A life of tribulations: How Oklahoma mountain biking saved Tommy Duvall

Great singletrack brought a once-convicted felon back to the (not-so) straight and narrow

Photos by Dylan H. Brown

If it's riding, he's smiling.

If it’s riding, he’s smiling.

It's 6 a.m. and I'm sitting at a coffee table in a modest home in Moore, Oklahoma. I have just awoken after a four-hour nap. My flight had been delayed and then delayed again.

I had tried to reserve a hotel room, but my host–who is in the kitchen telling me about the riding to come– wasn't having it. He's one of Oklahoma's core riders and he was adamant about me staying at his place.

Plus, he said, any good riding trip needs to start with a couple of brews.

I couldn't agree more. But each additional beer meant less R.E.M.

We ended up hitting the sack at 2 a.m., and there I was peeling my eyes apart four hours later.

Tommy Duvall is my host. He's a fit man of modest height and has more energy than a jackrabbit. He speaks in three sentence bursts, only allowing my occasional grunt of acknowledgement.

But like I said, it's early so I don't mind the one-way conversation.

"I'm getting texts saying it's raining. It should be good up there; it's mostly sand. We'll go check it out," he says.

He's on his phone, texting and Facebooking with several local riders of the 55-member race team, Team Phoenix. "It has to do with an old mountain bike team that went belly-up, so we call it Team Phoenix because it rose out of the ashes," he says.

He's also invited several other core riders, including many of the trail builders that slaved away on the network of trails in and around Oklahoma City.

Duvall's life is rooted in his riding.

Duvall’s life is rooted in his riding.

The first official mountain-bike trail in Oklahoma City was razed roughly 18 years ago in area near Lake Stanley. It is now referred to as Old Draper because a number of years later the Oklahoma Earthbike Fellowship (OEF), along with Oklahoma City, decided to move the Stanley Lake Draper Trails network.

The soil around Stanley Lake, and most of Oklahoma is red. In the Draper network, the trails are smooth, with occasional sandstone ledges, and have been cut into thickets of trees, where they wind in perfect s-shapes, dropping and swooping through ravines. There isn’t much elevation change, but the trail designers have really utilized the topography. People have also come in and built up wooden features and jumps. Some of the faster, sharper turns even have well manicured berms.

OEF takes charge of trail maintenance in the area and looks after more than three major trail networks. The Draper Trails, Bluff Creek and trails near Watonga are some of the more commonly ridden trails.

The trails outside of Oklahoma City have really grown over the years too. Ardmore has roughly 30 miles of trail, Stillwater has three 7-mile trails and Tulsa has many options, including 10-mile Turkey Mountain.

Most of the trail systems host races as well, which is where Duvall has shined in the mountain-bike community.

As the president, he travels with Team Phoenix all around Oklahoma, south into Texas, east to Arkansas and north into Kansas, competing throughout the year.

But Duvall doesn't just manage, he also races. He's an accomplished cat-1 racer and has the medals to prove it.

It's not hard to guess that he's into racing, considering just behind me in the living room of Duvall’s home, is a trainer pointed directly at the TV. And it has the wear marks of a used machine.

"I don't ride that thing any more," he says, nodding toward the bike.

I try to believe him, chuckling as I over-animatedly roll my eyes.

"I just ride for fun now," he implores.

Duvall explains he's over killing himself, while binging on “Lord of the Rings.” He now just makes sure to get outside on a ‘real’ bike, no matter what it is. He’ll ride cross-country, road crits and centuries just to keep the blood flowing.

If it seems like he's using biking to overcome something, he is.

Duvall finds his peace of mind.

Duvall finds his peace of mind.

In 1988, Duvall went to prison. He got out 18 months later, then less than a decade later, he was sentenced to a 20-years-to-life sentence.

"It was the ’80s. I can't say everybody was doing, but everyone I knew was doing. It's just what you did. You'd eat a black molly, do a yellow-jacket, smoke hooter; you'd drink beer, do shots; you know, whatever'd make you feel good at night, that's what you were doing," he said.

Duvall was in the heart of the scene. When he graduated high school he started disc jockeying. He said he felt like the lead singer of a rock band. People would come straight at him and most of the time they were carrying. They would just give some of their score and he loved it. He was wrapped up in it.

"I wanted to be the guy that felt the best," he said. "Whatever you were doing, I was doing more of."

His addiction finally got the best of him and his life was spiraling out of control. Most people would mortgage their house, or sell it, just to keep up their addictions. But he's a business man, so he started selling.

"I figured, I'd sell dope, and that's illegal," he said. "So that's how I ended up in prison the first time."

After the first 18-month stint, it only took a few years before he was back at it, quickly sliding into the rhythm of his old life.

"I went through the drug thing in the ’80s, cleaned up for a minute, went through the drug thing in the ’90s and ended up with you know… ”

… A 20-year life sentence.

Doesn't matter if he's in the saddle or off, Duvall is at home on the trails.

Doesn’t matter if he’s in the saddle or off, Duvall is at home on the trails.

But Duvall’s life hadn’t always revolved around drugs. As a teenager, his parents bought a bike shop in Lawton, Oklahoma.

"He was glued to (the bikes). His interest was right there in the shop," Duvall's mom Charlene Curtis said. "When we brought that young man into it, I knew he had found his niche. It has never changed, his love for cycling has never changed."

It was those formative years that taught him the foundation of bikes. He became well-versed in Schwinn, how to sell bikes–he’s now the manager at Bike One in Norman–and most importantly, the power of riding.

It has been 11 years since his life behind bars end. He was paroled after serving seven years in prison on his second sentence. He's avoided all his prior connections, and made sure to even avoid the biking community at first–he was afraid of anything that might trigger his past.

Duvall even led a life as successful salesman in the optical world for 10 years.

But clearly something was missing. As fast as he ran, he couldn't run away from his addictive personality.

"When they finally let me out of prison I knew that (old life) was a road I would never go down again," he said.

So instead of drugs he rode. He immersed himself in the world in which he was raised; a world in which he was most versed.

He rediscovered riding, remembering that it was his life passion.

"This really keeps you from losing your mind," he says, referring to our ride to come. "Getting out in the woods; getting out in nature is the best thing for people who may have been into drugs or alcohol or anything … unless you're fishing or hunting," he adds, over a laugh.

His passion is clearly seen in all facets of his life.

His passion is clearly seen in all facets of his life.

In Duvall’s minivan, three ornaments dangle from his rear-view mirror. They are all different incarnations of bike parts.

His phone continues to blow-up. People know him through bikes. His work, his family, his hobby and even his friends can all be traced back to bikes.

Duvall identifies himself as a core mountain biker. He is visibly upset when the clouds let out a thunderclap and the rain begins to saturate the ground on our way to the Draper Trails.

He wonders whether we should ride the trails. He knows there are sections that could get rutted. In fact, he is ready to pack up and hit the road, defeated.

It is me who asks for a quick tour. I insist we go out on foot, just go for a couple photos.

He hesitates, turns and unloads the bikes.

"To take someone on a new trail they've never ridden; I live for that stuff," he said. "Friends call me and say, 'Let's go try this new trail, or can you take me to that new trail I heard about?' That's probably my favorite thing in life: To get on the bike and hit a trail I've never ridden before and then master it, no matter how hard it is, no matter how easy it is."

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