I’m the father of two sweet and energetic children who are growing up so fast I can hardly keep up. As much as they take after me, though, I’m humbled and happy to encourage their interests. But sometimes I worry that I’m steering them toward what interests me.
On the one hand, I talked my son 11-year-old son, Finn, into trying cyclocross this past weekend. Not just one race, on a slick-in-spots course at Cam-Rock Park east of Madison on Saturday, but also the very hilly TBD Cross course on the east side of town on Sunday.
My daughter, Harper, 9, couldn’t be less interested in competition. (“It risks lowering my self esteem,” she once told me matter-of-factly, sounding as whip-smart as usual and not at all like an at-risk youth.) But she didn’t mind tagging along if it meant she could spend an hour or two reading a book of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons without having it taken from her by her brother.
Like a shark that will stop breathing if it stops swimming, Finn seems to really need physical activity. And since he started middle school this year, he’s especially needed to offset the stress that has come with increasing amounts of homework and social demands on his time.
Finn’s sport of choice is soccer. And his favorite position is forward, where he’s most apt to score or assist in the scoring of goals. (He managed to score once this year with what’s called a bicycle kick, a skill I falsely told other parents on the sidelines that I taught him.) I’m not above bragging that his team recently completed their most successful season, winning all but one of their games and earning two area tournament titles.
Although his mother and I worry that he plays soccer to the exclusion of all other team sports, he is always eager to jump into biking and running races. And he’s done a couple triathlons each of the past few summers.
When this summer slipped by without my signing him up for a silent sports event, he asked why. And when he tagged along to a cyclocross race so I could take photos, he asked if he could tackle those crazily winding turns and jump barriers.
Why not, indeed. I sure had had fun at the few cyclocross races I blundered through,
So on an unseasonably nice Saturday in mid November, I took the kids to Cam-Rock Park near Cambridge, where a flat if slightly muddy ‘cross course was set up. Leaving Harper in the car, I got Finn registered and pre-rode the course with him.
I advised him to start at the back, not burn himself out on the first lap, pick a straight line through any mud and make sure to lift his bike and feet clear of the top of the barriers. And above all, I urged him not to “race” his fellow, more experienced nine- to 14-year-old competition.
And sure enough, I found Finn smiling at every point on the course where I showed up to cheer and take his picture.
After two laps, he finished fifth out of the six boys in his division and was fine with that. His willingness to race the next day on a different course was a good sign his first cyclocross experience had been a success.
Hiestand Park, on Madison’s eastside, hosted Sunday’s TDB Cross – presumably called that because the organizers maliciously reserved the right to make the course hilly or really hilly at the last minute. Finn and I both swallowed hard when we first saw the yellow tape leading riders up and down steep grades and along the sides of the grassy knolls.
I was too jealous watching Finn the previous day not to sign up and race at Hiestand myself. I figured my 30-minute “masters 45+” race would end 15 minutes before the start of his race, giving us plenty of time to get him to the start. It did, but after completing four laps of that killer course (finishing a middling 11th out of 17 in my age group), my obvious exhaustion left Finn with more trepidation than if I hadn’t raced.
But with only three juniors at the starting line, I couldn’t help myself from telling my son, “Finish and you’re guaranteed to be on the podium. Where on the podium is up to you.” That pep talk clearly contradicted the “you’re here to have fun” message I sent with him on the previous day’s course.
Fortunately, Finn not only shares my love of biking, he shares my unhurried approach to bike racing. While the other two boys took off like bullets, Finn stuck to what he knew he could do. He managed to be a crowd favorite along the way by repeatedly pedaling off a ramp onto a stack of cushions in the unexplained shape of a huge cheeseburger.
At the start of his third of four laps,the announcers commended Finn by name for racing one of the toughest course in the Wisconsin Cycling Association Cyclocross Series when other kids were home on their couches playing videogames.
That’s a low bar to set an accomplishment by, it seems to me. I’m proud of my son for not only being there but powering through, not stopping and not complaining about the number of laps or how heavy his bike, complete with kickstand, was compared to the bikes of his rivals.
And credit is due his sister, too, for joining the family, including her grandmother, out on the course to egg the boy on – if only to scream, “Jump the burger, Finn! Jump the burger!”
Joel Patenaude is the editor of Silent Sports Magazine.