By Bill Strickland
Hyperion Books, 2007
The death of cycling legend Steve Tilford in April led me to this outstanding 1998 profile by Bill Strickland.
The late world champion, Steve Tilford.
Thanks to stories from Eric and Tony, I already knew a fair amount about the world champion Tilford’s grit, accessibility and generosity. But Bill Strickland’s writing was new to me. (Or at least I thought it was. Strickland edits Bicycling magazine, which boasts a distribution north of 325,000. So I’ve probably read more of his work over the years than I realize.)
But the Tilford essay grabbed me. Strickland writes with a cyclist’s cadence. He writes with that need to build, then ride, a rhythm. And I wanted to read more. With the twin gifts of Google and Amazon, I discovered then bought Strickland’s 2007 memoir, Ten Points.
It’s not inaccurate to label Ten Points a cycling memoir, but it is an injustice. Inside the story of Strickland’s quest to score a meager 10 points in a talent-packed Thursday-night criterium series, we get more than sports. We get the story of a flawed husband trying to be a good father on the heels of a desolate childhood.
How do you do right by your daughter when your own father modeled nothing but unpredictable, violent rage?
For one, you keep your promises. And Strickland promised his 4-year-old daughter 10 points. He’ll turn himself inside out to give them to her. For Strickland, doing right by Natalie also means using a bicycle to exhaust whatever dragons he fears he inherited from his broken father.
I won’t describe the abuse Strickland withstood as a boy; that should unfold with his telling. But it was severe, it was complex, and it would have cracked me like a pecan.
Author, with coffee.
Just about everyone I ride with is a father. They approach parenting with athletes’ mindsets. They’re committed and disciplined, and they pour their entire selves into the work. For Strickland, fatherhood is more complicated. You can’t pour all of yourself out for your daughter when you’re convinced part of that self is poisoned. He wants to give with the same zeal. But always there’s an imperative to pedal backwards—to protect by withholding.
Cycling makes this withholding easier. Once Strickland renders his dragons too exhausted to rise, he can freely give his daughter all that’s left. But cycling did more for Strickland than stifle dangers. It also built a quality his father lacked—namely, a capacity to lose.
I’d never seen my father fail at anything…. When he quit a job, he had triumphed over a power-mad tyrant. When he got fired, he had not backed down from those with more money and less principle. When he couldn’t afford to buy the toy construction set that contained a crane I needed to complete my science project that demonstrated how a blast furnace worked, my father broke open the package and stuffed the crane up my parka, then made me walk out of the department store five minutes ahead of him—a victory for the small guy who shouldn’t have to pay a multimillion-dollar corporation for an entire kit when all he wanted was one piece. When he faked the theft of the used Chevy Nova that started breaking down the day he bought it, setting it on fire in a sand pit to collect the insurance, he was a crusader for justice and fairness. Every disaster became a caper, every misstep an escapade.
Outmatched in the Thursday Night Crit, Strikland found himself failing, lap after lap, Thursday after Thursday. If he’d shared his father’s inclination for excuses, he’d only have failed again to come up with enough of them. Instead, cycling built Strickland’s ability to experience, process and admit failure. In making himself able to fail, Strickland hadn’t simply exhausted one of his father’s dragons. He’d extinguished it.
I believe our culture vastly undervalues the ability to fail. Take the Dirty Kanza, just a handful of days away. Roughly 2,000 people will set out from Emporia on June 3. And exactly one woman and one man will win in the traditional sense of the word. The other 1,998 of us are susceptible to the question: “God, why?”
What are we building, if not wins?
Ten Points matters because it reminds us we’re building resilience, not resumes. And resilience is a currency that holds value across our lives. Strickland described circling his family and friends after another late-season race he’d finished out of the points.
I circled … and I waited, as I once had for the wonderful suffering of racing, for the familiar sense of losing a dream to settle back into me, the acceptance of the unending vigilance the rest of my life would require.
Strickland knows that losing is victory when it gives something needed. And we need vigilance. We need grit. More than a trophy. More than a belt buckle.
Whether Strickland eventually scraped together that 10th point for his daughter is not a question for this review. But in giving Natalie a father who can fail without harm, he’s already given her a better world. When we tend in ourselves the vigilance we need, we do the same.
Which is victory? To win or to thrive? If you were Natalie, which would you choose? The dad who scores points? Or the dad who kills dragons?