Hi! My name's Joseph Hopkins, but I'm universally called JoJo, and I always use that camelback spelling. It would be quite reasonable for you to ask, if you had a way to ask while you were reading this sitting at your computer miles and perhaps years away from me, "Who the Hell are you, and why are you butting your nose into this story?" Well, since you asked, I'll tell you. But you're going to have to read a few pages before it becomes clear how I fit in. But I do fit in, and Charlie (you know who he is, right?) asked me to write this chapter about the Marauders, of which I'm one. But, Charlie being Charlie, with his prurient interests never to be ignored, I was told to begin with autobiography, and not to leave out the lurid details (of which there are quite a few).
I was born on October 17, 1977, in Eugene, Oregon, to Assistant Professor Daniel and Associate Professor Marianne Hopkins. Dad was an economist and Mom a biologist on the faculty of the University of Oregon. I grew up in the slightly nutty intellectual/anarchist/environmentalist atmosphere of the town and university. My folks grew up amidst the openness and sexual liberation of the sixties, and didn't hesitate to allow me the same liberties. However, for me, the most important liberty was the freedom to ride my bicycle. While I was still in elementary school I was roaming around the Williamette Valley on my bicycle. We lived on the north edge of town and it was a short ride to wooded roads and trails. Most Saturdays I left early in the morning with my lunch in my seat bag and roamed until dusk. My folks were quite content for me to roam like that, as long as I gave them the route before I left. Dad and I would usually work it out on a map on Friday evening–after I got back from my after school ride. I usually rode alone, because my contemporaries couldn't keep up with my pace and their parents wouldn't let them ride that far without an adult anyway.
All that changed during the summer following fourth grade. A girl, most people called her a tomboy, moved in up the block from us. Her name was Alice Anne Hafer, but she always pronounced it "Als" even though she'd spell it out when she wrote it. Als and I met riding our bikes in the neighborhood, and my introduction to her was a challenge: "Hey, kid, you wanna race?"
"Sure. Where to?"
"To the school parking lot and back. Ready? Go."
It would be an almost two mile race, and we were hard at it. I was slightly closer to the school when we started, so I began with a little lead. That didn't last long. The damn girl was wild; she pedaled like a madwoman, and I was convinced that she could never sustain the pace. I wasn't too far behind her as she raced around the parking lot, called, "Not a chance, kid," to me as we passed in the lot and she shot home, expanding her lead as she went.
We got back to our block, and she had dismounted and was standing holding her bike as I rode up. I said, "Nice race. I didn't think you'd be able to keep up that pace."
"You did pretty well, yourself. My name's Als, what's yours?"
"That your school we raced to? What grade are you in?"
"Yes, and I'll be in fifth grade. What about you?"
"Same. I assume that I'll be in that school, my mom hasn't enrolled me yet. It's summer, in case you didn't notice."
OK, there she was, in my grade, and obviously a wonderful biker. I wasn't interested in girls, yet, but I was interested in bicycles. So my next question was, "I'm going cycling up the valley tomorrow. I'll cover about 35 miles. Can you keep up, and can you come along?"
"The question isn't whether I can keep up; I won the race, remember? But I'll have to ask my mom. Just where are you going?"
"Come into my house, and I'll show you the map."
Well, one thing led to another. We took the map over to her house, got her mom's permission to ride with me, and I got an invitation to stay for dinner. I called my mom for permission, and did stay for dinner, with Als and her mom and dad. They looked very much the pictures of the sixties that Mom and Dad had around our house, but my mom and dad had outgrown the overalls and scraggly tees and these folks hadn't. But they were very nice, even if the meal was a little strange.
Long story short. Als and I had the first of many wonderful days on our bikes that summer. We roamed for miles, two ten-year-olds, footloose and free. I suppose the social welfare services would've been quite upset with our parents for giving us that freedom at that age, but we got along fine. By August we'd become frustrated by our limited range, and my folks began picking us up at the end of the day, allowing us to spend the entire day heading away from home and not having to ride back. I'm sure that Als' parents would've done the same, but they didn't have a car that could carry two bikes.
Then we got the idea of making an overnight trip. Our pickup spot one day was near a lovely woods which we'd had time to explore. We decided that it would make a wonderful place to camp, though we had no idea whether it would be legal to camp there–in fact, I'm pretty sure that never entered our thinking. It any case, we showed the spot to my parents and asked if we could ride back the next day, spend the night, and then ride further north for a pick-up. Mom was a little uncertian, Dad thought it was a great idea, and so did Als' parents. I should note that we were too young to even think about the sexual implications of overnight camping, and our parents were of a generation that simply didn't worry about things like that.
We added minimal camping gear to our bikes the next day, extra food, and we were off. It was an exciting, but uneventful, trip. We slept in our clothes and the idea of sex never came to our minds.
Eventually, however, sex did raise its beautiful head within our relationship. It's really a rather funny story. By now were were in the closing days of fifth grade, and were on our usual Saturday bike ride, north into the valley. It was a round trip, because my parents were getting a little tired of endless trips to pick us up. We'd just finished lunch in a grove of trees and were headed home when a car came much to close to Als and forced her off the road. She would've been fine, except for a bunch of cinders at the side of the road. She skidded into them, fell, and her hip scraped along the ground in the cinder patch. The car never stopped. I don't know whether he knew what he'd done, or was completely oblivious to his bad driving that almost killed a girl. But it didn't kill her; Als was an excellent cyclist and she handled herself well, until she hit the cinder patch.
Now I was standing next to her, asking if she was OK, and offering a hand to help her up.
"Of course I'm OK. God damned car. Did you get his license plate?"
