1 of 4
Chris Mason, a senior at Armstrong High School, starts a ride in his Fairfield Court neighborhood.
2 of 4
After graduating from high school, Mason hopes to major in fashion design in college.
3 of 4
Nine RCC riders and three volunteers take a break with Dodson at the top of a hill on a weekly ride.
4 of 4
RCC volunteers and cyclists chase after Craig Dodson and Chris Mason as they head toward the finish line.
As wind drove horizontal sheets of rain across the road, Chris Mason stood on his pedals, pushing desperately toward the finish of his first 100-mile ride. He still had 20 miles to go.
Five hours earlier, the 17-year-old from Richmond's East End set off a few feet behind Lance Armstrong in the 2011 Team Livestrong Challenge outside Philadelphia. More than 5,000 cyclists were with them at the start, but by now, less than half remained on nearly vacant roads. Trucks rolled past, making runs to pick up cyclists stranded in the thunderstorm.
Directly ahead of Mason, his mentor Craig Dodson set the pace. Dodson, 32, the founder of Mason's Richmond youth cycling group, had ridden the mileage that cyclists call a century more than 100 times. But this ride was different. For Dodson, it was the pinnacle of a journey that began 18 months ago in the auditorium of the Metro Richmond Boys and Girls Club. For Mason, it was another step toward a different life, one he was creating for himself.
Eleven inner-city youth arrived at the Boys and Girls Club on Robinson Street in February 2010 for a meeting with what was then called Richmond Pro Cycling, an elite team with an emphasis on community outreach. Dodson arranged the gathering with Boys and Girls Club area director Eric Gilliam, who selected the kids and picked them up from their neighborhoods for the first session. Dodson expected only 10 kids, so he brought only 10 bikes.
"I'm doing a head count and I go, ‘Eric, there's 11,' " Dodson recalls. "And he goes, ‘Yeah, this is Chris. He's not going to be in the program, but he wanted to tag along for the ride, just to get out of the neighborhood." That neighborhood was the public-housing community of Fairfield Court.
While the other kids played and joked around, Mason, then 15, kept his eyes fixed on Dodson for the hour-long presentation. "I was really interested in what he was talking about," Mason says. "Getting kids out of the neighborhood and getting them into something constructive."
Before that meeting, Mason would ride his mountain bike with his friends from Fairfield to Wal-Mart and Burlington Coat Factory, but he'd never ridden a long distance on a road bike.
After the meeting, Dodson pulled Gilliam aside. "I said, ‘There's something about that kid. He's going to be the glue to hold this program together. We can't lose him.' "
For the first month, the kids rode on stationary bikes in the auditorium of the Boys and Girls Club for about 15 minutes, and then they'd play basketball. "We realized that if we were going to gain their respect, we had to respect what their modus operandi is, and that's playing hoops," Dodson says.
After they got comfortable on the bikes, Dodson and the coaches took the kids for rides around the lakes at Byrd Park and down Broad Street.
But after a few months of operating out of the Boys and Girls Club on Robinson Street, Dodson started noticing a trend as far as who was getting on the Boys and Girls Club van to come to the rides.
"The Fairfield kids were always there," Dodson recalls. "If Chris was there, because the other kids in Fairfield looked up to him, chances were they were going to come with him."
Rather than having the kids come to him, Dodson started to meet them in their neighborhood.
Around 3 p.m. on a sweltering afternoon in late July, Dodson is driving a converted Wonder bread truck down I-64 east to the Fairfield Court Boys and Girls Club. The old truck's sliding metal doors thunderously open and shut along the way. The side of the truck reads, "Richmond Cycling Corps: Civic Development and Outreach" — what Dodson's nonprofit is now called after he dissolved the elite, pro cycling component.
"As we get in [Fairfield], the whole world changes," Dodson says as he merges onto the Nine Mile Road exit. "It's a chaos land." Empty plastic bottles and crumpled fast-food containers litter the median. "This is a road we don't go up," Dodson says, pointing down a street to the left where drug trafficking often takes place.
The panel truck pulls into the parking lot of the Boys and Girls Club on Phaup Street, where several kids play on the concrete stoop outside, waiting for Dodson. The parking lot is strewn with broken glass.
A rusty iron swing set with no swings sits abandoned behind the club in an overgrown field.
"How you doin', man? Give me some love," Dodson says to 11-year-old Tawante Nash, grasping his hand and patting him on the back.
Eight 10- to 13-year-old boys pile boisterously into the back of the bread truck to change from baggy jeans and basketball shoes into spandex cycling shorts. They grab clothes from plastic crates and then help each other unload the bikes from the van. "It took six weeks to even get the kids to wear jerseys," Dodson says. "And then one day, Chris put on the shorts. Within a week, all the kids were wearing them. So now it's like you're not cool if you don't have them on."
The cyclists ride as a group out of the Boys and Girls Club parking lot, going to Captain Buzzy's Beanery in Church Hill, where they'll meet with volunteers from the VCU cycling team and Mason, who has already ridden about 25 miles that day with RCC operations manager Walker Owen. At a busy intersection, Dodson bikes into the middle of the road, stopping like a mama duck and standing in the way of traffic until all of his ducklings cycle safely across.
