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Passion on wheels

Hating Alberto Contador, a gifted bike and an unlikely Tacoma friendship

TEAMWORK: MultiCare echocardiographer Jeffry Spencer, James Irish and Tacoma Bike's Peter Stanley / Photo credit: brian Dalbacon Photography

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For 18-year-old James Irish, meeting Jeff Spencer was a frightening experience.

When the two met last January, Irish was on an operating table at MultiCare Mary Bridge Children's Hospital in Tacoma. Spencer, a MultiCare endocardiographer, and others were busy preparing to drain fluid that had collected around Irish's heart. The procedure required a six-inch needle be poked through Irish's stomach.

The procedure - and long needle - had Irish a bit stressed.

"When somebody's stabbing a needle in toward your heart you're going to be pretty intimidated and nervous," says Spencer.

Sensing Irish was wary of the upcoming needle, Spencer began chatting with the young patient. Almost immediately their conversation turned to the Tour de France. As the conversation progressed and the anesthesia kicked in, Irish's passion for biking, and distaste for Spanish bicycle racer Alberto Contador, became evident to everyone in the room.

"It was pretty funny," Spencer says. "The more he went under the anesthesia the more adamant he got that he hated Alberto Contador.

He kept repeating, ‘I hate Contador. I hate Contador.'"

While some might find it odd to turn your attention to the disgust you have for a Spanish biker in the face of a stomach-wrenching needle, this was actually perfectly in line with Irish's attitude. Now heading into his senior year at Tacoma School of the Arts, Irish has long enjoyed sports of all kinds. It was during a routine physical before a season of high school football that he was told he was the proud owner of congenitally bicuspid aortic valve; a defect of the heart that required Irish's real valve be surgically replaced with a synthetic one. It was this initial surgery that allowed fluid to build around Irish's heart, leading to the meeting of Irish and Spencer ... the meeting, and the big needle.

Though Irish admits he dislikes Contador for, "not being a team player," Irish says he doesn't exactly remember badmouthing the racer in front of Spencer. "I think I remember telling Jeff I was going to ride in the Tour de France," says Irish. "But I guess I said some mean things about Contador, too." 

While a bit embarrassing for the mutterer, Spencer found the enthusiasm a testament to Irish's passion for biking. Inspired, Spencer decided to gift young Irish a bike frame after discovering Irish was riding an older model. A longtime biker himself, Spencer knew he had some used frames in his garage that would work as improvements.

At a follow-up appointment the next day, Spencer presented Irish with a mid-‘90s Waterford Paramount frame.

"I just said, ‘Oh, heck yes,‘" says Irish.

Over subsequent weeks, Spencer reached out to fellow bikers to help find parts that Irish could add to the Waterford frame. The story of Irish eventually made its way to the owner of Tacoma Bike, Mike Brown. According to Spencer, Brown and his crew at Tacoma Bike stepped up in a huge way. Tacoma Bike employees donated parts, fit the gifted parts to meet Irish's size and helped build the bike for Irish. 

"Those guys really did a stellar job at fixing James up," says Spencer.

After waiting about six weeks to recover from surgery, Irish was back in his seat by the end of February. Since then, Irish has been invited to become an honorary member of MultiCare's bicycle team, Team MultiCare. From Aug. 6-8 Team Multicare is competing in The Courage Classic Bicycle Tour, a 173-mile ride that takes participants across Snoqualmie, Blewett and Steven's pass. The annual ride benefits the Child Abuse Intervention Department at MultiCare Mary Bridge Children's Hospital and the statewide Children's Trust Foundation.

Though Irish won't ride in the actual event this year, he intends to act as a virtual rider, racking up miles around town in the weeks ahead. Irish, just six months out from heart surgery, plans to bike about 20 miles a day. 

Along with riding as an honorary member of Team MultiCare, Irish looks forward to finally riding with his friend Jeff Spencer. Though the two have kept in touch, they've never gone on a ride together. Irish wants to show Spencer that his bike, and his aortic valve, have been put to good use.

And with this, it's not hard to imagine that talk of a certain Spanish cyclist is bound to come up along the ride.

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