"No. I was worried about you. He was gone by the time I looked at him. But, look, you aren't OK. There's a lot of blood at your hip. At least your helmet protected your head. I know it hit the ground hard."
Blood was coming from the hip scrape and dripping down her leg. I said, "There's nothing around here, and this spot isn't safe on this narrow road. It's a short way back to the woods where we ate. Can you walk or ride there?"
Als was able to ride, and so we rode slowly back to the woods. She got off her bike and sort of fell to the ground. "I guess I'm not as good as I thought. Can you look at my hip?"
"Not with those biker shorts on."
"Well, pull them off." I did, and her panties were torn and bloody on her right hip where she'd hit the ground. "You're going to have to get the panties off as well."
OK, I was only ten years old, but the sexuality of pulling off a girl's shorts and panties certainly wasn't lost on me. I froze rather than acting on her last instruction.
"Look, you little chicken-shit, get my panties off and see what the problem is."
I did. And the problem was a lot of litle cinders ground into and under her skin. And there was quite a bit of blood. We had a little first aid kit, but it wasn't going to accomplish much with this wound. She said, "Use my panties and the water in our canteens and clean me up." I finally got moving and did get her somewhat cleaned, but her panties were all dirty, bloody, and wet from the crash and then being used as a cleaning cloth. I realized that the next best piece of cloth for finishing the cleaning job was my undershorts, since it was a very warm day and I had on only a mesh top. So I pulled my bike shorts off, took off my Jockey's, and pulled my shorts back up. Als had watched every move, and it was clear that she'd enjoyed it. With the clean underwear I was able to get her hip quite clean, and we got her shorts back on.
At first we were just going to ride to someplace where there was a telephone and either phone home or 911 depending on how she felt. But she insisted that she felt fine and we rode all the way home. Her pediatrician had evening hours and her folks took her over there. She was pronounced, "Fine," and her parents were told that who ever had cleaned her up had done an excellent job. "If those cinders had been left in, and she'd ridden home, she could've gotten a serious infection. Who cleaned you up?"
"I know JoJo. He's my patient, too. He's only eleven years old. Did he do this? Who else was with you?"
"It was just the two of us, and he cleaned me up fine. We'd have called 911, except that once I got riding, I realized I could easily ride home."
"You're quite a girl, Alice Ann."
"Everybody calls me Als."
"You're quite a girl, Als. How much bike riding do you do?
"JoJo and I figure that in the last year, well not quite a year since we met, we've ridden about 6000 miles."
"My goodness. You're quite a little bike rider."
"I love it. So does JoJo. We want to be road racers."
"Well, good luck. Try not to fall again."
"Better to fall than to be hit by a car. That was the situation with this fall. And ask JoJo, it wasn't my fault. It was a car that just ignored two bicycles in his path."
That would be the end of the story of the fall, except for this: A few weeks later, after school was out, we were riding up the valley and had stopped for lunch in a wooded area. There were lots of woods and forest in the valley, and we had no trouble finding wonderful, private spots to stop and eat, or just rest. We'd finished eating our sandwiches and drinking our juice when Als said, "It was fun when you pulled my pants off. Do it again."
"You aren't bleeding."
"That's right. So pull my pants off to see what you can see, rather than to clean my wound."
I wasn't sure I was ready for that, but there's nothing like a little girl sitting next to you and saying, "Chicken-shit. You scared?" to inspire movement in a eleven-year-old boy. I sure as Hell wasn't a chicken-shit. She was sitting crosslegged on the ground, and I pushed her onto her back and stretched out her legs. I kneeled over her, with my butt at about her shins and pulled down her biker shorts to her knees. Then I pulled down her panties and was staring at her naked vulva (certainly not part of my vocabulary at age eleven). She grinned, pushed me backward and was soon on top of me in the same way I'd been on top of her a few minutes before. My shorts and Jockeys went the same way as hers. She stood up and pushed down her shorts and panties, stepping out of them, and saying, "You, too."
I did as I was told, while she stripped off all the rest of her clothing. "You, too."
I did. "Now, what?" I asked.
I was told to lay down, which I did. She knelt between my legs and proceeded to examine my dick and balls in great detail. I was, of course, hard as a rock, and this engendered questions, not all of which I could answer. I certainly didn't know how it got so hard, and it was hard to explain just when it did, because my experience was that it did it more or less at random. But it was perfectly clear to me then that as long as she was looking at me, and touching me, it was going to stay very hard. After a while she said, "Thanks. I've always been curious about what a boy had between his legs. Do you want to check me out?"
I wasn't sure I did, but a couple of "Chicken-shits" and "Oh, go aheads" got me going. But going where? She parted the labia and told me to do the same. Then with great reluctance, but joyful encouragement from Als, I pushed my finger inside and felt around. I also tickled her on the outside, and up the crack between the labia, just as she had tickled me. She said, "That feels good. Didn't you like me playing with your dick and balls?"
I had to admit the answer was, "Yes." After a while we both, somewhat reluctantly, got dressed and proceeded to ride home. That day started a pattern, in which taking off our clothes and playing became a routine after lunch activity, and very soon we added eating lunch in the nude. One day I asked Als, "Do your parents know you play like this?"
"Sure. They think it's funny. What about yours?"
"They don't know a thing."
"Are you going to tell them?"
"I think it would end our bicycle rides together."
"Then don't tell them. What they don't know won't hurt them."
That fall we moved on to sixth grade and a new middle school. That made us old enough to join a bicycle club at the school, but the club rides were shorter and not as exciting as our rides together. And the club moved slower than we did, even though we were the youngest members. We got into a pattern of riding with the club after school, but taking our rides together on most Saturdays. Soon another boy, Jinx Messick, asked if he could join our Saturday rides. He was our age, but from a different elementary school. We'd watched him ride and thought he could probably keep up with us, or at least not slow us down very much. We were glad for company, and so Jinx joined us one Saturday, and then another and another.
