Over land and sea, thousands of athletes travel to Hawaii each year to cycle along the vast empty fields of lava and experience the ever-changing winds that make Queen Kaahumanu Highway legendary in multisport.
One hundred and twelve miles is a long way to ride a bicycle along a road, which at first seems to be unvarying, with similar rocks and weeds lining the road for miles on end. Occupying the mind is a constant struggle. But for local athletes who train on this road every day, each field of lava, bump in the road and stretch of guardrail holds a connection to a memory and helps us to carry on as we reminisce on training and racing experiences of the past.
On rides heading north from Old Kona Airport Park, after escaping town and getting out onto the open road, I first pass the spot where I once got a flat tire. A good Samaritan stopped to help me fix it, and we’ve been friends ever since.
Then comes the descent where I had my first crash. A couple more miles down the road is the place where Lance Armstrong passed me one day, and I rode as fast as I could to see how long I could keep him in sight. As with anything that holds the same majestic power and allure Queen Kaahumanu Highway — the ocean or the volcano — there is a constant risk involved.
But just as a person isn’t kept from swimming for fear of being swept away by currents, or how, despite the danger, people are attracted to the flowing, firing lava-like bugs to a lantern, cyclists are drawn to the highway. The little white crosses and monuments for its victims line the shoulders and serve as a constant reminder of what exactly we rest on the line: everything.
To take such a risk takes passion, and all cyclists have it. But no cyclist I have ever met could match the sure and utter enthusiasm of Jessie Taylor.
I never knew Jessie to wear a frown, but when he was on a bike, his smile grew so wide it could be seen across two lanes of traffic with a turn lane in the middle. Which is exactly how I saw him last Thursday morning. And from now on, on every ride I take on Queen Kaahumanu Highway as I ride back from West Hawaii Veteran’s Cemetery and pass the place where I chased Lance, I’ll turn my head to the left to look across the highway, see that image of Jessie’s huge smile and pedal a little harder in his memory.
A couple of hours after I passed by him that Thursday morning, as he made his way up the Kohala coast on that legend of a highway where countless dreams have been born, Jessie’s life came to a sudden end. It’s rare that someone could brighten a person’s day the way Jessie could. His persistent smile, positive attitude and genuine care for the people around him made him a joy to know.
There are a few popular games that are played within triathlon, some tactical, some not. Playing leapfrog with a cyclist of similar speed during some part of a race, intentional or not, seems to be for some reason inevitable. At Lavaman Keauhou last year, I found myself riding with Jessie. He’d pass me on the uphills, and I’d retake the lead on the descents. Perhaps a dozen times, I rode beside him for a second as he passed me or I passed him, and with each pass I received a new personal cheer and a big, huge smile.
Lavaman’s drafting rule gives you 15 seconds to make a pass, after which you must stay seven meters apart so you don’t give an advantage to the other rider. But Jessie had a pull that didn’t come from breaking the air or blocking the wind. He could pull you with his spirit in such a way that for a moment you forgot about the burn in your legs and the sweat in your eyes, and you’d appreciate the day the way he so clearly did. He showed me that no ounce of energy spent on others — even in a race — is ever wasted. That flame and passion in your heart that shines through to others, if you let it, is fueled by what is given right back to you.
Look at Chrissie Wellington, the most successful Ironman athlete in the world today. And Natascha Badmann, still racing strong at age 45. People wonder in disbelief at how these women could endure such struggle yet exude such happiness throughout the duration of their pain. But as a spectator watching dehydrated, beaten-down athletes struggling for each step, I can tell you that when these women pass by, the change in the air is tangible. Their smiles lift the crowd, and the crowd lifts them. If they ever saw Jessie race, I’d imagine even these two could take some pointers in enthusiasm.
Jessie lived the life he loved every day. He gave all of himself to the task at hand and cared wholeheartedly about the people around him. He overflowed with a passion for life and for sport, and he was a shining example of how we should treat one another. While he will be greatly missed by the many people whose lives he brightened, for as long as bicycles still travel the highway, the memory of Jessie Taylor will strongly live on.