One of the hardest things I've done in my life was completing my college degree and working my way through my final semesters at school. My parents graciously paid my way for four years at George Mason. I am still embarrassed to admit that I was unable to complete my four-year degree in four years, but that's what happened. Moving on to fifth year, I rented an apartment with some friends, and would take as many classes as I could pay for per semester.
This plan was not as easy as it seemed.
I worked at Spokes Etc. in Vienna, VA through college. Though working retail hours was very un-fun and summer weekends could be chaotically busy, I enjoyed having a job where I got to talk to people about bikes and introduce them to cycling for recreation, fitness, or transportation. Spokes catered to the every-day bicycle rider. We had a few high-end road and mountain bikes, but the bulk of customers I would help came to me with propositions like: "I want to do a triathlon this summer with my friend, but I don't even have a bike," and, "My doctor told me I have a heart problem and need to exercise, but I also just had knee surgery, so I thought biking would be good, but I don't know if I can ride one."
I think I liked these folks more than the few competitive bike racers who would come in and give me a chance to talk tech about carbon fiber frame construction, grip properties of various tire brands, and the perfect energy drink mix.
Anyways, eventually it came around that one of the owners of the shop, Jim Strang, knew my uncle, Skip Foley. Jim rode with one of Skip's old buddies on a Sunday 50-miler which started a modest drive from where I lived. The winter we made this discovery, I was getting all of my cycling in on my rides to and from work, and an occasional ride on a wind-trainer, following a CTS training DVD. The summer before, I had started riding my bike for fitness after a not-so-modest layoff during my peak college years. Towards the end of the summer, I decided I would start racing the very next spring, and wanted to make sure I was fast enough not to be embarrassed, so for the first time in my life, I did what I considered to be 'training.'
Well back to the point, Jim not only invited me out to this Sunday ride, but cam to pick me up at 7.35 in the morning to drive me there. Keep in mind I was still in college, and when I didn't have to work THROUGH the semester would do everything in my power NOT to have a class before the 1.30 slot. 7.35 was painfully early, and during the winter, COLD. Still, every week Jim would check on me to make sure I was still in for the ride that week, and every Sunday morning, he'd come pick me up from my apartment complex and we'd talk about pro cycling, how my training is going, and fun old war stories from rides Jim had done.
Jim himself is as strong as an ox. He was always in the mix, always riding hard, and never 'sitting on' whether he was in good shape or not. Jim LOVED that Sunday ride; it was his chance to get out and play around with 'the boys', which was the group of about 8 other cyclists, all ranging from their lat 30's to in their 60's, all fast, and all good hearted. The ride always ended at a Starbucks, where we'd unwind and laugh about the stupid thing one of us might have done during a sprint, or some funny work story from the past week. I was 22, and was just...included with these guys.
That year, I had a rather immaculate emergence into bike racing (yes, I'll pat myself on the back). My very first race I was bumped into a ditch in rather dramatic fashion, which was surely a bad omen. Aside from the EMT's, I was all alone with no one to check on me, no one to drive me and my non-functioning bike three miles to the race parking lot, and no one to nurse me back to health once I got myself home. I realized suddenly that this wasn't little league baseball, this was a very real sport with very real consequences for everyone.
The next day (Sunday) was the Tyson's Corner Criterium. The race was so close to where I lived (and the entry non-refundable) that I was going to do the race if I could manage pedaling after the crash. I raced like an absolute idiot but won. I'd go on to win quite a few Cat 4 races, get a Cat 3 sticker, and win the first 3 Cat 3 races I entered. Every Monday morning back at the shop, I'd get to share my blow-for-blow reports with Jim, who was always ready to lend an interested and enthusiastic ear. After my story, Jim would in turn share the play-by-play report of what happened on the Sunday ride when I had to miss it for a race. Some weeks Jim was the hammer, and some weeks he was the nail, but I tell you this, we were both on a mission to get fast on our bikes together, and by the end of the season that solitary feeling I had after that opening-race crash was gone; I felt like I had Jim in my corner.