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Post #1: Life, if anything, is unpredictable

Updated: Jan 1

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My bud, pro rider and trail builder extraordinaire, Hank Wilkins, recently hosted his Hanks Banks slalompalooza event that went down earlier in December in the foothills of Reno. The day of riding his freshly built slalom track was to honor his friend, Sean (#shredforsean), who'd recently passed; and, it coincided with the loss of someone very special in my life. I did not know Sean, yet I was compelled to join some friendly faces on that snowy hillside. Despite the slimy and chilly conditions, it was a full-on, ear-to-ear smile fest. Above are a few photos from the event, some of which I recently put on Instagram, along with an abbreviated and modified version of these first two paragraphs.

It's not really my style to share personal matters online (I save that shit for strangers on airport barstools). Besides, I doubt the thousands of Russian bots who follow me on social media care all too much what I have to say. Although, for years I’ve been kicking around the idea of having a blog on this site where I share backstories to meaningful photos and film projects in my career, which began in L.A. at 23 years old as a staff photographer and writer at a monthly, worldwide, mountain bike magazine. Two decades later, my Reno-based, mountain sports-oriented production company keeps the lights on.

It’s worth mentioning, this first blog post is a significant departure in subject matter from what I'd imagined the inaugural entry might entail. However, Hank’s well-intentioned day of riding serendipitously coincided with a series of uniquely challenging life events of my own (it's about to get real). And, ever since I was a kid, I’ve found writing about uncertain and challenging times to be the most therapeutic way for me to sort out what's going on between the ears. Moving on…

For a year, I carried that crumpled-up, dog-eared, perfect-bound

portal to a previously unknown dimension of 1980’s cool

around with me everywhere I went.

The majority of my life has been spent on two wheels. My mom told me that when I was just 2.5 years old I could ride a bike without training wheels (long before the days of walk-bikes). According to her, I’d be gone for hours just cruising around the neighborhood with all of the 8 to 10-year-old kids. I was definitely a “free-range” child, as my dad traveled for a living and my mom was busy with my little sister. The neighbors used to call my mom and say, “Connie, are you aware Ryan is riding his bike on our street [several blocks away from our house].” After hearing this story, I asked her, “So, you just let a little, 3-year-old kid ride his bike around all day in a suburban neighborhood of a large city?” She said, “Well, you seemed confident that you could do it, so I just let you play outside with the other kids.” I suppose there could be a sliver of truth in there; however, in reality, she was likely overwhelmed with taking care of both me and my newborn sister all while my dad was on the road.

Like nearly every little boy, I was fascinated with two-wheelers. When I was just five years old, I remember my mom buying me a BMX magazine in a drug store, undoubtedly to shut me up. For a year, I carried that crumpled-up, dog-eared, perfect-bound portal to a previously unknown dimension of 1980’s cool around with me everywhere I went. During that year, I relentlessly badgered my parents to let me try bike racing (as if I had any idea what that actually entailed). Despite being only five years old, evidently I’d presented a strong case in my favor. The very moment my mom finally gave in to my wish to race bikes is still crystal clear. She grabbed the magazine, sat me down at the kitchen table, and we turned to the very back pages to scour the 6-point font, black and white text of a state-by-state track directory (long before the Internet) until she found one that was in a neighboring town. A few weeks later, I entered my first BMX wearing blue jeans, a sweatshirt, and my indoor soccer shoes—I won the race. Before I knew it, from the time I was barely 6 years old until I was 15, I had raced BMX all over the country.

For as far back as I can remember, I recall my father only being home on weekends. He’d return home from his business travels sometime on a Friday and then he'd leave again on Sunday night or early Monday morning before returning home again the following Friday—that was the cycle. To his credit, he practically spent his entire working life on the road traveling for the Swedish company, Husqvarna, yet the moment he’d get home we’d pack up my bikes and my family would drive hundreds of miles for me to race BMX wherever the biggest event within a day’s drive. There were countless times where I would have to leave a soccer game (or some other sport) at halftime, then change into my football uniform in our van on our way to that game, and then immediately after the football game we’d already have my bikes, tools, gear, and my little sister loaded up and we’d drive hundreds of miles to a race (or three) that weekend—a process we repeated from my elementary school years until I was in high school.

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Due to my father’s job, seemingly every 18 months to two years I was the new kid in school until my teenage years. Therefore, by the time I got to high school, hardly any of my friends had any idea of my BMX life (presumably they just figured I was grounded every weekend), other than the ones who came over to my house and saw rooms full of trophies as tall as they were. Although, by my sophomore year in high school I was completely burnt out on bike racing. Traveling hundreds of miles a weekend year-round for a decade was no longer enjoyable. My athletic focus switched to the stick and ball sports I’d also played growing up. My top priority became football.

Almost overnight, my childhood fascination with bike racing was over. I was still a kid, yet, when I looked at a bike it symbolized stress, pressure, and nonstop travel. Despite dozens of state championships and numerous National race wins, my most vivid memory from the "BMX era" of my life was the day I quit racing. These days, there are a half-dozen or so different Woodward bike, skate, and snow sports facilities across the country. However, when I was a kid, there was only one Woodward complex and it was in Woodward, Pennsylvania. As I remember, that facility was for gymnastics, BMX, and skateboarding, and was made famous by all of the BMX and skate magazines. At least once a year, Woodward would host a big-time National BMX race. When I was 15, my family drove 16 hours round-trip for me to race the Woodward National, an event I’d done well in previously. After the first morning practice session, I remember sitting down in a lawn chair next to my parents in the rainy, muddy conditions and not saying a word to anyone for a very long time. My dad asked me what was wrong. I just looked down at the ground and timidly said, "I don't want to race anymore."

