This feature originally published on Cycotherapy, a newsletter written and published by Dillon Carr.
It’s right around 50 miles into the Mohican MTB100k. I’m doing well, feeling strong. Stonger than last year, at least. The temperature outside is about as hot as it’s going to get — 68 degrees — and I can almost taste the finish line. I’m making good time. I keep wondering how much time I’ll have shaved from last year.
Couple minutes later, I’m pedaling up a hill. It’s a gravel road and, on a normal riding day, not too steep. Doable. But today, I get about a third of the way up and I gotta dismount. Walk. I know I have a few more steeper climbs ahead of me that I’d like to save the energy for. Because, for the last three miles or so, pavement. I wanna hammer there to finish strong.
When I started this particular hill, I was the only one on it. When I get off to hike it, I look to my left and I see a kid. He’s on a titanium Lightspeed hardtail. Little dude’s hammering. I mean, really cranking. He doesn’t look at me; his laser eyes searching for the crest.
Damn, I say to myself.
Later on, as I finish climbing yet another brutal hill — this time in the woods — I see him off the trail looking at the back of his bike with another fatigued racer.
“The disk brake is jammed. Something’s lodged in there.”
I’m troubled. Do I keep my head down and let the other guy help the kid? I mean, I’m almost there. How much time can I shave off? Can I afford to help these guys? It looks like the other, older racer can figure it out.
“Hm, mind if I take a look?” I say. Guess I’m stopping.
I take a look. Yep. There’s a bunch of debris caught up in the kid’s disk brake. Basically making it impossible for the rear wheel to rotate, let alone use the brake. There’s a big, steep and loose downhill coming up. He’s gonna need both brakes.
“I think I can get that stuff out. Do you have a multi-tool?” The kid looks at me with a blank face. The answer’s clearly no. The other guy starts rummaging through his stuff. He can’t find it.
“I have one.”
I grab it and start unscrewing the little screw that keeps the calipers in place. Finally get it out and blow the debris out and re-install the calipers back into place. Rotate the wheel and it spins freely. The brake works.
“How far until the finish?” the kid asks.
I tell him we’re about 12 miles out. I can see pain in his face, but it doesn’t look like this little dude’s going to fold. I can just tell. He rolls onward. Gone.
“What a dude,” I say to the other rider, who’s now peeing in the woods.
“Yeah man,” he says, glancing over his shoulder. “That kid’s like 12 years-old. Incredible.”
“Holy cow. For real? Did you get his name?” I ask.
“Yeah. He told me it’s Alex. I didn’t get a last name though.”
Alex Liu finished the Mohican MTB 100K in 9 hours, 24 minutes and 29 seconds — a whole two minutes after me.
Alex Liu was 11 when he finished the race — the youngest person to ever attempt the Mohican MTB, let alone finish. He turned 12 on May 26.
I caught up with him and his dad, Denny, a few days after the race. We talked over Google Meet. Here’s what I learned.
Family: Dad. Mom. Brother, Brian. Parakeet named Pineapple.
Occupation: School. Just finished 6th grade.
Road or mountain: Mountain
Years active: 4
Favorite post-race food: Burger King Whopper. (But his favorite food, in general, is Vietnamese Pho.)
Denny Liu, 40, is his dad. He grew up in Hunan Province, the same mountainous province in southern China where Mao Zedong was born.
“I started riding bikes in middle school in the 90s,” he tells me. “In college, I rode a lot.”
He studied mechanical engineering, did a bunch of races and then landed an internship with Shimano, in its product reliability division.
“That was a lot of fun. A lot of fun,” he said. In 2009, he moved to the states to earn his master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh. Now, he works as a research associate engineer for The Ohio State University.
He still rides, but not nearly as much as his younger days in China and while in college, he tells me. Riding was actually how he met his wife.
“Yeah, we got married while I was still an undergrad. I met her on one of those group rides in the city when I was a sophomore in 2004.”
Nowadays, the husband and wife ride — but it’s more in support of their two kids who have really taken a liking to the sport. Denny volunteers as a coach for the Lost in the Woods team, one of four Columbus area NICA youth leagues. He rides and teaches both his sons during the week, races with them on the weekends.
