Bowing at a Human Pace

January/February 2011 | Momentum Magazine | Download PDF

Musician Ben Sollee didn’t ride much before 2009, when he embarked on a 200-mile (322-kilometer) tour from his home in Lexington, KY, to the Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, TN. But an ad for an Xtracycle cargo bike sparked the idea of using a bike for his music tours. He and his family now use a Surly Big Dummy in place of a minivan.

He’s covered a lot of ground since then. A December 2009 trip was followed by the 2010 Ditch the Van tour, for which Sollee – along with percussionist Jordan Ellis, tour manager Katie Benson and her brother, filmmaker Marty Benson – cycled 1,800 of the 4,000 miles from California to Washington, DC.

The idea of a pedal-powered tour is tinged with green, but environmental concerns aren’t what motivated Sollee.

“If I was trying to do it to save the world or be green, I think it would stop pretty quick,” he said. “It becomes pretty evident when you’re out there that your biking is not going to change the 3,000 cars that drive by you a day. It’s not going to change their behavior – but it is a beautiful way for you to get around.”

In the 10 or so years he was on the road, the folk cellist – he lists Nina Simone, Ani DiFranco and Louis Armstrong among his influences – was caught up in the usual show-drive, show-drive pace of touring.

Cycling, on the other hand, puts what he calls a “beautiful limitation” on travel. It’s a way, he said, to rehumanize the pace of touring – the distance and route are determined by what the participants can manage – and make it more community-oriented and sustainable.

The decision to slow things down does involve a trade-off: “I could have gone out for two months and made three or four times the money I made on that bike tour,” Sollee said. “But that wasn’t what it was about.”

Sollee remains committed to doing at least a portion of his touring each year by bicycle and is planning two more bike tours for 2011.

“If I end up being a more successful artist, then hopefully the bike touring will become more popular. If I’m not as successful an artist, then I’ll just ride around my little home area. It’s a gift just to be able to do that.”