Not many Saturdays later, we were all sitting together having just eaten our sandwiches. Als pushed Jinx over and knelt over his legs. She told me to pull up his shirt and she started tickling him. Jinx giggled a lot and laughed, and didn't seem to mind. Very quickly Als pulled down his biker shorts and the jock strap he had on underneath, exposing pretty well developed genitals, which she proceeded to rub and tickle. Jinx was startled at first, then quiet as if thinking hard, and then he said, "Hey, that feels good. Keep it up." After a while he asked, "Do you do this to JoJo too?"
"Sure do. Want to watch?"
I hadn't expected any of this: neither Als' aggression, nor Jinx's obvious acceptance of it. By now, Als was naked and pulling down my shorts. Then I was naked, she was on top of me, and inviting Jinx to help her tickle me.
Mind you, at age twelve none of us were at the orgasm stage, so it sort of stopped when we got bored. Then Jinx and I played with Als, with me showing him around her anatomy, with which I had, by this time, become familiar. We tired of the game, got dressed, and finished our Saturday ride. However, that became the pattern for our rides together.
At about this time Jinx gave our little threesome a name, the Marauders. When we were with our club, The North Eugene Cycling Club (very creative, isn't it), the three of us were nearly always in the lead, even though we remained the youngest of the group, which extended up through high school. We'd take side trips away from the main group, and these would get us far behind the crowd, and we'd race to catch up. Our coach, Rod Silverman, was impressed with our endurance and our skills, and encouraged us right from the beginning. Early on he spoke with our parents and learned that they had encouraged us, and also that we had permission to ride just about anywhere our little bicycles, pushed by our not so little legs, could take us. Rod joined us on one of our Saturday trips and began to teach us some of the tricks of road racing, particularly the art of breaking the wind for riders slipstreaming behind the leader–a technique cyclists call drafting. By trading the lead position, we could reduce the energy needed to maintain a given speed. It also increased the skill needed to ride that close together, not to mention the danger that a fall would almost certainly involve everyone behind the falling rider. We didn't even consider the danger factor, though we never rode without helmets. I guess I should note that we never were involved with our sexual antics when Rod was with us, and he's probably learning about them for the first time as he reads this–if he ever does.
By seventh grade the Marauders had added three more boys to their number, another seventh grader and two eighth graders. In each case, after they'd had a couple of rides with us and we'd decided that we liked them and wanted them to continue riding with us, Jinx took the newcomer aside and warned him of what was coming and that it would almost certainly come from Als, whom he described as, "Really sexed."
Saturday lunches for the Marauders became quite something. By this time we'd explored most of the reasonable cycling paths in the area north of Eugene and had worked out several circular trips that we enjoyed. We'd found the almost perfect spot for lunch, in a wooded area near the crest of a hill that afforded a view of the valley, about a half-mile off the main road. We never encountered another soul at that spot, which was one of the reasons we liked it. The lunch break always started with a good drink of juice, stripping off our clothes, taking a pee–we watched each other, especially the boys like to watch Als squat–eating our lunch, and then sexual antics. Two of the new boys, Coleman Barnard and Jake Reetz, generally played with each other, and weren't very interested in Als. We quickly decided that they were queer, and they agreed, but asked us to use the word gay. The last boy, Adrian Reetz, Jake's younger brother by about eighteen months, preferred to play with Als and the rest of us. As far as I know, the only adults that ever knew what was going on were Als' parents, and they never said anything to anybody.
We weren't going to be innocent prepubescents forever. Jake was the oldest, and inevitably he was the first to ejaculate–all over Coleman's hands and his stomach. That brought loud shrieks from both of them, and the rest of us went over to see what was going on. Jake was a little upset, but Coleman made him lay still. Als, always the most agressive and generally the one who seemed to know what was going on, said, "Welcome to manhood. Now you can be a father whenever you want. Don't get upset, it's perfectly normal. Within a year or so all of the boys will do that, and I'll be having my period. It's also going to make our games a lot more fun."
My God, she was sure right about that! In just over a year we'd all had our first experience, except that now instead of surprised or startled, we were, each in turn, relieved to know that we were normal and "men."
Our sexual development went right along with our cycling development. Our cycling club had entered a few local races over the years, but recreational cycling was more their interest. Rod, had been a top amateur racer, competing in a number of European races, including the Tour de France a couple of times. He had also cycled in the Olympics, and that was the reason he had remained an amateur–he was active while the Olympics still banned professionals, and he'd chosen to be an Olympian rather than a professional. He did carefully explain to us, when he told us his story, that his parents were quite well off lawyers and willing to finance his cycling as an amateur. Without their support, he would've had no choice but to turn pro or drop out of top level competitive cycling. He told us that we didn't have to face that choice.
Unlike most of the rest of our club, the Marauders were quite eager to race competitively. We entered a number of races as a team, and did quite well. Team bicycle racing is a unique sport. Though we were a team, only individuals win races: the first across the finish line is the winner. But by traveling in a group, either with just the Marauders, but more likely with the entire group, called the peloton, the team can support one or two of its riders so that they're less tired as groups break away and seek to lead the pack or race to the finish. Sometimes the team agrees in advance whom it'll support for the win, and sometimes that's decided depending on the circumstances of the race. One thing is sure, a team that doesn't have a fully cooperative spirit will rarely produce a winner. The Marauders found that they worked together extremely well, in practice, in sexual play, and in races.
