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.
There’s a contagious sort of insanity that goes along with a crowded indoor BMX race, and I was looking forward to seeing how John coped with running the third and fourth events of his career in those conditions. With seventy-five riders, the old warehouse that holds the Dayton track feels companionable; with the 180 or so riders registered for Saturday’s double-points race it feels crowded; with the nearly three hundred that showed up for Sunday it was an odd mix of electric and claustrophic. There wasn’t enough water on hand to keep the dust from rising into the air, coating our faces, and giving the sunlight that poured in through the broken windows to the west an ethereal quality. Sitting on the starting gate, the first turn looked hazy and indistinct though it was just five or six seconds away.
The ground was thick with a marching-ants quantity of brightly-attired children on brightly-colored carbon-fiber bicycles, riding at full speed towards, around, and past you. I saw one pre-teen ride straight into a stack of two-by-fours and catch the blunt end of a nail in his forehead. He wiped the blood off and looked confused. His friends arrived in a neon pack and began laughing at him. I moved my 2001-vintage Supercross UltraLight carefully though the crowd on its back wheel. John was so excited he was shaking the handlebars of his bike unconsciously as he walked it behind me.
“I want to ride around and see things,” he said. It was Saturday afternoon and I was already feeling tired after just three practice laps so I called it quits. After looking at my competition for the day I expected to be hammered into the grond and I was, arriving at the finish line with a fifty-foot gap separating me from the next-to-last rider in all three of my motos.
I had higher hopes for John. He was facing a group of kids who already had a year of racing under their belts and state championship numbers from the 2017 summer series. Standing behind them in the staging lane and comparing their $2,000-plus custom builds to John’s bone-stock Proline Junior I felt like the world’s worst father. Yet I’m doing more than my parents ever did for me; John has a practice starting gate, while the combined cost of his bicycles, motorcycles, and go-kart is substantially more than Dad spent on my first car.
In the first race, John took second behind a five-foot-tall monster child. It shouldn’t surprise me after all these years but I can never get used to just how big rural Midwesterners can get and how quickly it happens. In the second race, John also took the number-two spot, but it was behind the other kid. I did the math. John had four “points” from two second-place finishes, and the other two kids each had four points from a third and a first. Which meant that their trophy position would be determined exclusively by the third race. As John was riding back up to me, I decided I would tell him none of this.
“Dad,” he said, waving his hands furiously, “Chase, Liam, and I all have four points.” Fuck. The next forty-five minutes passed very slowly for me. My stomach hurt in the way that I remembered from my days racing against Brian and the rest of the dudes in 1986. Except it was worse because thirty years ago it was all on my shoulders and this time the victory or loss would fall on my son.
During the break between the second and third motos, John rode up to me and told me that:
* He had checked out which lanes he, Chase, and Liam were in;
* He knew that he had a chance to use his inside lane to control the first turn;
* He wanted to ride out on the track and practice his line.
I did not object because I thought that it would keep him calm. When he returned and asked me if I’d seen him practice his line in the first turn, I lied and said that I had, which satisfied him. Then I followed John up the ramp to the starting hill and found the other parents already crouched next to their children. Their voices were low, urgent, angry. As he lined up on the gate, I rubbed John’s back for a moment and said the only thing that came to mind: “Make the first pedals count.” Then it was out of my hands.
Chase beat John to the first turn, with Liam trailing. The other parents were screaming; I considered spraying a brief and dignified stream of vomit onto the ground in front of me. Then, to my immense surprise, John executed a low-high maneuver that put him in front of Chase while simultaneously killing Liam’s velocity behind him. They rode down the second straight as everybody around me put two hands to their mouths and blared something between an encouragement and a threat. But it didn’t matter, because my son was just fucking gone.
Because it was a double points race, they gave us a certificate and not a trophy. John was not pleased. Then he went to talk to Chase and came back worried. “His dad is really yelling at him.”
“I think, John, that they are just…” and I struggled for something to say that wasn’t white trash, “…loud people and that the way they talk is just fine for them.” John was not convinced and on the way home he asked me if I thought the other kids were sad.
In response, I told him some variant of the following: The mere fact of racing is more important than the finishing order, but the finishing order is also important. There is nothing that builds, shapes, and reveals character like an individual contest where there can only be one winner. I know that my brother, the famous Uncle Bark, does not agree with this. I know that he believes that winning as a team is better, more meaningful, than winning as an individual. But I can also think of a half-dozen times in my life when I desperately needed help and there was no team of any kind in the vicinity. John has no siblings, no cousins closer than two hundred miles, no real family to speak of. Once I am dead he will be as alone in the world as he was when he headed into the first turn of that racetrack, and he will be no less responsible for his own success or failure than he was at that moment.
The next morning we returned to Dayton with some additional support in the form of Martin “El Jefe” Larrea, my old riding pal who has accompanied me and John through much of our new BMX adventure. Martin and I signed up for the Pro-Am, and on a whim I also paid for John to race in the “open money” class for 8-year-olds. He was the ninth rider in the class and the only one who was not already an Expert-class racer. I expected him to be dropped out of the qualifying races but I thought it would give him a chance to see how he stacked up against the experts. Last but not least, I put my money in for 42 And Over Expert, where I would face Brian and a few other dudes.
The day started with the Pro-Am and the open race. Martin and I got dusted by a pair of absurdly skilled 19-year-olds; I was just rounding the last turn when the winner crossed the finish line. The youngsters waited at the end to shake my hand and marvel at the fact that I was willing to race against them. It seemed unusually charitable to them that I would pay money to enter, knowing that I had no chance of winning it back.
