A Byrne-ing Passion for Bikes
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Friday, October 2, 2009

A Byrne-ing Passion for Bikes

by Ian Dille at 3:56 PM EST   comments
Categories: General, Commuting

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself-well...how did I get here?

- David Byrne, Once in a Lifetime

My friends and I didn’t entirely know why we were going, or what we were going to experience. We knew that the event was at an amazing venue, Austin’s nearly 100-year-old Paramount Theater, where we could sit in the mezzanine below a gilded ceiling and sip on cocktails. We knew it was about bikes, specifically, as the poster stated, “A Panel Discussion on Bicycles, Cities, and Transportation.” We knew our other friends, Rob D’Amico, a fellow journalist and president of a local bike advocacy group, and Annick Beaudet, the city’s Bicycle Coordinator, were speaking. We knew the event was free.

It’s true, as well, that we knew David Byrne—the former front man for the Talking Heads, who’s a staunch cycling supporter and the author of a new book, Bicycle Diaries—was hosting the event. And to be perfectly honest, it’s why we all came.

We knew it was unlikely David Byrne, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 and recently released yet another critically acclaimed album, would play a set. Although, we all secretly hoped he would. We knew that the real purpose of his presentation was to hock his new book, which subsequently sold out at local bookstores and had every copy checked out from the Austin library (with over a month long waiting list). But even though we knew this, and didn’t know much else, we went.

We went because everyone else was going and everyone was going to be there, including David Byrne. We filled up the portable racks along Congress Ave. and hitched our bikes to every pole in sight. Thousands of us crowded the Paramount from the front row to the rafters, sweaty and smelly, overly enthusiastic about bikes and all us cyclists together in one place—a place that, on that night, felt like the coolest in the city.

“Star power is important,” Rob told me a few days after the event. “Without David Byrne we probably would’ve gotten, at most, 200 people.”

David ByrneThen David Byrne took the stage and we all clapped. Musician lean with spiky white hair, looking very much like the genteel Scott he is (even though he grew up in the states), Byrne was charismatic and engaging. He showed us some pictures he’d taken while riding around Austin that morning, mostly of parking garages and the lakes of concrete under our highway overpasses—things he disdained. Don’t we all? He bagged on a desolate looking downtown Houston. (Boo Houston!)

David Byrne talked about the Futurama expo at the 1939 World’s Fair and the rise of the highway laden, modern American city as envisioned by General Motors—the now moribund entity that was formerly the world’s (“not the nation’s, the world’s”) largest company. He showed us photos from his exploits by bike in London and Japan and other more exotic, foreign locales to which his international touring schedule takes him and his trusty folding bike. David Byrne attempted to make the point, as he does in his book, that you see the world in a different way, a better way, from the seat of a bicycle.

He did not play any music.

After David Byrne handed the stage over to Rob D’Amico, we realized we’d all been duped—and happily so. Rob delved into a power point presentation on bike advocacy in Austin, its history as well as past and present successes (especially, the present successes), then finished with a call to action. Get involved, contact your city council person, be an ambassador on your bike (read: follow traffic laws), Rob implored, and everyone clapped, just as loud as they did for David Byrne.

Annick took the lectern next and sold Austin’s recently approved Bicycle Master Plan to the still intently listening audience. She showed us an ever-increasing web of bicycle lanes and trails, and put up stats backing an increasing trend of central city cycling. It was stuff that helps spread the gospel of bikes, but rarely reaches the masses.

David Byrne, an immensely popular and talented artist who loves bikes, but is no urban planner, made the indoctrination of Austin’s bike (and music) lovers possible. Sure, he could’ve just done a book tour, traveling to stores and bike shops to hand out signed copies. Instead, he was off to Seattle, Los Angeles, and Ottawa, in addition to such cycling strong holds as San Francisco and Portland. In these cities he would do the same, bringing together a cycling advocate, a city bicycle coordinator, and an urban theorist to talk about making our cities more accommodating to two-wheeled travel.

Afterwards, energized, we went out for drinks, rehashing what we’d taken from the event. We all agreed: even though David Byrne didn’t sing, bikes still rock.

Ian Dille is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. He currently races at the elite amateur level for the Super Squadra road cycling team. To read more of Ian's writing, please visit iandille.com.

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