THE FIRST BIKE WAS RED. And it had a flat tire.
Bryan rolled the bike across the street not long after I moved in. A cherubic, 11-year-old fifth grader, bright eyed and brown haired, trudging up my steep driveway, he found me in my garage where I was drilling holes for bike hooks, my cycling gear spread across the floor.
“Can you help me fix this?” he asked, or something along those lines. The wheel was out of true and the brakes rubbed, so we fixed those too. Then we adjusted the gears.
We tested the bike out with a lap around the park, and a promise to go ride again.
Bryan’s Aunt Laura had bought him that bike not long after he came to live with her.
Every kid should have a bike, she believed. Especially Bryan.
Bryan, who had been pulled from his mother and siblings by Child Protective Services, put up a thuggish front and wouldn’t really talk to Laura “unless it was about Nazis,” she says, “or nuclear weapons.”
Laura was 35 at the time and, as the oldest sibling, had been born into the role of babysitter to “a bunch of snotty-nosed” nieces and nephews. The desire to have children of her own had long since extinguished. Laura’s sister (Bryan’s mother) had been through some trauma and had used drugs. Laura was aware that her kids suffered from neglect as a result. She expected that the state might one day contact her about Bryan.
Laura and Bryan’s house had two cabs parked in their driveway. An old yellow minivan, a hand-me-down from Laura’s dad. And an always clean Chrysler 300, Dylan’s car.
“It’s pretty bad when you end up dating the taxi driver who takes you home from the bar,” Laura jokes. In truth, Laura had asked for Dylan’s number after he gave her and her friends a ride home one night. With good cabbies, she called directly for a ride.
Dylan appreciated Laura as a customer—she never puked in the cab, always tipped well—and after a few rides they started dating. A few months after that, they moved in together.
And then Bryan moved in, too.
“I HAVE A BIKE WITH HANDLEBARS LIKE THAT,” Bryan said, and then ran across the street, muttering something about his Uncle Dylan’s college bike leaning against the side of the house.
It was dark and I had just returned from Austin’s weeknight race, the Driveway Series, and I was dubious about the bike Bryan would reappear with. But under the fluorescent glow of my garage, I gazed upon a steel lugged Nishiki with Suntour parts.
We spent a few weeks tearing the bike down to the frame. I learned how to repack headsets and hubs as Bryan scrambled after loose ball bearings. Rebuilt, the bike hummed.
I sipped a beer on my front porch and watched Bryan sail down the hill between our homes.
After that, our rides became more regular.
Although Bryan still struggled to make it up most hills, when it came to material things, he had the makings of a true cyclist.
“Are you using that helmet?”
“How much do jerseys cost?”
“I think I need shoes like that.”
After almost every ride, I bestowed upon him some piece of schwag—an old team jersey, or a pair of socks. Winter came and Bryan kept riding, so I made him a deal: “Summit all three steep hills that lead to our neighborhood without stopping in one ride, and you’ll earn a full-zip long-sleeve jersey.”
“I WAS WORRIED HE MIGHT MURDER US IN OUR SLEEP,” Dylan says, only half joking, about what it was like when Bryan first moved in. Bryan understood he couldn’t legally live with his mom and siblings, but his previous life was the only life he knew. He struggled with anger, sadness, and confusion. Dylan and Laura would wake to find him standing in the living room, sobbing from night terrors.
Before they suddenly became parents themselves, the couple had been prone to making judgmental comments about child-rearing. And so, with a certain stubbornness, Dylan and Laura set out to prove they too could raise a kid.
Bryan presented them with all the challenges of a pre-teen boy—and more. His former life had taught him to be self-reliant, how to get what he needed or wanted, even if that meant lying or stealing. He would sometimes hide food under his bed and once he even jimmied into a lockbox to access the video game console.
Bryan, Laura, and Dylan had regular visits with a family therapist. At one point, Laura literally Googled “behavior modification.”
With “Bryan Bucks,” Bryan could earn video game time (something he and Dylan enjoyed doing together).
Bryan bought into the system. It was like, in his heart he wanted to be good. But he still sometimes looked for the easy way out, the path of least effort.
Bike riding, Dylan says, “was the first thing Bryan worked really hard at and succeeded.”
I’m not sure who was prouder when Bryan pulled on that long-sleeve jersey, him or me.
WHEN BRYAN WAS IN SEVENTH GRADE, the family moved.
Though they now lived a few miles further south, Laura had transferred Bryan to a charter school just down the street from me. She asked, would I continue riding with Bryan at least once a week?
These weekly adventures took us to the state capitol and the University of Texas campus. We rode singletrack paths in McKinney Falls Park, swam in a limestone pool, and contemplated the ruins of a once grand homestead.
“Where are we going today?” Bryan would ask.
And I would respond, “I don’t know, how about downtown?”
“Let’s do it,” Bryan would say. And we would roll alongside Lady Bird Lake toward Austin’s ever-rising skyscrapers, shouting, “DOOOOOWNTOWN...DOOOOOWNTOWN!”
We’d stop to take a photo in front of the buildings reflecting off the water, and I’d tell Bryan, “Never forget, you live in one of the best cities in the entire world.”
On those rides, I often felt like a 12-year-old too. Then Bryan would do something terrifying. More than once, I found myself shouting, “STOP!” as I watched him mindlessly ride full speed into a four-way intersection. He’d cross wheels with me and crash or take a corner too hot. We regularly rode to the bike shop for replacement parts.
