on the hill and watch the other children ride theirs.” I carried the DiamondBack to the starting hill. John sat away from me on the concrete corner, crying, blood on his hands. He is five years old, I thought, it doesn’t matter, just pick him up and take him home. I sat immobile and listened to him cry quietly.

“Ow, ow, ow,” he sobbed, “why do my hands have to hurt so much, ow ow ow.”

“John, if you don’t stop crying, I’m going to take away your PlayStation for a week.” There was a catch in my voice as I said it and for a moment I thought that I would start crying myself. He continued to shake and sniffle, but more quietly, and after a minute the tears ran down his face but he was silent.

I let him sit for ten minutes that seemed like an hour to him and ten hours to me. Then I told him, “If you want to go home, you have to ride your bike to the end of the first turn.” He was still crying without noise and licking his hands like a wounded, tired animal.

“And then,” he sobbed, “I can go home.”

“Yes, and then you can go home. And,” I improvised, “we can go to Toys R Us and you can have a Hot Wheel.” We lined up on the gate but when I let him go he stopped the bike and screamed, “Daddy, I’m scared!”

“I don’t care if you’re scared,” I said, “if you want to go home you have to do this, and I’ll run next to you.” I rolled his bike backwards and this time he did not stop when I let him go.

Over the first hump he lost his feet from his pedals and let out a single plaintive sob but he didn’t stop. “Pedal, pedal,” I yelled at him, and he made it up the first hill.

“I’m doing it!” he screamed, and then he rode down the back of the hill, gaining momentum, threatening to lose me as I ran beside him, slowing up the next hill but not enough to make him fall. Through the turn I shouted wordless encouragement and finally the first jump of the second straight was in front of us, a step-up, and he rode up the front with plenty of velocity before stopping easily before the second crest. He looked back at me. “Now,” he clarified, “I want to go home.” There were small red stains on the grips of his bicycle.

Still, I made him wait a minute and watch another child jump. Finally, I cajoled him into riding the “Dragon’s Back” rhythm section on the third straight.

“I could ride it again,” he said afterwards, “but I’m a little tired and thirsty.” He flapped his hands like a small bird, trying to make them stop hurting.

Then and only then did I pick him up, hold him, tell him he was brave and that he’d done everything I’d asked him to do. For fifteen years I rode at that BMX track. Five nights a week some years, plus the races on the weekends. I was there on the day they cut the ribbon for it and I suppose I’ll go back the day they plow it under. In the middle of those years I won some big races there, beat some decent riders. Left a lot of skin and blood and disappointment there. Always self-motivated. My parents despised what I did, the BMX thing, they had contempt for it. After I broke my neck and my leg nobody thought I’d come back and race there, much less win, nobody encouraged me to do it. I wish I’d quit sooner, wish I could stand or walk without pain, wish my neck didn’t make popping noises, wish I didn’t have to piss all the time because something got messed up in there a long time ago in a crash and it never got right again.

Still I worry that John’s life is too easy, that there’s not enough blood and unhappiness in it, that he’ll be soft and cowardly and weak like most of the young people I meet now. That some day he’ll have a genuine problem to solve with violence or courage and I’ll be long dead, cold in the ground, unable to stand up for him or help him. That the only help I can give him is right now, in his sixth year. That what I do now with him makes all the difference in the world.

Driving away from the track, I asked him what he thought about BMX.

“It was okay,” he said, “but I don’t want to go back.”

“We don’t have to go back, ever,” I lied.

20 Replies to “Riders Ready”

  1. Avatar-Nate

    Wow ~

    Sink or swim , that’s one way to do it and I am sure He’ll do just fine .

    I remember teaching my Son how to ride a Push Bike 30 + years ago , you just brought all that anguish back in one jolt .


  2. Avatardisinterested-observer

    “Still I worry that John’s life is too easy, that there’s not enough blood and unhappiness in it, that he’ll be soft and cowardly and weak like most of the young people I meet now. ”

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment, but if the young people you meet are soft and cowardly then maybe you should spend more time around the VA and less at the BMX track.

  3. AvatarAthos

    My son is learning too. We took him to a big grass court near home last weekend. He fell down many times. He cried, played the dignity part, the works…

    We didn’t dig in his desires to change bike for footy ball (or go home). He was very happy when he finally rode better.

    I parlty agree with your assessment. Their lives are probably too easy/happy. But I see all the opportunities he will have and can only smile. Have we stayed in our country… it wouldn’t be so rosy.

