Music makes the wheels go round
Those who know me, know music ranks just about as high on my list of loves as cycling. I can’t imagine my life without either. Because there are just too few hours in the day, there are times I have to incorporate both at the same time – by biking to concerts, singing to myself while riding along flat trails (I’ll apologize now if you’ve heard me do this) or playing a monotonous loop of good beats in my head while I turn the pedals up yet another steep hill.
In a bizzaro alternate world, I would have been a musician. I tried. Really I did. I picked up the guitar as a young’un, but being taught classical music at the age of 10 doesn’t really fly. I wanted to be Joan Jett, not Adrian Legg. Don’t get me wrong, I love intricate finger picking and classical music, but have you ever heard of a junior bike racer blasting Bach out of his or her boombox?
So I realized early that becoming a musician wasn’t in the cards for me. I still pick up my acoustic guitar from time to time and pretend I know how to play, but I get a lot more pleasure out of going to see others on stage.
And as it happens, I’m not alone in seeing music and cycling go hand and hand, since both get their momentum from unique beats.
This June, I had the pleasure of riding out to the Sh**ty Barn in Spring Green, Wisconsin, with friends to see folksinger-songwriter Peter Mulvey. (You may cringe, dear reader, but that is the actual name of the music venue. The stage is in a converted pig barn, get it?)
I had to make it out there because I’ve been following Mulvey for years and love his music. Only later did I discover that the Milwaukee-based musician is also a cyclist who tours by bike each summer. When I heard he would be playing the barn, I knew it would be sacrilege to drive out there from Madison.
Behind the barn
The Sh**ty Barn caters to cyclists, after all. Chris Staples, a fellow cyclist and the man behind the entertainment there, endeavors to make the concerts bike friendly. He invites audience members to bike camp on the property, warm up at stoked fires after riding out there, and supplies cyclists with great food and beer so they don’t have to haul it themselves.
Staples, like so many cyclists I know, is a product of the ‘80s cycling boom. He delivered newspapers by bike and raced BMX bikes as a kid before Greg LeMond inspired him to take his riding up a notch. Now he’s a gravel road rider, a tourer and a Wisconsin driftless area riding junkie.
While riding either his homegrown Gunnar Rock Hound (suitable, he says, to haul his “fat carcass plus all his junk around”) or his Surly Pacer, music is often playing in his head.
“It totally depends on how much I’m into suffering,” Staples explained. “When I’m cruising and relaxed, the sun is shining with the wind at my back, it might be some Lucinda Williams or Gillian Welch. If I’m feeling strong and I need a burst of juice, it’s Public Enemy. Black Flag when I’m out of my comfort zone, digging so deep I’m on the edge of digging a hole. And Gram Parsons or Townes Van Zandt if I’m broken.”
One of these days I’ll actually get the chance to ride with Staples. Our paths have nearly collided multiple times. Until then, I’ll just keep riding out to the stellar events he puts on in Spring Green.
Peter Mulvey lives in Milwaukee and often plays at the Café Carpe in Fort Atkinson, a modest 56 miles away. That proximity got Mulvey thinking that if he could carry a guitar on his bike, he could ride to Fort Atkinson. And if he could do that, he could pedal the next 35 miles to Madison. Then maybe on to Green Lake and ….
This fall will mark his eighth bike tour, taking him out of the Midwest and as far as New York, Vermont and Massachusetts. Although the daily mileage will be a bit less than on other tours he’s done within the Midwest, there are mountains in them parts out East. Imagine hauling all of your instruments and gear up and over mountains, many of which have no switchbacks.
When I asked Mulvey where in the Midwest are his favorite places to ride, his list included mostly Wisconsin trails: the Glacial Drumlin, Oak Leaf, Ozaukee, 400, Elroy-Sparta, La Crosse River Trail and, of course, his hometown Hank Aaron Trail. He said he also enjoys riding through Des Moines, Minneapolis and Chicago – wherever there’s a trail or a little traveled roadway with a wide shoulder. Even though I’m a road rider, I don’t blame him at all. Knowing you’re safe on a trail allows the mind to wander or carry on a conversation with whomever is with you.
Touring by bike has generated “a million stories,” Mulvey said, some involving “eating ice cream every single day on the Long Haul Tour; having ‘Sweet Caroline’ by Neil Diamond stuck on repeat in our heads; and seeing a mole, sandhill cranes and a camel in a barn in Wisconsin.”
Best of all, Mulvey said, is “the way we bond when we travel together through physical effort. When it rains, you get wet. When it’s hot, you’re hot, when it’s cold, you’re cold.”
He quoted British author and philosopher Iris Murdoch who said, “The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”
Another bicycling musician I’d like to highlight is Brianna Lane of Minneapolis. Lane came to bike touring through an injury. Initially she stayed healthy by running trails when not on the road performing. When she took some time off touring, she began to bike commute to her part time job at Cars-R-Coffins in Minneapolis.
Breaking her ankle that winter meant she couldn’t return to long distance running. So she turned instead to long distance biking. It was during this transitional year that she learned about musicians who also toured by bike, like Mulvey and The Ditty Bops out of Los Angeles.
I first met Lane at a Mulvey show last fall. She has toured with him for years now. When I put to her the same question I asked him about favorite places to ride, Lane said, “Cheers to Wisconsin. Hands down the best long distance riding out there. Lovely shoulders, great trails and respectful drivers.”
Lane said she also bikes to most of her local shows in Minneapolis, which she calls “a true biking city with sweet urban riding.”
Lane said her partner runs a bike shop “so we have a pretty big personal stable (of bikes). Maybe we’re a little obsessed.”
“My touring bike is a Handsome Devil, a company out of Minneapolis. I have an old 1972 three-speed that I call my soulmate bike. She’s my daily get-around-town bike with a basket on the front, a bell and a kickstand. In the winter I ride an old mountain bike converted to a three-speed machine with thick tires, internal shifting, Dynamo Lights and a Paul Wellstone sticker on the frame.”
The “family station wagon,” she said, is a Yuba Mundo, a cargo bike that can fit two kids on the back as well as camping gear or groceries in saddle bags. “We’ve been known to haul a cooler full of gin and tonics, a full grown woman and a stereo, too,” Lane said.
The couple also has two tandems. “One for speedy road adventures and one classic old-school Schwinn with a two-speed kick-back hub for date nights,” she said.
I asked Lane if cycling inspired her to write songs. “Riding has a lovely cadence most of the time. Songs come and go from my mind, but mostly songs by other people, not my own,” she replied. “When my commute is 40 minutes or more, I’ll listen to the ‘This American Life’ podcast to get ideas from stories.”
Getting to know Staples, Mulvey and Lane better makes me want to support them every chance I get. I have a strong feeling the biking and music scenes will continue to merge over time. I’m excited to be included in it, even if just as a concert goer.
In Part II, which will appear in the October issue of Silent Sports, I’ll introduce a bike messenger/cellist, a couple punk rockstars in my own riding circle, and an old time bluegrass musician who bikes regularly.
Kierstin Kloeckner used to race bikes and now commutes by bike in Madison, Wisconsin, where she is a personal trainer and yoga/pilates instructor. She blogs at www.twowheelsfromhome.blogspot.com.