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Thank Them Now

On cycling and mentors.


Bob looked like Clint Eastwood. He could match Dirty Harry’s scowl and snarl-grunt. But he was not the strong, silent type. With Bob, the pronouncements were frequent and frank, unvarnished thoughts straight out over his teeth. When I shook his hand for the first time, he remarked vulgarly on my handshake’s inadequacies and prescribed a workout regimen to stiffen it up.  

I set myself up for this gruff introduction. Bob was one of two serious cyclists in my corner of rural Pennsylvania—as in, he was one of the only two we ever saw on the local roads. I had recently become hooked on the sport. I spent June riding my department-store Roadmaster ten miles each way to watch my crush play softball games. The bike rattled apart in July, just as I discovered Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France. My parents bought me a Trek mountain bike for my birthday that month, and I set out to find a riding partner. So I stood by the magazine rack in the grocery store where Bob stocked shelves part-time, conspicuously reading a copy of Bicycling. The stakeout was a success. I left the grocery store with some grip strength tips and a rendezvous.

My parents had reason to be a little wary of my new riding partner. Bob retired to our area in his early fifties after a career as a D.C. policeman and a secret service agent. That was enough to start rumors in a sleepy small town. Much more than enough. Was he undercover? Was the secret service bit even true? Why would he come here of all places? For a while, Bob ran a gym at the edge of town. After that closed, he filled the time between workouts and bike rides with a variety of part-time jobs, including the gig at the grocery store. These jobs were not usually customer-facing. Bob tended to stomp—not step—on the toes of unsuspecting townspeople. If a car rode up on him aggressively, he would move his bike squarely into the middle of the lane. If a young man had a limp fish handshake, he cussed at him a little. Bob did not back down. This fanned the fire of myth.

Thankfully, my parents let me meet up with Bob for that first ride. It was a brisk twenty-mile loop. He dusted me. Bob repeatedly pulled ahead and then circled back to bark me along. He enjoyed this. Amidst the suffering and humiliation, I did too, somehow. Weekly rides turned into bi-weekly rides. I started to keep up, most of the time. We pedaled up the ridges of three counties and came careening down again. We hummed along flat river roads and broad valleys lined by fields full of stubble and round bales. One time a doe jumped out of the morning fog and ran alongside us for fifty yards or so. I took pride in climbing local “mountains” that would throw cars into a low gear. This was just what an anxious, bookish farm boy needed. 

Sometimes we were joined by the area’s other cyclist, a barber who rode an old steel frame road bike—think Breaking Away—with an oversized leather seat pack in which he kept a pack of cigarettes and dog bones to slow up menacing hounds. He was jocular, kind, and wise in the ways barbers tend to be wise. He loved to tell stories. Bob loved to rib him. He loved to lure Bob into arguments, which was easy. We must have looked strange in an area where bikers of the Harley-Davidson variety were common enough but cyclists were rare. We must have been a sight to passersby, bizarre and archetypal at the same time: a lycra-clad minstrel, knight, and squire silhouetted against the Alleghenies.

You don’t have to be a barber-bard to see where this is heading. Bob had a great heart underneath the gruff exterior. But I wouldn’t call it a softer side. He was an abrasive dude. Some of the choicest things he said to me over the years (none of them fit to print) are seared into my memory. He was also stubborn. I figured the ride was off one rainy morning and didn’t show up. When I next saw him, he gave me the Dirty Harry scowl and asked me where I was. My excuse did not impress. On future occasions, we rode through rain and snow. When the lightning strikes got too close to ignore, we took shelter in sagging tractor sheds or underneath bridges. He only turned back one time, when we set out from my family’s farm in the wake of an ice storm. We made it almost a mile, skittering and sliding and crashing, before he yowled an exasperated obscenity at the sky gods and turned around. 

But the great heart was there. For all his feigned impatience, Bob actually was patient and generous with me. I especially see that in hindsight, when I think about how he allowed a teenager to tag along on his training rides, how he often picked me and my bike up in his truck, met me halfway, or launched out from my farm. Every teenager needs positive attention from an adult outside of the family. He gave me that. Bob had worked as a fitness trainer, and he coached me up with high expectations, technical guidance, and just enough encouragement and affirmation to keep me going. I remember the first time I dropped him on a climb. He scowled when he caught up to me on the descent, cursed (of course), and then gave me one of the biggest and most genuine smiles I ever saw cross his face. His mentorship was especially important given my struggles with depression. He pried me out of melancholy for a few hours by getting me on the bike and out of my head. At times he did this in the truck on the way to the route, blasting B.B. King and Eric Clapton’s Riding with the King and singing along at the top of his lungs. I wasn’t his first project kid in town (and I wouldn’t be the last either). He helped another local become a power-lifting contender a few years earlier. I didn’t have that kind of talent—as my few forays into bike racing revealed—but it didn’t matter to him. 

Bob also gave me sound advice. Some of it you would expect: persist, don’t complain, follow through, work hard, stay humble and hungry. Some of it less so: appreciate your parents, where you live, the good things in your life. Some of it ironic: don’t be an asshole. I rode with Bob for the better part of a decade, from junior high through college. When I called him to say that I had been admitted to graduate school in Virginia, I expected him to be excited for me. He was, but he also issued stern warnings. Don’t lose touch with your parents. Don’t lose touch with your friends. Don’t forget your home. 

Bob preached toughness. He had his reasons. For someone who talked so much, Bob was reticent about his own past. I got it in bits and pieces over the years: the rough childhood in Irish Baltimore, the teenage tour in Vietnam that ended with a decimated platoon and a Purple Heart, the years on the beat as a cop and then as secret service protection for two presidents, the Eighties spent bodybuilding and dabbling in arcane supplements, the failed marriage and strained relationships with his kids. He had an adventurous but hard life, and I sensed that his lessons about maintaining relationships were ones he learned the hard way. 

I learned the hard way too. A different sort of hard way. I stayed in touch with Bob during the first years of graduate school. He was a groomsman at my wedding. These were good times for Bob. He met someone and got married too, and he flourished, spending part of the year in Florida, where he missed the hills but liked the coastal headwinds. Always something of a skeptic, he found the Lord, if not the Catholicism of his youth. What I had suspected turned out to be true. His was a gospel of tough love. But I became less responsive. I let a few, increasingly insistent, e-mails go unanswered for too long. I was busy with school. But this is a weak excuse, the kind at which Bob would snarl-grunt. Rather than e-mailing him back or trying to track down his new number, I sat down and wrote him a letter. In it, I thanked him for being such a good friend over the years, for being a mentor when I needed one. I sent the letter. A few days later my mother called. Bob had collapsed while working security at a stadium in Florida. He was dead. Not long afterward, his widow sent a kind note: my letter arrived too late. 

I was stunned. I still feel the blow from the hard end of this moral fable come true. I pray for Bob often, thanking God for sending him to me in the days of my youth. I pray for the peace of his bristly soul. And while I hope that the contents of that letter reached him on the other side, I also strongly recommend that you thank your mentors on this side of the grave, that you thank them now.

Steve Knepper is an associate professor in the Department of English, Rhetoric, and Humanistic Studies at Virginia Military Institute.

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