  4. AvatarFelis Concolor

    Having been present for the afternoon my SO’s daughter went from never riding a bicycle to making effortless circuits of the park (about 2 minutes for that transition, actually), I won’t ever forget that wonderful feeling watching when she first learned how to keep her balance at speed.

    Since that day less than 5 months ago, she’s eagerly followed me on area paths and the weekly pedal party ride, and suffered a couple of spills, but nothing quite as bad as the hamburger hands, which her older brother has experienced twice this year. Fortunately she’s taken the spills and scrapes in stride, and has suffered my tweaking and adjusting, the better to provide her with a hill-friendly ride (42:19 on a 26″ wheel is not ready for prime time in most Colorado Front Range cities). I tend to be the one to go to pieces when she needs patching up, and have already called for the Zee Van a couple times to replenish my car’s emergency supplies bag since she started riding.

    Give your son some training time to learn how to skid and power slide and how to induce and recover from out of shape maneuvers; possibly give him some time in a judo class to learn how to relax and fall and tumble to avoid the dreaded road rash, and help him understand pain is a normal part of growing up and learning how not to do something. I’m certain you’ll eventually become a motocross father and end up saying, “Oh, it’s only a broken collarbone” one day.

  5. Avatarmnm4ever

    I think you are handling it well, its important to teach him to toughen up early. In these days of helicopter parents and global paranoia over child safety I am sure you will probably hear from someone about how mean you are being, but I am very sure you will ignore them and put them in their place!

    I know you and your ex have a good relationship, so my only advice is make sure you and her are on the same page when it comes to this type of thing. My ex and I were not, so it was very easy for her to play me as the “bad guy” while she babied our son and gave in to all that crying and whining. Now that he is older he pretty much a mama’s boy and really worse off for it. I didn’t do my job well enough and I regret it constantly.

    • Avatar-Nate

      Take heart ;

      My ex did that same thing to me , I’d catch her saying ” don’t listen to your Father , you can do whatever you want , I love you more then him ” . (!)

      I warned her that this would back fire on her to no avail , he and I are tight as can be , he screens all his calls and won’t talk to her , let her see our Grand Daughter etc. .

      Unless your son is hopeless , he’ll come around in due time when he sees how you handled things instead of whining and crying .

      Hang tough and always be there with your tough love , kids are smart and figure it out in time .


  6. Avatar-Nate

    All you can do is do your best , wind ’em up and turn ’em loose , then they’re on their own .

    Teaching them to be independent is a two sided sword , I had terrible empty nest syndrome off set by watching my little man , be a real man……


  7. AvatarJeffsmith

    I guess the only difference from what I Did with my child
    is I would have let the kid cry & quickly checked their hands
    I let them know I didn’t worry about how they felt
    as long as they didn’t quit at the task at hand

    They Definitely would have gotten back on the Bike
    and finished as much as they could of the Track

    My Daughter is now 21
    She still cries and is nervous at times
    BUT She NEVER Fails to Press on
    and take care of what has to be done

  8. AvatarRobert


    “I wish I’d quit sooner, wish I could stand or walk without pain, wish my neck didn’t make popping noises, wish I didn’t have to piss all the time because something got messed up in there a long time ago in a crash and it never got right again.”

    Really hits home for me. After 20 years of motocross, I wish I could look straight up, or lay straight down or stand for any period of time. Thinking only about the negative outcomes, I swore that I would never let my kids ride motorcycles. My older brother had other plans – when I moved back to my home town last year, and brought my 7 and 9 year old boys to see our new home for the first time, there was a little surprise for us in the garage – the PW 50 all of my nephews learned to ride on, perfectly restored and ready to train the next generation.

    Since then both my boys have spilled blood on the same track I was carried off of on a stretcher more than once, and yes it scares the hell out of me, but…. I’m remembering all the good parts too; the confidence building, the sense of accomplishment, the pure joy of commanding a powerful machine, and the humility that follows after it gets away from you. They are learning to work on their own bikes, a skill that let me pay for two college degrees while working at the local Yamaha dealer.

    I wish I had quit sooner, but undeniably my motorcycling experience was a net positive. Plus I get to chase them around on a 450 KTM. It doesn’t suck!

    Keep doing what you’re doing Jack.

  9. AvatarAoLetsGo

    Since my parenting style is not too different it is easy for me to say you handled this fine. I started my son on mountain bike/camping trips when he was young and we had great times and a few tears. I just had to balance my need to slog out some miles to get a good workout and his desire to just ride the fun bits. We spent most of the early years just doing the fun sections. We still ride together the big difference is that he leads now since he has gotten faster and I seem to have gotten slower, and that is okay with me.

