A young boy is prone to thinking that his father is the toughest man on earth. “My dad could beat up your dad!” is the clichéd taunt, but there’s sometimes a truth in the conviction behind it.
“My dad could beat up your dad!”
“My dad could bend a steel bar!”
“My dad could ride a bicycle 120 miles covering 11,000 feet of elevation gain at altitudes that give visitors acute mountain sickness and then do it all again the next day!”
I don’t think I ever actually sneered that last phrase aloud on the schoolyard, but it was true about my father.
When I was three years old, my dad, Michael, organized a bike ride near our house in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains called the Triple Bypass. It was named for the three mountain passes it climbed: Juniper Pass (on Mount Evans, a 14er), Loveland Pass (the Continental Divide), and Vail Pass, totaling 10,990 feet of climbing over 120 miles. He served as the chairman for the ride for the first two years, starting in 1989. In the words of former club president Carol Mickelberg in an article in the local Canyon Courier: “It’s all Michael Dern’s fault…It was an awesome challenge with a great name. He had us all sold on it before anyone had ever done the ride.” My mom, who has completed the ride several times herself, had this quote printed on T-shirts she made to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ride, five years ago.
In the three decades of its existence, the ride has taken on a life of its own, with more than 3,000 riders each year generating over $2.2 million in donations for nonprofits like the Special Olympics. And thanks to the passage of time, more recent articles about the ride in larger papers like the Denver Post don’t mention my father’s name.
My first two attempts to complete the ride were thwarted—once in 2012 by my own fitness level, resulting in a DNF around mile 60, and once in 2017 by wildfires that caused the ride to be canceled the night before. This past July was my third attempt. My father, who is 63, was watching from the side of the road.
I’m not a serious cyclist. In fact, it would be misleading to call me a cyclist at all. I am an occasional bike commuter. Heading into the ride, I would put my odds of completing it as the same as my chances of remembering which way to hit my shifter to move my chain down on the big ring: 50-50.
Outside of cycling, I’ve made various attempts at acts of physical toughness over the years to prove to my myself that I, like my father before me, am a Tough Man. And since we no longer wrestle our dads amid a throng of jeering relatives to prove that we have turned into Tough Men, I’ve had to seek out other avenues.
If I could distill my dad’s motto into three words, they would be: “Work hard, quietly.” My dad stays late at the office, even if the boss isn’t around to give him credit for doing so. He picks up trash from the side of a busy road, even if thoughtless motorists are just going to litter more the next day. I guess you call that integrity.
I wrestled in high school like my dad did (while I usually lost, our attic is filled with trophies from tournaments my dad won), and I’ve run marathons (still not as fast as my dad’s fastest, but I’m gaining on him). Finishing my father’s Triple Bypass feels like the last obstacle in the father-son challenge that I’ve imagined myself to be competing in my entire life. There’s been no overt goading from my father, but the example he set is enough.
The sun is just starting to think about rising over the mountains of Colorado on July 14, 2018, and I’m starting my Triple Bypass journey with a few of my dad’s riding buddies, who are three decades my senior. After my dad sees us off from the Evergreen Rec Center parking lot, his friend John mentions that my dad should be riding with us—some health issues have caused him to take a break from riding, and he’s been slow to return to the saddle. “Your dad is all or nothing,” John remarks. “He needs to be the guy leading the pack or else he sits it out.”
I’m quickly at the back of the pack. My dad’s friends are jovial as we start off, talking about frame sizes and gear ratios. I’m somber, thinking about how I haven’t prepared as well as I should have, making excuses about a busy work schedule and then mentally berating myself for making those excuses.
As we settle into the ride—an immediate 6 percent grade climb, with me barely hanging on—I resist the urge to check my Garmin watch, afraid at how small the distance traveled will be. I attempt to get in the zone and just ride, but I soon give in and look. Too soon. Three miles in, to be exact. The number taunts me. Three miles? It’s somewhere near 5:30 a.m., and as I slowly spin up the 3,000 vertical feet to the 11,140-foot summit of Juniper Pass, I do the math that I’m only 1/40th of the way through the ride. I start to think about how tired I feel already. I know that’s a dangerous avenue of thought to go down, so I try to distract myself.
Out of nowhere, a mantra floats into my mind. In the voice of Ellen DeGeneres’s Dory character from Finding Nemo, I update her catchphrase for the task at hand: “Just keep spinning. Just keep spinning. Just keep spinn-ing, spinn-ing, spinn-ing.” I have the thought that this mantra isn’t exactly the greatest evidence to prove to myself that I am a Tough Man, but silly as it is, it works. I pedal on, and memories begin to drift through my head.
It’s 1989, I'm almost five years old, and I’m on the side of the road with my mom somewhere near the base of Loveland Pass. It’s the first year of the Triple Bypass. My memory is impressionistic, spotty but vivid. I remember that we’re at an aid station, handing out little paper cups of water and Gatorade to riders who are stopping to rest. They look exhausted, and they’re not even halfway done. Suddenly, my mom is cheering louder than she was for the strangers. My dad is approaching us at a grueling pace, blowing past other riders. He doesn’t stop for aid. My mom cheers him on as he rides past us.
Back in the present, I reach the aid station at the top of the Juniper Pass. I’ve fallen off the pace set by my dad’s friends. Alone, I put on my neon windproof jacket for the descent, and as I approach 40 miles per hour and my hands begin to go numb from pumping the breaks, other memories drift in.