My father has always been generous with his resources, and ardently spent his very limited amount of free time supporting my athletic interests. However, to describe his daily temperament as short-fused would be a bit generous. Over my entire life, the two most common emotions I recall seeing from him (toward me, anyway) were rage and anger. So, I was terrified to tell him I no longer wanted to race. Expecting him to lose his mind and berate me for a never-ending list of reasons (the least of which being he’d just spent his only two days off that week driving 16 hours round-trip from Indianapolis to Woodward, PA, only for me to say I wanted to go home just hours after we arrived at the track), he could see I was sad and exhausted. Shockingly, he only said, “Ok. We’re done.” He immediately loaded my bikes into the van, my family and I followed, and we forever drove away from that aspect of our lives. At that moment, I wasn’t really sure how to act or what to think. I started racing when I was so young that I really don’t recall a time when it wasn't a part of my life or identity. This was the first time in my young existence I felt the void of something that was once so important, ever present, and incredibly significant suddenly being gone.

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In my opinion, the rise of BMX street riding or dirt jumping was not only because it’s fun and unregimented, but also largely due to the fact any kid can do it in a vacant dirt lot or on a city street riding a hand-me-down BMX bike all while his parents likely had no idea what he was even up to. National-level, youth BMX racing, however, typically required an entire family to commit their weekends to their child’s racing pursuits—nearly every weekend, of every month, year after year. This long chapter in my family's life both began and had come to an end because of words that came out of my mouth. Instantly, I thought about what I would do with myself the next weekend just sitting at home with no race to attend. I was only 15 years old, but I’ll never forget the overwhelming feeling of laziness and shame that came over me as I thought about having most of my weekends free. My dad, mom, little sister and I then drove 8 hours home in silence, presumably processing what had just happened and what it meant for our family. I'll never know what my parents and sister were thinking during that long drive home, but I know I was too afraid to say a word. That decade of BMX racing was incredibly time consuming, expensive, stressful, and dangerous; yet, it was something we did together as a family nearly every weekend during my childhood. Although, I’m certain my little sister, Michelle, was psyched it had come to an end.

From that moment, I sincerely thought I’d never touch a bike again, and for three years I literally did not. My young, still-forming mind could not imagine any scenario why or how bikes could ever again be a part of my life.

My world soon began to revolve around football, which, from looking at all 150 pounds of me today, few people would guess. And no, I was not a kicker. From just a little boy until I was in college, I constantly studied playbooks for both offensive and defensive strategy. I used to go to the local library and check out books intended for adults who coached football, just so I could learn what every player on the field is supposed to be doing at all times. To this day, I will happily talk Xs and Os with any poor soul who will listen. From when I was 8 years old until I was 18, I played both quarterback and defensive back, and was also on every single special team. That means, from my childhood until my senior year of high school, I practically never left the field in a football game.

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The serendipitous benefit from my father's employer constantly moving our family around (which I certainly didn’t realize or appreciate at the time) was somehow, each school district we moved to happened to be a powerhouse from little league to high school football. Underneath my spiked mullet haircut (I’m a child of the 80’s, after all) my tiny mind was practically getting an unintentional pigskin Ph.D. from coaches who were high-level college players or even had NFL careers. For example, one pee-wee coach in Naperville, IL, (a western suburb of Chicago) was a former college football coach, and while I was on his teams his sons were players at the University of Nebraska. They’d regularly attend our practices and games as assistant coaches (I thought they were the coolest guys on Earth). Naperville’s youth travel football team I played for was under the same umbrella as the two Naperville high school teams, both of which (at the time) were football powerhouses and perennial Illinois state championship contenders.

By the time I was in junior high, for the second time my family had moved to South Bend, IN, the home of Notre Dame. While living there, my junior high team was designed to mold players to feed the mighty Penn Kingsmen high school football program that produced countless Indiana state championships and players who went on to star at nearby Notre Dame and in the NFL. Once I got to high school at Center Grove in Indianapolis, I was accustomed to having success in football everywhere I’d played. I was still just a kid, so I really had no idea how far ahead on the spectrum of "football IQ" I happened to be. My thorough understanding of the game was purely unintentional byproduct of routinely being uprooted from my friends as my family moved to new city after new city.

My sophomore year in high school, I was the only player in my grade who started on the varsity football team. With over 2,500 students, Center Grove was typically a powerhouse in sports and had a surplus of talent. (For context, in November of 2022, their football team won the state’s first-ever, third-consecutive Indiana football state championship, while also playing in the state’s largest conference (6A), and in the process also won their sixth state championship since 2008.)

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Halfway through that sophomore season on the varsity squad, I was starting to not feel so self-conscious about taking the starting job from a senior (and three-year varsity starter) and was becoming comfortable in my skin playing with the best guys on the team. However, before I was really able to process the on-field success of that season, in the blink of an eye everything was turned upside down. Along with typically playing both offense and defense, I also always returned kickoffs and punts. (I wasn't big, but I was fast, and I liked being fast.) During the fourth game of the season, while returning a punt I planted my left foot to change direction. That one, simple, full-speed step under the bright lights of a Friday night game violently snapped my left ACL and I buckled to the ground untouched by another player. I was 16 years old.