Touring by bicycle, cello and all

I started this blog, a couple years ago, as a bike writer. Actually, I started it as my personal journal and then thought, what the hell, I’ll see if anyone wants to read my ramblings. Somehow, amidst all this writing about bicycles, I also became somewhat of a music blogger as well. Okay, maybe I’m getting carried away. I’ve really only written a few pieces on the mix between music and cycling, as well as two musician interviews, but this post on Ben will make three, and I’m looking forward to doing more in the near future.

Back to the man of the hour, Ben Sollee, part cellist, part singer/songwriter and part cyclist. This guy has got it going on. At the young age of twenty-nine, he’s already put out four albums-Half Made Man being his latest. His music is a brilliant mix of bluegrass, jazz, folk and r&b. Oh, and he tours around the country by bike, cello strapped to it’s side. NPR named him one of the “top 10 great unknown artists” following his 2008 release, Learning to Bend. And how could one disagree with them? Ben Sollee is an amazing artist and I’m dumbfounded more people don’t know about him.

On Ben’s “Ditch the Van Tour“, Madison was lucky enough to book him at a Wisconsin Bicycle Federation event at the Majestic Theater. Once again, Tom Klein, our Dane County director, put his past skills as a music promoter to the test and came out golden. On October 24th, the eve before the Wisconsin Bike Summit and the Saris Gala, Ben will take the stage and wow the entire audience. How fitting. If you bike, and love music, come to this show! As you know, I always ask folks I’m interviewing odd and random questions as well as a few that pertain to cycling. May I introduce Ben Sollee.

Q: Tell me about your bike and why you chose the rig you did for touring.

A: I ride a Surly Big Dummy. It’s kind of a tank, which may be its best attribute. For the long rides with heavy weight you want a robust frame with high grade components. It is that and more. I’ve made a few adaptions for my touring: swapped disc brakes for v-brakes, raised the handle bars for a more upright position, and installed a Brookes sadle (which is happily broken in).

Q: Do you write songs while riding and does cycling affect your songs? If you have written songs while riding, which ones?

A: I get a lot of thinking in when I’m riding. Many of my thoughts are musical but they don’t often turn out as songs. However, the song “Pursuit of Happiness” from Half-Made Man was written out on my bike. I had a frustrating call with my manager at the time and got out for a ride to blow of steam. Once the first line came to me, “Riding out past all the places that I have a reason to go,” all the rest followed.

Q: What is one of the funniest or strangest things that has happened to you while touring by bike?

A: Back in 2010 we rode our bikes through Wilmington, DE. The east side of town was ruff and run down, but you can’t roll up your windows on a bike. So, we road through posing as wayward locals. A kid, maybe 9 years old, ran up next to me and poked with the question “What are you doing?” I replied that we were on a music tour, just by bike. “Can I go?” he asked. Jokingly, I responded, “Sure.” He hopped on the cargo area of my bike and planted himself there for the ride. “How far you want to go?” I asked. He thought for a second, “far.” And so we rode along for a few blocks as his parents and friends began shouting for him. “Man, I got to go. My Momma’s callin’.” And he slipped off my bike. Very unique and grounding experience.

Q: What is your personal reason for biking?

A: I want to slow down the pace of my travels. Each year I spend way too much time in between places. The bicycles allow for the limitation of slowing down and being much more present on the road.

Q: If money was no object, where would you like to spend time biking?

A: Europe. Probably through Denmark and Holland. But, most of a bike tours these days are based on where we can ride to put on shows every 40 or 50 miles.

Q: Some musicians who tour by bike ride solo, while others ride with back-up musicians and crew. I’m sure you’ve done both, although it seems you are usually with others. Which do you prefer and why?

A: I always ride with a team: my percussionist Jordon Ellis and tour manager Katie Benson. However, we have never toured with a support vehicle. We carry all of our gear to help maintain the honest limitations of touring on bikes.

Q: While riding throughout the country, have you come across any towns or cities that you’ve noticed as being extremely bike friendly?

A: Well, there are the well known “hot spots” for biking: Portland, Seattle, DC, NYC, etc… We found Colorado to be incredibly bike friendly. Unfortunately, there’s only so many shows you can play in a reasonable range.

Want to hear more from Ben and his adventures? He will be speaking this Friday at the Wisconsin Bike Summit! What a great way to get to know him more!

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About Kierstin Kloeckner, Bike Fed Board Member

Kierstin is a personal trainer who lives and bikes in Madison and a board member for the Bike Fed. She writes guest posts for us here, but you can read more of her thoughts on how cycling fits into her life at her personal blog Two Wheels From Home

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