As they leave the coffee shop, Dodson and Mason split from the group to go on a longer ride while the other eight kids follow the Richmond Cycling Corps ride leaders for hill training. Within 15 minutes, Dodson and Mason are outside the city, cycling up tree-lined country roads, a world away from what they left behind.
A magnet holds the RCC logo to the metal staircase in Dodson's apartment. Below the logo is a patchwork of poster boards filled with Dodson's notes, ideas and strategy maps for the organization. Across the room on the coffee table sits a candleholder that Dodson made in college from small bike parts.
Dodson spent most of his adult life racing bikes, attending Shepherd University for undergrad because the West Virginia school was surrounded by good terrain for cycling. He got his graduate degree in movement science, a kinesiology degree, from Western New Mexico University because it was in a little town, Silver City, at an altitude of 6,000 feet, ideal for bicycle training.
"I always followed the bike," Dodson says. "Everywhere I've gone, everything I've done, unintentionally, the bike has gotten me there."
Dodson moved to Richmond in 2008 because one of the sponsors of his elite cycling team, Richmond Pro Cycling, or RPC, lived in the area. But after a few months, he felt a shift in his priorities.
"I was starting to feel like, well, this is a pretty narcissistic endeavor," says the tall, slender cyclist. "I wanted to stay in the sport in some capacity, but I knew that if I was going to stay in it, it had to be more robust than just being a bike racer."
For Dodson, cycling instilled the desire to push on, to keep pedaling even when he didn't know exactly where he was headed, and he wanted to share that lesson.
The cycling team had been doing bicycle-safety presentations and tutoring at Broad Rock Elementary, but when Dodson started getting involved with the kids from Fairfield Court, he knew he was on to something.
"It starts with just getting to the top of the hill," Dodson says. "But how that transcends into other facets of life, it's pretty cool."
The word "North" is part of a tombstone tattoo on Mason's right bicep, memorializing his friend Deshun Taylor, who died in 2008 at age 14.
"We called him ‘North' because he was from North Carolina," Mason says.
Mason and Taylor had eaten lunch together every day since the sixth grade at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. After school, they would play basketball and video games. "He was one of my best friends," Mason says.
On a Wednesday afternoon in June, Taylor was walking along the sidewalk in Fairfield when he was caught in the crossfire of a shootout that stemmed from an earlier drug-related robbery. He died following a shot to the head.
"It's like another day in the neighborhood," Mason says, adding that he often hears gunshots from his bedroom window. "A lot of people get shot around here, but they weren't really close to me. We were very close."
Taylor's funeral was held in North Carolina, so Mason couldn't go.
"He left a few younger sisters behind," Mason says. "He was basically the brother who they looked up to. I believe he was a role model to them. It was devastating."
After his friend's death, Mason decided he would do everything he could to get out of Fairfield Court.
The 5-foot-6 teen with cropped hair and a Colgate smile lives in a corner apartment in Fairfield with his parents and two younger siblings. Clothes dry on metal clotheslines outside every apartment in the inner courtyards. Ripped upholstered furniture collects mold on the concrete patios.
Mason, who works as a junior counselor at the Boys and Girls Club during the week and in the kitchen of Outer Hanks, a restaurant at Kings Dominion, on the weekend, is the only member of his family with a steady job. He often buys groceries for the family, and he's been buying his own school supplies for the past couple of years.
A senior at Armstrong High School, Mason has an interest in clothing design and plans to attend college.
"If I want to be successful and be something in life, I have to go to school," Mason says, adding that RCC volunteers are helping him study for the SAT.
"My family, they never took the right path," he says, adding that several of his older brothers have been in and out of jail. "I can see where they're headed, and I don't want to be in that same position."
Near the end of 2009, Dodson and the pro cycling team started to run out of money.
That's when the team's board chair, Peter Fraser, principal at local design agency Fraser Design and a recreational cyclist, introduced Dodson to Justin French, a local real estate developer who wanted to help out.
"Justin just had this sort of, like, high, affluent, flowy, pizzazz kind of lifestyle," Dodson recalls of his first impressions of French when they met at Plant Zero Café in Manchester.
French couldn't provide the team with funding, but he could give them property. A few days after the meeting, Craig set foot in a dirt-floored building in Scott's Addition, which he planned to turn into a full-service retail and custom bike fit studio that would generate money for community outreach. On a limited budget, he started renovating the building himself, constructing workbenches from scrap metal found in alleyways.
But a few months after renovations began on the property, police arrested French at Richmond International Airport as he tried to flee the country. He eventually was sentenced to 16 years for real estate tax-credit fraud. Along with many of French's other properties, the studio went into foreclosure.
The building wasn't finished, and Dodson couldn't get the certificate of occupancy from the city. "We had all these sharks going around to all of Justin's properties, trying to get them when the market was stricken with fear," Dodson says.
