Article by: Jim Bessman
Manhattan Local Music Examiner
Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? What about cycling?
Key players in the Mellencamp and Nelson factions of this summer’s The Bob Dylan Show with John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson concert tour of minor league baseball stadiums have formed a bicycle club as a healthy alternative to the traditional—if less healthy—means of offstage on the road entertainment.
“It’s my new drug,” says Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s longtime harmonica accompanist. “It’s a lot better than getting loaded on the road–which is what used to be protocol years ago.”
Raphael has formed an as yet unnamed riding club with tour mates Andy York and Mike Wanchic—both longtime guitarists for Mellencamp.
“We like to go out together on our days off,” Raphael says. “We just check the Internet for good places to ride or call the local bike shop because they know of places and sometimes have planned rides. It’s great exercise and a good way to explore the towns we go to.”
The other day the group found a 20-mile bike trail in Rhode Island and got 40 miles in.
“Everybody plays golf and we’re not golfers,” says Raphael, adding that his boss, a golf addict who owns a golf course, also brings a bike on the road “but he just tools around in the parking lot.” (Nelson’s manager Mark Rothbaum, he adds, rides 300 miles a week and has participated in numerous Iron Man competitions.)
The Nelson-Mellencamp bike club also makes for “good bonding time” for the members, says Raphael.
“We get to hang out and visit when normally they’d just come in and do their soundcheck and we’d do our respective gigs and leave,” he explains. And it seems to be contagious, in that Nelson’s stage manager just bought a bike, as did Mellencamp’s sound man.
“We all ended up at a bike shop in Dayton on our day off,” says York, who bought a “fairly decent” one that he can stash on the trailer pulled by the band’s tour bus (he’ll leave it at Mellencamp’s Bloomington, Ind. studio after the tour “so I can ride it whenever I’m out there”). Afterwards, he and Raphael did 20 miles on the bike path by the hotel.
“It’s really great because we all go at the same speed,” notes York. “I’m not saying we’re slow by any means, but none of us are pros!”
York first thought of biking on tour when the Wallflowers opened for Mellencamp back in 2002.
“Their guitarist always had his bicycle and did the whole thing—the outfit and helmet and high-end gear—and probably rode 20 miles a day,” he recalls. “Then I found out he was good buddies with Lance Armstrong.”
York was good buddies with Steve Earle’s guitarist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel.
“Roscoe went from being a bike owner to a cycling master and gently nudged me in getting a bike because they were really great on the road,” continues York. “He said you could get away from everybody and do your own thing–and there are all kinds of bike paths and a bike shop culture of fellow touring musicians. So I bought a bike from him and started slow and took it on the road when Los Lobos opened for us in 2007. Now I use my iPhone map feature to find parks or map out the route to the gig from the hotel. It’s really good exercise and just seeing the country this way is a wonderful thing.”
Ambel’s been biking on the road since 2003.
“I bought a bike in Chicago and an hour later I was on the Lake Shore Drive bike path with a big smile on face,” says Ambel, who also owns the Lakeside Lounge in New York and has become a regular bike blogger and bike company consultant. He advises: “When you’re on tour, all you got to do is go to the nearest bike shop and ask where to ride. They’re always happy to help you, and when you’re on a bus tour, you get in to town early in the morning and have the whole day free so you get to go all over. It’s really fantastic!”
A true fanatic, Ambel even discovered a physical relationship between bike and guitar.
“I had a bike in my room one time and realized it was the same as a Fender Telecaster!” he says. “That’s because Leo Fender designed his guitars so all parts are interchangeable: If a neck went bad you get a new one and just screw it on. Same with a bicycle. Every piece is upgradable. You could get a different set of wheels or a new saddle or stem.”
Ambel actually likens his bike to a “travelogue,” since “this crank came from Portland, this saddle I got in Nashville,” and so on around the world. His conversion to cycling, he notes, was crucial.
“People say you play music, but you make music if it’s your life’s work and not a hobby,” he explains. “I had no idea I needed a hobby real bad! The benefit is that I’m going to be 52 and I feel I could kick my own ass from 20 years ago!”
Likewise, Raphael suggests that biking “might be the secret weapon” for increasing harmonica players’ lung capacity. “But if anybody asks me about playing harmonica,” he adds, “I say it’s all in the quads!”