Call it luck, call it work, call it an odious combination of Little League parenting, Great Santini behavior, and Machiavellian manipulation — but if you look at pages 65 and 66 of this month’s Bicycling magazine, you’ll find photos (and some words!) from my son, making his print debut for Hearst/Rodale at the precocious age of just-turned-twelve.
It, ah, took some doing.
For the past four or five years, I’ve been sporadically contributing buyers’ guides on cycling-related topics to Bicycling and Popular Mechanics. It’s not exactly hard-hitting stuff, but I’d like to think that it steers people towards slightly better decisions than they would make otherwise, especially when it comes to BMX and dirt-jump product choices. Late last year, my editor at Bicycling told me they wanted to do some reviews on kids’ bikes. Would my son have any interest in helping out?
John was in no way charmed by this idea. He didn’t particularly want the money, since all of his personal desires are either met immediately (some bike part, a few bucks’ worth of “skins” in Call Of Duty) or deferred indefinitely (a single-seat helicopter, with some kind of gun attached). He also pointed out that there are “millions of kids who are better on their bikes than I am.”
“Millions,” I asked. “Like who, exactly.”
“At least one million. Like the two kids in Utah who jumped that one jump I didn’t want to do.”
“Two fifteen-year-olds, wearing jerseys for the bike shop down the street from the jumps, who barely hucked over something you didn’t feel like doing with a torn ligament in your arm after a twelve-day trip. Got it. Anybody else.”
“Alright, that’s three teenagers, and you’re eleven. Do you happen to have the other 999,997 names so we can see if they want to do the review instead of you?” Eventually he came around to the idea, on one condition: that I obtain a new Gate Nine jersey for him so he could wear it during the test and “rep” Nick Pearson’s last team before his death. To keep his stress at a manageable level, I thought we would start with a bike that he knows relatively well, like his Trailcraft Maxwell 26.
I called Trailcraft to see about getting a loan for this year’s model. “You’ll get two pages in Bicycling,” I said. The value of exposure like that is probably five or six figures; Bicycling has 1.6 million readers and stands virtually alone in the field. Automakers will break their necks to get two pages in Road & Track, which has about a quarter of the audience and is fading fast. If you told Ford that they could have two pages in a car magazine, they’d see no issue with spending fifty grand on it. Chevrolet told me they didn’t care if I crashed the ZR1 I tested for R&T three years ago. I was totally, completely free to crash it. That’s how much Chevrolet thought the exposure was worth.
What a surprise, therefore, to find that Trailcraft did not give a shit about this. Brett, the owner, had the Oatmeal opinion of it. Not interested in the slightest. And why should he be? The company is sold out of $4,000 kids’ bikes until… well, nobody knows, the online store at their website is actually just selling future slots for bikes, not bikes themselves. The Maxwell 26 currently tops out at $5,599. For a twelve-year-old. And they’re sold out at that price. They could charge more. They could just keep raising the price of the thing until… what, the country runs out of rich parents from California? It’s like choking someone during sex; if you have enough strength and position, there is no limit to what you can do. You have absolute power.
(For the record, every time someone has asked me to choke her during sex, the only feelings I have experienced from it have been something like this: “Oh God, why is she doing this… why did she request this… I think I’m choking too hard, or is it not hard enough? Please let this be over soon… I just want to stop and go home.” Every thought that is supposed to go through the mind of the chokee during the process, in fact, goes through the mind of me, the would-be choker. Hate it. I have absolutely zero desire to use my considerable size and strength advantage in any kind of romantic context, which is probably why my last few emotionally significant relationships were with women who averaged out to be just over five foot ten. The idea is to even the odds a bit. Or maybe I was just influenced as a kid by this not-safe-for-work scene from Alien.)
(Maybe this wasn’t the best metaphor to use in a story about my kid riding a bicycle.)
(That’s a great scene, though.)
Anyway. Having promised a Trailcraft review to Bicycling, I decided we would just use the 2020-build Trailcraft we had, rather than the 2021-build Trailcraft we wanted. This was fine, since John had plenty of hard-earned impressions and opinions about the thing. But we’d need some photography. The vast majority of bike-mag child photography looks exactly like this:
I wanted something a bit more dynamic. Specifically, I wanted to use the infamous “Slim Shady” jump trail here in central Ohio, focusing on the 24-foot final gap jump. This is something my son can do, no sweat, but he can only do it a few times before he runs out of strength to do it clean. So I’d need someone who could get dynamic, razor-sharp images with almost no practice.
Did I mention that it’s very dark at Slim Shady, thank to 100% tree coverage?
