When I was about 15 years old, I was really into bicycle road racing. It was my life, my main activity. I spent almost every single hour of every single day either doing it, training for it, or learning how to train for it.
The thing was, I wasn’t very good at it. In my small town in California I was one of the best at it. But when I’d go to a race where the other riders were coming from bigger ponds, I was well below average. In fact, I rarely even finished with the pack. I’d get dropped and then come straggling over the finish line long after the race had ended.
My best friend at the time was named Andrei Kleist, another rider from the same small town. Andrei and I were the same age, but we went to different high schools. That was okay, because neither of us thought much of school. We were both straight-A students, but there was too much bike racing to be done, and the world was too big a place to bother with high school.
Andrei had a natural talent on the bike I didn’t. His talent was especially brilliant on the hills, the most difficult part of any course. When the rest of us were suffering up a hill, gasping for breath, thighs burning, working so hard we were almost blinded to the road in front of us, Andrei would float up from behind us, dancing on his pedals as if he didn’t even realize what he was doing. He would glance over at us with this bored, nonchalant look, scream that spastic guttural scream of his that said, “I’ve had enough of this,” and then he would magically, effortlessly accelerate and disappear around the bend ahead as if we had been standing still.
We would inevitably find him a half hour later at the top of the hill, sitting on a curb wondering why it had taken us so long. We all hated the fact he would never understand we had worked harder than he had, and yet we were the slow ones.
There’s a story about Andrei, one I wasn’t there that day to witness, but have no trouble believing…
When Andrei was 16 or 17, he was competing at a race in Northern California, a road race out in the rolling hills at the foot of the Sierras east of Sacramento. The older age groups were sharing the same course, and one of our grown-up friends, Bob Brooks (another very talented rider), came upon Andrei sitting on the side of the road, his bike leaned up against the dirt bank. Bob pulled over and asked Andrei why he had dropped out. Did he have a flat tire? Was there a big crash? Was he hurt?
Andrei shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know, I don’t care, this is stupid.” Bob was so dumbfounded he didn’t know what to say, except, “Well then, get back on that bike and finish the race!”
Andrei hopped on his bike and started riding. He caught up with the pack, rested with them for a few miles, and then pulled ahead. Without even appreciating the magnitude of what he was doing, he dropped every single one of them and won the race so far ahead of the others the officials wondered if they had gotten lost.
Andrei was not racing against average schmucks that day. He was racing against the best of the best, young riders who would go on in a few years to race in the Olympics and the Tour de France.
By the time I was 17, Andrei and I had fallen out of touch. My family had moved out of state. In our new town my interest in cycling dwindled quickly, and by the time I went to college I barely even rode a bike often enough to remember I owned one.
Then one day when I was about 30 years old, my dad called to say he had some bad news. Andrei had been killed while riding in the foothills east of Fresno, California, where he lived at the time. He had run head-first into an oncoming car while riding with his father on Tollhouse Road, one of his favorite courses. Descending around a blind corner, he had crossed the yellow line into oncoming traffic just in time to meet up with a Jeep coming the other way.
He was killed instantly, probably even before he landed on the pavement behind the Jeep. His dad, descending at a slower pace behind his son, came upon the scene a few minutes later.
I hadn’t seen or heard from Andrei in over 12 years, but there was no question in my mind that I was going to the funeral. I hopped in my car and drove straight-through overnight, arriving in town about 2 hours before the funeral.
After the funeral, I learned that as Andrei grew into adulthood, he had never stopped riding. However, he had never gone on to Olympic fame or world domination. Instead, he rode occasionally on the weekends and puttered away at a computer repair shop. Cycling had been relegated to the back burner of his life. The one rider who would probably have learned how to leave even Lance Armstrong in the dust had never stepped up to the line.
We all have a talent like Andrei’s. Not necessarily for racing bikes, but for something else. A talent for motivating others. A talent for calming them during stressful times. A talent for expressing love through cooking, or a talent for bringing old classic cars to life.
Many of us don’t even know what that talent is. Some of us do, but we don’t know how to use it. Others have an inkling what it is, but the daily obligations of life seem to keep getting in the way.
Whatever the constraints are, we must make figuring out how to get past them our mission in life. Not because we owe it to ourselves. Because we owe it to others. We owe it to everyone who wishes they could do what we can, but can’t.
Andrei was my best friend, but I will never forgive him for treating with such nonchalance a talent I wished to god I had, but knew I never would.
Just like there are people who will never forgive Andrei for not making the most of his talent, there are others who will never forgive me for not making the most of mine. I am not always clear on what that talent is, but I owe it to the people who love me to find it, to polish it until it shines, and to bring it to the world.
And so do you. Do it like your life depends on it, because it does.