Edited by Rachel Lapp Whitt. Photographs by Aaron H. Johnston.
When professional musicians Trent Wagler and Jay Lapp—The Steel Wheel Duo—decided to try to commute to work by bicycle for a week, a unique tour of Virginia was born. In September 2009, the two played seven shows in seven days all under their own power, traveling 293 miles with no support vehicle. Before the tour, Lapp went to Tree Fort Bikes of Ypsilanti, Michigan, for guidance, and found an enthusiastic group of avid cyclists who love to get people inspired to ride. Thus the band and shop developed a partnership.
Up and down the hills of Virginia, through the windy days and music-filled nights, Wagler and Lapp kept journals, which have been combined here to tell their story.
Anticipation is high for our first-ever bike tour. Like the Americana roots music we play, cycling has a long history that is being reinvented and made relevant to new audiences. Take an old traditional song, like “Red Wing,” the one that my grandpa used to sing, and that ended up as the title track for our latest album. He sang that song the way he knew it; we took it and applied our own sound. A tradition becomes new again—a living, breathing thing.
It’s a specific creative process for our music, and now we’re applying it to our transportation. We can all choose how we respond to the various factors that push us to find new ways to travel— the cost to us, our communities and our environment. We won’t change the world with a bike tour, but we can, as [singer-songwriter] Peter Mulvey said about his own bike tour, be proud to be a “pebble in the avalanche.”
In the hot, hot sun of the Virginia summer, I rode fully loaded up and down the hills of the Shenandoah Valley and the mountains beyond to prepare. Jay has less training, in part, because the bunny slopes of Michigan aren’t exactly the Blue Ridge Mountains. But Jay loves cycling and was up for the adventure as soon as I started talking about the idea. He knew what he was in for—born in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where I live, he first learned to ride a bike just three blocks from where I recently taught my daughter to balance on two wheels.
Jay and I have traveled together a good bit, both with a full band and as a duo. And we’ve worked out tricky logistics since we live about 500 miles apart. But the question is whether the daily ride will leave us with the energy to play a show in the evening. My transportation is an older GT hybrid frame converted to a long-tail bicycle with the help of an Xtracycle FreeRadical. It’s loaded with two full-sized acoustic guitars, a bag of CDs and microphones, a sleeping bag and mat; in the two front panniers are my clothes and shoes for the trip.
Sunday, the first day of the tour, we have two gigs and 38 miles of riding. It’s our shortest day of travel, but with a two-set gig this evening it will be an early test.
A key detail here is that Jay had bookings with another band in Indiana this weekend. That’s right—he ended one gig at 10 p.m. on Saturday in Indiana, then is set to start biking at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday in Virginia. Luckily, Jay’s father and sister said, “We’ll drive you through the night to Virginia.” With his bicycle, instruments and provisions in their van, Jay could sleep in the back while his amazing family drove him across five states. The 11-hour drive should’ve easily had Jay at my house by 10 a.m. on Sunday, but just before midnight Jay phoned to say they came upon a bad drunk driving accident. They were first on the scene, and gave police their statements. Jay is bummed: they’ll have to meet us at the first gig.
But when I head out from my house in Harrisonburg on Sunday morning, I don’t travel alone. Enter Adam, Becky, and Aaron—good friends and avid cyclists who decided to join us for the first day. The four of us set off for a show at the last day of Spaghettifest at Chimney Rocks State Park. The route is part state road, part back roads, which allows us to ride two-wide at times. A cool, overcast morning turns into a sunny autumn day, and we shed outer layers.
The town of Bridgewater is sleepy as we cross the North River, then breeze past poultry farms and cornfields. We’ve covered half the distance to Chimney Rocks when we’re flanked by a red van with Indiana license plates. It’s Jay!
Jay’s ride is a Specialized Allez. He had told fellow musician and friend Alan Barnosky of Tree Fort Bikes about the trip we were planning. You can tell they’re a business that was started “by cyclists, for cyclists” because they got really excited about this tour and got on board to help Jay get his bike ready. With their advice, he bought a Burley Nomad trailer, and they set the gearing and figured out what tires he should use. Alan even let Jay borrow the rear wheel off his own bike! Tree Fort also supplied equipment for the modern commuter: water bottles, raingear and clothing.
“If two regular guys can ride on modified bikes while carrying multiple instruments and still make it to their shows on deadline, it makes a 1-, 5- or 10-mile commute—or even just getting out and enjoying a ride—a much less daunting task for the rest of us,” said Alan.
