(My friend Phoebe challenged me to write something other than my funny misadventures or my non-fiction. To write something about me. So here is the start)
It was the summer of 1989 that a small town child had oddly been exposed to the idea of an “all terrain bicycle”. The oddity derived from the fact the boy grew up in a secluded subdivision 7 miles away from a little nowhere town of 25,000 known to the mapmakers as Winona, MN, and even then it was a subdivision of 5 homes that dotted a loop of gravel roads that made up Pleasant Valley. And while said child would learn later on the significance this town would have had upon history years ago such significance would be lost otherwise to those who lived there.
In short, he lived in no where land.
But I guess this is where his life begins, that summer of ’89 and to forgo the dramatics that boy was me. Jon Severson, a timid and unassuming boy of no real mass born to a loving mom that would rival June Cleaver and a father who’s abstinence from his life was constant due to his love of work beyond anything else. I was the kid you could forget about. Neither my stature or my persona stood out further than my nose. I was the kid the other routinely picked on day to day because I didn’t fight back well, for I knew the consequences when I got home.
Yet it was that summer of 1989 that a simple decision would forever change and shape me beyond my family and the life that was to be laid for others who desired to never leave Minnesota. And to be fair, anyone who has ever visited my part of the country would have a difficulty understand what was wrong with the Mississippi Valley that would eventually inspire me to leave it. And that decision was made simply by one thing, a bicycle.
A mountain bike to be clear. At that time a Trek 950 made in the USA 21 speed mountain bike. It was blue (my favorite color at the time) and it cost $520…..alot of money to a 15 year old who’d saved his money to buy a bike that was half of that price. A huge amount actually. But my father made me a deal, he’d pay the other half if I would cover the other. I had this odd desire to want to ride a bike off road….like not on trials but wherever I could.
At the time I was “big” (I say “big” because my skills were laughable at best) into skateboarding. But my quite and timid nature only caused me to grasp ahold of the music that was key to the culture and embrace it, but otherwise I was the scared kid who would never drop in on a ½ pipe. My friends tried to coach me and even nailed in “training” drop ins half way up….and wrapped me (literally) with couch cushions and duct tape because I was so scared to drop in from even half way up.
Yep, I was a little pansy kid. But somehow this desire to get a mountain bike would change this. Granted not right away. Oddly enough at 15 years old a mountain bikes greatest possible accomplishment could be to climb up stuff with going down being my biggest fear.
That said the 21 gears and knobby tires gave me the ability to explore so much further beyond my world I grew up in. In hindsight, it would give me the freedom to venture out and become the man I am today. May seem like a stretch, but when I look back…it probably saved me.
I wouldn’t say my home life was terrible. My mother is the most loving and kind woman in the world. My father, while not the model of your next afte school special never raised a hand to me either in my time that I can recall. Though nor was his loving and nurturing, but I suppose in his defense what father was really in the early ‘80s? But I guess either way you look at it you won’t find an actually father figure in my life. No talks of girls or life ever have, or ever would even to this day, be spoken between my father and I. Just work. But then as long as I can remember, and even to this day, I only know my father as a disciplinarian and my boss. While this taught me the work ethic and the (very) critical thinking I poses to this day, learning how to be a man and the ways of the world would come only through the years to follow of my interaction with my bicycle. I guess inside I knew what I desired, knew what I needed, and unconsciously over the next 15 years I would make up for that hole. And all that would fill it would be that which my bike took me by.
Looking back I wasn’t the kid I should have been. While I always scored extremely high in tests (which by the way has merit, MN is top 5 in the nation for education), my day to day grades had a tendency to fade as the quarters and semesters went on. Hope would fade into disappointment and while it was never “said” I always felt it. Aside from academics I was not all that big physically, which never led to any records in the gym as well. Though looking back, I always could run.
As a kid you see it even if you don’t think you do. You see the kids who always get the 5 gold stars. You know who the kids are who always make the presidential fitness award. And as the days go by you know you are neither. Fascinated as you may be by people you read about in your text books such as Einstein and such, at the time you see no correlation. You feel small. You read about places like “Stonehenge” in England and the castles that surround it. But as a seemingly average kid in a town in Minnesota so far far away from even the coast of the ocean that you have to cross to get to such…well…they may say never say never but never is a very real world you tend to believe when you add it all up.
Initially, dreams are dreams at best. Even the edge of town and the top of the bluff seems so far away how would you ever cross an ocean far away to go to another country? Honestly? The moon was just as close and equally inaccessible.
I mention that because my love for the bicycle would change that. The barn house up the road was so far away in my mind, but eventually riding to it and back would be a goal to meet. Then beyond. Then to the bottom of “The Wall” that was the start of a ride up to the ridge…and so on and so on. Being able to do these things on my own power, on a bicycle, without my parents or anyone, was an accomplishment. Others would follow such as riding to other cities or parts of my small town. Often (well, always) alone with nothing but my headphones to keep me company or inspire me to crank the pedals over one more time in my solidary state.
