OPINION – When the Tour of Utah bicycle race blasted through our corner of the state earlier this week, it brought back fond memories of the years I’ve lived in Southern Utah. The abundant red-rock scenery and plentiful trails and roads make this part of Utah a strong draw for cyclists of all types.
While I have never had much interest in road cycling, I became an avid mountain biker thanks to an unlikely friendship with one of my radio listeners.
John the Liberal was well known to my radio audience as an outspoken counterpoint to the overwhelmingly conservative views heard on my show. His moniker was given to him by other listeners who were calling in to rebut John’s earlier comments.
John accepted the label and ran with it. Whenever he called in, it was how he’d introduce himself.
I enjoyed hearing from John because he presented his contrasting viewpoints with intelligence and passion but never stooped to the irrational name-calling that most arguments devolve into.
John enjoyed challenging all things conservative. He enjoyed needling members of the LDS church over their standards and beliefs. He wasn’t as interested in promoting a particular political slant as he was determined to make me and my listeners defend ours.
Over time, John became a regular, easily recognized voice on my program. More than anything, I appreciated how a single phone call from John would leave the phones melting down with calls for hours afterward. He saved my listeners from always being in violent agreement with one another.
Eventually, I started inviting him to join me as an in-studio guest. As I got to know John, I learned that he loved mountain biking. One day, after we’d finished the show, John was teasing me about my waistline and he suggested that I could benefit from biking with him.
I took him up on his offer and met him in the hills behind Sunbrook Golf Course for my first taste of single track riding.
John took me up a rutted jeep trail to where the single track began and counseled me on how to position my feet, how to control my speed, and how to stay off the seat so the bike took the major shocks instead of me. The climb was hard work but the sensation of racing down the trail was worth every drop of sweat.
When we got to the bottom of the track, John’s first comment to me was, “You ride pretty fast for a guy who’s not wearing a helmet.”
That was the first of many mountain bike rides I experienced with John. He helped me get set up with a proper hardtail mountain bike, chamois-lined shorts, a good jersey, clipless pedals and shoes, and the proper safety gear including a helmet and gloves.
Mountain biking requires a good amount of conditioning. It also takes a great deal of core strength to maintain balance while mastering the technical skills required to ride up and over obstacles in the trail. This requires shorts bursts of speed or strength to make the climb.
John made it all look effortless, but any novice mountain biker knows that learning these skills almost always includes leaving some skin and blood behind.
Once I had the basics down, it was time to explore the various trails available to us. The single track John started me on was part of a mountain bike trail known as the Race Course. It included connecting trails like Keyhole Wash, Stucki Springs and the Green Valley Loop.
We also spent time riding Church Rocks out west of the Hurricane Interchange, Paradise Canyon, and the amazing Gooseberry Mesa trail.
Our rides gave us plenty of time to visit. During one of our conversations, John confided in me that his thinking had changed on the subject of abortion. When I asked him why, he mentioned a comment that one of my guests had made that simply framed the issue in a way he had never heard before.
There were still plenty of issues on which we disagreed, but I remember realizing that day that the label of “John the Liberal” didn’t come close to describing the complex individual it represented. John had likewise expanded my thinking on a number of issues – and he hadn’t stooped to labeling me in the process.
Too often, the labels we affix to others are simply an attempt to discredit or pigeonhole them so we don’t have to consider what they’re saying. That’s fine and dandy if our goal is simply to “win” an argument at any cost.
But if we’re actually trying to improve our understanding, labels mean nothing.
I’ve lost track of John over the years, but I’m a better man for the conversations we had.
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