In retrospect, the fact that we were absolutely made for the Gang is obvious, isn't it?
I graduated from high school in June of 1996, as did all of the Marauders except Jake and Coleman who graduated the year before. We all decided that we wanted to continue as a bicycle team. We all got jobs in Eugene, continued to live at home, and cycled every moment that we could. We entered races wherever they were, as long as we could afford to get there. But since most of the top level races were in Europe, and that was beyond our financial reach except for one or two races a year, we were somewhat limited. That didn't discourage us, but we knew that we had to find a sponsor, and we weren't having any luck. It was a Catch 22. We needed a sponsor to get to the top races in Europe, and we needed to be doing well in those top races in order to get a sponsor.
Sexually we were both happy and unhappy. Three of us, the straight men, were fucking Als, and watching each other fuck Als who seemed to love it, and certainly we did. Coleman and Jake were contentedly fucking each other, and we found that a fairly entertaining sight as well. The four straights, as we called ourselves, weren't really happy that we were finding sex, but not romance. But, for now, cycling was more important to us than romance, so that's the way it went. I should note that our sexual antics had slowly progressed as we moved through high school–from hands to mouths and eventually to fucking. Als parents had seen to it that she was on the pill long before she started fucking anybody, and we'd been seniors in high school before we got that far.
In 1996 Rod had been invited to be the bicycling road racing coach of the U.S. Olympic Team. That had brought him to the attention of Nels and Mary, who were looking for a coach to bring to Grand Forks. In December Rod got a call from Nels, asking him to come to Grand Forks for a visit, to talk about coaching cycling for him. Rod had never heard of Nels, and couldn't imagine a top level cycling program in the cold, windy wasteland of North Dakota. But it was a free trip, so what the Hell? He bit.
He did do a little research before he left. He read about Nels the gymnast and was impressed. One article led to another, and soon he was reading about a whole stable of Olympic athletes that had come out of Grand Forks, beginning with the incredible Tim and his partner Charlie. The more he read, the more intrigued he got, and by the time he boarded the plane for Fargo he was really eager to find out what was on Nels' mind.
Nels was staggered at the idea that there was a group of six cyclists in Oregon who were looking for a sponsor so that they could get started on the international cycling circuit, and determined that he not only wanted to capture Rod for Grand Forks, but the Marauders–he loved the name–for his club. If they were as good as Rod said they were, they would put his cycling program on the map instantly. Nels decided that it was smarter for Mary and him to fly to Eugene than to bring all six to Grand Forks for the first interview. He wanted to see them on their home turf.
Before he left he talked to Fred about the situation. His main question was whether, assuming that these six would make a cycling team, the team should go forward under their Marauder name, the name of Nels' club, or the Fred's Sports name. Fred had replied, "I'm sure that they'd like to remain the Marauders, and they can be that informally. But you need to settle on a name for your club, and use that name for all of your teams. Yes, it would be a good for Fred's Sports for the team, especially if it's successful, to carry the Fred's Sports name. But you need to get your club on the map, and don't worry, Fred's Sports will make the world aware of our sponsorship of the club. Now, what are you going to be called?"
"Mary and I have thought about that, Uncle Fred. We think we should try to be regional in scope, not limited to Grand Forks or North Dakota."
"How do you like The Northern Tier Athletic Club, NTAC, pronounced /entak/, for short?"
"NTAC? I like it. It's certainly pronounceable. How do you define the Northern Tier?"
"About how Tim does, but we don't have to define it carefully, it's just a concept. Certainly the Dakotas, Montana, the upper parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the UP. The Idaho panhandle counts, maybe eastern Washington and Oregon."
"You're stretching far beyond Tim's definition."
"I know. It doesn't matter, I doubt we're going to get much interest from that far west. We just don't want to exclude anybody. But remember, the club is in Grand Forks. We aren't trying to serve that whole area, we're talking about maybe gathering a few athletes from that area, but gathering most of them from in or near Grand Forks."
"OK, go and see if you can collect six Marauders to be the NTAC road racing team, even if they aren't from the Northern Tier. Train them well, instill them with your concept of love and support, and send them off to Europe to make a name for themselves."
"Will do, Uncle Fred."
Nels and Mary hit Eugene like a lightning storm. Rod had told us to expect an exciting couple, but he never prepared us for the excitement that simply oozed from Nels and Mary. The first thing he did was ask to watch us practice. How does one watch a road team practice? Drive behind in a rental car. For several hours he and Mary followed us, with Rod in the car with them, explaining what we were doing as we traded leader positions. Rod had told us that when Nels honked, we were to sprint for a pretend finish line a mile ahead. He honked, we sprinted, and arrived exhausted at a pretend line a mile and a little more ahead. Nels pulled up and said, "My God, you were going well over 40 miles an hour there, almost 50 for a short while. I never dreamed you went that fast."
We smiled and said, "We usually don't. We were showing off."
Nels said, "That's what athletes are supposed to do. OK, we've been on a circular run, so you aren't too far from home. Get cleaned up, and Mary and I'd like to take you all out to dinner and talk about your futures."
At dinner, which included the six Marauders, Rod, Nels, and Mary, Nels and Mary talked about their concept of team sports, their desire to get a club, which they called NTAC, going as quickly as possible, and how our existing group would fit into their plans. They wanted to be in the Olympic Games by 2004 in Athens, and have an NTAC team competing in top races as soon as possible. They dreamed big, assured us that they'd honor our dreams as well, and invited us to come on a journey with them. They couldn't make any promises about the long-term future of the club, but they indicated that with Fred's Sports behind the club, it would be able, at minimum, to meet all of it's financial commitments to us and to Rod.
