Peddling Positivity

by Simon Gonzalez
March 2020

Once on the road to destruction, a local cyclist now promotes a healthy lifestyle

Jonathan Dubel matter-of-factly discusses his schedule. He wrapped up the grueling 14-race North Carolina Cyclo-Cross series in December, and immediately began training for gravel bike race season. There's a 55-miler coming up in South Carolina, followed by a 100-miler. Transitioning from one discipline to another means packing on the miles. This time of year, that means somewhere between 250-275 miles per week.

"In the summer, it could go up to 350," he says.

He'll do about 40 races in a calendar year, and ride thousands of miles. Not bad for a 53-year-old with a full-time job.

Not bad for a guy who, by his own admission, was an obese alcoholic just a few years ago.

"I was a 12-pack-a-day guy, seven days a week," he says. "I was drinking like a fish; I was 200-something pounds."

These days, the Wilmington cyclist is a lean, fit 5-foot-10, 155 pounds. He's a member of the United States Military Endurance Sports (USMES) team, a position that requires athletic talent and the willingness to serve as a positive example.

Dubel is a regionally competitive bike racer in his second season on Team Chronos, a 15-member elite squad for masters competitors.

"We're the older guys," he says. "Usually in cycling anything over 35 is considered masters."

Every USMES athlete is a former or active military member, or a spouse of one. Dubel served four years in the United States Navy. His two sons are both on active duty. One is in the Navy. The other, a Ranger with the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg, recently deployed to the Middle East.

Gravel road races and rides combine cycling on surfaces such as asphalt, gravel, dirt, some singletrack trails and maintenance or B roads. The courses vary from hard-packed dirt to softball-sized rocks.Dubel was riding for a team out of Wake Forest called Spoke Cycles when he did a gravel bike race with a couple of USMES riders, including an elite team member. They suggested he apply to join Team Chronos.

"The more I got into it, the more I liked that camaraderie, that brotherhood," he says. "Both of my boys are in the military, I'm former military, and my dad was a World War II POW, infantry. It's kind of a natural fit. I never thought of myself being a gung-ho military dude, but it turned out to be that way."

The mission of USMES athletes is to encourage current and former military members to be active, whether through cycling, running, swimming, or any combination. They compete in eye-catching kits and make themselves available to anyone who's interested. The goal is to recruit new members to the club, where they will find support and encouragement.

"The club has 1,200 members, a little over 1,200. It's nationwide," Dubel says. "We try to recruit through word of mouth. If I'm in a race and there's a guy on the sidelines and he's cheering and it looks like he's really interested, I'll talk to him, see if he wants to give it a try. Some take it up and will line up for a race. It doesn't have to be a bike. They can run, swim. It doesn't matter how you get your fix. The whole thing is to get off the couch."

Dubel's mission goes beyond encouraging military members to be active. He's also passionate about relating his tale from obese alcoholic to fit cyclist, to give hope to people struggling with addictive behaviors.

"It doesn't matter where you are or where you've been, how old you are, you can change," he says. "I was 47 when I finally stopped drinking. My story is not unique. I'm just trying to get it out there and make sure people realize there's another way. If someone sees this and stops me on the street and wants to talk, I'm there. I may not have the exact answer for them, but it might give them interest enough to search out some help. That's what I'm looking to put out there."

Dubel says he was a functional alcoholic. He somehow managed to keep his job, but the drinking took its toll. On relationships -- his first marriage failed -- and on his health.

"I had that proverbial look in the mirror, and I was like, 'I'm going to die. I'm going to have high blood pressure, diabetes,'" he says. "I'd already started getting gout. I had a doctor tell me if I didn't lay off, the gout was going to be so bad they might have to amputate a toe. It was bad. I was like, I've got to do something."

The something was cycling. He had been a competitive rider in his late teens and took it up again in his mid-40s. At first, it was just something to help him get back into shape. Then he began to enter races.

"I got more and more into the performance aspect of it," he says. "I tried a few races and got blown out bad. I was like, I don't like the way that feels at all. I used to be a very good racer when I was 18 or 19, but now I was 40-something that didn't mean much."

The urge to be a competitive cyclist replaced the urge to drink.

"One day it just clicked. I went cold turkey," he says. "The funny thing is I can't remember what exactly happened the night before -- that is not surprising, because typically I couldn't remember things that happened the night before -- but I woke up one day and I was like I've got to get better at this cycling thing. I'm going to start riding harder and see if I can replace this need to drink with another outlet. If you are an addict, you are always an addict. You have to replace it with a comparable rush, endorphins, whatever you want to call it. If you don't you'll be back in those same habits."

Dubel celebrated six years of sobriety on Jan. 18. Instead of drinking heavily, he's an elite athlete recruiting other athletes. He's a recovering alcoholic helping others quit their addictions.

"There's some guys I ride with, some guys I know in Raleigh, I've got a couple of family members who are struggling. I don't really have to reach very far to find people," he says. "I try to keep myself as an open book and be open about my issues. So many people, they want help but they're afraid of being judged. I don't judge anybody. I've been pretty low. I'm just driven to never get back to that place again. It's no way to go through life."


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