  10. Avatar-Nate

    Robert (and others) :

    You can’t quit .

    I was run over by a gypsy cab in 2008 and shattered my spine and neck , I too suffer the pains and aches all older Motocyclists do but although I walk with a cane blah blah blah , I still ride too and soon my Son will take a (hopefully slower but he waits for me every so often when he’s in a hurry) nice pre dawn Moto breakfast ride with me………

    It never really ends until you take a dirt nap .

    My 19 month old Grand Daughter has a little push Moto , she tears up the camp site in Johnson Valley on it when Son and his Trophy Wife are out riding District 37 events .

    I am sure she’ll be a good rider too as soon as she can ride a motorized one .


  11. AvatarDomestic Hearse

    “Put on your helmet.”

    “It messes up my hair.”

    “Don’t care. Wreck into the bumper of a Buick, and it’ll mess up your brain.”

    Reluctantly, she pulled on her Giro, pulled her ponytail through the shell and liner in back, and clicked the snaps.


    “I don’t need gloves.”

    “Riding gloves serve two purposes, the first, to absorb vibration and reduce hand fatigue, the second, to prevent abrasions in the case…”

    “No. I’ll wear a helmet, that’s it.”

    “Fine, suit yourself. Just know, accidents happen before they even start.”

    She looked at me quizzically, then we set off on a 30 mile trip, my 16 year-old step-daughter and I.

    We rounded the first corner, still in our neighborhood. In a driveway, two little boys were kicking a ball back and forth. I saw the ball hit the wheel of a parked car and ricochet into the road, just a few feet in front of us. And right behind it, a little boy giving chase.

    “Kid up! Brake!” I yelled.

    And she did, barely missing the little boy. However, she grabbed disproportionately too much front brake and over the bars she went, hands first, into the asphalt. The boy stood, wide eyed in the middle of the road.

    “It’s okay, get your ball,” I said as I unclipped and dismounted. “Just look before you run out in the road. A car would’ve hit you.”

    Then I kneeled next to my 16-year old daughter, her bike on its side beside her. She was sitting up, rocking back and forth, trying not to cry. “Fu**, fu**, fu**…” she kept repeating as she held her road rashed hands up in front of her.

    She railed under breath at the stupid little boy and where’s his f’n parents while I gathered both bikes. “C’mon, let’s go back to the house.” I click-clacked down the side-walk in my cycling shoes, guiding both bikes by their stems. She followed behind. We went inside to the kitchen, I ran cool water over her hands, then took a washcloth and got out the gravel bits. Followed up with some antibiotic ointment, and wrapped both hands in gauze.



    We walked back through the garage, out to our bikes. I waited silently as she found her cycling gloves and gingerly pulled them over her bandaged hands.

  12. Avatar-Nate

    Well said .

    Will we/I ever forget that first time down when I slid to a stop palms down ? .

    Or waking up in the Meat Wagon , first thought being ‘ where the hell is my helmet ?! ‘ .

    Glad she was able to learn this important lesson and not be badly hurt .


  13. AvatarDougie McHousetrained

    This is not nasty by any means, but just advice. Don’t tuck your shirts in to you shorts. Besides looking like a dweeb, it makes you look fatter than you are. Seriously. My italian tailor guiseppe parmigiana told me last time i was in to have my semiextrafat slacks adjusted to my latest girth settings.
    PS – your son’s cute – don’t torment him by taking away shit.

  14. AvatarJoe_Bloe

    Oh man, Jack, this really hits home for me. I didn’t get into BMX as a kid (I wish I had, BMX guys have sick bike handling skills), but got bit by the MTB bug in my 40’s. My club has an active kids’ program, and my son and I got involved right around his sixth birthday.

    My son is a pretty fearful kid. Early on, we had plenty of conflicts where he just wasn’t feeling it, and wanted to bail. Sometimes we did, sometimes I convinced him to give it one more mile. Hot Wheels make excellent incentives!

    Mountain biking has allowed him to slowly expand his envelope, and develop mastery over something that used to scare the crap out of him. He’s 9 now, riding a tricked-out XS 26’er hardtail. (That’s the best part of all, getting to indulge my unfulfilled childhood fantasies, having the coolest bike on the block.) He still wrecks, and has his off days, but so do I. Oh, and he’s got a jump bike, too, and is learning at the local pump track and jump line. Riding with him is seriously my favorite thing to do in the whole world.


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