Are young males, generally, hardwired to take risks? Jason Kapcala explores this theme in part one of his series, “Bodies in Motion.”
Every body in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.—Isaac Newton (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Book I, 1687)
Like many boys, I grew up fascinated by speed. Something about moving rapidly through time and space appealed to me, even at a young age, and maybe still does, though I’m old enough (and arguably wise enough) now to resist indulging that part of my nature. As a kid, I was always in a hurry, though not to get anywhere in particular as far as I can remember. Velocity—speed aimed in a particular direction—didn’t really matter much to me. Mostly, I was just in a hurry to grow up.
With this need for speed hardwired into me, it’s no surprise then, that by age ten, my life’s ambition was to become either a racecar driver or a fighter pilot. For the time being, my friends and I would have to settle for the closest approximation we had: we held time trials on our bicycles in our neighborhood, racing to see who could go fastest.
The log home in the Poconos I grew up in sat on Wildflower Circle, a half-mile loop that connected to Olde Mill Run Road at each end. The neighborhood, while laid out symmetrically, was uneven in elevation, and my house rested atop a hill, its long driveway a tongue sticking straight down toward the street below. Every afternoon during the summer, my friends and I hurled ourselves down this launching pad toward the macadam, pedaling as hard as we could, leaning into the sharp left-hand turn at the bottom before rocketing toward my friend, Darrell’s house.
My first bike was a hand-me-down, a tank. Sky blue color. Heavy steel frame. A white banana seat and bald tires. It didn’t have gears, and the chain frequently cranked loose from the chain ring, which left me pedaling frantic, tensionless circles. To fix a tossed chain, I had to climb off my bicycle, wrestle it upside down onto its seat and handlebars, and then re-spool the chain by attaching it to one of the teeth on the sprocket and pedaling backwards with my hand until it caught. I was quick; I could do it in maybe fifteen seconds, but a pit stop like that would inevitably cost the race. In those moments, I would feel impatience bubbling up from a mysterious, even foreign, place inside me.
When I outgrew that bike, my parents bought me a black Huffy mountain bike with thick nubby tires that made it difficult to accelerate on pavement. Still, I managed some blistering laps on that bike. I was big for my age—tall and skinny on top. Where my friends’ legs were knock-kneed and hairless, my quads bulged out like two small grapefruits above the knee. My long femurs pressed powerfully into every downward thrust of the pedal, and I propelled myself uphill with relative ease.
I was also fearless. We all were.
We took turns making our runs, one boy pedaling while the others stood by the mailbox with a stopwatch. It was a tough ride, mostly uphill. It would actually have been an easier, more gradual trip if you rounded the circle counter-clockwise, but we never did. You couldn’t pick up as much speed traveling in that direction, the angle out of my driveway was more difficult to navigate going to the right and we would have had to brake. Even though the lap times would have been faster overall, top speed was what we really craved—the sensation of air blowing through our hair, stinging our eyes, flapping our T-shirts, the feeling of being on the edge of disaster, as though a gust of wind might push us over at any second and send us sprawling. My legs always felt numb by the time I crossed the finish line. They’d tremble and wobble when I climbed down from the saddle, and I had to struggle against their bowleggedness, forcing them to bear my weight. Two-minutes and thirty seconds. That was our goal. Twelve miles per hour. Not fast by Tour de France standards, but still fast enough to kill you, should you be thrown from the seat into the woods.
Though none of us ever talked about it, or even in all likelihood consciously considered the risk, it seems vital to the rest of this story.