“Believe it or not,” I told them, “there was a time that I was on the other end of the equation.” They smiled politely and pretended to believe it. The winner’s father caught him in a bear hug as we entered the spectator area. He was younger, shorter, and thinner than I was.
In John’s open race, he nearly caught the last-place Expert. I had high hopes for the first moto of his regular class, and he nearly fulfilled them by crossing the line just two feet behind the second-place rider despite a very shaky start. It seemed virtually certain that he would transfer to the main event in his second and final chance to do so. Still, I felt that gnawing in my stomach.
Once again I found myself at the starting hill. This time one of the other kids had two people harassing him on the gate: parent, and trainer. It’s the 8 Novice class, but there are trainers. In much the same way that modern pansy-ass culture has bifurcated its twenty-something men into “soy boy” nu-males and Special Forces murder machines, we now have some parents who just want their kids to get a participation trophy while other parents bring a trainer to the 8-year-old race. I rubbed John’s back and told him to be a “dash bot”, because he and I play a robot-war video game sometimes where you can get a “dash bot” that moves faster than the other robots.
When the gate dropped, John had another shaky start. (We didn’t realize it at the time, but he would wind up visiting the doctor on Monday for a fever that was apparent by the end of the day’s racing and which got worse overnight.) Down the front straight, he was in second place. He took a high line, railed the turn, and came out faster than everybody else. On his way into first place, he pulled up for a jump…
..and slipped a pedal…
…and came down in dead last. No momentum. At the finish line, he was ten feet behind the second-place rider. He came back to the paddock with the potential of tears glistening in the corner of his eyes. Wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t accept whatever consolation Danger Girl or Martin or I had to offer. He slumped onto the ground and knocked the back of his head rhythmically against the wooden wall behind him until I crouched next to him and interrupted with my hand. When he finally spoke, it was in a thin, scratchy voice.
“I want to go home.”
“We can’t go home yet,” I said. “I have my last qualifier to run. If I don’t make it to the main, we can go right home.”
“But what if you make the main?” he asked.
“Then, uh, we have to sit here for an hour and wait for my main. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.” I cleared a spot next to him and we sat together in the miserable silence of a son who has taken dead last in a race and a father who is about to do the same thing. When twenty minutes or so had passed, I put my arm around him and I said something like this: I know you want to win. Martin and I can teach you everything you need to win. The only thing we can’t teach you is how to want to win. And you have that. So we start with that. We start with wanting to win. Then we do what we need to do in order to win.
There is a school of thought in karting that says you should never let your driver, by which they mean your child, lose a race. That you should do whatever it takes, pay any price, bear any burden, cheat until your bank account is bone dry, to make sure that your child never sees the back of another kart. “Show me a good loser,” my father used to say, “and I’ll show you someone who has had plenty of practice.” Yet I think we learn more from losing than winning. It shows you the bones beneath your skin.
It was time for my final race of the day. Assuming, of course, that I didn’t beat someone and sneak into the main. There were three riders in the last qualifier: me, Brian, and the old pro. Beating one guy sounds easy and when I was a kid I would feel evenly matched against thirty kids my own age but the truth is that anybody who is still riding BMX after thirty years is a force to be reckoned with. If the parents of John’s fellow racers were to try suiting up and joining me in 46 Expert they’d find themselves on the ground, in the hospital, or simply thirty seconds late to the finish line. When it comes to my BMX “career”, there are no easy wins left.
It occurred to me, as I pushed my bike up the ramp to the gate, that I might never win another BMX race, ever. That’s an odd feeling. I expect to win a lot of car races before I die, but I might never hold my own first-place cycling trophy again. In a way, it’s like waking up and realizing that you might never again seduce a new woman. There has to be a last time for everything just as there has to be a first time. With the last time, however, you don’t get any fanfare before the event. Just the floor-dropping vertigo after the fact, when you realize what’s happened.
“Hurry up,” Martin laughed at me from the sidelines, “I want to go home and get dinner.” I fist-bumped Brian and Shannon, the old pro.
“Let’s be safe,” I said, and they laughed.
We lined up on the gate. I looked out at the crowd, which had lined up cheek by jowl against the trackside wall to see the old guys fight it out one last time. And I saw John, perched on top of the wall, wringing his hands in a nervous motion. He saw me looking at him, he gave me a shaky smile and a thumbs up.
Then I felt that old power welling up in me, from somewhere in my heart or lungs or maybe just the gnarled tissue at the base of my skull, the feeling that is somewhere between terror and triumph, and I leaned back and when the gate dropped I screamed into my helmet and took four strong pedals and then holy shit I was in front.
It did not last. I clumped over the triple jump ahead of me and Brian glided. Going into the first turn I saw Shannon’s shoulders in the corner of my right eye. So I used John’s line and I broke his momentum at the turn exit. Then I broke his heart with everything I had left. By the last turn he’d given up but I didn’t know that and I hit the final stutter-bumps hard enough to shake both my feet loose from the pedals, crossing the line as an unguided 280-pound bike-and-rider missile but very much qualified for the main event.
I looked up and saw John running towards me. “That seemed like you were riding a lot faster than you normally do,” he said, with his usual polite precision. Martin and Danger Girl were laughing when I got to the paddock.
“You are killing my dinner plans!” Martin scolded me. “We will be sitting here another ninety minutes! Why don’t you know how to lose when it is a good idea to lose?” And although the record will show that it was actually a 102-minute wait, and the record will show that I took last place in the 42 & Over Expert main event, let the record also show that sometimes just making it to last place feels like a victory, and let the record tell anybody who cares to listen that sometimes an eight-year-old boy is strong enough to hold up a broken old man, even if it is just for fifty dusty seconds in a crumbling warehouse. Let that, too, not change. Not for him, not for me.