The financial deal they were offering knocked us over. They'd loan us the money to move to Grand Forks and rent housing for the first year. The loan would be forgiven over the next seven years (through the Athens Olympics) as long as we continued to compete for NTAC. As a top NTAC team, we'd receive a living stipend, which would increase as our successes–as a team, not individually–increased. If we were successful, we'd be able to make our own deals for endorsements. Rod would go on salary–a quite good one–and be our coach, but also the cycling coach for NTAC in Grand Forks. He wouldn't be able to continually travel with us, but we'd have some kind of support person from Fred's Sports, or NTAC, as we went to races. One day we were six struggling cyclists, looking for a sponsor and hoping to get to a few of the key European races. The next day we were going to be paid to go to those races, and not just a few but all of them that would advance our standing in the sport. We didn't even need to think, we all just said, "Yes."
Then Jinx asked, "Just how cold and snowy does it get in Grand Forks?"
Als said, "Think witch's tit." We all laughed, but Nels assured us that we would have to adapt to a cold that Eugene hadn't even dreamed of, when we were at our home base in Grand Forks.
We asked how much time we would be in Grand Forks and how much on the road, racing. The answer was that we were needed in Grand Forks to support the cycling program of NTAC. That would be our practice base. We would be on the road as appropriate, would have a month off, but the rest of the time we'd be in Grand Forks. "Get used to cold and wind. But if you can cycle in the North Dakota wind, you can handle anything some little bicycle race throws at you." That was Mary, and little did we know how right she'd prove to be.
But we were innocents, and enthusiastically affirmed our original, "Yes," that we would join NTAC and move to Grand Forks. "How soon?"
"Right after New Year's. Grand Forks will be buried in snow, but we'll have an indoor practice track that you can help design. Eventually we'll have a velodrome, but that's a ways off."
Als exclaimed, "A velodrome! None of us have even seen a velodrome, much less ridden in one. What fun!"
Rod said, "They use different kinds of bicycles. No gears and no brakes."
I said, "Two wheels, pedals, and handle bars. That's all I need."
Well, I have to tell you. Grand Forks wasn't anything like we expected. Oh, sure the weather was terrible, the track to ride on wasn't very good, despite Nels and his father adjusting it as best they could–it was, after all, just an oval in a warehouse. But of vastly greater importance, we were exposed to the idea of love and support, which had seemed a sort of quaint abstraction when Nels introduced it in Eugene. We learned that in Grand Forks is was a true reality. We heard about it from many different people, all of whom assured us of their love and support. At first, that seemed a little pointless, as these were virtual strangers, but it became clear that they meant it. And lived it. We were made to feel at home almost instantly.
A place or places to live was our first issue. We asked Nels for advice and he suggested that we talk to a figure skater named Shel. He picked up the phone, called Shel, and told us that Shel would be available as soon as his school was out. We should go over to the Fred to meet him. After a little lesson on the names of buildings in Grand Forks, and brief instructions on how to get there, we set off for the Fred. We got there about a half hour before Shel was expected, and had a chance to meet his partner, Brian, and watch him skate a while. We could only hope that someday we would be as good cyclists as Brian was a skater. This was our first exposure to the actual performance of one of the Grand Forks top athletes, and we were impressed.
Brian was equally pleasant to talk to and he told us that Shel was a fourteen-year-old skating whiz, who was too young for the next Olympics, though he was certainly good enough to medal. As to why he'd been suggested to help us with housing, Brian just laughed and said, "I'll let Shel try to explain that."
Shel sailed in like a cyclone, came right over to Brian and the six of us, and said, "You guys must be the Marauders I've been hearing so much about. Looking for housing? You came to the right place."
He never slowed down, but continued: "Six of you, five boys and a girl. What kind of housing are you looking for, and what're the implications of your gender for that?"
Brian laughed, "He doesn't mince words. Nothing is out of bounds here; I suggest you be completely straightforward with your answer to that."
Als was never one to mince words either, replying, "Well, Coleman and Jake are gay; the rest of us are straight. The three straight guys screw around with me a lot, as do Coleman and Jake from time to time. Living together in a big house or apartment would suit us, probably be cheaper, but we aren't certain how it would go down in Grand Forks, and aren't sure who to ask. I guess we're talking to the right guy."
"You sure are. Have you met the Circle? That's a bunch of eight boys and one girl, gay, straight and bi-, that all live together in a house they call The Roundhouse. We'll have to get you introduced. But first, we need to find out about housing. I know a real estate agent that would love to help."
Brian said, "Shel, are you thinking of the woman that I'm thinking of?"
Shel got a sort of evil grin on his face and said, "I sure am. Don't you think we'll get excellent service out of her?"
"I think you will, if she doesn't run when she sees you coming."
"Her boss won't let her."
We were quite confused by all of this, and Brian said, "Sometime get Fred to tell you the story of The Lighthouse, where I live and where Shel will live someday."
I asked, "I thought you two were partners."
"We are, but we have to watch ourselves legally. Shel's only fourteen, so we can't really be partners yet, if you see what I mean."
Shel had been on the phone and said, "Let's head over to the real estate office. I assume you guys are driving."
We were, in an old Dodge van that we'd bought a while before to get us to races, pulling an old trailer with our bikes. We'd driven it in from Oregon.
We arrived at the office and were met by a middle aged woman who obviously knew Shel and greeted him graciously. He said, "Hi, Ms. Caruthers, I haven't seen you for a while. I've got six people here that need a place to live. I think a big house would be best, but they have to move quickly, and so may have to take a rental right away."
I started to stop Shel and tell him that no way were we in a position to buy a house. But before I had opened my mouth, Shel waved me silent. Shel obviously didn't have any interest in being crossed by any of us, so I shut up. We all did.