After a good set in the shadow of Chimney Rocks—a marvelous set, considering Jay just woke up after sleeping in the back of a van—we get the entourage underway. I’ve been planning and waiting for this day for quite some time, and it’s exciting to finally be on the journey.
Today, we take on hills that roll us through the Shenandoah Valley. Jay said that starting the ride felt great, though admitted later to secretly thinking, “Good Lord, what did I get myself into?” But he pushes through. There’s also a definite morale boost to riding five bikes strong, yet we feel the difference in pace between Jay and I, with all our gear, and that of the others. We put 38 miles behind us and arrive at the Baja Bean in Staunton.
After a shower, coffee and food, our show is great. There’s a nice-sized crowd, good sound, and a fun atmosphere. Although we feel the ride in our legs, our voices are strong and our instruments are in tune. Later, sleep comes quickly.
We’re up a little too early. We stayed the night in the apartment of a traveling friend who left a key for us. It’s nice to be quiet and un-entertaining, off the bikes and the stage.
Like many towns in this part of the state, Staunton is built on some serious hills, and we’re at the top of one of the toughest in town. We struggled to reach the top after the show last night, but we’ll enjoy coasting downtown to find food.
When you’re carrying 100 pounds of cargo on your bike, it’s no simple thing to find an appropriate place to park non-motorized, but well-loaded, vehicles. We stare longingly into a café and wonder what to do with our bikes when a business owner comes by and says we can park them in his real estate office. On our plates soon enough: tasty corned beef hash, eggs, sausage, and cinnamon rolls. If we hold back at mealtime we’ll be low on fuel later, right?
After Sunday’s double booking, we aren’t scheduled to play tonight, but we have more than 90 miles to cover in the next two days. We set a goal of 60 today so the trip to Roanoke tomorrow is shorter, but the weather seems not to agree with our plans. We face 20-mile-per-hour headwinds on some terribly long hills, and then a storm comes up in the early afternoon.
Rain is an issue when traveling by bike. Keeping yourself, your clothes and other valuables dry is a big concern. We wear not-so-attractive, but highly effective, bright yellow rain suits from Tree Fort. But our instruments are the number-one priority. One guitar is in a waterproof flight case while the other is heavily tarped on the Xtracycle; the mandolin is beneath the waterproof cover of Jay’s Nomad. The downpour is torrential, but blessedly short. The instruments are OK.
We get to Lexington by mid-afternoon to eat and rest. We’re feeling a little defeated by not meeting our mileage goal for the day. Is it insane to do this again tomorrow? By mile 42, the sun is starting to go down with 6 miles to our campground. Jay is feeling deep pain in his leg—nerve pain, he thinks. Adjustments to the handlebars and saddle seem to help.
As we’re pushing up another long hill, huffing and puffing, a pickup truck pulls alongside Jay. The truck slows to our pace—about 4 miles per hour— and Jay sees the smiling face of a boy in the passenger’s seat. The driver of the truck hands Jay a card. At the top of the hill Jay says, “That guy said they have a place for us to stay tonight. We’ll call them when we get up to the gas station ahead a few miles.”
Twice today we were surprised by the kindness of not-so-strangers. I’ve written songs about this kind of thing, and here it is, piled with wonderful spaghetti from our hosts who then show us to our warm and cozy beds for the night. People we’ve met are making us think about old ideas like hospitality and kindness—undead traditions.
Our new friends get us on the road early the next morning. We surprise ourselves by quickly clearing 15 miles; the blowing wind is not so fierce as yesterday. We ride south of Natural Bridge State Park, reminded that we’re also moving on two wheels through a part of the state where alternative transportation comes with four legs. Has anyone done a music tour on horseback?
We arrive in Roanoke ahead of schedule after navigating some hectic urban traffic patterns in our commute to Fork In The City. A local cycling group comes out to the show—they want to see our bikes, of course! Standing to play our instruments for two hours creates a different kind of stress on our tired quads and calves. When we get to our host’s home, we crash.
Today is a day of routing questions. Do we take the direct route on a hightraffic highway, or try the less-direct, lower-trafficked secondary roads that will also feature more hills? After hearing opinions from locals, we decide on the main artery, hoping for wide, smooth shoulders to ride on.
We are up and cycling before most of the city is awake. We stop to put air in the tires. Somewhere between that and what Jay calls “a guilty breakfast” of Egg McMuffins, he feels like he is into the “cycling groove.”
