Julian Roger has no problem tuning out the distracting clamor at the finish line as he rides across. He likes the ruckus, but he doesn’t need it.
The 10-year-old Bainbridge cyclist, with, among others, five rides of 100-miles or more under his undersized belt, is no stranger to silence. Controlling the volume of his world is a constant concern for the deaf soon-to-be fifth-grader at Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School, but he doesn’t let such things keep him from living out loud.
If necessary, he can always just adjust his cochlear implant processor and go right back to passing grownups.
“One of the things I frequently have to say to him is, ‘Julian, it’s not polite to pass adults,’” said Julian’s father, Jeffrey Roger, the family’s first cyclist.
It was Jeffrey’s decision to once more take up a bike, a passion from his pre-dad days, and get back in shape after he and his wife Joanna built busy careers and had two kids. But his refound love of two wheels also sparked his son’s interest, and in 2015, Jeffrey signed up for Cascade Bicycle Club’s famous Seattle to Portland ride for the first time — and Julian wasn’t about to miss out.
“The whole thing started out about me,” Jeffrey laughed.
That didn’t last.
He and Joanna expected the 7-year-old to make it maybe 5 or 10 miles on the STP, he said. As his wife and young daughter were following in the car for support anyway, it seemed like a fun idea to sign Julian up and let him ride along with dad for a brief leg. It would be cute, they thought. Thus, at the 50-mile mark, the kid handoff was made and father and son hit the road.
Flash forward a speedy 15 miles. “‘Hey, you want me to call mom?’” Jeffrey recalled the fateful exchange.
“‘No, I’m good.’ ‘Oh, OK.’ And we’re just cruising along and he’s on his 20-incher having a great old time. Every rest stop I’m like, ‘Dude, how you doing?’ ‘I’m good, dad.’ ‘You want me to call mom?’ ‘No no no!’ We’re at like 20 miles, 25 miles, 30 miles — I’m like what are we doing here? Before you know it, we’d ridden 50 miles.”
Julian ultimately rode 80 miles in his first STP appearance, and all on a 20-inch kid’s bike.
“That was sort of the beginning,” Jeffrey said. “Then, all of a sudden, cycling was no longer about me. It became about him and what we do together with the bikes.”
Julian recalls that first finish line vividly.
“There were bubbles,” he said. “I wanted to wait until a certain time so I could ride through the bubbles. I made dad go in the back, behind me. It felt like a party. You just arrived and there’s everybody waiting for you.”
The party kept going from there, and the father/son team have since ridden in numerous long group rides, such as Bike for Pie on Bainbridge, the Gigantic Bicycle Festival and Red-Bell 100 (from Redmond to Bellingham), among others. They don’t adhere to a strict training schedule. They don’t log a lot of preparatory miles. But they do have a ton of fun.
When asked if he remembers when he got serious about cycling, Julian just shrugs.
“It’s not really serious,” he said. “It still is a game.”
No training wheels
Julian’s interest in biking manifested at almost exactly the same time he began losing his hearing. He was 3 years old. His mother first noticed that he seemed to be not hearing her, and subsequent tests showed he was suffering serious hearing loss.
Julian went from hearing aids to a cochlear implant in less than a year, at an age when he was simultaneously learning the foundations of language and social interaction. It was a rapid and dramatic transition for the entire family. But life is full of give and take, and his hearing failed almost as quickly as his riding skills improved.
“[Julian] learned to ride a bike early,” Jeffrey recalled.
Bypassing training wheels all together, the lad learned the ropes on a balance bike (a sort of training bicycle that helps children learn balance and steering, which has no pedals and no drivetrain), graduating quickly to his first pedal bike.
“It was on Mother’s Day when he was 3½,” Jeffrey said. “We went to the park, and I just held the bike and he started pedaling and all of a sudden he was off and riding — and he’s been riding ever since.”
After Julian’s first dramatic showing at STP (he is, reportedly, Cascade Bicycle Club’s youngest rider with the most miles) Jeffrey got his son a more serious ride: a 40-pound mountain bike. It was big. It was heavy. It was, in the end, not the right choice. But, it was just one more challenge Julian quickly overcame.
Though the bike was too heavy for its slight rider, Julian toughed it out through his first Gigantic Bicycle Festival (77 miles) regardless, pedaling every inch of the way on his own.
“It was a long, arduous ride,” Jeffrey said.
The young rider continually declined offers of a lift from ride support.
“He was like, ‘No, I’m doing this,” Jeffrey said.
Then, just when it seemed the heat/heavy bike combo would be too much, even for the determined Julian, the end was in sight.
“We turned the corner and you could see the park and the finish,” Jeffrey said. “He sees the finish line … and he just gets up there and starts pumping it and just goes flying through there and everyone’s cheering for him.”
Perched atop a new 24-inch racing bike, Julian next breezed through the Kitsap Color Classic (about 60 miles).
“On the mountain bike, I would have had to walk,” Julian said. “No question about that. However, on that bike? Easy. I felt so much better.”
The next season, Julian logged his first, as cyclist say, full century — a 100-mile ride: the Red-Bell 100.
