One of the Good Guys

Last weekend I was given the opportunity to speak about someone I deeply admire, and consider to be a superhero.  Unfortunately the setting was his memorial service.  What follows is the text of what I delivered on behalf of AJ Linnell.  If you have a chance, please take the time to enjoy more of his writing at:

I can’t tell you when I first met AJ, knowing him was just a part of living in Teton Valley.  But I can tell you there is a very clear distinction, in my mind, of the time before AJ joined our biking community and the time after AJ joined our biking community.  The time after AJ joined the biking community is waaaaay better.  He became a big part of our bike racing team and an inspiration to me, and everyone (I mean everyone) who got to know him through mountain bike racing.  But he sort of came out of nowhere for a lot of us.

Seriously, one year he walked into the bike shop and said, “I’m going to start singlespeed racing”.  OK, I thought, sure, he’s one of those fun haters.  You know “Fun Hater”: someone who goes out to suffer, brag about their suffering, quick to tell you how they finished the event despite how hard it was, and all that woe is me kinda stuff.  Why else would you take all the gears off your bike and go race for a hundred miles over the most mountainous trails in the country.  You have to hate fun to race singlespeed mountain bikes.

But that was my thinking before AJ joined our biking community.  Once I started to get to know AJ a bit more I realized how wrong I was about pinning him as a Fun Hater.  Turns out, AJ was the biggest fun LOVER I have probably ever met – it’s just that his definition of fun was everyone elses worst nightmare on a bike!

From AJ’s blog:

“There’s mud in my teeth, in my hair, packed in my ears and working its way behind my sunglasses into my eyes, but as long as I lay off the brakes and embrace gravity none of it matters.  This is mountain biking, and I love it.”

Everyone who knew AJ in the biking world says a variation on the same quotes I heard this week

“wow, that guy was sooo fast but sooo humble and cool.”

“He was one of those totally rare guys who could be both super fun to be with in heated competition with AND just go out and have a casual fun ride with.”

“Nothing ever phased that guy”

“In the finish area is where racers usually show their worst side.  When a race doesn’t go as planned people can lose it and really make a scene.  Not AJ, I NEVER saw that guy get upset – always a class act.”

“regardless of his results, he was always there at the finish line to give a high five and congratulate a friend”

In 2012 AJ won his first big singlespeed ultra endurance race, the High Cascade Classic in Oregon.  100 miles, 12,000’ of climbing, 8 hours, 16 minutes, and 12 seconds.  You have to hear it from AJ himself.  If you not as familiar with this side of AJ, I hope this gives you a little insight into his passion for singlespeed racing:

“3am was dark, cold, and early.  The starting area at 5am was still dark, cold, and early, although a bit more lively.  When the clock started at 5:30, dawn had just broken and I was questioning my decision not to wear a vest in addition to arm-warmers.

I let myself get stuck too far back in the pack at the start again (I really need to work on that) so it took me a bit to break out of the dust cloud kicked up by riders ahead of me.  Once I got all straightened out I realized that I was right behind Gerry Pflug (endurance singlespeedlegend)—sweet!  We ended up riding about 10 miles together, on what was probably the day’s awesomest singletrack, snaking through the forest with amazing early-morning sunbeams all around.  Pacing with Gerry was ridiculously fun—he’s way strong, and really smooth.  At some point in there another singlespeeder named Jace Ives joined us to make it a trio of flying one-gear-wonders.

Less fun–at some point in there I blew a remount after running over a rocky section and came down hard on a fully turned left ankle.  My immediate reaction was to vomit, but I got past that and gently settled myself back onto my bicycle.  Within a minute or two of pedaling it came back to life and I was off in pursuit of Gerry and Jace, with a bit of trepidation about how long the ankle would last.  It took about a mile, but I eventually caught the guys just before the first aid station at mile 18.

Within a couple of miles after Aid 1 I kicked up my pace for a steeper bit of climbing and found myself riding alone, chasing 2 geared riders ahead.  I knew Gerry and Jace wouldn’t be far behind, but I’ve tried to nurture the habit of focusing on what’s ahead, making forward progress, reeling in the riders in front of me and chasing the clock.  Somehow that feels more productive than watching out for what’s coming up behind.  Focus on what’s in front, and ride your race.

Somewhere in here I looked down and saw that my ankle was nicely swollen, and had lost most of its flexibility.  Pedaling seemed to work okay, but bouncing over lava rock wasn’t that sweet with an ankle that couldn’t absorb the shock.

Shortly after leaving Aid 4, I stuffed my front wheel into a dusty turn and had a moment of weightlessness over the handlebars before a less-than-graceful landing.

The wondrous descent back down to pavement was just that, wondrous.  Huge, banked turns, huge pumps, friendly little tabletop jumps, fast riding, and it went on for miles and miles!  If we hadn’t been 90 miles into a race I might have gone up for another lap!

As it turned out, what I thought was going to be a fast, cruising downhill to Bend wasn’t really downhill at all—mostly flat, with short downs.  Not totally awesome on a singlespeed, but it actually went by quickly and then I was cruising down the final singletrack to the finish.  Woohoo!

