‘It was a way of life,’ says the world’s greatest basketball player. ‘If you had a bike, it was a way to kind of let go and be free.’
I’d wanted to talk to James for a long time about cycling. Readers of this column know I am a massive bike dork, and I’ve known the three-time NBA champion likes to ride—James has been spied commuting to games on his mountain bike, and in summers past, he’s hosted bike-a-thons in Ohio. At one point he even owned a stake in the bicycle maker Cannondale.
But last week’s school opening was perhaps the biggest signal of what bikes mean to James’s life. In the announcement for The “I Promise” School—which will admit 240 third- and fourth-grade students and expand until it stretches from first to eighth grade—was this detail: James’s family foundation has pledged to provide a free bicycle and helmet to every student.
It was an impressive gesture, clearly personal—and I wanted to know more.
“Everything I do comes from my childhood, from my growing up, and what I feel was part of my success,” James, 33, told me in a telephone conversation.
“A bicycle, for me, was the only way to get around the city. If I wanted to meet some of my friends, travel across the city, go to school, play basketball—anything—the bicycle was the way I got around.”
But that was just part of it. A bicycle also represented freedom, James said.
“Me and my friends, when we got on our bikes, we would just ride,” he recalled. “Sometimes we would even get lost, because we’d be gone for so long. But there was a sense of joy and comfort. There was nothing that really could stop us. We felt like we were on top of the world.”
“It was a way of life. If you had a bike, it was a way to kind of let go and be free.”
James couldn’t remember the make of his first bike, which he said his mother, Gloria, got for him.
“I wish I could,” he said. “I used to love those Mongoose bikes with the pegs on the back, and people used to ride [the pegs]. I loved those. And then a 10-speed that came out by Huffy—I remember that, being able to start changing gears. There were a lot of hills we used to ride [in Akron]—especially one hill called North Hill. It was a massive hill, and if you didn’t have any gears, it was going to take you a long time.”
As he got older, James said he began to turn to cycling as a way to maintain his fitness. This has continued into his NBA career, which is about to enter its 16th season.
You may remember seeing photos of James pedaling the streets of Miami on his way to Heat games at American Airlines Arena. James—along with his Heat teammate, Dwyane Wade —also participated in local Critical Mass rides, where hundreds of cyclists took over the roads in a show of group unity.
“We loved Critical Mass,” James said of the event, which occurs in cities throughout the U.S., as well as globally. “It was the last Friday of the month.”
(A quick bike-dork aside: It is pretty hardcore that LeBron James knows that Critical Mass is always the last Friday of the month.)
All right. I’m sure my fellow dorks want to know what is in James’s bicycle inventory. I regret to tell you he doesn’t possess a serious stable—yet. James still owns the burgundy-colored mountain bike he got from Cannondale during his first go-round with the Cavaliers. He also said he has a hybrid-style Cannondale that works well both on and off-road. “It’s suited for anything,” he said.
(That’s a nice start, LeBron. From the sound of it, you could probably also use a road bike, a cyclocross bike, a gravel bike, a single speed, a folding bike and maybe a time-trial bike. You know, just to get started. Every cyclist knows the proper number of bikes to own is n+1.)
Here’s some news: James is not afraid of spandex—he prefers to call them “tights”—but he has yet to discover the click-in magic of clipless pedals.
“I know,” he said, almost regretfully. “A lot of friends have told me how cool it is, how much easier it is to pedal. But I’ve never done [it] before, not even on stationary bikes.”
James said he’s fired up about the cycling in his new home base of Los Angeles, where he will be joining the Lakers this season. (This was in the news, you can look it up.) L.A. sometimes gets a bad rap as a cycling city, but there’s a lot of good riding in town, and tons of high-level cyclists.