By Bill Plock
Andy Balika didn’t race bikes; he raced life on a bike; and in many other ways.
But it wasn’t about winning, it was about living—or as he would say, “livin’”. In fact he carried a sign most everywhere he went that said, “get busy livin’”. From mountain tops, tree tops, finish lines, to quiet times on the beach with his family, or in his backyard with the sunrise watching birds—he focused on the living.
Maybe like the expert skier and mountain biker he was, he didn’t see the rocks or trees he could hit, he simply saw the space and adventure they provided. And, in a twist of irony, he made his living as an arborist pruning trees, clearing paths and most of all working with his hands, working in nature and providing for his family–for clearing the way for others–so Andy like.
I had the honor to speak with Karen, Andy’s wife, and she said she missed those hands, “those calloused hands, so strong but yet so gentle and loving, we held hands a lot, I miss that so much,” she said.
She describes their relationship as perfect. He always told her that if she would take care of him, he would take care of the rest. For 15 years they more than made it work. Their lives were packed with adventures, spontaneity and jokes, lots of jokes and laughs. “There was no such thing as an ordinary moment with Andy,” she said.
They shared everything outdoors from cycling, skiing, fishing, hiking, and surfing, to sunrises and sunsets sipping something and admiring nature. Andy and their son Jett formed a bond with adventures like bow hunting for turkeys, or fly fishing for a Rooster fish in Costa Rica—which he never caught—and of course riding bikes and playing football or whatever Jett wanted to do.
When asked if Andy had a dream he never fulfilled, Karen said, “He never caught that Rooster fish and he never got to see his son grow to become a man. It’ll be my life’s mission to fulfill that dream of his. I’m pretty certain he fulfilled everything else. There was nothing left unsaid between us in the end. We never let a day go by when we didn’t tell each other how we felt. No regrets”.
Life for him began and ended in the outdoors—literally. He died on August 10th on a mountain bike at the Honey Stinger Mountain Bike Race in Steamboat Springs–a place where Andy and Karen began their relationship. He had completed his race, along with Karen, even had time to crack a celebratory beer and decided to go find Jett and ride behind him. Looking back, weirdly, he sort of struggled to keep up with his son and at an aid station stopped to ask the attendee if he had seen Jett. Suddenly Andy slumped over his bike and fell to the earth and died due to a major cardiac failure. Meanwhile his son finished his race and Karen was in camp thinking all was ok.
Then a medic beckoned Karen. Her first thought was something happened to Jett. She could hardly described the next two chaotic hours it took to bring Andy’s body out. It was too surreal to understand and through tears she struggled to articulate the time warp of trying to understand, to even believing it was Andy, to cope with the possibility, to deny it was true, until she realized it was.
Immediately, close friends responded in support. The cycling community rose like a peloton sprinting for the finish line with a million dollars at stake. Their close friends Kristin Weber and Matt Davies drove overnight to get to Steamboat. The couples were close, racing together, traveling and hanging out for years. Says, Matt, “Andy was a hugger, he would give me these big brother type hugs, he was the only male I ever told that I love.” Continued Matt, “I always thought If anything ever happened to me, I would want Andy to be the one to help with my kids. He is THE capable guy—no idea it would be him and not me.”
To a person, from race directors Barry Lee or Doug Gordon, to friends like Matt and Kristin or through countless sentiments on social media, Andy helped everyone. He was the first one at the race, the last one to leave, the one with room on his truck for that extra bike, or piece of equipment or a beer and a ride home.
Said Doug Gordon, “to say that Andy was “high energy” is the understatement of the century. No matter the situation, he was All IN. Go for a ride, in. Go race, in. Go watch Top Gun at Red Rocks, in. As soon I met him, we were friends.”
Last week, Mike Miller, owner of Basil Docs Pizzeria and the Executive Director of BRAC, Shawn O Farrell, held a get together for the cycling community. Hundreds turned out to have some donated pizza and beer, and many dropped off a donation.
Michelle Blouin Barton helped create a Go Fund Me site to help raise money to support Jett and Karen. Unfortunately, in some ways, in a twisted almost cruelty of nature sort of way, his profession of shaping nature, kept him from affordably having life insurance due to the extreme hazards as an arborist. It wasn’t that he didn’t want it. But as of this writing, 574 people have donated over $106,000. Here is a link if you care to help: https://www.gofundme.com/f/karen-and-jett-balika. By the way, for those in similar situations, there is a new life insurance product on the market that can be purchased for something like a bike race or one day event, (https://buddyinsurance.com).
While scared of what is to come, Karen is steadfast on helping others understand heart issues. To get checked once in a while and pay attention. As it turns out Andy had atherosclerosis which is a condition of hardening of the arteries that can be detected in large part with a CT-Scan that is fairly inexpensive, but isn’t normally prescribed unless there are symptoms. For $120 or so, it may save your life.
But for now Karen reflects and gathers pictures for the upcoming memorial on September 20th from 5 to 8pm at the amphitheater in Highlands Ranch. The public is welcome and you and can bet there will be plenty of bikes and hardly a car without a bike rack there.
She has Andy’s business to sort out, and simply dealing with a lot of loose ends. When asked if she is mad, or bitter, Karen said no and she said it with a smile that I detected from every person I spoke with regarding Andy. Kristin Weber was the first person I spoke with, and on the phone I could “feel” the same smile Karen had when she thought of Andy.
The smile they both shared, I can only image, was the smile Andy would have on his face at the end of ride, or when he sat and watched “his” hummingbirds in his backyard or when Jett walked in a room. That far off gaze of satisfaction, of wonderment, of a life fulfilled.
Says Karen, “all the love he gave to everyone, to life, is coming back around. I feel so loved and supported and the cycling community has been absolutely incredible. It simply speaks to the person Andy was. I have learned so much, I take something from everyday like he did, I will be forever grateful. GET BUSY LIVIN’”