Ms. Caruthers said, "Shel, there's a big old house, not very good condition, about a block and a half from the one you and Mr. Milson bought. Would you like to see it?"
"Sure. When can we?"
"It's empty, and offered by our office. We can go now."
"We can't all fit in your car. I'll ride with you, and the others can follow in their van."
I have to assume that Shel gave Ms. Caruthers some background on us in the car. We got to the house and went in. It needed paint everywhere, inside and out, floors either to be refinished or carpeted, one bathroom needed complete replacement, the other could be cleaned up. Shel moved through the house at lightning speed, counting five bedrooms on three floors, with a completely unfinished basement. He said, "It looks perfect to me, guys, what do you think?"
It was time to bring Shel down to earth. I took him into the next room and said, "Shel, we can't buy a house. We don't have any money. We have to rent."
"Oh, shit, what's a little thing like money? That's what we have Fred for. The house is perfect, you need to get it. Let me negotiate." He didn't give me time to protest. We came back to where the rest of the group was standing with Ms. Caruthers and I just gave a shrug of my shoulders to them, and let Shel go on. Shel said, "OK, here's the deal. We'll offer 93% of the asking price, same contractual arrangements as the last deal. Just pull out that offer and duplicate it. We can't move as fast on this as we did the last time, as I have to talk to Mr. Milson. We'll be here tomorrow to sign the papers. Oh, yes, these guys will give you their names, etc. and the contract should be in their names. Then write out a form for Mr. Milson to sign to guarantee the contract, as these guys have no credit history."
Ms. Caruthers smiled and said, "Any particular time tomorrow?"
"How about four? I have to get here from school."
"Shel, the last time we negotiated, you were in elementary school. Where are you now?"
"Tenth grade at Central. Tell me, I know our last negotiation was a little hard on you, but have you ever sold a house easier?"
"Yes, Shel, I think I just did in the last half hour. I like the way you do business. But, Shel, you do take getting used to."
"Hey, you did something right. When I needed another house, you were the first person I went to."
"I appreciate that, Shel. See you tomorrow."
We bundled into the van and I said, "Shel, what're you getting us into? We can't afford that house. Besides, it's in terrible shape."
"Have you guys ever heard of sweat equity? Well, you're all about to acquire some. You can't ride bicycles all day in the snow, and the rest of the time you can paint your house–except for the hours you spend screwing each other. Now, head for the Fred's Sports offices; I'll direct you."
Shel walked right in like he owned the place, breezed past Mr. Milson's secretary with a quick, "Boss in?" question, and proceeded when he got a smile in response. Mr. Milson looked up, saw Shel and the six of us, and said, "Shel, how much money is this conversation going to cost me?"
"About $ 45,000, Uncle Fred. Is that going to break the bank?"
"Might bend it a little. Would you introduce me?"
"Sure," and he rattled off our names and brief bios as if he'd known us for years. I wasn't even sure that he knew our names, but we'd learn over the years that nothing got past this kid. "They need a house to live in, they're all sexed up together like the Circle, so they need to be together. There's a great house available about a block from The Hideout. They're going to buy it, but they're going to need you to guarantee the contract, provide the down payment, and provide funds for materials for a major fix-up. They're going to do the work. We sign the papers at Ms. Caruthers' office tomorrow at four. Can you be there?"
"Ms. Caruthers? Was she even willing to talk to you?"
"Oh, yes. We're good friends now. She took me seriously this time. But these guys haven't yet gotten used to the idea of home ownership. You want to give them a little pep talk?"
Mr. Milson looked at us and realized that Shel was exactly right: we really didn't have a clue what was going on. He shook all of our hands and said, "Call me Fred. Welcome to Grand Forks. You six have been the victims of a little Gang humor. Nels and Mary talked to me a while ago about housing for you, and I suggested that they talk to Shel. He was ready for the call from Nels this afternoon. When you all left, Nels called me. Please understand, Fred's Sports stands behind NTAC, and we're determined that it will succeed. Nels and Mary tell me that you're important to its success in cycling, so you're important to Fred's Sports. That means you need decent housing. I trust Shel completely in matters of housing–and most other things as well–I said, 'Most' Shel, not 'All'–so I'm quite willing to support his recommendation. But, he moves so quickly, I need to make sure that he's given you time to think about all of this. Do you want to buy this house?"
Jinx said, "You're asking if we want to buy a big old house that would be perfect for us, fix it up, live in it, eventually own it, and do all of this with no money. Have I got that right?"
"You're going to have to make mortgage payments out of your living stipends."
"No money up front. Essentially rent payments along the way. Is that right?"
"We'd have to be damn fools to turn down that offer." We all nodded agreement.
"Four o'clock at the real estate office tomorrow boys–and girl. Welcome to NTAC and Grand Forks. By the way, shop for sporting goods at our main store. Everything you need for cycling is without charge, everything else is 40% off. Just give the cashier your name. And don't be shy about what you need, nor about using the discount."
We moved in a week later. It was a cash transaction, taken "as is" after the key inspections were complete. The owner had wanted to counter offer, but Ms. Caruthers advised him not to, as Shel was known not to mess around with counter offers. When, at the inspection, the seller learned that he'd been negotiating with a teenager he was royally pissed, but his signature was on the dotted line. Eventually, he realized that while Shel was a hard bargainer, he was completely upright and fair, and the deal closed promptly and smoothly, with no last minute haggling over any issues.
Shel got his Uncle Carl over to look at the house and give us suggestions about fixing it up. It's now more than ten years later, and most of the work is completed! But we got it liveable quite quickly, and worked room by room through the house, twice–the first time doing just what was necessary to live in the house, and the second time getting it right.