“If you asked me which bike ride was the hardest, you’d think it would be the first STP,” Julian said. “No, this one. The Red-Bell. I remember hitting 100 miles. We were going up a hill … I was waiting, waiting, waiting and then dad said, ‘100!’ And that was it.”
Distance alone was not what made that ride the hardest, however. The thrill of victory was quickly compromised by factors beyond even the Roger family’s careful planning.
A well-meaning ride aide had taken the unclaimed bags back to the club’s Seattle offices when the finish line closed, before Jeffrey and Julian crossed — including the one that contained the batteries for Julian’s implant processor.
A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted electronic device that provides a sense of sound to a person with profound hearing loss in both ears. They bypass the normal hearing process. They have a sound processor that resides on the outside of the skin (and generally worn behind the ear) which contains microphones, electronics, battery and a coil which transmits a signal to the implant.
It was a scary moment which detracted greatly, Julian said, from the thrill of his achievement. Typically, a full charge lasts 10 to 15 hours and he was starting to edge into dangerous territory.
“I had to go processor-free for half the next day while we were coming back,” Julian said. “I can hear the voice, but it’s muffled and muted. I can hear the sound; I just can’t make out the words.”
A Cascade aide met the family at the Seattle train station with the bag and batteries, but it was a scary time for the otherwise adventurous kid, normally so careful and responsible about caring for and maintaining his processor, who was plunged temporarily back into muffled isolation, his new-found freedom and budding self-reliance tried.
“Who he’s becoming in spite of the challenges is something that’s pretty cool to watch,” Joanna said.
“There’s something about [cycling] that’s empowering. You move your feet and the pedals go and then you’re going, and that was kind of juxtaposed to this idea that he couldn’t really control what was happening to his hearing. So there was something really empowering about what he was able to take on, and how the technology has helped him to engage in it in a very positive way, even though you can’t always control technology. It can get wet and short out. We’ve had issues. Cochlear has been amazingly supportive of us, but nothing’s perfect. We couldn’t control that happening, but it’s who you become in the face of it.”
Though Julian quickly got back on the bike, sadly it would not be the last hurdle — or even the most serious — the young athlete would face in is quest to conquer the road.
‘Rogers do not give up’
This season has not gone smoothly for Julian so far.
Wet gravel felled him during the 2018 Viking Ride in Poulsbo. He cut his knee and suffered a few bumps and scrapes — but finished the rest of the ride anyway.
Then, during the Fly Wheels ride in Snoqualmie Valley on June 2, he was actually struck by a car.
“The guy didn’t stop,” Julian said. “I broke my wrist. I don’t remember that much of it because I don’t want to remember that much of it.”
The accident occurred early, just 15 miles into the course, robbing Julian of what was to be his sixth century ride.
The cast has since come off though, and Jeffrey and Julian are already eyeing their next outing: Seattle to Portland on July 15.
“Rogers do not give up,” Julian said, reaffirming the family’s motto.
When the wind is loud and it’s difficult for him to focus on what’s being said, or he and his father are not riding directly abreast and are unable to chat, the young cyclist said he focuses always on what’s next — which he intends to do now. He will no more dwell on his injury than he does on his hearing loss.
What occupies his mind in the quieter times on the road?
“I’m going to beat you,” Julian said, grinning. “I’m going to catch you, and we will switch places.
“It’s just really fun to cross those finish lines.”
Off the road
Julian said riding and learning to tune out wind, traffic and background noises so as to hear his father and other riders has helped him train himself to acclimate better to other noisy, chaotic environments that were once overwhelming.
“The wind is like a fan … and it’s loud so it definitely makes it harder to hear dad when he tries to tell me something,” Julian said. “It kind of does help me when big groups are together, because now I’m used to the wind and everybody else speaking at a big party is like the wind, and the person speaking to me is like dad. I’ve kind of trained myself.”
His progress has not gone unnoticed.
“His focus is kind of uncanny,” Joanna said. “His ability to really judge his environment, use information that he has and focus in on his goal, that’s what we see happening with his biking …
“I don’t know what came first: his ability to do that or the biking training him to do that or his hearing loss, but there is a relationship among those things that helps him see what he wants, use the information that he gets and achieve his goal.”
“It is an executive function beyond his chronological years,” Jeffrey agreed. “I don’t know if he came with it or if it’s developed because of this, but it is something, his stick-to-itiveness.”
Minus his Zen-like focus and mighty mileage record, Julian’s like any other kid.
He plays soccer year-round, and loves it. He has no favorite subject in school, saying instead he likes “almost all” of them. His favorite movie is “Elf,” favorite book “Al Capone Does My Shirts (Tales from Alcatraz)” [by Gennifer Choldenk], and his favorite food is clams. Somehow, he even gets along well with his younger sister Lauren, 7, who is now riding one of his old smaller bikes. Mom rides too, and biking has become one of the clan’s favorite things to do together.
“Cascade [Bicycle Club] has been amazing,” Jeffrey said. “[They have] supported this guy and helped him understand it’s a safe place to cycle. They’ve been incredible for [Julian].”