The world is full of frauds, corner cutters, and outright cheats, but sometimes, due to circumstances beyond your control, you just get in over your head and it’s you they’re calling out.
What did Elvis Costello once say? “It’s nobody’s fault, but we need somebody to burn.”
Look at Boston Marathon pariah, Rosie Ruiz. Here’s a woman who went from being crowned the winner of the world’s most famous race to wearing a crown of thorns and character crucifixion when just hours later it was discovered she had not crossed most of the checkpoints and took a cab for part of the race.
Open-and-shut case there right? Not so fast. Could it have been a poor sense of direction and the infamous cab-driving mafia that is Boston’s transportation-for-hire industry?
I used to think Rosie was a debased creature until I found myself on the other side of this sort of equation. Now I reserve a little place in my heart for doubt. It’s possible that the biggest cheat in Boston Marathon history was simply a victim of that city’s confusing layout and impatient, incompetent cabbies. By the time the driver dropped a frustrated Rosie at what she thought was the start, she was only a few miles from the finish. Only Rosie knows for certain.
But I can tell you the unvarnished truth and lay out the facts about the time I became the Rosie Ruiz of the Seattle to Portland ride, aka STP. It was a five-mountain morning when I brought out our bike train to make the 2.5-mile pedal to the finish-line party in Cathedral Park. A five-mountain day in the Pacific Northwest is one so clear and bright that it affords a panoramic view of tips and tops of five mountains at once . . . across two states and hundreds of miles.
We were coming off our own high as the lead-out bike float and honorary marshals of the Mississippi Avenue Independence Day parade. Our bike touring train was still awash in confetti, roman candles, colorful streamers, and neon pool noodles. red, white, and blue pinwheels spun from the handlebars of the trail-a-bike, and the Chariot bike carrier was pimped out in strips of colorful fabrics com- plete with a sound system featuring Grand Funk Railroad and KC and the Sunshine Band. I jammed three hundred pounds of books in the rig. A sandwich-board-sized poster of one of my book covers stuck out the back end of the Chariot like a JUST MARRIED! sign.
I handed out Risky Business–style Ray-Bans all round. Pushing the sunglasses up the bridge of my nose, I channeled the ghost of Belushi and that playful outlaw spirit of the Blues Brothers for a few moments.
“We’re on a mission, boys. I don’t know who it’s for, but we’re on one!”
I pushed off. We coasted that ramshackle rolling carnival along the bluff with little to no effort. There was talk about taking a longer route, adding a hill or an incline, anything to break a sweat, but I was scheduled to perform at noon so the real exercise would have to wait. Even meandering our way to the party, stopping to see if I could get the sound system working long enough to groove out to “Play That Funky Music, White Boy,” it didn’t take us ten minutes before we could hear the finish-line festivities.
I shifted down for the first time that day and upped my effort to clear the little rise. The rest of it would be a screaming descent to the riverfront park.
And that’s when it happened. Our bike train was joined by waves of riders who had just pedaled their rigs two hundred miles from Seattle, Washington. People who deserved the cheers, hoots, and applause of family and friends lining the end of the route. Like a salmon fighting against the current, I made one attempt to go against the flow and get out of this sea of cyclists. I did not want it to look like I was part of the ride, that I was muscling three hundred pounds of bike train across the finish line in front of most of them.
But it was no use. We were caught in the slipstream. And nothing about us was low-profile.
Riders to our left and right actually gasped when taking in the length and breadth of my burdens. They made room, hollering out statements of respect and appreciation for what I had not accomplished. Some rang bells; many hooted uncontrollably.
“Dad of the year, right there!”
Smiling, I shook my head and tried to wave them off. This show of humility had the opposite effect.
“Jeez . . . there’s a second kid on board!”
“Dave, get a load of this!”
“Way to go, man . . . legs of steel!”
Mind you, we had crossed the length of America the previous summer on this same setup. Seattle to Portland is a mere two hundred miles, whereas me and my boys had rolled it over the rockies, crossing the continental divide six times, managed the roller-coaster- like hills of the Ozarks, taken on the inclines of coal country to the east, and pedaled all the way up to the Lincoln Memorial.
For a few seconds I was conflicted.
Wait, none of that mattered. We hadn’t even broken a sweat today. This was all wrong, but before I could end the charade the high school drum corps drowned me out, that and concert-sized speakers blasting, I shit you not, the Chariots of Fire theme song.
As we crested the hill people were high-fiving my sons from the sides of the road. Cameras flashed; a group of riders formed a sort of wedge in front of us so the gap created between us and them formed a focal point with our technicolor float at its center.
Moms held up babies, people put their hands to their hearts, veterans saluted, and family members looked beyond their deserving relatives to get a better look at this spectacle of athleticism and heart. And off to the side I thought I saw the one Native American, familiar to us from the 1970s anti-pollution commercials, a lone tear running down his face as we passed.