We live in two bedrooms: Coleman and Jake share one, and Als, Jinx, Adrian and I share another with two queen beds. The other three bedrooms we share as pairs, changing off from time to time. We use them for study, reading, or just relaxing and getting out of the hubbub of the living room and kitchen. Amazingly, we've gotten along very well. The sex is raunchy, frequent, often very bi-sexual, and fun. Als isn't pregnant. None of us, except perhaps Jake and Coleman, have become romantically inclined, with each other, or anybody else. We don't worry about the future, the present is too much fun.
Needless to say, we fit right in with the Gang, and it didn't take us too long to realize the sexual possibilities of Grand Forks and the members of the Gang. But I'm getting ahead of my story.
Bicycle practice in Grand Forks was a little difficult in January. The indoor track that had been built in Nels' warehouse was fine, but very boring, and it had no hills, which were a fairly important part of practice for road racing. But we soon learned that snow in North Dakota was very different from snow in Oregon–at least snow around Eugene. We thought of snow as wet, slushy, and often icy from when the wet snow froze. We gradually learned that snow in North Dakota was dry. It came down dry, and since the temperature generally stayed below freezing, it stayed dry. It's dangerous to bicycle in wet, icy snow. If you switch to knobby tires, it's quite easy to bicycle in dry snow–it's much like sand, except that it has a bottom (the paved road surface) and sand often does not. We soon were to be seen roaming around town and into the countryside in our seven person single file of bicycles–Rod usually rode with us. We learned how to dress warmly, and in layers so that as we warmed with the exercise we could peel off the outer layer or layers. With balaclavas (the local term for face masks) to keep our faces warm and heavy mittens, riding in the snow was quite fun. We quickly earned our name, the Marauders, and people all around town began to refer to us in that way. It proved to be good advertising for NTAC, because kids began showing up at the warehouse, oops, Nels really wanted it referred to as the club, asking about us, joining the club, and riding with us. Even in the snow!
We began taking out small groups for short snow rides after school. The kids quickly divided into two groups: those that loved it and those that hated it. Nels was smart enough not to push the haters into snow bicycling as part of the NTAC experience. He either got them going on the club track, or suggested that they wait until spring to undertake regular bicycle practice. Those that loved it quickly learned that they needed the right clothing, and off they went to Fred's Sports. Believe me, Fred didn't make enough profit on those sales to cover his investment in NTAC, but he insisted that it helped.
Fred would frequently play a major role in our lives. Right from the beginning he'd been warm and welcoming, and after providing a house for us insisted that if there was anything else he could do to make our lives in Grand Forks better, we should let him know. But we had no idea of what else he might be able to do for us, and it never occurred to us to ask for anything. Besides, Mary and Nels were doing so much more for us than we had ever dreamed of; we certainly didn't have other wishes. Fred hung in the background, but we were conscious of his watching us as we rode our bicycles. He seemed to be taking our measure.
One day in late February Fred was waiting for us when we came in from a ride in the countryside. It was very cold and windy, and it had been a tough ride. Honestly, we liked that. We knew that pushing ourselves was the only way we were going to become world class riders, and that was our goal. Fred walked into the changing room as we pulled off layers of clothing and said, "OK, I've been watching you guys for a while now. I've talked to Rod about you. You're damn good. It's time to move you to a higher level. To begin with, that means new bicycles–top of the line. You probably know what that is, but I don't. It isn't our normal stock in trade at Fred's Sports, but I think we're going to have to get into that market–at least in Grand Forks, and probably elsewhere if we're going to be involved in bicycle road races. So figure out what you want, don't be conservative, and talk to Mr. Greg Eberly at the main Grand Rapids store. He'll arrange to get the bicycles. They're a gift from Fred's Sports, and you're going to have to endure having our logo prominently displayed on them somewhere–Greg will figure that out, and he'll discuss it with you before it's painted on or attached.
Finally, one of us got our breath back and had the presence of mind to ask, "Fred, do you know what top of the line bikes cost?"
"My understanding is that you can spend about $5,000 for a top of the line road bicycle, perhaps a little more depending on what components you choose. Bikes like that are out of the Fred's Sports league, but we've considered carrying them. Trouble is, people don't think of Fred's Sports when they think of a purchase like that. We hope that changes as we move into team sponsorship. You're going to need custom shipping cases for them, and a parts inventory. Regarding the parts inventory, if you all could agree on a single bicycle, it would reduce the parts inventory a lot, and it would make it possible to have a more complete inventory. If you all agree on one bike, we could just order two extras, disassemble them, and have two complete sets of parts. I'm sure that bikes are like almost everything else, buying the parts costs about 30% more than buying a complete bicycle."
The conversation was getting weirder by the minute. Now he was not only talking about buying six, or maybe seven–we weren't sure where Rod would fit in–of the most expensive bikes in the world, but as an afterthought buying two extras. We'd been gently warned about Fred, but this was over the top. At some point in our discussion, Nels had used the phrase, "Buy the damn shoes," and had given us a little background about its meaning. I decided that it fit here, and I said, "Oh, Fred, that's absolutely wonderful. Thank you. We'll do our damnest to make those bicycles win all sorts of races."
"Keep talking like that, I love to hear it."
We talked a lot about what bicycle we wanted. It was quite clear that Fred hoped we'd choose a single bike, and we were at least going to try hard to come to an agreement. Nels joined us one evening and suggested that we go with Trek bicycles, certainly the best American made bicycle. Nels pointed out that the Trek was built in Waterloo, Wisconsin, and assembled in Whitewater, Wisconsin, both right on the edge of the Northern Tier. He thought it would be a great idea to have NTAC ride bicycles from the Northern Tier.
