It was a bit humid but not too hot for an August evening in Austin. With warm temperatures and lightning illuminating the night sky and holding the possibility of much-desired rain, I went to a nearby house for a long-standing Friday night gathering. The Green Man Coffee House is a rotating, rag-tag collection of friends, co-workers and neighbors. They bring snacks and drinks, sit around and talk around the back porch, with music playing in the background, and the occasional mosquito or firefly. A dozen or so mostly grey-haired folks were there, some came, others went. I had watermelon and cantaloupe, grapefruit mineral water and popcorn. Jethro Tull tooted away. Cue the crickets, lemonade and mellow vibes, and you can imagine yourself there with us.
Cross-Country Cyclist, Long-Time Commuter & Activist
I had gone to Green Man on a whim to collect something I’d left at a friend’s, and wasn’t planning to stay. But to my surprise I saw the familar figure of an old friend. He’s a guy who eschews attention, so I’m not even sure he’d like me to print his name, so I’ll use an alias. Let’s call him Johnny.
In his assertive but quiet way, he has done alot for the Austin bicycling scene, and inspired me personally just through his example of biking and living car-free for many years. When asked what I should blog about, he said scooters and electric bikes. But he’s a far more interesting subject, so I’ll share a few words about him and hope I can add more someday through an interview.
My friend has been a commuter ever since I knew him, and well before then. He has also traversed the United States coast-to-coast more than once. He’s done other bike touring trips too, but being a modest soul, I could never get many details out of him. In recent years he had a wreck, and accepts rides from his wife who is not a big bike rider. He confded in me he’d had another one recently, but if it was serious he didn’t show it. After his recovery, he got back on his bike and kept riding.
Cycling Keeps Him Forever Young
Johnny is an optimist. He told me I’d lost weight. When I said I didn’t think so, and it was just my posture from going to PT, he felt sure I had. “It’s the biking, it’s good for you.” I told him about a job I wanted to do that required a car. He questioned me why. I told him about needing to look presentable and be able to bring things with me. “Just take an extra shirt and get a bike trailer.” In 20 years or more, I haven’t known him to look much different at all. He’s a vegetarian but for him, biking does keep him fit. I doubt if he even keeps track of miles anymore, if he ever did. He just rides.
But that’s not all he does; he’s a bicycle activist, too. He’s also been a member of the Bike Austin board and the League of Cycling Voters before that, not to mention the City of Austin Urban Transportation Commission. He used to write a monthly column for the Austin Cycling Assocation. He was one of the cyclists in the mid-90’s Austin bike documentary, Bike Like U Mean It! He was involved in Critical Mass, then a friendlier version of the same. The list goes on. I have the impression he’s something of a legend in certain corners of the Austin bicycling scene. But he’d never confirm that.
We chatted for a while, each of us drifting in and out of other conversations. I met Tom, whose daughter wanted to go to the University of Texas just to do the Texas 4000, which is a 70-day ride to Alaska. The students train and fundraise for two years. Johnny was back at the sideboard for snacks, and I was apparently deficient in watermelon (something you don’t usually bring home on a bike). I joked that I wanted to do that, and be the oldest guy on the squad. Johnny said he could go to graduate school just to be eligible. I had major doubts I could even get over the first mountain, but none about Johnny.
We tried to remember where we had met, and the best we could do was “some protest or another.” I asked him what he did for fun. He had to think about it. “Well, I like riding my bike,” he said a bit sheepishly, making a very big understatement. I said going to work didn’t count. He admitted to enjoying cooking and traveling. I asked when the last time he was on an upright was, because he rides a recumbent. That’s when he confessed to the more recent crash. Also raised Jewish like A Dude, we’d been at a couple of seders in years past, but he celebrated the religion more and surely owns his own yamulke.
The Tortoise Beats the Hare
Johnny admitted to not being very fast. But I bet if you were to challenge him to a very long ride, he’d win every time. One time we were talking about going camping in Bastrop State Park, about 60 miles away. I still had a car at that point, and figured we’d drive there together. “Oh no,” Johnny said, “I’ll meet you there.” I was incredulous. This was long before A Dude learned he could ride that far if he trained for it. I’m not sure we ever took that trip, but it sure seems like we did.
He’s not much of a group rider, but knows tons of cyclists. He’s old school and only recently got a cell phone, and I don’t recall getting an email from him for years, but he was working at an electric bike shop for years before they became popular. He’s not a car-hater, but he really doesn’t understand why more people don’t ride bikes. So he’s iconoclastic for sure. There are numerous “hard men” of biycling, as Phil and Paul of Le Tour de France call them. The superfit racers, hammerheads, jocks and fast movers out there ride a bike much farther and faster than we can. Good for them. But it’s guys like Johnny who are the largely unsung heroes of the bicycle-as-transportation movement.
Johnny invited (through his wife), alot of people to his birthday party last year. I think it was his 60th though he barely looks 40, save for the male-pattern baldness. He bought us all pizza, salad, dessert and drinks at Brick Oven. Looking around the room, and talking to people, there were alot of bicyclists. I supposed I was one. And I was in very good company. Someday maybe he will let me interview him, but it’s good to know guys like him are amongst us, quietly going about the bicycling revolution.
People trickled away from Green Man. Johnny offered me his customary goodbye hug. Maybe it wasn’t as strong or as long as I remembered. But there was always a hug. I returned home, happy and humbled to see an old friend who I realized did alot for my bicycle journey by leading by example. As I write, another jazz flutist I actually met named Nestor Torres (who happens to have a Latin Grammy) plays on my Pandora station.
The thunderstorm has delivered, and soft rains are falling. Had Johnny not been married, he’d no doubt be cycling home the 15 miles regardless of weather conditions. Because that’s what bicyclists do. They ride. And I’m lucky to know Johnny, who is one hell of a cyclist.
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4 thoughts on “Friday Night Lightning: A Chat with A Quiet Austin Bicycling Luminary”
Interesting fellow. Johnny reminds me of me! I live in NY and try to steer clear of public transportation as much as possible. I have an ebike and if I can get there (wherever “there” is) on my ebike, I get there on my ebike! Hopefully you get an interview with him where he tells all.
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Cool. I’m slow to appreciate ebikes but if they get people some exercise and reduce pollution without causing crashes of regular bicyclists, I suppose they’re here to stay. Someday I may to resort to one but they’re still expensive. Thanks for connecting and riding! Maybe the guy will let me put his name and picture in this post. If you’re at all like him, you’re pretty cool.
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I met the Texas 4000 group at the foot of, and again at the top of, Teton Pass. There was a National Geographic photographer there. I presume he was there to photograph them, not me.
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I’d bet on neither, but instead the geography. Of the nation. Just a guess.
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