Family Ties

By: Evan Burkhart Mar 28

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You always hear people say, “It’s like a family,” or, “I couldn’t have done it alone.” They might be talking about their basketball team, their book club, or their AA group, but each group is made up of people that were brought together by a common bond. They formed a type of second family, and cycling is no different. In the midst of my move to New England, I am more aware, and appreciative, of this than ever before.

I have been to Massachusetts twice in my life, both times for a bike race. Yet here I am, a little more than a week away from moving there. Before I signed with BikeReg.com/Cannondale I had never met anyone on the team. I knew the team and their reputation but I didn’t know any of the riders personally, nor do I have any close friends or family in the area. I am moving to New England for one simple reason: to race bikes with one of the best amateur teams in the country. The bike always comes first and everything else is an afterthought. It’s a simple concept but when you start trying to figure out the logistics it becomes more complicated.

Where do I live? How can I afford to live and race in a place where I don’t really know anyone? These questions start compiling in your head and the stress level gets maxed. Then your second family steps up. First, your teammate that barely knows you shoots out a few e-mails and helps you tap into the network. Boom, you have a part-time job at a bike shop. A few more e-mails, boom, you’re looking at houses with some other cyclists trying to find a place for the summer. But wait, that lease doesn’t start till June and I have to move there now! Boom, another bike racer opens up his house for two months to someone he’s never even met. Before you know it, you have some steady income and you are splitting rent with three other people as opposed to living by yourself and paying three times as much.
I was amazed, I figured I could get a lead here or there and some suggestions on where to live, but I never expected this outpouring of support. Everyone is willing to help. If they can’t, they reach out to their friends to see if they can, and so on and so on. It’s amazing right?

Once I had a chance to sit back and think about it, I realized how much of an evolution it has been. I remember showing up to races as a Cat 4 and not knowing anyone there. You showed up, raced and went home. Sure, some of your buddies might be there or the odd person you knew from another race, but most of my friends were still not bike racers, and at that point a lot of people might only do a few races a year. There were even a couple of times I showed up to a race and didn’t know some of the people on my “team!”

Fast forward to the present day and it’s an entirely different story. Cycling is my world, I will know almost everyone in a given race because it’s the same guys week after week. When I’m not at a race, I’m probably hanging out with bike racers or at home with my bike racer roommates. You’ll find that as you move through the ranks the circle gets smaller and smaller. Once you get to this point, everyone is a friend of a friend and your reputation starts to precede you. Next week I’m moving in with people I have never met before in my life. They opened up their house to me because they know the team I’m on, my teammates and some other acquaintances. At this level we have all struggled and sacrificed so much that we help each other out when we can. It’s an exclusive club but the more exclusive the club, the tighter the bonds that form within it. It’s taken a while but the outpouring of support during the past few weeks has made me feel like I’ve finally been accepted.

On my way to this point I have lugged plywood up a ladder for eight hours and then done a four hour ride; I have spent a week in one room with four other guys at a Motel 6 that was just busted as part of a huge prostitution ring because we couldn’t afford to stay anywhere else, and I can still smell that hotel room, or should I say taste it. The steamy showers, the wet kits drying, and all the sweat created a hot, thick atmosphere that I will never forget. Through years of this, you earn your place. It’s tough, but it’s a good feeling to know you’re part of the family and you can count on it when you need to.

Then, unfortunately there will a come a day when bike racing isn’t the priority, but once you’re in, you’re in. There are tons of guys out there who have been where I am now and are in a position to help. These older guys that are paying it forward, just as someday I hope to be able to do. It may be letting someone borrow some wheels because they crashed last week and can’t replace them, or telling them that you don’t sprint for a prime when the break is getting established, or simply letting someone crash on your couch for the local race. Whatever it may be, every time somebody does something for me, it goes in the vault. It’s like in “Dumb and Dumber” when they put all the IOU’s in the brief case. Right now it’s just some writing on a paper napkin, “275-thou, might wanna hang on to that one.” But there is meaning behind that writing and I hope that one day I will be in a position to help another struggling cyclist. When that day comes, I’ll be ready.

In the meantime, you try to pay those people back with results. You want them to feel like their help is meaningful and that you deserve it. You want them to be able to feel like they were a part of your success. However, in order to do that, you have to be successful. I remember putting pressure on myself to do well because I could hear the voices, “Why am I letting this kid live at my house? He sucks. He needs to get a real job. He’s just another punk that thinks he’s better than he is and feels like everyone owes him something.” Sometimes when you realize you’re racing for more than yourself it gives you that little bit extra that you need to win. It’s an interesting and potentially vicious cycle, but when you do make that decisive break or uncork that magical sprint, you feel like you can stand up straight, look them in the eye and say, “Thanks.” Those moments don’t come every day, but being able to repay the faith is one of the most gratifying things for me in cycling.

Finally, I’ll make good on my title choice and end with an obvious moral to the story, just like every awesome 80’s sitcom: Respect is earned, not given. The world of elite cycling is a great place to see this in action. We help each other out because we’ve earned each others’ respect as bike racers. It is the foundation of our family which is why it’s so strong. Sure, we have our fights just like real brothers and sisters, and you might not like everyone at the reunion, but at the end of the day we’re a family and blood is thicker than water. This brotherhood brings another dimension to my life, but more importantly, it adds to the deep, complex beauty that is bike racing.

On a personal note, I would like to say to all those who have ever helped me, or will in the future, that words cannot express what it means to me that you helped me chase my dream and I will never stop thanking you.

 

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