Alex started racing when he was 8 in junior categories, like at the Ohio Mountain Bike Championship series. The last couple years, he’s really gotten into it, inching his way up in miles and endurance challenges. After races in Indiana, Mohican and other places around Ohio, Denny said Alex wanted to do bigger challenges.
In early May, Alex finished the 30-mile Black Fork Gravel Grinder route.
“You know those first two big climbs?” his dad asks me. Oh, yes, I tell him. I know them well. “Yeah. He climbed both of them. Without getting off his bike.”
I believed him. But I’m still incredulous. Like, I don’t even remember what I was doing when I was 11. The hardest thing I did when I was that age was go knock on neighbors’ doors to see if my friends inside wanted to set watermelons in the street and hide behind the bushes and watch to see if cars hit them. Oh, and building tree forts. Shooting BB guns and … fishing, maybe? Riding our bikes was a means to an end: getting candy or crossing the street to a friend’s house.
On one hand, it’s pretty cool that race directors have opened up gravel and MTB racing to kids. It’s even cooler that these kids — the same lazy kids we like to imagine glued to screens inside all day — choose to tackle these huge challenges.
On the other hand, I find myself wondering if kids like Alex will grow up to hate riding their bikes because of the pain associated with it. I’m probably wrong, but, I don’t know, am I wrong?
And so that’s why I was curious to know if Alex had fun during the Mohican MTB 100k.
“I have fun a lot just riding,” he said about mountain biking in general. He then immediately jumped to the Mohican 100k. “But there are some parts of the trail that are just painful.”
“Will you do another race like that?” I ask him.
“Yeah. It’s pretty fun.”
As I talk to him, I learn that he genuinely likes riding bikes. And I guess the natural progression for someone who loves riding their bike is to find races and challenging routes that progressively get harder. His goal?
“I want to be on a UCI race, like a participant, or I want to finish the Mohican 100 miler,” he said.
His dad chimed in.
“Maybe he finds another challenge, like Leadville or Cohutta as his legs get stronger. I don’t know. We’ll see,” he says.
Time for me to chime in, here. Now: I don’t know much about racing mountain bikes. Or any bikes really. I was 29 years-old when I did my first 5-mile MTB race an I was freakin’ gassed and like a fish outta water. Had no idea what I was doing. Still don’t really. So take what I say about racing bikes with a big ole grain of salt.
But my gut tells me this kid, if he sticks with it, will be able to race — and be competitive — anywhere he pleases in the next decade. If this is what Alex wants to do, find him a coach and go all in. By the time he’s 18 or 19 we’ll be watching him race on the elite or pro level.
Does he want that, though?
It’s easy for us parents and 30-somethings who wish they started younger to project that onto a kid who displays the kind of talent and grit that Alex showed us all that day.
I hope he continues to find the fun in riding his bike.
I believe he will.
Here’s what he said when I asked him to describe the joys of riding his bike:
“I have fun after doing something I don’t like. Like climbing a really big hill. I know in the downhill section, or the technical rock garden, I really enjoy it. It’s just fun. I don’t know. I can’t describe it very well. It’s just fun.”
I asked his dad if he could take a stab at answering the same question.
“I really enjoy something that … when you grind uphill and you know that eventually there is a downhill, and it’s fast. That speed. That’s created by myself. Without an engine. I’m pretty sure it’s the fastest way a man can be without an engine. And I like being in the woods, being with the animals. I see the color changes of the woods. Specially during fall season. You see the changing colors of the leaves.
“In China, a motorcycle was not that common and something we could afford. A bike though, that’s what we could afford. So riding a bike to where I can ride to, to see different places and meet different people. And then to have friends who have same interest.”
And here comes the clincher.
“You know, my dad liked mountain biking. He rode with me. There was one day we did around 100 kilometers to another city and then came back. We saw different places that we never saw …”
So for now, whatever the future holds for Alex — I hope he and his dad keep making these special memories together. And enjoying the hell out of ‘em.
The Life section is supported by Brethren Care Village in Ashland.