Funny story (not really) – I was born with some innate (not inane…) love of bicycles that went beyond the normal fascination that most kids have with two-wheeled fun machines. Born in Ohio, bred in Pittsburgh, nowhere in my family on either side was there a connection to competitive cycling. Baking, yes. Irish citizenship, yes. The Czech language, yes. Europe, yes; and so-on. But there was nothing familial to link me to cycling. Nor was there anything environmental. I mention having seen a BMX movie on TV when I was five or six, and LeMond in the Tour in a brief news segment in ’86, but long-before then, when I was riding around the neighborhood we lived-in in Seven Hills, OH, the bike was something more for me than it was for most. What’s ironic, of course, is that the predetermination that saw me born with bike lust, forgot to include the physical attributes that would allow me to translate my other-worldly desire to race bicycles (before I even knew that the sport existed) into a lucrative revenue stream that would set me up financially for life. Now granted, I had the gift of a naturally very fast finish, a VO2 of 75-76, the ability to sit big on the bike but always be smooth, and – as noted; as admitted to – an incredible desire to bike, bike bike – to race, race, race. Trying not to appear totally immodest, I was really smart, too, though as many point out, book smarts doesn’t equal street smarts doesn’t equal common sense. And I was brash – cocky. All of this thrown together and mixed into a cocktail, served-up after my dad died in ’89, would have produced a drink that deserved the name, not of “Kamikaze,” but rather a “goddamn suicide bomber!” As in, “Bartender, gimme a ‘goddamn suicide bomber!’, and make it a double!” — the ending wasn’t going to be pleasant, no matter how sweet (or at least stimulating) that first taste was.
I only got into racing because my Uncle Jim, who died last year (rest in peace), felt sorry for my lame-ass and bought me a road bike. He probably thought I had enough common sense to enjoy riding for fun but would utilize my real competitive advantage, my intelligence, to make a successful career in business – maybe even as that diplomat or spook I’d intended to become. Unlike his brother who he’d just buried, he didn’t realize that my book smarts and burgeoning street smarts were totally cut-off from any significant amount of common sense. I mean, who wouldn’t seriously contemplate throwing away a near full academic scholarship to a respected public university to race bikes, represent one’s country and travel the world?
At the time, that was how I thought…that doing the abnormal was somehow normal or “right” – which it was for me, in my mind, in many cases. LOL. Alas, this caused so much friction between me and my long-suffering mom. She’d just lost her husband, was thrown into a world she was totally not prepared for (widowed mother of two boys, one of whom was hell-bent on becoming a pro bike racer in Europe), and just wanted to ensure that life wasn’t turned upside-down any more than it already had been (I’m sure she worried about putting food on the table and managing the family’s money and so on). Outside Magazine actually got at least one thing right, as their interviewer wrote:
“…I could almost identify with Papp’s sense of loss. What cycling freak hasn’t envisioned himself living the high life of a top European racer? Unlike most of us, though, Papp had the talent to put himself dangerously close to his dream. Growing up in the town of Bethel Park, Papp displayed loads of potential: He won four junior state road-racing titles and built his reputation as a sprinter, specializing in shorter or flatter races. He did it without much family support. His mother was a widow and hoped Joe and his younger brother, David, would stick to simple pursuits like the Boy Scouts.
“Joey was so precocious, and I wondered how he got into cycling at all,” she says. “It was so outside of what we did.”
Like another Pennsylvania prodigy—Floyd Landis—Papp started climbing through the ranks. Landis, originally a mountain-bike racer, ultimately caught the attention of the elite European-based road squads. Papp toiled for also-ran teams sponsored by a local hospital chain and Franco Harris, the former Pittsburgh Steelers running back. In 1995 he was invited to a one-race tryout alongside Tyler Hamilton on a rebuilt team that would become the Lance Armstrong–led U.S. Postal Service squad. Papp didn’t make the cut…”
Like I said, that caused a lot of friction, but thankfully, in the past few years, my mom and I have done a lot to reconcile our relationship and find a common ground. In fact, she’s been a big supporter of mine as I go through the process of trying to transform a doping positive and the implosion of a fantasy life into something sustainable. To say that I have come to love and appreciate her in a way I didn’t before would be an understatement.
Thus, imagine my horror when I tried to ring my mom on her mobile today and found out she was in hospital, having been admitted late last night, and facing emergency surgery. I am mad as hell that she didn’t call me last night and let me know what was happening, but her entire persona is built around being supportive of others, and not adding her woes to theirs. I would argue in this case that it would have been perfectly acceptable to call me or my brother, but some things you can’t change – at least in others. So… I’m writing this while driving back to town, waiting to hear an update on her condition, hoping that when I do arrive she’s ok. I’m starting to think that I had a karmic debt that was built with the same structure as some of the more exotic mortgages that caused the housing collapse – 10+ years of pretty blissful living, followed by three years of what seems to me, by comparison, a hell – on – earth.
If there are grammar, punctuation, spelling or composition errors in this, sorry – Blogger via Gmail via T-Mobile via BlackBerry in an Audi (with a stick shift) is probably a triple-felony in Alabama. No lessons here or moral preachiness…just a belting out of some strong memories interlaced with some very real, present-day fears. Peace out, y’all and ride (drive) safe.
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