Hey, we were being handed a gift worth more than $50,000; who in the Hell would be stupid enough not to take a hint? Besides, at least three of the six of us were leaning toward the Trek 5500, and nobody had rejected it. The next question was color. Nels and Mary had considered a number of colors for the NTAC logo, but hadn't settled on either a logo or colors. They told us we needed to settle the questions of logo and color. They would get everybody together and discuss it.
That weekend we had a meeting of all of the members (at least those who could attend) and coaches–archers, cyclists, and fencers. I had guessed that Nels and Mary knew what they wanted and were looking for support for whatever that idea was. Not so. They were completely open minded, and didn't seem to have any axe to grind. I think the idea came from one of the archers: "I like the Alaska flag with the Big Dipper and North Star. We are the Northern Tier, so it fits. But we don't want to just copy it. How about using the Little Dipper, which contains the North Star. Maybe put the stars on a blue background, and make them white instead of gold."
There was instant support from virtually everyone. The Little Dipper could be used on any shape background, with or without the letters NTAC. The colors would be blue and white. We all thought blue and white bicycles would look good, and the logo was launched.
The next week Mary took the seven of us down to visit the Trek factory in Waterloo, Wisconsin. They were small enough that an order for ten bicycles (I'm not sure just when the order became ten, or who was responsible) was well beyond the ordinary, and they were delighted to receive us, and learn that we hoped to use the Trek cycles in top European races. We made decisions about basic components as a group, and then each chose his or her own seats and handlebars. We were all close enough to the same size that all of the bikes would be the same, except for seats and handlebars.
Within a month the bikes had been delivered to Grand Forks and our rides became even more exciting. We'd been convinced by the Trek people that we were riding the best bikes in the world, and that knowledge (or belief, even if it wasn't true) was a real upper and encouraged our top performance. By April we were on dry roads and roaming all over the states of North and South Dakota and Minnesota. Trips into Canada weren't unusual.
Were we ready for the big time? We honestly didn't know. But we knew that it was time to get our feet wet. Nels, Mary, Rod, and Andy (we'd learn that he was the key liaison with Fred's Sports) met and decided that the team wouldn't try to compete in the full World Cup tour in 1987. We would get our feet wet in a few races, and be ready for major racing in 1988. It was decided that our first race would be the French Critérium du Dauphiné. It was a stage race in France, not dissimilar to the Tour de France, but at a slightly lower level of competition. But some of the best in the world would be riding, and it would test our mettle.
Before we got there, however, we became a big controversy in French cycling: we had a female on our team. In the US the question of the right of a female to compete in races for which there wasn't an equivalent female race was fairly straight forward. The matter had been settled before Als, by a lawyer simply pointing out that the government was required to close roads to enable a race, and doing it for an organization that discriminated was illegal. Since there were few women interested in racing in men's races, a few token females had ridden and that was that. Als had been able to take advantage of that history, but neither she, nor any of us–as yet–had taken top places–which it would've required for major publicity about a female rider.
The French simply didn't want a female in their races and said, "Non."
It took an appeal to the President of France to resolve the issue, and neither Als, nor the NTAC team was particularly welcome at the Critérium du Dauphiné when the Prologue started in June, 1997. The Prologue was a circuit ride of just over 5 km. in the area of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. We then started moving around France, and we quickly learned that France isn't simply pretty countryside; it has incredible mountains, and you were going to have to have legs of titanium to win the polka dot jersey that indicated the King of the Mountain, or best climber. We all fit the category of "youth" and could complete for the white jersey as well as the overall honors, of best time (yellow jersey) and most points (green jersey). The green jersey was generally considered to recognize the best sprinter, but you had to be able to hold you own in the mountains to win it.
I would love to be able to tell you that we claimed one of those jerseys, but, alas, that was not to be. Nor was it even remotely expected. But our times were respectable and our rankings not bad: Jake–17th; JoJo (me)–22nd; Als–33rd (and did that piss off a lot of men); Coleman–53rd; Jinx 98th; and Adrian–125th. Out of 175 riders. Rod and Nels were delirious that we'd done that well. OK, Adrian wasn't the happiest kid in the world with a rank of 125, but people were telling him that it was a great first race showing for a boy his age. The rest of us got even better strokes. Als was considered a phenom, and people were questioning her sexuality: had she had a sex-change operation? She laughed it off, and pointed out that she could've entered the race as a man. If she wanted to cheat as a man, she would've entered a woman's race. There was no question of testing her sexuality, as this was a men's race. It got a little silly and detracted from her spectacular finish as a young woman. All in all we came home heroes at NTAC.
Nels learned one thing, however. Racing in Europe, and soon in the US, was becoming very professional. The big races were for the pros, and it made sense to have Fred's Sports sponsor our team as the Fred's Sports Racing Team. The relationship to NTAC would be clear, but it would leave it open for NTAC to sponsor amateur teams in different races.
The Fred's Sports Racing Team was formally organized, and raced a little more in 1997, but 1998 was their first year of full competition. In a world in which American teams didn't do very well and got very little respect, the Fred's Sports Racing Team started a long road to change all that. Meanwhile, the United States Postal Service Team, with Lance Armstrong, but not with all American riders (their top rider was Russian), earned an invitation to the Tour de France in the same Critérium du Dauphiné that we'd entered in. We hoped to soon be a major US player, but we weren't there yet.
Meanwhile, our limited success in Europe, our Marauding around Grand Forks when we were in town, and our work with young riders in the club all served to vastly increase the interest in cycling in Grand Forks, and put NTAC on the road to success in cycling.
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