Outlet for Opportunity
Words By: Michael Venutolo-Mantovani
Like most parents, Chris Spealler and his wife Sarah take their kids on an annual trip.
They pick the best route, pack enough snacks, load everyone up, and head out, once a year, on a journey that will help them bond as a family, take them to an interesting place, and get them outside together.
But they’re not headed to the Grand Canyon or Hawai’i or even a Disney park. Rather, they head into the mountains surrounding their Park City, Utah home for what Spealler calls their Epic Family Bike Ride.
It started six years ago when Chris and Sarah took their kids, then aged 6 and 4, to the ridgeline of a nearby mountain and rode to the base. Spealler describes the inaugural Epic Family ride as a daylong adventure that, of course, included breakdowns (both mechanical and emotional). But the quartet had so much fun, the annual ride immediately became a regular thing.
“Now they all ask when the Epic Family Bike Ride is going to be,” Spealler said from New Mexico, where his son Roark, now 12, is training with his own mountain biking team. “It’s just so important to me to give my kids adventure,” he added.
To Spealler, a 43-year-old strength and conditioning coach and gym owner who made a name for himself as a professional CrossFit athlete,
the mountains always felt like home. Shortly after he was born in Salt Lake City, Spealler’s family moved to the Philadelphia suburb where he grew up. There, Spealler and his friends would bike wherever they could, though trail systems were nonexistent.
“We would link together these random places that I’m hesitant to even call trails,” Spealler said. “We’d just kinda go in the grass, over train tracks, junkyards. Just making do with what we had at the time.”
But on regular family trips back to Utah and Colorado, Spealler would always feel the pull of the region,
awed by the beauty of the mountains and wondering why his parents had moved him to Pennsylvania. Before heading off to central Pennsylvania’s Lock Haven University on a wrestling scholarship, Spealler’s dad gave him his first real mountain bike, which led him to further discover and deepen his passion for riding bikes off road.
But, as Spealler was singularly focused on his wrestling career, his bike sat somewhat dormant,
until he moved to Park City after college, back to the mountains where he was born.
It was there that the door to biking opened back up. He started riding trails and working in a local bike shop, eventually upgrading his rigid high school bike to a full-suspension ride.
Soon after, he signed up for a hundred-mile, point-to-point mountain bike race in Park City. After fifteen hours of riding and 20,000 vertical feet, Spealler decided competition might not be for him. It also happened that CrossFit entered his life around the same time, taking over most of his focus. For nearly a decade, Spealler’s bike took a backseat as he became more of a force in the professional CrossFit world.
But when he retired from the CrossFit circuit, Spealler’s bike, as it always did, began to creep back into his life. And for the first time in a long time, Spealler noticed, his athletic pursuit wasn’t about competition the way it always had been with wrestling and CrossFit.
“Realizing biking was more about progression, about how people are stoked to see you get better; that is something that has been so refreshing after being in environments where, if someone beats you, they’re better than you,” Spealler said.
Of course, the bike was already making a huge impact in Roark’s life.
As early as kindergarten, Chris and Sarah noticed their son struggling in school, always seeming to be behind in early childhood development. Despite reassurances from his teachers that he would catch up, that development in boys sometimes takes a bit longer, Roark continued to lag into the fifth grade. The stress he felt at school manifested in anxiety exhibited in the Spealler home. It was then that Chris and Sarah had Roark tested and found out he had ADHD.
It just so happened that, at that time, Roark began devoting himself to biking. The Speallers were searching for an outlet for Roark when they found the Orem, Utah-based Outlaw Bike Team. Chris asked Roark if that was something he might be into and soon, Roark was learning how to ride his bike offroad, how to handle dirt jumps, and how to bomb downhill on his Mach 6.
Within a year, Chris and Sarah noticed a marked change in their son.
But it wasn’t until he first went back to school during Outlaw’s offseason that Roark’s parents truly saw the impact biking was having on their son.
“When he went back to school after Covid lockdowns, we saw his anxiety shoot up,” Spealler said. “But then as spring came around and he started riding again, we saw that subside. For him, the bike just builds so much confidence.”
Shortly after Roark started riding, he and Chris began riding together, hitting the downhills and dirt jumps they both love. Soon, Chris was watching Roark race, competing just like his father spent so much of his life doing. And while Chris’s competition days are mostly behind him, he still gets that itch as he watches Roark line up at the starting line, wondering why he didn’t sign up to race.
“I think I just need to take a little bit of time for dad on those weekends, too,” Spealler said, mentioning that he plans to race more in the coming seasons. “I don’t care if I even take a warmup run. I just want to let it rip.”
Spealler describes Roark as more calculating than he is reckless.
Though, like any mountain bikers, Roark has taken his fair share of spills. Chris has helped his son learn resilience by putting those wipeouts into perspective, in hopes that he would realize they were the exception rather than the rule. He instructs Roark to push to the side those rare times when things went wrong and coaches him to think of all the times that nothing bad happened on a downhill or over a dirt jump. He helps his son focus on the positive while always accepting the fact that, even though negatives will happen, we can’t allow them to ruin the things that we love.
For Chris and Sarah’s daughter Myla, biking is just another activity to explore, like gymnastics or ice skating.
Of course, she’s always stoked on the Epic Family Bike Ride, always ready to try things she’s afraid of. And big brother Roark is always there, encouraging, coaching, and telling her to push the fear aside, that wiping out is the exception rather than the rule.