I’m 11 years old, and I’m going with my mom to pick up my father at a gas station after he got into an altercation with a driver while he was on a ride. The short version of the story is that a driver passed my dad dangerously close, and my dad confronted the driver when he spotted the car at a gas station farther down the road. The driver then attempted to run my dad over, knocking him and his bike to the ground. From the ground, my father ripped the license plate off the car with his bare hands. So even though the car sped away, he was able to give the license plate number, literally, to the police. The driver—who turned out to be intoxicated—was arrested.
After the thrilling descent from Juniper Pass and passing by the picturesque Echo Lake, I begin the long slog up the frontage road past the sleepy mining towns of Idaho Springs and Georgetown. This section of climbing, though not officially a pass ascent, is the most mentally difficult part of the ride for me. It’s a deceptively steep grade and doesn’t have any obvious markers of progress or beautiful mountain views to keep you motivated. It was during this section that I quit on my first attempt, five years ago, when I felt myself bonking as I arrived at the aid station at the base of Loveland Pass.
This time, I prevent the option of stopping from entering my mind by keeping up my mantra—just keep spinning—and I enter a meditative state. Another memory floats by. I’m 15 and a freshman at Evergreen High School. My best friend Scott and I are putting on self-tanner in my basement for a choreographed lip sync at the homecoming week talent show. You know, just the normal stuff that young boys transitioning into being Tough Men do. We’re applying the self-tanner, of course, because the costumes that I’ve made require us to be shirtless except for suspenders, and we’re worried about appearing too pale in front of our classmates. Because that would be embarrassing. My father walks in from work at the moment that I have just smeared a dollop of the product on Scott’s hard-to-reach lower back. I lock eyes with my dad. He passes us silently as he walks up the stairs, disregarding us like an aid station he did not need.
I reach the base of Loveland Pass and see my mom and dad. Each in character, my mom is cheering for me while my dad looks on stoically. My mom supports me by giving me the support that she would like to receive: She praises me, gives me the option of a variety of drinks and snacks, poses for a photo with me, and asks me if I need anything. My dad supports me by giving me the support that he would like to receive: an affirming nod and a pat on the back, as he then steps back to let me get on with it.
As I ride on, I feel a twinge of sadness that my dad isn’t doing the ride this year. It’s a ride he has done 11 times before. Several times, he’s followed it up with completing the reverse route the very next day—a “Double Triple Bypass.” I always assumed he would keep doing the ride up until he was the age of 120. Just a few years ago, my dad logged more than 10,000 cycling miles for the year, commuting to work on his bike most days. I’ve always admired my dad’s toughness, but now I recognize that it can be a double-edged sword. The same instinct that led my dad to skip an aid station also led him to put off doctor’s appointments.
At the Loveland aid station, I realize that I’ve caught up with my dad’s riding buddies. The section that beat me on my previous attempt is behind me, and I’m feeling emboldened. I let the rest of the group know that I’m going to head out alone. An hour later, I’m on top of the Continental Divide, two out of three passes done. Even though I’m exhausted and still have 60 miles and another mountain pass to go, I know I will finish this time. I just have to keep spinning.
In the hours of riding through the breathtakingly beautiful Colorado mountains that follow, I think about my dad and what it means to be a man. I think about the difference between toughness and stubbornness, about the strength it takes to keep working when you want to quit, and about asking for help when you need it.
When I got married last year, my father gave me a book called Letters to My Son: A Father’s Wisdom on Manhood, Life, and Love. In my dad’s characteristic dry wit, he gave it to me with the message “From the co-author.” My dad doesn’t exactly gravitate toward touchy-feely stuff, so in a way the gesture felt like him asking the author, Kent Nerburn, for some help in that arena. I like the book. Although some passages feel like the sort of platitudes you hear from a friend after a psychedelic experience, other passages feel as profound as the realizations you might have yourself during a psychedelic experience, as trite as they may feel to say aloud.
As I approach the aid station at Copper Mountain, near the 80-mile mark, a chapter from Nerburn’s book, on sports and competition, returns to me. Nerburn tells the following anecdote about asking a runner friend, upon seeing him retching after a mile track workout, why he puts himself through the misery:
He walked back up the track to a point about ten yards before the finish line, then drew a line in the cinders with the toe of his shoe. “Why do I run the mile?” he said. “I do it for these last ten yards. In these last ten yards I learn more about myself than I could on any psychiatrist’s couch.” In that one sentence, he had isolated one of the most profound reasons to participate in sports: “the last ten yards.” Every sport has them, whether they be in the form of the last few minutes of a game or the last few inches of a putt. They are the moments when the body and the will are tested to the fullest.
I like many of Nerburn’s insights, and he seems like a great person to talk about life’s big questions with over a beer. But I disagree with him on this point about the last ten yards, and I think my dad would too. From my experience, the last ten yards are easy. In the last ten yards, you can see the finish line, people are cheering for you, you’re almost done. Anyone can be a hero in the last ten yards. The middle of a great effort is the hard part. When the finish line is far off and your suffering isn’t recognized by anyone. This is the effort of spinning between the peaks. I guess you call that integrity.
Outside the Copper Mountain aid station, at the base of the final pass of the day, I’m riding strong—not a grueling pace, but a strong pace for me—when I see my father and mother up ahead, cheering for me. I hesitate about whether I should stop and rest. I think about what my dad would do. I wave and smile, and then I keep going.
I finished the ride three months ago. Both of my pinky fingers are still numb, I assume from braking so hard on the descents, coupled with my overall lack of adequate training. It’s possible that my ulnar nerve has become compressed, a condition known colloquially as “cyclist’s palsy.” If it doesn’t start to feel better soon, I’m going to go to call the doctor.