Bonded by biking: Father, son balance competing, fun

Madison Matthews had a choice.

Ahead lay the rest of the mountain bike race. Behind him, in the starting area through which the course had looped, was his father, Jim, out of action.

Both had suffered flat tires during the race. But Jim donated his good front wheel to his son and caught a ride back to the start.

Madison chose.

He decided to turn a subpar day into an unforgettable one. Doubling back, he waited until his father found and installed a new set of wheels.

“Then we just rode together the rest of the way,” Jim Matthews said. “That was fun. I’ll always remember that.”

He and his son, 56 and 20, respectively, have been sharing mountain bike adventures for seven years, competing in about 100 races. Their most recent gave the Boalsburg duo a memory to savor for a long time.

A week ago, both won their age brackets at the USA Cycling Cross-Country Mountain Bike National Championships at the Bear Creek Mountain Resort near Macungie.

The day after his triumph, Jim celebrated for real, running down the course, pumping his fists and shouting as Madison crossed the finish line.

“It was definitely awesome,” Madison said.

Next up for the pedaling pair is Saturday’s Wilderness 101 ultra-endurance mountain bike race, an annual all-day odyssey through Rothrock State Forest. As the name implies, the course completes a grueling 101-mile loop, starting and ending in Coburn.

Once again, father and son are spending hours in a mountain biker’s “playground” — lush forest trails, rocky slopes, gorgeous views. They’re just getting a lot more than their usual dose.

“It’s fun,” Jim said of the Wilderness 101. “Even though you’re going to suffer, it’s fun.”

They should know. Twice before, they’ve helped each other plan nutrition, hydration and pacing strategies for the epic ride, then slogged their way to the same post-race party in Coburn Park.

By now, racing has become a weekend routine, their special bonding time.

“It’s the kind of relationship any father would want to have with his son,” said Erik Scott, the owner of the Bicycle Shop, where Madison works in State College.

Each has grown from the experience.

When they barreled through their first race, on a foggy 2006 morning in Michaux State Forest, Madison was a slender youth enamored with mountain bikes and interested in expanding his horizons.

His father, a former triathlete who runs his own medical billing firm from home, had led a sedentary life for years and fallen out of shape.

“It wasn’t until Madison started getting into it that I started exercising,” Jim said.

After riding casually, they began searching for races to enter together. At first, Jim participated mostly to offer fatherly support and encouragement. But as he slimmed down and Madison matured, they became more like teammates, free to swap candid advice, united in friendly competition.

“Sometimes I think of him as a brother,” Jim said.

Madison, on the verge of turning pro, feels the same way during long training rides — just two guys on bikes pushing each other to improve and enjoying the company.

“Age goes out the window,” he said.

They share a love for a demanding sport, and an underlying philosophy. No matter how punishing the course is, regardless of breakdowns and other setbacks, they maintain perspective. They’re in the playground again: What more could they ask for?

Even during a grind like the Wilderness 101, that’s the bottom line.

“You want to come in with a smile on your face, not on your fingertips,” Jim said.

In June, both wore tired grins after the local Stoopid 50-mile Backcountry Race. Madison won, and Jim took first in the masters category, placing ninth overall.

As far as they were concerned, the season could have ended there, but then they topped themselves at the national championships. Madison, inspired by his father’s success, set out hard for victory.

But he was guaranteed a happy ride home.

“I told myself, ‘Hey, if something happens, if I have a flat or something breaks or if the legs aren’t there, I would have fun,’ ” he said. “At least one of us would have a good day, and that’s great.”