I never asked Bryan about his past, but when we pedaled together, he sometimes opened up. Once he pointed out the office of the custody lawyer Laura had hired as we rode past it. Another time, Bryan told me about a younger sibling who’d been abused by some teenagers from outside his family. Bryan, who I’d never seen exhibit aggression, had come to his sibling’s defense.
A hopeless romantic, Bryan often wanted to talk about girls. When he heard I met my wife through bike racing, and that you could win money, he took a keen interest in competition.
Bryan always wanted to know our average speed, and when he broke 12 miles per hour on a ride, my dad stepped in. “You know, it’s been a long time since I’ve ridden my Merlin,” he said.
We put my dad’s forever bike on eBay and spent the proceeds on an aluminum BMC racing bike with Shimano 105. Bryan participated in a series of criterium clinics my racing team put on, and even beat a bunch of grown men in a five-lap practice race.
But after a few junior races, Bryan gravitated to the more sustainable side of cycling, getting from point A to point B. He was attending a nearby high school by then and wanted to ride to class. I worried his bike would get vandalized or stolen. Like an overprotective parent, I emailed the principal and expressed my concern.
The principal wrote back, “Bryan can keep his bicycle in my office.”
I SEARCHED CRAIGSLIST FOR A SURLY CROSS-CHECK when Bryan outgrew the BMC. He coveted carbon fiber superbikes like the ones in my garage, but at 15 he was more or less self-sufficient and fully mobile. I convinced him the Cross-Check was a super commuter.
As my own family grew, Bryan became a fixture at our home. He’d stop on the way to school for a breakfast taco and some chain lube. He’d play peek-a-boo with our kids and talk to my wife, Lindy, about which girl he wanted to invite to a dance and how he could woo them.
Lindy once sent Bryan to class with a freshly cut rose in a Topo Chico bottle. Another time, Bryan stayed for dinner after a ride—and, still blushing with pride, told us he had a pepperoni pizza delivered to school from the favorite restaurant of his most recent crush. Then he’d bent down on one knee, presented the pizza, and asked for a date.
“She said yes, but I think she felt pressured,” Bryan admitted. A video of the overture went viral across the high school campus.
During his teenage years, Bryan began asking tough questions. On rides, he’d sometimes want to know things about drugs and sex. Lindy and I texted Laura. We asked if she could stop by for a drink and told her that we didn’t really know how to best answer these questions, but that we would just try to be as honest as possible.
When Bryan’s grades slipped or he fell behind on homework, Laura would make him stay after school for tutoring, ground him from sleepovers, and limit his access to the PS4.
But she never told him he couldn’t go for a bike ride.
THE SUMMER BEFORE HIS SENIOR YEAR, Bryan became a lifeguard. The understaffed city pools paid teenagers top dollar and Bryan worked full time, starting with a shift in suburban south Austin before riding to downtown’s Deep Eddy Pool in the afternoon.
In hundred-degree heat, he sometimes logged as many as 40 miles a day commuting, got tan and fit, and filled his bank account with cash.
“I’m going to buy a car,” he told me.
“Why?” I asked.
The next time I saw Bryan, he wanted to go to the bike shop. He spent his summer savings on a brand-new road bike, a Trek Émonda ALR. He bought his own helmet, clipless pedals and shoes. Laura was a bit miffed. But it was Bryan’s money, what could she do?
I was in Italy, covering the Giro d’Italia when Bryan graduated high school. He texted not long after I got back and asked if I wanted to go for a ride, “a long one.”
“Wednesday?” I wrote back.
“I ship out for bootcamp on Wednesday,” Bryan responded, with the freaked face emoji.
SPINNING DOWN A PARK ROAD, I asked Bryan if he wanted to go climb Austin’s hardest hill.
“Let’s do it,” Bryan said.
It took Bryan twice as long as Strava legend Phil Gaimon to get to the top of Jester Boulevard. But he didn’t get off his bike and start walking like he used to.
We took the rollercoaster-like route along Scenic Drive back into town. We watched people wake boarding in Lake Austin and rode through a huddle of teens vaping under the freeway.
We stopped for a coffee, and Bryan got a cold brew, black. I thanked him for not embarrassing me by ordering his usual, a white chocolate mocha.
He told me all about the benefits of joining the Navy: electrician training, college tuition, officer school. He said he wanted to buy a house soon. I reminded him that the deal might cost him his life.
Bryan said he would write me from bootcamp in the Chicago area, that he had my address memorized.
In the note he sent a couple months later, handwritten on Navy letterhead, Bryan asked about Austin life, “Any cool things?” He said the days were sometimes 16 hours long, or longer, but the food was pretty good and that it wasn’t that hard to eat healthy. He said he hoped to have a “beach bod” when he got out, and that he was looking forward to firefighter training and “live fire of the M9 Service Pistol.”
Bryan wrote that bootcamp had been a real challenge. But he was undeterred. His aunt and uncle, his birth mom and siblings, all planned to go to Chicago to watch him graduate.
On our bike rides, I’d witnessed Bryan suffer, struggle and succeed. I’d cleaned up his road rash and fixed his flats. Seen him quit less. Smile more. At some point, I’d stopped worrying too much about Bryan, and whatever challenges lay ahead. He’d learned how to climb.
If I needed any more assurance that Bryan would continue to survive and even thrive, I found it at the end of his letter. “If I keep my goals in mind,” he wrote. “I will make it through and come out a sailor.”