I used to think of Max Gander as "The Gran Fondo Kid".
I first saw him some time around 2006. Like a lot of amateur bike racers, I'd waste time on Mondays following race weekends scouring the internet for race photos. I came across one of Max, who was probably nine at the time. It was from a time trial, and it caught my attention because the kid looked so absolutely pro. He was wearing a Gran Fondo kit, and he had every detail dialed-aero helmet, glasses, shoe covers-everything about his tiny Louis Garneau kit was perfect. I remember thinking that he was some sort of team mascot, or that maybe his mom and dad were racers who were letting him play dress-up. I thought it was cool, but it didn't even occur to me that someone that young could be so into bike racing that he'd figure all of that stuff out by himself.
I was wrong. Over the next few years, I kept seeing Max(I'd learned his name by then) at races. He'd become friends with Nate and Jonny Brown, two brothers from Memphis who are now local legends(Nate races for Cannondale-Garmin now, and Jonny has won two Junior National Championships). They'd show up at all the local events and help each other win the Junior races. There was a big stage race in town one year-the Edgar Soto- and Jonny and Max took turns wearing the leaders jersey. Somehow, I still just thought of him as a kid playing around.
Somewhere along the way, though, I started seeing him not just around all the races, but at the front of them. He stopped racing with the Juniors all the time and started racing in the category races as well. He was still just a kid, but he was up there, half the size-and less than half the age-of everyone else, throwing punches, in the mix. He was fearless.
I remember standing at the start finish of the old Wednesday Night Crit course at Titan's stadium, watching the Cat 4 race. The bunch came by, and someone close to me, almost under his breath, said, "Damn. Look at Max". He was sitting third wheel, elbows out, protecting his spot on that technical course, looking like he'd been racing for ten years. No smile, mouth closed. We all just smiled and shook our heads. I remember wondering how long it would be before he would be kicking my ass. I think a lot of us were thinking that, and we all looked forward to it in a weird way. He was like a kid brother to the whole Nashville bike racing community. We'd watched him grow up; every summer he'd be a little taller and a lot stronger on the bike. He spent a lot of time around adults and was more mature than most kids-it was nothing for him to catch a ride to a race with a non-family member. I got the sense that his parents, Wolfgang and Evie-both cyclists themselves- trusted our little community to look after their boy when they weren't around.
Personally, I was a bit envious of Max. I truly found the bike later in life, and I had always wondered about what might have happened if I had come to it early, like Max did. I guess in that way, I lived vicariously through him. I assumed that, for him, riding and racing wasn't something that needed to be squeezed in when there was daylight, managed around vacation time, or apologized for to friends/family/coworkers that didn't get it. I assumed that at his age it was just something he ran to every chance he got; an unfettered source of joy. I loved the idea of that.
The last time I ever saw Max was in 2011. I had moved to Austin for a job, and I drove down to San Antonio one Saturday to race. I showed up a few hours early to watch some of the other races, and as I walked up, I saw a kid that looked like Jonny Brown off the front of the race. It didn't seem possible that it was him, but then I looked at the guy standing next to me and realized it was Jonny's dad, Dave. We said hello and he told me that he had flown the boys in for some riding and racing(Dave's a pilot).
The group came around for the next lap. Jonny had been brought back, but there was Max-off the front, countering his friend's move. He was in the drops, out of the saddle, and as he came by he looked under his arm to check his gap and maybe catch a glimpse of all the old guys he was hurting. It was flawless-he looked like a thirty year old Euro pro. Except he was smiling.
I moved back to Nashville a few years later, andI heard that Max wasn't riding anymore. I heard that he had, like a lot of kids do, gotten to the point where the riding started to seem like work. The fun was gone. I assumed that he had probably also found a girlfriend and gotten distracted by the usual things that happen to teenage boys. I was bummed for him but not totally surprised-I've see something similar happen to a lot of Junior racers. I took comfort in the idea that the bike would always be there, and that Max would probably find his way back to it later in life, maybe after college.
He never did. I found out later that after Max stopped riding and racing he found drugs and alcohol in a serious way. It doesn't seem possible for it to have escalated so quickly, but Max lost his life to an overdose in December of 2015. When I heard, I was desperately sad. I was terrified that a life could change course so violently and so quickly. And...I worried that our community had somehow failed him. He was one of our own. He is one our own.
So, to remember Max, we decided to name our little race after him. The Sevier Park Crit will now be called the Max Gander Memorial, presented by Sevier Park Fest. We know it's not much, but we thought that it would be an appropriate way to remember a kid that, at his core, was a true bike racer.
Our race is on May 7th this year. I know it will be a busy time; race days always are. But during the course of the chaotic day, I'll be thinking of that fearless kid attacking the old men in the Texas sun.