Last evening the guys in our group ride received the sad news that a longtime rider on Saturday and Sunday mornings had passed away suddenly. The causes are not yet known, but it seems he was simply enjoying using his computer to call up music for his wife when something unexpected happened and caused his sudden death.
His real name is John, but we’ll leave it at that. The news is too fresh and the privacy of this event too important to make public. But this is a tribute just the same. Because John was the type of rider and skier and silent sport athlete we all like to know.
Compared to my partners on the Saturday group ride, I arrived fairly late to the sport of cycling. My two best friends have been riding and competing for 25 years, rising to Category 3 cyclists and maybe better at times.
One of these friends traveled to France together with John and several other talented area cyclists to ride the same stages as the Tour de France. Unfortunately our friend John’s bike was damaged in transit. His derailleur cracked during the first day, a 137-mile ride in 95 degree heat, and he was idled for much of the trip.
He endured such events with a feisty aplomb. John had both a gentle nature and steely resolve, complimented by a sometimes biting sense of humor that you had to watch if you said something assumptive or unaware. He’d engage you with the bright blue eyes, sometimes by pulling up beside you on the bike, and ask the type of question that makes you think about what you just proposed. Really think.
John was one of several attorneys in our group. So there were always incisive if often light-hearted conversations going on. Saturdays were for working off the stress of days spent poring over briefs or engaging in other case trial work. As one of a pair of “creatives,” in the group, we would often retreat to a corner of our little peloton and have mock conversations in legal tones about our latest design or web site project. It was all just part of the fun.
Like any athlete, John encountered his share of injuries, only his came mostly off the bike. He tore up a knee in an encounter with one of his own dogs, if memory serves, resulting in a tumble down some basement steps. He tore his patellar tendon and that required considerable and prolonged rehab.
It also changed his cycling technique. He adopted a high-cadence style that was enormously efficient. To ride next to John was to realize that you were constantly mashing, especially going up hills.
He was not large of frame but his build had that stolid feel of a resolute German. Yet it is almost unanimously agreed that he had very little draft. Both his posture and riding efficiency were such that you had to ride very near his back wheel to get much benefit out of the wind.
Yet he was master of the long, quiet pull. Never did you feel he was showboating on the bike. His time on the front was effective and enduring. His time within the group was often spent quietly checking on other riders, both their mental and physical state. He was a true friend in every regard, in other words.
There were a few times I wound up riding alone with John when other riders had obligations and needed to cut the long route short to attend to family or other issues. To be alone with John on a long country road was to learn what you had in your character. He liked to ride hard and real. No messing about. Get your cadence and your pace down and let’s roll. This was especially true into the wind.
Any cyclist knows that parceling out your strength into a 20 mile trek back into a headwind or a crosswind can reduce you to jelly. And there was one ride where John also needed to get back home before a certain time, so we were not pissing about. Clearly I knew who was the superior rider (him) but I was also determined to prove myself in some way by holding up my end of the deal. Trade pulls. Lead up a hill now and then. Sit tight in the draft and hold your line. These are all things John did well, and thensome. When the ride was nearly done it took all my guts and brains and hope to make it up the last small incline, when John turned to me and said, “Good ride.” It was one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever gotten.
John was also an avid cross country skier who spent the cold part of the year in Illinois and Wisconsin preparing for the Birkie or other events with another lawyer friend in our group. These two men looked to be 35 years old, in prime fitness year round, though they were considerably older. They continued taking risks and getting into crazed sports like cyclocross, and that shows the appetite for adventure and physical tests that filled their days. Their joy and love for fitness was an expression of a deep commitment to appreciation for life.
Which makes it all the sadder to know that we’re saying goodbye to John, the same guy who’d stand there in the cold for hours during the annual New Year’s Day party outside at a friends house. I will forever see him wearing that slightly Euro-looking hat, beer in hand, quaffing and talking quietly to everyone he met. John was not a demonstrative man, or one to waste words or effort.
In other words, he was a magnificent example of the best of humankind. He will be missed.