Sunday, January 19, 2014

Austin, Texas

Lance may have been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, but seven framed Yellow Jerseys, representing each of his wins, still prominently hang in his Austin bicycle shop Mellow Johnny.  It couldn't be otherwise, as the shop takes its name from Lance's mangled pronunciation of  those Maillot Jaunes, French for Yellow Jersey.

The glitzy and spacious interior of the shop belie its rather humdrum exterior, retaining the rough facade of its previous existence as a beer brewery then homeless shelter in the former warehouse district of Austin on the fringe of its downtown business district.  The shop is so centrally located that it provides showers, six of 'em, three for males and three for females, for commuters at the cost of just one dollar.  The shop opens at seven a.m. for the early birds, and is actually open more than an hour before that for those who wish to come in super early for some training in the store's basement workout center.  It is so popular that its six a.m. session is fully booked.

The shop's name is not the only play on a foreign language.  The coffee shop in the front of the shop goes by Juan Pelota, a pun on the Spanish for One Ball, which Lance was left with after the removal of one of his testicles due to cancer.  There is no evident wordplay though on the password to use its WIFI--spaceman. 

The French may regard the garbled Englishism of that most sacred of garments as a slur, but they ought to be honored that the lone quote on the walls of the shop, a poetic ode to the transformative power of the bicycle, is from the French racer and journalist Jean Bobet, younger brother of  Louisson Bobet, three-time winner of The Tour in the 1950s.  Bobet the younger was a better writer than rider.  He wrote a most exemplary memoir evocatively titled "Tomorrow We Ride," a favorite expression of his brother after he retired.  That too would have looked fine up on a wall of the shop.  If the store had been more Lance-centric, it might have included some of his favorite sayings--"Pain is temporary. Quitting is forever," "Go hard or go home," "Whatever your 100% looks like, give it," and the like.

The coffee shop had a handful of customers sipping its brew, all glued to their computers. Otherwise Janina and I were the lone customers in the shop packed with Mellow Johnny ware and bikes and accessories.  The coffee shop also offered a wide array of bicycle magazines.  There was also a chart of an assortment of weekly training rides of various distances and speeds open to all that departed from the shop, just as the Richardson Bicycle Mart offered.  

We had a pleasant, unhurried conversation with two young employees, who Janina termed "sweet," exuding more of that Texas and southern wholesome friendliness we've so often encountered that is such a marked contrast to what we are accustomed to. They clearly enjoyed working at the shop and were deeply ingrained bicycle enthusiasts.  Even though the shop rents bikes, they were pleased Austin had just started a city-wide rental program the month before similar to what Chicago and New York instituted earlier in the year.  It thrilled them whenever they saw one of the hundred or so bikes being used.

It was my third such Texas bicycle shop experience in four days. The day before I'd had another at the Hill Country Bicycle Works in Fredericksburg, a thriving German-themed town of 10,000 inhabitants.  It was a much smaller shop than the two others I'd visited, with just one employee on hand in the slow offseason.  I was lucky it was one of the co-owners, Lisa Nye-Salladin.  She did have one customer come in with a flat hour during our half-hour of bike talk, but the interruption allowed me to give the shop a thorough investigation.  It was adorned with six Lance posters and others of Jan Ullrich and Bjarne Riis and Tyler Hamilton and others tainted by drug use. Lisa and her husband Adam got their start in cycling as touring cyclists, but later became involved in racing, so much so that Lisa served thirteen years on the board of USA Cycling getting to know many of the principals of the sport and gaining a full understanding of all its facets, so isn't one to condemn those who "cheated," even devoting the shop's bathroom to posters of "cheaters."

Though Austin was less than one hundred miles away, Lance's current home and home during his racing career, he wasn't known to train on the region's famed hills.  He did pay one lone visit to compete in a mountain bike race staged by Lisa and Adam after his first retirement as training for his first attempt on the Leadville 100.  When Lance's manager contacted the Salladins telling them Lance wanted to ride their race, they thought friends were pranking them.  It took a second communication to prove it truly was a Lance representative.  He arranged for Lance to preview the course with Adam, the best mountain biker in the region.  Adam had a three-and-half ride with Lance all to himself and was thoroughly charmed.

I stopped in to meet Lisa and Adam on the recommendation of Lance-expert Jim Hoyt, the first of my bike shop immersions.  He told me that not only were they experts on cycling in the Hill Country, but that they were touring authorities as well, having completed a thee-year round-the-world tour before opening their bike shop. I was curious if their travels had included the Philippines, my next destination.  They hadn't, but it was still wonderful to hear Lisa so enthusiastically recount many of their experiences from twenty years ago.  They began their trip in New Zealand in February of 1992.  They next went to Australia, then Southeast Asia and on over to India where they spent four-and-a-half months after only intending on spending two weeks. They flew from Delhi to Nairobi and proceeded south to Cape Town, arriving in South Africa just as apartheid was ending.  