Lynchburg definitely lives up to its nickname, the “City of Seven Hills.” We’re less than 10 miles out, conquering a severe hill, when Jay shreds his rear derailleur. We’re shocked that something actually went wrong since we haven’t had so much as a flat. He isn’t going anywhere—the pedals won’t move. But wait—simultaneously, our hosts from Lynchburg College are biking toward us down the hill!
“Help arrived like magic; I couldn’t believe it,” Jay says. Our hosts had been planning to meet us so we could ride into town together. Little did they know they’d help with our first equipment malfunction of the trip. In minutes, Kevin and Mike have called Bikes Unlimited in Lynchburg. A bike mechanic meets us with a new derailleur, which gets us to the show.
We perform at the college as a part of a sustainability awareness initiative on campus—we’re glad to be part of the discussion. We also relay the heroic story of the professors who saved the day.
This is the most beautiful day of biking by far. Beauty can be brutal— evidenced by mountain cycling—but we appreciate the scenery along back roads. We have wonderful peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fruit to eat, thanks to our hosts.
We start into a few songs while trucking up some hills—a great moment, to be singing at the top of our lungs, surrounded by all this beauty, as we pedal to the next gig.
Toward the end of the day’s ride we face a long climb over several miles to get to the top of a mountain—not the biggest of the climbs, but the fastest downhill descent we’d make. My odometer clocks in at more than 43 miles per hour. Jay has to be cautious; going downhill can be a chore with a trailer. We coast to Devil’s Backbone Brewery.
We have a great meal and we attempt to nap. Our energy is still low, and the result is a tired show. Something had to give, today.
Our first chance to use our camping gear! We listen to coyotes wailing in the distance. We can’t compete with that tonight.
Afton Mountain—which rises to 2,418 feet—is the challenge of the day, and we come to it at mile 10. Jay writes, “My leg pain was bad at the start of the day, though it subsided gradually. But my energy wasn’t climbing like the day before, and I was starting to get worked up about Afton Mountain. We got to the base and stopped to drink water and eat a massive protein bar we’d tucked away for just this occasion. When we started cycling up and up, I was pleasantly surprised. We had built up this idea it was really tough, so when we easily powered our way up, my spirits soared. We still had a ways to go after that, and I felt good and tired pulling into town, but I think we both also felt such a sense of accomplishment that it renewed energy for the night to come.”
As we reach the final destination show at Clementine Café in Harrisonburg, a large crowd and lots of friends are waiting. We surprise ourselves with our reserves and play for a good two and a half hours. When audiences are supportive, we play like we could go all night long, and this is one of those times.
After a night’s rest at home we pedal across town to a morning bicycle event for the One Mile Challenge, which asks people to pledge to bike or walk if they have less than a mile to travel. Great idea! The benefits are personal health and lessening environmental impact. We provide the music for this event, which also has games, displays, a bikepowered blender and other cycle-supportive activities. Again, we’re happy to be part of this effort.
When Tree Fort saw how our first tour went, they told us to bring it to Michigan so they could help. Scott Mulder, president of Tree Fort Bikes, said, “Though we are in the business of selling bikes, we are really in the business of creating cyclists. Our hopes are to strengthen the local cycling community, spread the biking lifestyle, and promote the use of the bike as a viable transportation vehicle.” In May, we’re taking what we learned from the last SpokeSongs Tour and applying it in Michigan.
We’ve found community where there are literally no doors. And that’s part of sustainability, too—collaborating with the original renewable resource: the energy of people excited to do things differently, moving forward more consciously, creatively, yet with a certain freedom. And hopefully on two wheels.
The second SpokeSongs Tour began May 5 in Ann Arbor, Mich., and took The Steel Wheel Duo to Marshall, Kalamazoo, Three Rivers, Benton Harbor, South Haven, Fennville, and East Lansing. The tour ended on May 15 with a festival with Tree Fort Bikes in Ypsilanti—a fun-filled day of riding, music, bicycling camaraderie and advocacy that finished with a concert. For the first time in the area, Tree Fort brought together all of the local cycling organizations to promote a number of rides that took place throughout the day, including an alley-cat race with Bike Ypsi, a traditional road ride with the Ann Arbor Bicycle Touring Society, and a trail ride with the Michigan Mountain Biking Association.
See them live
The Steel Wheel Duo’s latest tour kicks off August 4 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This time around the quartet will travel more than 400 miles to ten shows in three states. If that wasn’t enough, this time they’ll be toting an upright bass. Follow along their progress on their blog, SpokeSongs.