The cyclist in front of me sure looked like trouble. He was lean and muscular in all the right places and had a pure, steady rhythm to his pedaling. We had just embarked on a ride from Furman University to Saluda, North Carolina, a 75-mile round trip, and I was looking forward to a big day of climbing. I was with a group of seven riders, some with less experience than others. And the one in front of me definitely was in the “more experienced” category. I gave the pedals a quick squirt and eased up next to him.
“Hey, I’m Whit.”
“Whit? You’re Caroline’s brother?”
“That’s me. And you are?”
That’s how so many of us met Whit Oliver. He was the former professional cyclist with that ever-present smile, the guy with that beautiful cadence and the lean body that comes from meticulous training. He was also the guy that wanted to hear about you. “What’s your name? Where’d you get those cool shoes? Your bike looks well cared for.” Whit was never the guy to wear his “Former European Pro” moniker on his sleeve even though he had the speed and moves to show it. He smiled, he listened, he engaged, he chatted up the new riders and he always encouraged.
I’d already been on a few rides with his sister, Caroline, prior to meeting him. She was new to cycling and would occasionally joke about her brother, the former pro who never gave her any cycling advice. And I wasn’t sure she was serious because it’s not often someone can say that and mean it.
“Your brother raced professionally? Where?”
“Seriously? And he won’t give you any cycling advice?”
“Yeah. Isn’t that strange? Because aren’t older brothers supposed to give you nonstop, unsolicited advice on everything?”
Six weeks later, I’m at mile one of that 75-mile ride and after chatting with Whit for five minutes, he hadn’t mentioned his history. Cyclists, the kind that enjoy a Sunday with six thousand feet of elevation to tackle, can be an egotistical bunch. It comes with the territory.
Our bikes are expensive — many of the parts can be upgraded to suit one’s desires —and with the infatuation to be faster there’s a wealth of one’s own statistics to become captivated with via the latest app-based tech. Couple that with the inherent danger of cycling — courtesy a nation of distracted drivers — and the close proximity of all that spinning metal, and it’s easy to get caught up in one’s inflated sense of two-wheeled worth. And if you had an MBA from a business school in Paris, spoke beautiful French, had 10% body fat coupled with the boyish charm of Chris Pratt, one would assume Whit Oliver would own a serious level of self-indulgence.
You would be wrong.
Although Whit had all those qualifications, he did not have the ego. On that first, big ride we were with a couple of guys that were about to take their longest ride, ever. I overheard Whit giving encouragement and one of those guys, Ramon Lopez, said, “He totally left a lasting impression on me. I remember how cool and humble he was on that ride. Even though I was an anchor on that ride, he never treated me like a burden. He was encouraging and kind.”
On a day-long ride across the western North Carolina mountains with perhaps ten others, several of us were feeling fast and Whit was happy to tuck in and coach me through some rather technical and fast downhill bits. One of the guys on that ride, Julian Loue of Rise Bakery, remembers discussing the merits of their favorite Parisian bakeries and not average watts or tire pressures.
I’ve maybe pedaled 1500 miles with Whit. Several times on those rides I also lost my temper. Over the years I’ve had drivers purposely squeeze me onto the gravel, or flip me off, or get right up behind my six o’clock position then lean on the horn. Stuff like that happened all-too-often and it would always enrage me. Whit? It wouldn’t even phase him. He’d laugh it off with “someone’s having a bad day.” I’ve met Buddhist monks with worse tempers than Whit Oliver.
On those rides, his favorite topic of conversation was his wife, Eva or his young son. Eva is a professional artist. Her work had found international fame a few years back when she collaborated with Nike to create a line of athletic clothing designed around her aesthetic. I only met Eva once and she kindly rewarded me with, “Whit has told me all about you.”
Three years ago, Whit asked me to help him create a line of energy bars and we knocked an idea around that the typical cookie had similar nutrition and calorie content of a performance bar. So, we designed five different cookies, shaped like bars, flavored with lemons, sweet potatoes, chocolate, cinnamon, and almonds and spiked with caffeine. That’s a tough market to break into without some serious backing but we gave it a shot. Whit eventually got his Musette Cookie bars into some cycling shops and the results were very popular. The energy bar space is a very crowded market, yet Whit was willing to give it a go.
“Hey, let’s give it a shot.”
That was Whit. He’d smile and say, “Why not?” and with his effervescent personality would convince you to climb something outrageous, to pedal 20 miles past your limit, to try and break into a crowded market because it was possible. On his wife’s Instagram page, his comments are full of love and praise for her work. His LinkedIn profile is full of praise and encouragement for others, and his recommendations are rife with comments such as, “He listens deeply and intently.”
Always listening, always encouraging, always asking “Hey, why not give it a go?” David “Whit” Oliver was the cycling community’s poster child for many of the best qualities we humans should aspire to.
Godspeed, my friend.
– John Malik