Dodson ended up forming a partnership with two RCC supporters and bought the building. A few months later, he met with Bon Secours, and it took over as the primary underwriter for the nonprofit.
"I've attacked that building with everything I have so I could get to the point where we're more in control of our financial destiny," Dodson says of the studio that now funnels all of its profits into Richmond Cycling Corps. "I've just had to be super thrifty," he says, adding that he cut personal costs by working as a maintenance man at his apartment complex for a reduced rent. The money he saves goes to RCC.
Amid studio renovations with Mason and other volunteers, board meetings, bike rides with the kids and administrative duties, Dodson spends 12 or more hours working for RCC every day, sometimes working through the weekend. But he says he wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's a lot of stress. It's a lot of sacrificing," Dodson says. "But this is the first time in my life that I feel like I'm doing exactly what I should be doing."
A small, stark white scar cuts through the skin above Mason's upper lip.
He was on a ride with Dodson in June when he turned too fast into a gravelly left turn at the corner of Williamsburg and Bickerstaff roads, smashing his mouth into the sidewalk and breaking his front tooth in half.
"I know I was going too fast," Mason says with a sheepish smile. "I hit that turn like that all the time, but I think I just always missed that little patch of gravel, and I just happened to hit it that time. The bike slid and that was it. I did a little face-dive into the street."
Mason got back on his blood-splattered bike and rode with Dodson to Richmond Community Hospital, about a mile from Fairfield.
When they got to the hospital, emergency room doctors cut the ripped skin around Mason's lip, and since he didn't have enough skin left to stitch, they just packed and sealed the wound with gauze. A week later, RCC supporter Dr. Lanny Levenson fixed Mason's broken tooth at no cost.
"My tissue got left behind in the street," Mason says, adding with a laugh that he ran into some friends from school at the emergency room, and they assumed he'd been shot.
Two days later, Mason was back on the bike, and 15 minutes into his first ride since the injury, it started pouring.
"Every time Craig and I go out on a ride by ourselves, it rains," Mason says, adding that it always stops as they're finishing the ride.
They took cover under a large oak tree near the side of the road. Turning to Mason, Dodson quipped, "Man, you can't catch a break, can you?" Through the wet gauze that was now slipping off his swollen lip, Mason cracked a smile and got back on the bike.
The water level in the flooded streets reached their pedals, soaking their shoes, but the two pressed on, together.
"We're going to continue to ride," Mason says. "It rained on us plenty of times, and we didn't turn around. We kept going. There's going to be obstacles, but you've got to get past them. You keep going."
Thunder shook the wet soil in Blue Bell, Pa., where more than 5,000 cyclists started the Livestrong Challenge.
Six Richmond Cycling Corps boys from Fairfield had arrived safely through the finish line, riding 25 to 50 miles in less than three hours. Only Dodson and Mason remained on the road, pushing toward the end of their 100-mile ride.
For 80 miles, steeply rolling hills forced cyclists who had flown past Dodson and Mason at the beginning of the ride to dismount and push their top-quality bikes, while the pair from Richmond rode past them, attacking every hill.
"Within the last 20 miles, that's when I started feeling the pain," Mason says. A pulsating ache in his lower back intensified with every pedal push, and he started getting cramps in his thighs. "Excruciating pain, but I wasn't going to stop, though."
Earlier in the afternoon, ride officials began dismantling metal-barred tents and instructing spectators to return to their cars for shelter from the storm.
Dodson, on his bike, had gotten a text from Owen, who was with the rest of the boys, that event organizers had evacuated the finish area. His heart sank; no one would be there to cheer Mason, no announcer would say his name over the loudspeaker as he crossed through the finish. Those last 10 miles were the longest 10 miles Dodson's ever ridden.
He didn't tell Mason about the evacuation. They continued to ride through sheets of rain, eyes half open to shield against the spray. Mason stayed silent and looked ahead, his face twisted and his legs moving rhythmically. Dodson offered intermittent words of encouragement.
Approaching the final stretch, the rain lightened, and a mass of blurry figures appeared in the distance. As Dodson and Mason got closer to the finish line, the figures became clear, and cheers came from familiar voices.
As the two rode through the finishing chutes together, the six boys from Fairfield Court and four Richmond Cycling Corps ride leaders chased ecstatically after them. The riders sped around the bend toward the finish, warm rain spraying off the rubber tires in their wake. Owen had found a back route to the finish line and drove the boys through the nearly flooded, blocked-off streets to be there for their teammates.
After the finish, Dodson collapsed on the edge of the seat of his car. His ash-brown hair was soaked, and his pale, peeling lips quivered. "To see [Chris] do that, I could die tomorrow," he says, his voice cracking.
By now, the sun peeked from parting clouds, and Mason stood draped in a towel like a prince, surrounded by the younger kids who were shouting questions and congratulating him. "Craig got me through it," Mason says. "He cares. I know he cares.''
Dodson crawled wearily from the car toward the crowd of kids, tears forming in his bloodshot eyes.
He looked over to Mason, drew a long, shaky breath and whispered, "This is the proudest moment of my life."