The Brother Challenge
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Brother Challenge

by Ian Dille at 8:24 AM EST   comments
Categories: General

It’s about eight-miles from the top of the big hill on FM 306 to the finish line of the Tour de Gruene two-man time trial. The road is rough chip seal with a tiny shoulder, and totally exposed. The grade seems to go up, constantly. The wind comes from all sides.

“You know once you get on 306 if you’re having a good day, or not,” my friend Pat McCarty, a former Tour de Gruene champion, told me.

This year, on FM 306, I was not having a good day.

My brother Ken and I entered the Tour de Gruene under the pre-tense of the Brother Challenge, an un-official race category we claimed would definitively determine the world’s fastest bike racing brothers. We subtitled the race the Bro-down in German Town, as Tour de Gruene entry includes admission to the nearby WurstFest, an annual celebration of dunkelweizen and bratwurst. We created our own association, the Society of Licensed Bike Racing Brothers (SOLBRB) and designed an accompanying logo. We submitted a press release to VeloNews inviting the most legendary male bike racing siblings from Texas, as well as the brothers Schleck—they of Germanic heritage—and the Hamilton brothers, Tyler and his vanishing twin.

In reality, however, the Brother Challenge was simply a ploy. My brother Ken has raced bicycles seriously since middle school. He taught me most of what I know about the sport when I finally started racing at the age of 19. Ken won a collegiate national championship in the team time trial while attending the University of Texas-Austin and continued to race at the elite amateur level after graduating and moving to Boston to work as a graphic designer. As Ken scaled back his racing ambitions and I continued to chase the dream, I called him regularly for advice and support. At local races, I’m often still referred to as Lil’ Dille, Ken’s younger brother.

When Ken moved from the east coast back to Austin four years ago, his health was showing cracks. The litany of injuries that come with sitting in front of a computer all day had started to overwhelm him. Sciatic pain shot through his lower back and iliotibial band syndrome often caused the entire side of his left leg to ache.

He’d recently married and bought a house—a fixer upper. And while he’d zealously taken on the renovation, becoming a near master carpenter in the process, he rode only sporadically. By the time his daughter, Nora, my adorable niece, was born 22-months ago, Ken was at his heaviest weight and had been diagnosed with hypertension, the pre-cursor to heart disease.

Then, this summer, Ken finished the house and Nora grew into more regular sleeping hours. He committed to getting back into shape. We decided to do the Tour de Gruene together as a goal. Jokingly, we developed the Brother Challenge, before later realizing it was a gauntlet from which we could not back down.

For four months straight, Ken trained diligently. He lost 10-pounds in the first three weeks of riding. He hung on over the hardest hill on the Saturday hammer ride after six-weeks. Ten weeks into consistent training, Ken put his Cat 1 racing license to use for the first time in nearly half a decade at the local Thursday night criterium. He hurt deeply at times, I’m sure, but he rarely complained or took more than a few days off the bike.

Two weeks out from the Brother Challenge we were taking almost evenly matched pulls as we practiced for the race. Ken ordered a pair of matching sweater vests, as awards for the winners, and we sent them to our mom for SOLBRB World Champion embroidery. In the tradition of Tour de Gruene—a prestigious but only semi-serious race—we piled heaping mounds of friendly trash talk on our Brother Challenge competitors (all of whom bailed by the time race day arrived).

But our overconfidence was short lived. On the final Sunday before Gruene, Ken called off our training ride. “I’m sick,” he texted. Nora had pneumonia and he was now on antibiotics. By Tuesday he wondered aloud if we could cancel the Brother Challenge. “Rest up,” I advised him. “If you’re healthy, we’ll do fine.” On Saturday, one day before Gruene, Ken was riding again, but coughing the whole time.

I picked Ken up at 8 a.m. the Sunday morning of the race. Neither of us knew what to expect. We’d hoped to do the 27-mile race in a little over an hour. Now we worried about simply finishing together. Ken called one of his collegiate teammates, a fellow father and still top amateur bike racer, for a pep talk.

“After the hill, let it all hang out,” his friend said.

We registered under our team name, Dille Bros., then suited up in the matching Mount Ventoux jerseys our parents had sent us from France as birthday presents. We affixed bells to our handlebars and, at Ken’s insistence, went over all the places he felt I was likely to crash him. “Just tell me when you’re able to pull through,” I said.

Rolling down the start ramp, spectators familiar with the Brother Challenge, but apparently not how to correctly pronounce our names, cheered, “Go Dill brothers!” The first team passed us five minutes into the race. We rang our bells.

“Y’all be safe,” they replied.

On the descent down to the scenic River Road, which comprises the first half of the Tour de Gruene and winds along the Guadalupe River underneath sheer limestone cliffs, Ken took his first pull. It was smooth and strong—and short. We would do fine, if he rode conservatively. “Nice,” I said, moving back into the wind.

By the time we reached the end of River Rd. we’d settled into a rhythm and were even gaining ground on some of the other teams. “Steady,” Ken cautioned, as we turned onto FM 306 and started up the mile long climb, rising steeply from the riverbed. I tried to lift the pace over the top, but my legs were dead. My form was falling apart. It seemed like a very, very long way back into town.

Then Ken came through again, longer and harder this time. I stared at his wheel as he powered along the rough false flat road at 26-miles per hour, above the average speed we’d hoped to maintain. Over the top of what I prayed was the last riser, the metallic Gruene water tower appeared in the distance. Moments later we rounded the final turn, crossing the line side-by-side.

“An hour and seven minutes,” I said. “We averaged just over 24-miles per hour.”

“I think we can take two-minutes off that, easy, next year,” Ken replied.

Ian Dille is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. He currently races at the elite amateur level for the Super Squadra road cycling team. To read more of Ian's writing, please visit

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