James Irish hates three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador nearly as much as he loves riding his new bike.
Irish is an 18-year-old senior-to-be at the Tacoma School of the Arts who had heart valve replacement surgery earlier this year.
During a follow-up surgery to drain fluid from around his heart, his doctor noticed Irish was talking about cycling and a certain Spanish cyclist as the anesthesia started to take effect.
“When I woke up the doctor said, ‘So you don’t like Alberto Contador?,’ ” Irish said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I reeeally hate that guy.’ ”
Irish proceeded to explain that the hatred stems from Contador’s rivalry with his hero, seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong. As it turns out, the doctor, echocardiographer Jeff Spencer, was a cyclist, and the next day when he visited Irish he offered him a bike frame.
Irish had been riding a 28-year-old Sekai. He liked the old bike and even took it for a short spin the day before his heart valve surgery in January. But with his new heart valve, Irish is on his way to becoming a new man with the ability to ride harder, longer and farther.
He needed an upgrade, and Spencer’s Waterford Paramount frame was about half as old and would do the trick nicely.
Now Irish is putting his new bike and his new titanium and carbon heart valve to the test.
When the Courage Classic – a three-day, 173-mile ride over three Cascade mountain passes – starts Saturday morning, Irish will be participating as a virtual rider.
Like all the other riders, he will pedal 173 miles and raise money for the Rotary Endowment for the Intervention and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. (His first donation was a $500 gift from On-X, the company that made his new heart valve.)
However, he will not be on the course. He will rack up the miles over numerous short rides during the three weeks prior to the ride. Irish says he’ll have finished the ride by Saturday.
Currently, Irish is keeping most of his rides less than 35 miles and at a pace of 15 mph or slower. His girlfriend goes along for most of the rides.
It’s hardly the hardcore riding he hopes to be doing soon, but considering the way the last three years have unfolded for Irish, the fact that he’s riding at all seems more remarkable than anything his antihero, Contador, ever accomplished.
In fall 2008, Irish was trying out for football at Wilson High when a routine physical put an end to his plans. He was diagnosed with a congenital heart valve defect.
“The doctor told me I couldn’t play football or do anything stressful like lifting weights,” Irish said. “And he said I’d probably have to have the heart valve surgery sometime in my 30s.”
It was a crushing blow, but instead of wallowing in depression and giving up on being active, Irish started biking more.
“I’d been riding my whole life, and I was allowed to keep riding because it wasn’t a contact sport,” Irish said. He also transferred to School of the Arts as a drummer and is now studying technical theater.
Slowly he came to grips with the fact that one day he was going to need major heart surgery. But he had 20 years before he had to worry.
Or so he thought.
During another routine physical in October 2010, his doctors discovered that the valve damage was worse than they previously thought. The surgery was moved up to June 2011. A few weeks later, another exam showed even more damage and the surgery was moved up to Jan. 13. A scheduling change moved the surgery up again to Jan. 11.
“It kept moving closer and closer, and it was pretty scary and shocking,” Irish said.
To calm his nerves, Irish would go for bike rides.
The night before surgery he went out for dinner with his parents, John and Anne; his brother, Sam; and his sisters, Vivian and Carol.
“We just hung out all night and talked,” Irish said.
As scared as Irish was for the surgery to come 20 years ahead of schedule, he now sees it as a blessing. With his new heart valve, he says, “they say I’m a new man.”
Instead of riding casually and taking it easy on a defective heart, he now has the go-ahead to hammer as hard as he likes.
“I still can’t play football because it’s a contact sport,” he said. “But I can do pretty much anything I want.”
This includes helping out at Tacoma Bike where he gleans as much cycling knowledge as he can from the staff. The staff has helped him outfit his new bike frame with good components and taught him how to maintain the bike.
“I love it,” he said. “I love putting bikes together.”
He works on bikes in his garage and even built a bike for his girlfriend.
While still building his stamina while recovering from the heart surgery that forced him to spend two weeks in the hospital, Irish already has plans for where he’ll be next August.
He plans to be pedaling over mountain passes in the Cascades with the rest of the Courage Classic riders.
He’s also interested in racing bikes and cyclocross. And after that, who knows? Maybe he’ll take his bike to France and go after Alberto Contador.
Craig Hill’s fitness column runs Sundays in The News Tribune and The Olympian. Please submit questions and comments via email@example.com, facebook.com/adventureguys or twitter.com/adventureguys.