Join me on the Oct. 13 benefit ride for Connie Cycling!

August 19, 2013 § 11 Comments

Some people go about their lives making a huge difference, quietly.

Connie Cycling has been introducing cycling to kids from across the socioeconomic spectrum at the Carson velodrome since 2005. Connie Paraskevin, one of the greatest track racers in U.S. cycling history, runs the program, but it’s not just about minting bike racers or nurturing the next generation of Olympians.

Connie’s work is something much more important than grooming young athletes: It’s helping kids find their limits, then break through to the other side even if they never enter a bike race. I asked Connie to give me an example of how kids use her cycling classes to “break on through.” She had a plethora of examples, and I liked this one a lot.

The story of “Carl”

Carl came to Connie’s program, like many kids do, in search of a sport. He wasn’t sure he wanted to race, but he was pretty sure he wanted to ride. His parents wanted him involved in an athletic activity for all the usual reasons, but nothing he’d tried had worked out. “No problem,” Connie said. “Track cycling attracts lots of kids like yours.”

Carl was smart and consistent. The first year he got a feel for the track and for learning to ride. He and his classmates learned the techniques unique to riding a bike with no gears and no brakes around a wooden track with 45-degree banking.

The second year Carl added to his skills and continued to improve. He never showed any interest in racing, and the program never pushed him to race, but it was evident that he had a lot of ability. The third year his skills were quite good and his technique was getting refined, so the classes evolved from skill and technique into training and workouts. His body had matured as well and he was better able to hand the more intense efforts.

This was the first time that the track was really starting to challenge him. The coaches knew what he could and couldn’t handle, and it was apparent that he had never pushed himself. “That’s natural with some kids,” Connie says. “Whereas some are aggressive from the start, others play their cards more cautiously. Carl was more cautious, and never got even got close to where his real limits were, or even out of his comfort zone. Still, he rode well and continued to improve.”

One day the class was doing a drill called “Hares and Hounds.”

Connie laughs. “It can be brutal. The coaches set up the riders in order based on what we know about each rider’s abilities. We send out a rider who’s the ‘hare,’ and the others are the chasing ‘hounds.’ It’s an exciting and intense workout!”

Carl was the hare. At “go” he kicked up onto the boards, and kicked hard. Somewhere, in between the moments he was waiting in line and the split second in which he heard the word “Go!” a switch was flipped. Carl was on fire. He put everything he had out there on the boards.

The coaches stared in amazement at this transformation that happened in front of them as Carl smashed through his own personal, internal barriers. “The full-out effort and rocket speed? He’d been able to do that for a long time,” says Connie. “But the will to do it? It happened right then on that day. And once the switch was flipped, it never flipped back off. Ever.”

After the workout finished, Carl had another “first.” He went to the trashcan and puked. It was a shocker to him as he coughed up what was left of his lunch. He’d never gone so fast and so hard and so deep, and his body was telling him unmistakably, in case he hadn’t noticed, that today was different.

A few minutes later he walked up to Connie and looked at her in the eyes, inches away. This is what he said: “Coach Connie, after we finished the Hounds and Hares, I hated you. I’ve never felt so bad in my life.”

Connie smiled at him. “You gave it everything you had.”

“Can I thank you?” Carl put out his hand.

“Sure.” Connie shook it and gave him another smile.

“I get it now,” he said.

According to Connie, that’s the moment that she had been waiting for — for three long years. She knew that this would stay with him forever, the day in his life when he first went beyond himself. Months after the breakthrough, Carl’s father said, “He’s a different kid since that day. His confidence, how he handles himself, it all changed just like that.” He snapped his fingers to illustrate.

Says Connie: “What Carl did that day, that is success. Not a national championship. Not membership on the U.S. Olympic team. Not winning a race. Success is that moment in life when all of that kid’s efforts coalesced and allowed him to flip the switch. Cycling was the vector, but the success was what happened inside him.”

Connie’s program is the same for all kids regardless of their background in that it recognizes a basic fact. This fact is that athletes who excel, although they all stand on the line to compete in the same event, they have all reached that starting line by a different path. Some were given everything, some made do with almost nothing. Some had huge talent, others were endowed with nothing but work ethic and will. “Everyone has arrived at the same place, but from a different path and background,” says Connie. “Ten different people, ten different paths. This diversity is what we respect, honor, and encourage. Our job is really the easiest one of all: To help them flip the switch.”

Keeping the wheels rolling

Like any organization, Connie Cycling thrives only to the extent that it has financial resources to devote to its programs. On October 13, 2013, I hope you’ll join me for the Connie Cycling Foundation’s “Ride & Raise” 20-mile charity pedal in Long Beach. You register for the event by paying a $35 registration fee, and then you can choose to either raise additional funds through the sponsorship of friends and family, or you can simply show up and ride your bike. There are no fundraising requirements or minimums.