Jace and Gerry weren’t far behind me—it was good to see them finish strong, despite Gerry’s multiple bleeding wounds from crashing into a jagged log down by Lava Lake.  Fortunately an out-for-fun rider was right there with a full first-aid kit in her pack to bandage him up!

My ankle continued to swell, and by the next day looked like a sausage.  (In fact, I’m sitting with my foot in a bucket of ice water as I type this.  Ouch.)

I was SO STOKED to have finally won an NUE Series race, and to have had so much fun doing it!”

I just love his shout out to the other riders at the end… and his description of what fun was to him!  Humble, grateful for the competition, and completely in love with bike racing.

At the end of 2012, Aj found out that mountain bike riding, and specifically racing, was more than a passing hobby.  From his blog on Dec 12th 2012:

“There has been an interesting transformation in my brain this year–never before have I been neck-deep in powder skiing (okay, maybe knee-deep) and found myself dreaming of racing bikes.  I mean, the turns are REALLY good in the Tetons right now, but visions of anaerobic singletrack are floating through my head.  Kind of like sipping Glenfiddich while dreaming of High Life.  Both satisfying drinks, but very different and not often consumed together.”

At that point AJ became focused on winning the entire National Ultra Endurance single speed series title.  Known as the NUE, this series pitted the country’s top mountain bikers against each other in a 7 month coast to coast knock down, drag out test of endurance.  To win the series, a rider has to compete in at least 5 races, all of which are roughly 100 miles in distance.   And when I say compete, I really mean win.  Now let me stress, AJ was the new kid on the block at this series, and the new kid on the block should NOT think they can win the series… especially in the “fun hater” singlespeed division.  Except if you’re AJ!

When the dust settled at the end of the 2013 season, AJ lost the series by one point.  To say AJ had a little bad luck that led to that one point difference is an understatement – ask the guys and girls who raced with AJ for the details on that… brutal!

His reaction after realizing he couldn’t win the series even though there was one race left?

“Disappointed?  Yes.  It’s hard to see a season’s effort at competing for the NUE Series go south by one minute in the weirdness of chip-timing.

But fuck it.  I’m going to the Fools’ Gold anyway to see how I can compete against the singlespeed field at the championship event.

Here’s to riding fast and racing hard…”

The following year, 2014, AJ once again put everything he had into winning the the NUE series.  He raced in 6 events, came in first place in 3 of them, and second place in the other 3.  He lost the series by yes, one point… again.   But did AJ complain?  hardly.  His blog from the final race was full of typical AJ humility, and class.  He pointed out the superior tactics of the winner, the awesome performance of his bike, and his STOKE to begin training for next year.

And that’s the thing I want to get across here today.  AJ was a superior cyclist.  He competed at an incredibly high level and would have been considered by any standards a top tier rider.  He was gifted, he was smart, he was driven to win.  But that’s not what made him the guy we loved.  What we love about AJ was his unwavering positivity, his pursuit of fun, his incredible ability to shrug off setbacks, and his natural ease to, in his own words, “Focus on what’s in front, and ride your race.”

I also tremendously admired AJ’s passion for giving back.  He brought the same amount of stoke and dedication to a day of volunteering to support others in their race as he would to one of his own races.  You don’t come across that every day.

I want to finish with a few more of AJ’s blog excerpts.  I don’t think there is anything I can say that helps us to celebrate AJ more than his own words.  The following is a series of snippets from various race reports over the past few years

The Ultimate Support Team (Erica and my parents) were there cheering in the pit area, set up to hand me what I needed for the next lap.  After I threw my empty Camelbak, Erica handed me a fresh one and my mom handed me a bottle—I didn’t even have to step off the bike.  Thanks, team!

The second loop was by far my favorite.  I’ve heard people say that they think it’s the hardest loop on the course, but I loved it.  There aren’t any really prominent climbs or descents; it’s all just climbing or descending.  None of this flat, spinning crap.  And the riding is gorgeous, mostly singletrack with a bit of dirt/rocky road thrown in.  Definitely my strongest leg.

my hands started to go limp from all of the banging and vibration, and I was losing confidence that I would be able to continue hanging on to my handlebars much less manipulate my brake levers to pilot myself to the end of the race.  Thankfully, feeling and muscle function returned once we finished up that loop and were laboring up the hot climb out to the back side of the course.

The final lap around Barrel Rolls was undoubtedly the highlight of my day out there.  Sure, it was 80 miles into an excessively early-season race and everything above my waist was pleading for an end to the bashing, but damn if I didn’t love romping around that trail.  Dirt, rocks, rocks mixed with dirt, rocks mixed with bigger rocks–it’s just fun.  And it gets more fun when you ride it faster.

It was steep; it was loose; it was rocky, gnarly, and amazing–on the up and the down–just like home.  ”Natural” trail riding.  So fun.

to the cycling community!  I have gotten to connect with so many phenomenal people in the last couple of years, and my life is richer for it.  Thank you for the good energy, and for inspiring me to ride faster and race harder.  I can’t wait to get out there again with you all next year.

Right back at ya AJ!

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