The photographer I selected was Hagerty stalwart Cameron Neveu, who has been honing his craft shooting circle-track racing for a few years now. We walked the mile-and-a-half into the woods with a small selection of gear. “Oh, it’s dark back here,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s part of the problem.” He and John took a few minutes to walk up and down the trail, looking for potential angles. I was almost immediately apparent that they in no way needed my help, so I went down to the final jump and waited while they set up various shots. After a few runs at some features up the hill, they met me at the bottom.
As Cameron set up next to that last gap, a few older riders showed up. One of them was my pal and fellow USABMX Vet Pro Javier Larrea, who had agreed to serve as a stunt double to let Cameron get the angles and exposures right before John took a maximum of five runs. He brought a couple of visiting South American BMX pros with them. They watched Javier hit the jump with no problem, then they saw John take a successful test run at it. I could read their thoughts: Looks pretty easy, even a kid is doing it. In photographs, it really doesn’t look like that much of a gap, even. It’s only when the construction equipment is down there and the front-end-loader fits inside said gap with room to spare that you get a sense of it. How hard could it be?
You’ll want to turn the volume down if you watch this video of their first attempt.
That’s a broken bike, and a broken collarbone.
“So… this is a little harder than it looks,” Cameron noted. John was genuinely upset that the Argentinian fellow had been hurt, and after we made arrangements to get the injured rider off the hill, I thought that we might have call it a day for the photoshoot. I needn’t have worried; John went back up the hill and cleared it with five feet to space. He took three more runs without incident while Cameron snapped away, then we went over to the “Jurassic” jump, which is out in the open but isn’t nearly as dramatic as the Slim Shady run.
I was impressed by how well John worked with a photographer, how patient he was, and how well he hit his marks during the actual riding. Certainly he is more consistent than I am, or indeed ever was. When the photos came back, they were even better than I’d hoped. Then all we had to do was wait.
It’s been two weeks since the magazine came out, and I think John’s already forgotten about it. Which is fine. My goal was a little longer-term, a little more ambitious, than just getting my kid on a newsstand. I think my parents were reasonably fond of me growing up, if more than a little disappointed, but they raised me in a manner that was more proscriptive than anything else. Keep your head down. Be quiet. Stop talking so loud. Tie your shoes. Get a reasonable job. Stop daydreaming all the time. As a consequence, I never believed I was capable of much. My attempts to break out of worker-bee mode — starting a little “zine” when I was a pre-teen, owning a mail-order bike shop in college, building a web-hosting company in my late twenties — were always met with a fair amount of derision at home.
I wasted fifteen years, maybe more, doing work for which I was profoundly, hilariously unsuited. I should have spent that time dreaming, planning, building, traveling. Like I do now. For most intents and purposes, my life started when I was twenty-eight years old and opened up my Web co-op. Everything before that was a waste of time. Maybe that’s why I’m so frequently immature about so many things now; because I scrubbed pans and cleaned dumpsters and cooked Wendy’s burgers and wrote automotive credit deals back when all my friends were riding their bikes and having fun.
My son shouldn’t have to deal with any of that. He should grow up truly believing that he can succeed at any improbable goal that earns his full attention, whether it is winning a UCI downhill race or building a Fortune 500 company. At the age of twelve he’s already won plenty of races on both two and four wheels. He’s ridden stuff that 99 out of 100 adult cyclists can’t contemplate doing. He’s played bass with most of the Dave Matthews Band, met LeMans winners, had shirts made by a tailor, dropped in on downhill lines with Red Bull factory riders. And now he’s been in the biggest cycling magazine of all. Anything is possible. I opened some doors for him, but he never failed to walk through.
Hearst paid me four hundred bucks for the article. Half of that went to Cameron for travel expenses. John gave $100 to a GoFundMe for an Army infantry veteran whose wife died delivering their NICU-bound premature daughter. (It wasn’t a random choice; one of the fellow’s squad mates gave John a nice airsoft M4 a few months back, and this was his way of showing gratitude.) The last Benjamin I spent at UrbanAir in Denver, Colorado, watching John jump on trampolines and play with his cousins, the way a carefree twelve-year-old is supposed to do. All thoughts of print deadlines and specific landing marks erased.
Naturally, he managed to get hurt, doing a backflip over some kind of moving obstacle. That, too, is part of being a kid. I’d like him to be a kid for longer than I ever was. On the way home, Spotify meandered us towards a particular Steve Earle song; although I’ve never lived in West Virginia, and I have never done anything more strenuous for a living than clean up construction sites, it resonated with me.
I was young on this mountain
But now I am old
And I knew every holler,
Every cool swimmin’ hole
‘Til one night I lay down
Woke up to find
That my childhood was over
I went down in the mine
Photography by Cameron Neveu