They flew back to America from Africa.  As they cycled from Florida to San Francisco, their starting point, they passed through Kerrville, Texas.  The town bike shop was for sale.  It was still available when they completed their trip, so they decided to buy it and take up residence in Texas, even though Lisa had grown up on the east coast and Adam on the west.  It brought an end to their touring, but they've had no regrets, enjoying the business so much, opening a second shop, the one where we were talking, two years after buying the first.  When they retire they look forward to biking Europe, which they bypassed on their world tour, and riding The Tour de France, one subject I knew more about than Lisa.

At one point in our conversation Lisa mentioned she had baby sat for Tyler Hamilton, as they grew up in the same town in Massachusetts.  When Tyler began making a name for himself in the world of cycling, even before distinguishing himself as Lance's chief lieutenant in his first Tour win in 1999, her mother alerted her to the news that the five-year old Tyler Hamilton she used to babysit for was now a world-class cyclist.  Years later Lisa reintroduced herself to Tyler at a Las Vegas Interbike show.  He had no memory of her, but the following year when he saw her again at Interbike, he immediately called out, "My babysitter."

One of the most notorious climbs in the Hill Country was just fifteen miles from the shop up to the summit of Tunnel State Park, named for a former railroad tunnel that had been retired from train traffic in the 1940s.  It was now the summer home to over three million bats, presently wintering in Mexico.  Texas could be called the State of Bats, as 32 of the 53 species of North America bats reside in Texas, the most of any state.  The route sheet I picked up of an 88-mile loop that included the climb  described it as Beyond Category.  It was no where as extreme though as some of the climbs of Bloomington, Indiana's Hilly Hundred.  It was just a half mile long and a five per cent grade, providing some explanation for why Lance didn't go out of his way to train on these not overly demanding hills.

There was no camping at this state park, but with over ninety such parks scattered around the state it wasn't far to another.  We were somewhat tempted to backtrack to Enchanted State Park, named for the Ayers Rock of Texas, a huge granite rock that rises nearly five hundred feet and requires a half mile hike to reach its summit.  It was a spectacular place to camp and has been the site of sacred ceremonies by various peoples going back to pre-Columbia America.  It was another of the many wonderful discoveries we have made in these travels.

It was another of the many wonderful discoveries we have made in these travels.  Among the oddities was as Air Force Half, LBJ's private jet on his ranch outside Johnson City, a town of just 1,000 people named for Johnson's uncle.  It was the second noteworthy personal jet we've come upon.  The other was in Memphis across the street from Graceland, that used to fly Elvis around.

It hasn't been so bad intermixing the driving with biking.  After a couple hours in the car it makes a good bike ride all the more liberating.  Lately the ratio of time spent on the bike has been double of that spent in the car.  Janina injured her knee doing some dancing in Dallas so she has been restricted to short rides around our camp sites and doing a lot of reading while I'm off on my rides.  Yesterday she constructed a small shrine of piled rocks at our campsite in a state park that suffered a forest fire two-and-a-half years ago.   It could well inspire others to do the same.  It would be a good project for the army of Boy Scouts who arrived after dark and were gaily going about their chores early the next morning.  We didn't mind at all to have the quiet interrupted by such boisterousness.

The Texans certainly take advantage of their parks.  Two of the parks we had camped in earlier in the week were booked for the weekend.  But it is the peak season, we were surprised to learn.  We slipped the off-season rate into our after-hours envelope at the Enchanted State Park before we more closely studied the charts and learned the lower rate applies to the hot months of June through August.

There is a palpable state pride in all things Texan.  It is a state of historical markers.  Each is numbered and there are over ten thousand of them.  Zach, the 28-year old son of Greg in Dallas, said that every high school student takes a course in Texas state history.  The most popular tattoo of the people he knows is the Texas state flag.  A large supermarket chain is called H.E.B., standing for "Here Everything's Better," what could well be the state motto.  Not only do Texans consider things better in Texas, but also bigger.  "Texas-sized" is such a common term, it was used to describe the baked potatoes on the menu in the cafeteria of the grand Dallas Museum of Art.

But Texans aren't overly brash in their state pride.  It gives them such a strong measure of self-respect and confidence that they hardly need to brandish it.  Nor does it diminish their respect for others.  I've never been called "Sir" so often, nor Janina "Ma'am," and with an unobsequious sincerity.  Not only does the 60 degree weather make Texas an attractive place to be in the winter, so does the demeanor of its residents.  We'll be sorry to leave.

1 comment:

dworker said...

Good stuff, George. I am thinking Texas for a next winter's trip. I have not done a hybrid bike/car trip. But I do see its advantages. carry on