Alone I was to be honest. My parents religious tendencies held me back in my mind and kept me from doing things that would be considered “bad” such as drinking, smoking, and the like. I was a ghost in the halls of my school until some dirtbag wanted to knock my folders out of my arms to spew across the crumpling floors of my Junior High. Terrorizing me to a point I’d take this light abuse to avoid that next level that came with any sort of resistance. I felt the pain and then I felt nothing.
Riding though would become that distinguishing factor that would help me develop the confidence and self importance that could not be achieved at home or at school. For riding up that hill or riding across town or covering so many miles a day became the factors by which I would measure who I was. Also music I learned to embrace hanging out a the skateboard ramp in the years past also taught me a certain value to finding your own self worth. Mix tapes and rides would go hand in hand in making me a more aware little human being. But it all would take time.
I want to say it was 1990 that I decided I was going to do my first mountain bike race. I read something about a mountain bike race called the Ironwood Classic which was held in Stewartvile, MN. The organizer of it (and the series it was tied to, the Midwest Mountain Bike series), was a guy named Ron Moffit. Ron took stupid calls from me, this little dorky, skinny, good for nothing kid who’d ask questions about what types of shoes and grips I needed for this race. I wanted to go really bad, but my dad made it a condition that I had to drive (I had my permit) to the race and back myself with him in the passengers seat.
Needless to say, the drive was terrible.
I was constantly berated on concepts I never learned in my books nor was taught any other way. When we got there, the race was a mud fest. It poured rain from the time we got there to the time I left. At the start mud got kicked into my face and I was pushed to the back as I was trying to get the mud out of my eye. My chain eventually broke I think and I had to run the last few miles. At the finish line was a father who seemed unimpressed, and it was with that father I had to drive back an hour home with not knowing how to drive.
Yet I was hooked.
Later I’d go on to do the Chequamegon 16. A 16 mile mountain bike race which really didn’t go much better. I got a flat in the roll out with 900 other people, while trying to pull over I was clipped and my steel pedal cut a huge gash in my right leg behind my knee. I fixed the flat and saw blood pouring down my leg, almost covering it, but I got back on after I fixed it and hammered away to a semi respectable finish of around 200….which wasn’t too bad considering by the time I fixed the flat I was a ½ mile behind the 900 people I started with.
Oddly enough I felt this was adequate reason to get sponsored. Why I’m not sure bit I somehow got it in me to start calling companies, the first Slingshot Bicycles, and eventually Power Bar and a host of others. I also now thought I knew enough about bicycles, at the tender age of 16, that I should be able to get a job selling them at the local bicycle shop.
“I’m dedicated, to anything I can beat, it’s what I’m used too.” –Disargeeable, by Helmet
Needless to say this scrawny little kid who was an outcast in ever way would get all of the above. I did get a job at the bike shop, initially told I was too young to sell but on our grand opening day of our new store I sold two bikes (abiliet, without permission) barely a few days over 16. I’d eventually not only be asked to be a sales guy, but I’d outsell that next year most of the college staff who worked full time at my very part time schedule. And when SlingShot finally ponied up the sponsorship offer I tasseled them for at that same age the shop would get Trek Bicycle to counter it and sweeten the deal a bit. Top it off with some how getting Power Bar to give me unlimited Powerbars (and decals) for the next year I was on cloud 9.
I was also that Fall recruited by the head of the swim team who was my PE coach to swim that Winter. The program was the most rigorous at our school. An hour ever morning followed by 2 hours ever night of every day. While this would set the foundation for my fitness, the “how to” of cycling and training for that sport was taught to me by books that were 10 years old even then on training. Most citing practices and schedules that really only pros in warm climates could follow. But I made the best and pushed myself with the very music that pushed my peers at the skate ramp I looked up too. And well, a desire to be good at something that I would be good at and no one else.
Looking back now 34, I have to thank the 16 year old who set the path which has ultimately led me to be the person I am years later. I sometimes think I have failed or not become what I could/should/would have become. My dad bluntly even said in ’99 at the Chicago O’hare Airport to me that “I never tired and never really became anything” despirte the fact I got my own sponsors and had no coach other than 10 year old cheap library books to teach me how to ride. But then I also look back and see where are the kids I raced against? The ones that could beat me and who were they? What did they have behind them? Coaches, money, time. I had none of that yet even the best of them are unknown to this day or subtitles at best in other peoples stories. Me, at 34, I’m only just starting to really grow and expand as a human being. And I guess that is the story you will read in the pages that follow.
It’s never too late. Never say die.