Colby Pearce turned to bicycling for survival, not success.
He received his first bike at age 8 to pedal away from the death of his mother and his first racing model five years later when his dad suddenly died. For most of his childhood, he relied on a bike to flee from his world -- or, sometimes, to lash out at it.
"Basically, it was the only reliable thing I had," said Pearce, 32, from Boulder, Colo. "And I don't know what I would have done without it."
That his bike will take him all the way to the 2004 Olympics in Athens is little more than a happy coincidence. Sure, he'll compete in the points race, a part of the track cycling competition. But so what? He's used his bike for so many more important things before.
He escaped with the bike.
At 13, Pearce came home from school and learned his dad had died of heart failure. When relatives told Pearce what had happened he said, "Oh, okay," and went into the kitchen for a snack. Tragedy seemed familiar, since his mom had died of Hodgkin's disease five years earlier.
This time, he picked up the phone and called his best friend, Joel Harris, who was vacationing in Arizona.
"My dad died today," Pearce said. "So I don't really know where I'm going to live or anything like that."
His stepmother, Linda Flack, took him in, but Pearce lived mostly on his bike. He would ride his beginner racing bike to school and back, trying to get lost on the way so he could steal more time alone.
"It was like cheap therapy," Pearce said. "Those were the best times, just me and my bike for hours and hours. That's when I thought about the hardships, I guess, when I tried to figure things out. That's how I got away."
He rebelled with the bike.
When Flack made him angry, he'd come home from school and take his bike apart on the living room floor. Oil dripped on the off-white carpet. Dirt smudged against the couch. Even when Flack threatened to take away his bike, he continued the trick. It was his favorite slap back at a cruel world.
People worried about him then, so defiant and angry that he respected no one. His grades slid. He ditched school. He drank too much beer at parties.
"He was dangerously close of going the total wrong direction in his life," Harris said. "I mean, he got to the edge of the cliff and almost fell off."
Friends and family tried to reach out, but he trusted nobody. "Both of my parents had died," Pearce said. "I felt like the earth could fall from under my feet at any moment."
He opened up to Flack once during his freshman year of high school, and she came away so concerned that she demanded he confide in a therapist.
"He was so unhappy and depressed," Flack said. "He said to me, 'I'll never be happy again.' And he honestly believed that. He thought the rest of his life would be miserable and gloomy."
He built relationships with the bike.
One thing saved him: Harris loved to ride, too. As teenagers, they would meet at Pearce's house in Broomfield each weekend and bike 20 miles to Harris's house in Boulder.
They called it their "long ride," and Pearce would look forward to it all week. Each Tuesday night, he'd call Harris to hammer out the details of Saturday's trip. Which route should they take? How much water did they need? How quickly could they complete the ride?
"That one event got me through from week to week," Pearce said. "I needed that trip and, once we got to his house every weekend, his family really took me in. I relied on their company."
Weekends at the Harris house seemed too short, so Pearce decided to move in with them permanently before his junior year of high school. He joined the wrestling team and raced his bike recreationally. Only then did friends finally feel confident that he'd be all right.
"He changed around then," Flack said. "He healed. He started to realize his world hadn't ended at 13. He started to show a little bit of joy."
He found happiness with the bike.
After a few years of competitive riding, he became so good it restored his confidence. He set the national record for the 50-kilometer ride in 1995, and he's won seven national championships since.
Wind-tunnel tests prove him to be the most aerodynamic rider in the world. He has a long, thin torso and he stays flat and low on his bike. He has outfitted his bike with sleek wheels and tear-dropped handlebars that cut effortlessly through the wind.
"He's as aerodynamic as any rider in history," said Allen Lim, his coach. "That's huge for him, because he doesn't have to work quite as hard as some of the other riders."
Pearce's Olympic bid, though, has more to do with mind-set than mechanics. Earlier in his career, he'd panic when things didn't go his way. "I was emotionally underdeveloped," Pearce said. "For a long time, I had a unique ability to freak out over the littlest things."
Not until a few years ago, friends said, did Pearce finally seem emotionally sturdy. He started a family of his own -- a wife, Marisol, and daughter, Chloe -- and made a vow to treasure it.
"He savors his family more than anyone else I know," Harris said. "It's a new start for him. It's kind of a second chance at family."
"It took a while, but I've finally dealt with all of the emotional fallout from my parents' deaths," Pearce said. "The whole biking road has kind of been a spiritual journey. Along the way, I figured everything out."