I haven’t written in this blog for a long while. It’s been hard for the writer in me to think much about bikes as we watch our country ride this crazy line between the world’s oldest democracy and a frightening new authoritarianism.
It has often felt to me as though we’re careening down a deeply rutted road, trying to keep our tires clear of danger. And our safest lines keep giving way to more and more right-wing havoc: The insurrection at the Capitol. The grift. The obstruction of gun safety measures wanted by more than four in five Americans. The erosion of voting rights and women’s rights. Growing transphobia and antisemitism. The weird fawning for a genocidal Putin. And most fundamentally, a hard-right rejection of democracy itself.
And the Midwestern communities that make up the heart of gravel cycling have largely responded: “Yeah, but what about gas prices?”
Our country is unwell. And I’m nervous.
I’ve tried to write about bikes anyway. And each time, I’ve found myself skidding out. At a loss.
It’s not like gravel cycling has ever existed safely outside the bounds of America’s larger social illnesses. We’re just as American—and just as flawed—as our non-cycling neighbors. And the lines of our problems crisscross in the dirt all the time.
That intersection has never been clearer than this spring with Mo Wilson’s murder (and Colin Strickland‘s sad connection to the murder weapon). America has flooded itself with so many firearms and done away with so many guardrails that guns and gravel were sure to rub wheels at some point.
I don’t care who Strickland chose to swim or sleep with. And his infidelity, real or perceived, means nothing to me. But here’s the reality that has wrenched me: His decision—to buy handguns, to bring them into his home, and to give one to a volatile partner—cost a cyclist her life and ravaged many others across our community.
Strickland isn’t legally responsible for Wilson’s death. Nor is he morally innocent in it. He has my sympathy, and my judgment, in locked combination. And he joins an ever-growing American club of legal gun owners who now must lug the moral weight of what they wrought through the guns they bought.
That’s an important story. But I didn’t want to write it. I’ve had it up to here with that story and its ear-worm refrains of thoughts and prayers and never-agains.
So I told myself: Stow the guns. Let’s write about racing.
And back in May, I aimed east and raced the Loess Hills Gravel Enduro: 100 kilometers of rip-roaring fun through the most geologically interesting B-roads in the Missouri valley. All just an hour or so from Lincoln.
Here it was: A happy story! A fun time! And I was excited to tell it.
Then came the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, not so far from where Wilson was murdered. And my happy race story fell away from me.
Those children. Had we protected them with even the weakest sauce, they’d have made it. Lift the buying age for a rifle of war by just one year, and the seller would’ve turned that sick kid away. Add a week-long waiting period, and that school would’ve been empty, its kids busy swimming on their summer break.
But we failed to do even that for them. And they are gone. So is Wilson. I looked back on my “fun” race in a new dark, feeling only that we’d ridden through the gouge of a wounded country. A valley of the shadow of death. And I’ll tell you what: I fear evil.
We put ourselves down here. Somehow, we’ve got to ride our way out. It’s not a choice. (An Arizonan told me once: Every hike into a canyon is voluntary. Every trip out is mandatory.)
If we got here by failing our kids, maybe the way out involves lifting them up a little. Maybe there’s a bike race in here somewhere, free of fire, where kids and racers and a writer can smile for a minute. Find our fun. Our community. Some peace together.
So our little Lincoln bike team partnered with our local neighborhood association. We picked a day at the city park that had doubled as my backyard throughout the raising of three healthy Wendt children. Marty grabbed a tent from his office. I took a folding table and a few chairs out of retirement in my basement. Addison set up his bike stand for quick repairs. My neighbor, Anita, got donuts and convinced a couple bike shops to donate some stickers and bike bells and other minor swag. I drew a couple bike-safety posters in bright marker. Marty bought some rolls of tape and a big bag of those extra long marshmallow skewers. And our teenagers staked out and taped off a happy little racecourse in the grass.
We asked kids to come burn it up, and their parents to come watch. My youngest ran home and grabbed our cowbells to raise a proper ruckus.
It wasn’t big. But it was good. We’d promoted it on the neighborhood site as a Strider bike race. Turns out, the only kids to show up on Striders were a couple sons of my younger teammates—kids who were sure to grow up surrounded by bikes whether or not they happened upon our little race. But plenty of bigger kids spotted our tent, asked what was up, then ran home to grab their pedal bikes. And we hosted race after happy race, properly fueling our athletes with glazed donuts and more cowbell.
I won’t pretend our little bike event was some spectacular American triumph. We just welcomed some neighborhood kids to get on their bikes and participate in a fun shared thing. Come be part of a community we all care about.
I guess there’s both a smallness and a largeness in that. American historian Heather Cox-Richardson said the future of our democracy in this knife-edge moment is hinging on those same principles. “It all comes down to who is welcome to participate in self-government in the United States,” she said.
Whom do we welcome? Whom do we work to protect? Do we share a path? Or is it every man for himself (and to the children good luck)?
If our democracy is to endure, maybe it’s not such a stretch to believe it’ll be some gravel weirdos—welcoming folks who know a little about community and endurance—who show us a passable road out.