It’s Tour de France season, a three-week stretch in the middle of the year that I’ve been known to coin as “the most wonderful time of the year.” During Lance’s seven glorious years in yellow, I was a faithful, avid fan. I listened to the broadcast live while at work and then watched the television coverage in the evening.
These last few years without Lance were filled with unwanted drama, and I was embarassed for the sport. I lost interest for the most part after one doping mess after another.
It’s great to see Lance back in the saddle again this year; he’s still making it look totally effortless! While I would love to see him in yellow in Paris (and, quite honestly, I’m totally bitter that his teammate might be instead), I’m really thinking today about how my love for cycling got started.
When I was about five or six, my mom used to have a joint garage sale with a good friend who lived on the other side of town from us. I would tag along and play with the neighborhood kids there — specifically a boy named Mark and a girl named Christine. We were the same age but attended different schools, so our paths only crossed every once and awhile in our elementary years. Basically, all I remember from that particular time is that Mark had a pogo stick.
When we got to junior high, the three of us reconnected. Mark and I had classes together, and we became pretty good friends. He was into cycling and rode with a local club. I knew bits and pieces about that aspect of his life but never thought much of it. I mean, I loved riding my red ten speed around the neighborhood too…I don’t think I ever fully realized how much more serious and committed to cycling he was than that!
Mark was actually someone that I started to become even better friends with once we went off to College. His mom was battling cancer, and we had talked about that a bit. He was dating a friend of mine, so I saw more of him over the holidays during our freshman year. We exchanged a few emails. We were all looking forward to being home together for the summer.
I was fast asleep when the phone rang on my first morning of summer vacation after my freshman year of college. It was Christine calling with the news that Mark had collapsed while riding his bike with a fraternity brother and died the previous day. It was devastating news. And, to this day, I’m not sure that they know exactly what happened.
While we grieved for Mark…for his lost potential both as a cyclist and just as a kind, intelligent human being…a few of us found ourselves drawn more and more to the sport of cycling. It became a way to honor his memory. It’s funny…we never made a conscious decision to ride our bikes in Mark’s memory, but it just happened that way.
For me, I started a love affair with my green Trek mountain bike, a graduation gift from my parents. I rode it like a road bike and charted out easy and difficult rides of all different mileages around my house. I tried mountain biking and fell down a ravine, got lost in the woods when night fell, and had plenty of tumbles and scrapes along the way. I also trained for and rode in the first (second, third, and more) annual Mark E. Mengel bike race in my hometown. Mark’s dad always drove the pace car, and without fail, he or his wife would yell out the window and encourage me along the course.
I began following the professional sport, subscribed to Bicycling magazine, and found myself chatting up all things bikes with anyone who would listen.
It was fortunate for me that Jeff was interested in cycling too. We chatted about bikes on our first date! We’d only been dating for a few months when I bought a red Trek road bike so that we could spend our summer months exploring the backroads of central Pennsylvania. We took our bikes on our honeymoon and celebrated my 30th birthday by riding a century.
And, even though much time has passed, I always think about Mark when I think about biking. Unknowingly, he introduced me (and others) to a new world — one where your body works hard but your mind can sometimes rest; one where your eyes can take in the wonder of the world while your legs scream and moan with each rotation; one where you can ride in perfect silence with someone you love and be at peace in the quiet.
So, while the Tour winds through France in this final week, I will be watching faithfully. And, I’ll be cheering for Lance without a doubt. But, I’ll also be remembering Mark.