Celebrating with Lance
“Ten laps to go,” Lance Armstrong joked as he led off a string of two dozen invited guests on a ride around the 5-mile mountain-bike loop that circles his 444-acre ranch in the Texas Hill Country. It was Mother’s Day morning, and the seven-time Tour de France champion was having fun with friends, including many from the bike industry, who were helping him celebrate the opening of his new Austin bike shop, Mellow Johnny’s.
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Group rides and glitzy parties included in a three-day kickoff in Austin.
By John Wilcockson
“Ten laps to go,” Lance Armstrong joked as he led off a string of two dozen invited guests on a ride around the 5-mile mountain-bike loop that circles his 444-acre ranch in the Texas Hill Country.
It was Mother’s Day morning, and the seven-time Tour de France champion was having fun with friends, including many from the bike industry, who were helping him celebrate the opening of his new Austin bike shop, Mellow Johnny’s.
The mountain bike ride, followed by a midday barbecue on the patio of Armstrong’s hilltop country house that overlooks miles of rugged, scrub-oak-covered hills and shallow limestone valleys, concluded a weekend of events to launch the downtown bike shop.
There were road rides Friday (in 100-degree heat!) and Saturday morning, led by Team Six — named for the Austin bar and club owned by John “College” Korioth, a former riding buddy and first executive director of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Saturday afternoon saw book and poster signings by Michael Ward, lead guitarist for Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals (and author of the very fun children’s book “Mike and the Bike”), coach Chris Carmichael, off-road icon Gary Fisher and Armstrong — who signed nonstop for an hour for store customers who looped around the main bike display area, through the clothing racks and almost out the back door to the parking lot.
Yes, this city center bike shop even has a parking lot (big enough to set up for a glitzy party on Saturday night), though Mellow Johnny’s has a downtown location in one of America’s fastest growing, technology-driven large cities with a metro population of more than 1.6 million. Such stores usually have less than 5,000 square feet of sales area (most of them a lot less), with a small back room for storage — and nowhere to park a car. Besides Mellow Johnny’s 9,000 square feet of retail space, with very high ceilings, the store has the same area in the basement that’s currently used for storage and offices. There’s even a nifty-looking dumb waiter to carry complete bikes from downstairs up to the sales floor.
The shop has been several years in gestation, and as recently as mid-February Armstrong was doubtful that it would be ready to open on time. Interior demolition had been completed but there was only 10 weeks for construction supervised by building designer Michael Hsu to convert the 50-year-old warehouse (once used to distribute Pearl beer) into a state-of-the-art retail store and coffee shop — that’s named for another of Armstrong’s nicknames, Juan Pelota (mangled Tex-Mex for “one ball”).
Besides transforming the handsome brick building, Armstrong’s team had to make the difficult decisions of what exactly to stock and who’s products to order, before getting everything to Austin in time for the May 10 opening. Staff members were working until 1 a.m. Saturday to ensure the shop was ready to open to customers six hours later.
“Yeah,” Armstrong confirmed, he was skeptical that partner Bart Knaggs and general manager Craig Staley could pull it off in time. “I didn’t believe it.”
Asked on Saturday evening whether the shop was everything he imagined it would be, as he took in his first impressions of the completed store, Armstrong was hesitant. “Yeah, yeah,” he said before adding. “I think it’s an evolution as well. It is what we wanted it to be, you know. A friendly neighborhood cycling shop that I think can support any cyclist, a commuter, a mountain biker, a road racer, a triathlete … from day one to somebody who’s been doing it for 30 years. It’ll evolve.”
There’s already a highly eclectic mix of bike brands that manager Staley listed for VeloNews: “There’s Trek, Fisher. Santa Cruz, Pinarello, Eddy Merckx, De Rosa, Seven, Swobo, Masi, Crompton, some one-off fixed-gear frames, IRO, Paké, Soma, and we’ve got a bunch of old used steel frames in from Spain that we’re able to sell built up with cheap kits, so we’ve got all kinds of fun stuff [including low riders].”
Besides the very sophisticated, sometimes radical bikes and a vast range of gear headed by Nike, Giro and Oakley, the store is becoming a repository for avant-garde artwork that Armstrong collects. As previously mentioned, the huge end wall of the shop is now covered with a canvas that depicts, not an elephant, but a rock singer with microphone, and his even bigger shadow, on a background of daisies, with a much smaller, caped Superman entering the picture to one side.
In describing the impressive painting, Armstrong, who has become an art aficionado since retiring from racing three years ago, said, “It’s technically a collaboration. The main part is by [Spanish graffiti artist] Gomez Bueno — who’s from [former cycling teammate] Chechu [Rubiera]’s hometown in Asturias — and on the left side, Superman and all that, is by Raymond Pettibon, who’s a very important contemporary artist now. They did it together, I bought it at auction. It’s kind of wild, I like it. And there was nowhere else to put it. So I’m going to incorporate more and more art in here … as I’ve already run out of walls [at home].”
Besides the artwork, Armstrong has also moved some of the historic bikes he raced on during his storied career to the store from a workshop on his Hill Country property. One is the Trek time-trial bike he rode in his final victory as a pro cyclist the day before the finish of the 2005 Tour de France at St, Etienne. This is the one with the Hed disc wheel that’s painted with 26 icons representing Armstrong’s life by New York artist Futura, to mark what would be the seventh consecutive and final Tour victory.
Interestingly this high-tech machine is hung next to a bike that’s famous for not being ridden: the “Best of Show” prize winner from this year’s North American Handmade Bike Show in Portland, Oregon. The “Naked” 1890s-style track bike, with carved beechwood handlebar grips and pin-striped wooden rims, was created by Canadian builder Sam Whittingham and was bought for $15,000 by Armstrong — who revealed Saturday that he has ridden the bike, but just once.
“I rode it in here,” he said. “The tires aren’t glued on. There was nothing in the shop [at the time], so I was ripping around in here. It’s so bad-ass. It’s amazing.”
Was it true that this is the only bike he has bought from his own pocket? “When I was a kid I think we bought bikes … I’m 36 now … so probably the first in 22 years,” he said with a laugh.
Armstrong’s enthusiasm for bikes and riding is clearly as strong as ever, even though his competitive direction today is marathon running. So the weekend was a welcome respite from his habitual round of work for his cancer foundation and the Livestrong goals of promoting healthy living.
At the boisterous Saturday night party, he mainly stood away from the crowd, just happy to hang with buddies and see guests like industry stars Fisher, Kozo Shimano and Trek CEO John Burke, politicians that included Austin mayor Will Wynn, and friends such as former Motorola team boss Jim Ochowicz, coach Carmichael, ex-racer Dave Lettieri (now owner of FasTrack Bicycles in Santa Barbara), along with all the people who helped bring Mellow Johnny’s into existence.
Despite the party continuing through midnight, Armstrong was out at his ranch, 45 minutes west of Austin, early Sunday morning, riding a lap of the mountain bike trail before the guests arrived. The ranch trail, which is marked with permanent Livestrong arrows just like a cross-country ski track, has been extended and maintained by Armstrong man Friday Dave Baulch, a former team soigneur and mechanic. Besides miles of singletrack, there’s even a 175-meter stretch of narrow pavé, made with limestone bricks from the land, which was a highlight of the post-ride party.
After doing two more laps of the trail, not 10, Armstrong showered and headed back into Austin for a Mother’s Day lunch with his mother Linda Armstrong Kelly and her husband Ed. For Lance, who has added bike shop owner to his long string of accomplishments, the weekend had been a blast before he headed off on his seemingly incessant travel schedule, which includes four stops in four states on this Livestrong Day, Tuesday, May 13.