The drums, the theme music, kids running alongside us. I tried to make myself as small as possible. But now something was happening behind me that kicked the crowds into another gear. They cheered in the manner one would a rock concert encore.
I turn to find that Quinn has produced a plastic lightsaber and is balancing on his bike seat, waving it at the hordes. Not to be outdone, six-year-old enzo, who’d learned how to detach himself from the five-point safety harness system somewhere across Missouri, has thrown open the Chariot carrier flap and is standing with one hand holding the roll bar, waving with the other. He’s turned that Chariot trailer into a Popemobile. And though she’s been dead for years, Enzo has his Princess Di wave down cold.
“Down, boys, down!” I whisper-yell. But it’s too late. As we bring the whole catastrophe in for a landing, we’re mobbed by well-wishers. It’s like a Mexican border town, children trying to sell us Chiclets and dried flowers. The drums build, the theme song crescendos, someone is blowing one of those vuvuzelas you only hear at world Cup matches. Still, I decide I can weather this heat-of-the-moment, caught-in-the-flood crazy misunderstanding, until the ride director comes through the crowd carrying medals.
At this, I hang my head. The only way I can avoid a medal ceremony is to hop off the bike and beat him to the punch. I come in for a big bear hug. In a panic, I offer him some Italian air kisses before whispering, not unkindly, into his left ear, “We have not just pedaled from Seattle to Portland today on that bike.”
With this he holds me at arm’s length, shaking a little, looking me in the eye, before saying with a proud, booming voice. “It’s okay if it took you two days!”
If I’ve learned anything in this world, it’s that if you present a mob, angry or jubilant, with the truth or the show . . . they’re gonna take the show every time!
The crowd goes wild! I do manage to avoid the medal but that’s only because Quinn, proudest SOB on the planet at that moment, presented his chest for the director. You know what that kid was thinking: It’s about damn time! I spend a healthy chunk of my childhood pedaling around this fine country with my father, rescuing damsels, slaying dragons, and battling dark sides of the Force from a bike, and finally you see fit to throw me a parade and put a medal on me. What took you so long?
At least the lie is contained to a few thousand cycling friends. I manage to roll the bike train behind the stage and try to center myself for my show. Put the whole incident behind me and get right with myself. I’ve been hired to entertain the Lycra troops with stories from the road and inspire them with my accomplishments on bike.
“Boys, could we not wear our medals on stage?”
And that’s when the whole thing goes supernova. What I hoped would die a quick death has been picked up by Kelley Day of Fox News. She’s with her cameraman hunting for a solid soundbite story before deadline, she knows me from other studio appearances, and she must have heard about our entrance.
“It’s the Metal Cowboy . . . and his little boys!” She points where she wants the cameraman to stand. “Hoist one of ’em up on your shoulders, Joe. This will only take a minute. In three, two, one . . .”
I would love to tell you that when that little camera light went from red to green, I found the character and courage to set the record straight, that I felt shame and a measure of guilt and confessed my sins to the tristate viewing audience. Instead, I channeled my inner Bill Clinton, felt a blanket of calm and peace wash over me. I knew what is, was, and always would be. I felt in control.
Kelley nailed it on the first take. The cameraman worked his lens slowly across the length of the bike train to settle on us—Enzo at my hip and Quinn on my shoulder holding that medal up for the camera—while Kelley asked, “Cowboy, how does it feel to have pulled all this . . . precious cargo, all that way?”
What I said next, while technically not a lie . . .
I took my time, gave Kelley a confident, warm, road-weary smile, I may have even winked at the camera, I know I gave a nod, and in a voice that had more than a little Bill Clinton hospitality twang to it, I said,
“I’ll tell you, Kelley, it feels like I just left my doorstep ten minutes ago.”
Another ring in Hell may have to be added for me, but you can’t throw that sweet changeup at me and think I’m not going to swing. Back home, I decided to use the events of the day as a teaching mo- ment. I put on warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” got out the dictionary, and called Quinn into the study.
We looked up the word fraud together. He got it. “Like playing make-believe.”
“Yes, you could say that, but when adults do it they have two career choices. Making license plates at the local prison, or presidential candidate.”
He went to bed in his medal, so here’s hoping it sinks in over time. I relaxed, but that didn’t last. I realized with a sick certainty that the evening news was about to come on and the only real jury of my peers who mattered, my wife Beth, was upstairs within reach of a tv remote. I put more effort into the run up two flights of stairs than the whole day of cycling.
God love her, when I arrived in our bedroom she was reading a book the size of War and Peace and the tv was off. I slid across the comforter, palmed the remote, jammed it under the mattress, and marveled, not for the first time, that I had wed so, so far above my station.
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