Connie Cycling’s work has made a lasting impact on the lives of thousands of children. It has introduced them to what I believe to be the most democratic, exciting, and revolutionary activity known to mankind — bicycling — and it has put kids on bikes and a healthy trajectory when they might have taken another less beneficial path. Join us on October 13 to celebrate the mission of Connie Cycling, to celebrate the life and work of Connie Paraskevin, and to keep the wheels turning.

Go, Connie!

Terror of the tarck

December 7, 2011 § 2 Comments

Splimsy O’Mulligan, the world-famous Irish advice columnist from County of Kerry lists these five keys to living a vibrant, fulfilling life:

1. Get out of your comfort zone.
2. Try to excel at things people say you’re not suited to.
3. Rub shoulders with the very best.
4. Charge the morning.
5. Fail publicly.

In other words, get up at 4:30 a.m. (#4), ride down to the Home Depot Velodrome in Carson, climb up on the 45-degree banking (#1), take up match sprinting (#2), practice in the morning when Johnny Walsh, Roger Young, Dan Vogt, and Paul Che are on the boards (#3), ride like a dork (#5).

Charge the morning

Sleep, like a discriminating taste in wine, is your enemy. Both will rob you of things that you can only do early in the morning. The only way to truly defeat sleep is to get up. We live right next to the finest tarck in the country, and it’s now open from 6:00 a.m. in the morning.  No matter what the weather or what time of year, the climate-controlled spruce boards are waiting for you to roll your bike around on them. Beginning in 2012, the tarck will operate like a fitness club, where you can ride as often as you like for a reasonable monthly fee and have daily access to the weight machines. And your excuse is…what? You need another hour’s sleep?

Get out of your comfort zone

If you haven’t done it in a while, tarck riding is simply stressful and unnerving.If you’ve never ridden the tarck before, it’s terrifying beyond belief.  There you are, locked in a wooden cage, forced to ride your bike at the top of a 45-degree bank where the consequence of going too slowly is to slide ignominiously down to the bottom with your ass full of splinters. No brakes, no gears, people whizzing by in close proximity, 6-person pacelines whipping up the speed until the riders are foaming at the mouth, inches from destruction, the slightest mistake capable of knocking down everyone and earning the undying hatred of all your fellow riders, constantly trying to figure out how to get on, how to get off, how hard to pedal, how to slow down without crashing out the person behind you…this and a million other things make tarck riding a completely different universe, and no matter how skilled you are on a road bike, the tarck will make you feel like the incompetent clod that you are in real life.

Try to excel at things people say you’re not suited to

If you’re a fast finisher on the road, give the pursuit a whirl. If you’re an endurance rider, you can practice being a sprinter. You will suck, but the tarck gives you the opportunity to try new types of riding in a controlled environment. No one will laugh at your attempts because to those who know what’s really happening on the boards you’re already marked as a flailer, and it has nothing to do with your event. The other reason people won’t laugh at you is because, unlike road riding, the tarck riders are a friendly and welcoming community. They’ll help you change cogs, adjust your bars, patiently answer any question, and give you helpful advice like, “If you’re going to ride your road bike here through LA in the pitch black early morning hours, get a red blinking light for the rear, you idiot.” Once you show up a few times they’ll remember your name, and no matter how long between visits they’ll always be glad to see you again. At the tarck you can be part of the crew just by showing up.

Rub shoulders with the very best

The Home Depot Velodrome is like a world-class birdwatching wetland during migration. If you hang around, there’s no telling what will show up. Olympic champions? Yep. National champions? By the dozen. World champions? Those, too. In addition to the international superstars who occasionally race at the tarck, there’s a regular stable of coaches and competitors who are over-the-top good. Roger Young, Tim Roach, Connie Paraskevin, Johnny Walsh, Keith Ketterer, and any other number of phenomenal tarck riders regularly hang around the Carson boards. The U.S. National tarck team is in regular attendance as well. Of course with all these great riders, you’ll feel like a complete kook, but that’s okay: you are a kook, and as long as you don’t crash anybody out, it’s all good.

Fail publicly

Road cycling lends itself to building the biggest castles in the sand. There you are, pedaling around PV or riding the canyons in the Santa Monicas thinking about this race or that race or the next stair in your stepping stone to greatness, imagining that you really can race a bike, or that this year is gonna be the year…etc. Then you go to some poorly attended race in Ontario, finish 55th, and slink home with hardly anyone the wiser. On the tarck, though, your suckage is seen by all and becomes part of the velodrome’s institutional memory: “Oh, there’s Wankmeister on his borrowed Bianchi again. Haven’t seen him since last year when he got yelled at by Walshie for stumbling down the track in his cleats like an idiot even though there’s a giant sign that says ‘Remove YOUR CLEATS.’ Hmmm, looks like he’s still clueless, let’s take a look. Yep, there he is, can’t hold a line, spinning like a sewing machine, yo-yoing off the back. What a wanker!” Like elephants, the tarckies never, ever forget.

So what are you waiting for? You’re gonna love it.

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