Two-Wheeled Trailblazer: Senior races into wild country competitions

By: Nathan Hoy

As the two symmetrical wheels of the light, carbon fiber mountain bike spun over the rugged terrain, senior Connor Houlihan couldn’t help but let out a deep breath as he quickly slipped in between two trees that any normal person would think impossible to pass, but that’s the pace he’d set the second after the gun went off and all reality seemed to stop. For the next 15 miles, Houlihan focused solely on the task at hand; pedal harder, push farther and enjoy the beauty of the race more than ever before. Or as his dad would say, “make the body and the bike one.”

Houlihan races mountain bikes on courses that most people would definitely think twice about before attempting to cross on a small man-powered machine balanced upon two wheels.

The love for bikes started back when Houlihan was just three or four and his dad taught him how to ride without training wheels. He instantly fell in love with the idea of creating his own movement without touching his body to the ground and insisted on riding every chance he got.

Houlihan’s dad built a lot of the trails that are currently at Hartman, and he used to love going to work with him on those trails. “My dad taught me everything I know,” Houlihan said. “I would go ride with him every chance I had and found it to be the most fun I could possibly have.”

His dad would compete a lot, and one would find it impossible to find his dad at a race without his boy by his side. He competed in four national races in Bloomington, Ill.; Big Bear Lake, Calif.; Durango, Colo.; (where the Houlihan’s used to live) and Mount Snow Ski resort in Vermont.

As Houlihan grew older, he started to ride a lot more of the harder trails and continued to learn even more from his dad. “I’d try some jump onto a log or something and fail. My dad would then continue to do the certain task to show me and then come back and tell me what I did wrong and how to do it correctly,” Houlihan said. “We called a lot of what we did ‘dodging trees gettin’ snaky in the woods,’” Houlihan smiled as some of his friends who have ridden with him before laughed.

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 7.53.52 AMThe Houlihans currently have 15 bikes at the house, and the entire family has the same kind of bike that they regularly ride on the courses called a Super Fly.

Trek is a company that builds and tests bikes throughout the world. Houlihan’s dad has the privilege of being friends with one of the main engineers, and he was invited along with his son to ride around on what they call “the farm.” This is the place where they test the bikes that they have just designed. “That was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever been a part of; however, the two best places I’ve ever ridden at were the Slickrock Trail in Moab, Utah and Phil’s World which is in Colorado,” Houlihan said.

Mountain biking is not a sport to get involved in if one doesn’t like a little bit of risk, and especially if one never wants to give one’s bone strength a run for their money. Houlihan has broken his pinky four times — all from hitting trees. His dad has broken his collarbone, and his dad’s friend broke his spine. “So, yeah, it’s kind of dangerous,” Houlihan said as straight up as he could. “I won’t sugar coat it for ya. It can get pretty gnarly.”

As the sun started to sink over the mountains of Utah in the summer of 2015, Houlihan stood at the end of the desert course, bike standing next to him and his dad’s arm wrapped around him. He couldn’t help but think of the bond this sport has given him with his father and the amazing beauty and memories he’s been able to encounter through it. As they packed up the car and headed back to the farmlands of Iowa, sadness entered, but not enough to get his spirit down because he knew he’d be back soon. Back to the huge jumps, winding curves and narrow trees. The course never really does truly end.

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