In a bit of a departure from my regular column I thought I would share a recent experience. Through a little good fortune and happenstance this past week I took Michael Ward out for 4.5 hr ride in the Waitaks. Michael is an Grammy-winning guitarist in Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, one of the hardest touring bands in the world. As many of you know, you can get to know someone pretty well over the course of a long ride. We talked about things such as life on the road, that we used to race against each other in California (small world), and what Lance Armstrong is like (personal friend of Michael's). Michael even stated that he is responsible for introducing Lance to Cheryl Crow. I realized that Michael is just a normal cyclist like the rest of us, passionate about bikes and addicted to riding. This passion has spilled in to another area of his life as an author of a children's book. Perhaps more than any other topic on the ride, Michael came alive when offered the chance to talk about his book. The book is titled Mike and the Bike and was recently featured on cyclingnews.com. Michael was kind enough to give some mates and me backstage passes for the show in Auckland. After a great acoustic show we hung out backstage with Michael and Ben Harper. Since then we have arranged for Michael to possibly distribute Mike and the Bike in New Zealand. In the mean time check out the webpage at:
Below is a transcript of my conversation with Michael talking about being in a band, riding a bike, and of course Mike and the Bike.
CNZ: Your day job is being a rock guitarist. When you did start that? Who have you played for? How did you get hooked up with Ben Harper?
Michael: I started playing guitar when I was 10 years old in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was obsessed with KISS. Immediately after high school I headed to Los Angeles to attend the Guitar Institute of Technology, where, upon graduating, I taught for a few years. In 1990 my first real band, School of Fish, put out our debut on Capitol Records. We released two albums before disbanding in 1993. At that point I began playing with John Hiatt on a record called Perfectly Good Guitar. We toured for two years and released a live album as well. My next gig of note was with the Wallflowers, with whom I stayed for about six years. Other artists I have played with include Shelby Lynne, Gavin Degraw, Adam Ant, and Avril Levigne.
I have known Ben for many years, and we always talked about playing music together but never found the time until 2004 when he asked me to play on his record with the Blind Boys of Alabama, There Will Be A Light. The in the spring of 2005 Ben asked me to go on the road with his band the Innocent Criminals for a summer tour. At that point I was pretty much in the band, and worked and wrote with Ben on his latest CD, Both Sides Of The Gun.
CNZ: What is your link with cycling, how did you get into the sport and where have you gone with it?
Michael: I fell in love with the bike in about 2001 while playing in my band School of Fish. We had a good friend/roadie named Terry Pfeifer. He was Mister Fitness while I was Mister Beer. I decided to start riding with him and it changed my life. I went crazy for the bike, started racing in 2003, and have basically stuck with it ever since.
CNZ: How does cycling and being a rock guitarist mix? They do not seem compatible.
Michael: In a way they are very compatible. In fact, my best friends in LA are guys who are great musicians and great cyclists as well. There must be something about the spirituality of music that is similar to the perfectly synchronized spinning of the wheels. Or perhaps we are simply a bunch of anti-social weirdos that have found cycling to be the cheapest and most effective form of therapy for our chemically- imbalanced minds.
CNZ: What is your strategy for getting out on rides and staying fit while out on tour? How many days of touring will you do this year?
Michael: I believe I will be on the road at least 200 days this year. The strategy is quite simple: one beer or glass of wine after a show (if that), get to sleep as soon as possible, drag tired butt out of bed as early as possible the next day, get on the bike and spend the day riding before soundcheck in the afternoon. In some cities I know exactly where to ride, in others I have good friends with whom to ride, in others I have no idea where to go and I simply improvise. There's that music connection again!
CNZ: If you decided that your talent on the bike was good enough to make a pro living, would you become a cyclist who likes to play guitar instead of a musician who likes to ride a bike?
Michael: Not many people know this, and I hesitate to talk about it for fear if sounding big-headed, but it's true. I became good friends with Lance Armstrong in 1997 after inviting him to a Wallflowers show in Austin, TX. We rode together quite a bit, and he even came out on the bus with us for a week just to hang out. Shortly after signing with the US Postal Service team, he called and asked if I would be interested in riding for the team, mostly on a domestic program. He though it would be good publicity for the team. Well, there was moment of silence on the phone, and then I told him, "Lance, I will do anything to ride for your team. I will quit the band, train my ass off, and ride my guts out for you."
Lucky for me, the team's management didn't go for the idea, and I continued with my music career. I say lucky for me because even though I was pretty good on the bike at the time, I would have gotten absolutely creamed by the pros and thrown my career away in the process. But it makes for a good story.
CNZ: What inspired you to write Mike and the Bike?
Michael: My son Tennessee was born in 1999. As our house became filled with children's books, I started thinking about my love for the bike and how it might be a good idea to write a cycling-based children's book. It helped that my name, Mike, rhymes with bike. I knew straight away that I wanted the book to include a CD of music, and it turned out that Tennessee sang all the songs on it. Which makes me one proud papa.
I should also mention Bob Thomson, my star illustrator. Bob is an ace musician and cyclist, and life-long friend. He did wonderful illustrations for the book.
CNZ: How did you get Lance Armstrong and Phil Liggett to help with the book?
Michael: I asked Lance if he would mind contributing an introduction to the book. Not only did he agree, he actually narrated the intro for use on the CD. He recorded the foreword at a studio on Hollywood when Ben Harper and I did Lance's satellite radio show last May.
As for Phil Liggett, he has been a friend for many years. We recorded his narration in his hotel suite in Las Vegas at Interbike, the annual cycling trade show. Suffice to say, to have the Voice Of Cycling narrating my children's book was beyond my wildest dreams. Not only is he a dear friend, I am his biggest fan.
CNZ: How has the book been received so far?
Michael: The book has had phenomenal success in the US. People really seem to enjoy it. We are currently working on more distribution worldwide.
CNZ: What are your hopes for the book and future plans?
Michael: My publisher is man called George Starks at Carson-Dellosa Publishing. George and I are on a mission to spread the gospel of the bike and get kids excited about getting outside and exercising. We are definitely going to do a series of Mike and the Bike books, as well as many other Mike-related projects. The first one is an official Mike and the Bike kid's helmet, which Giro is releasing this summer. I am very excited about that.
CNZ: Where can someone find out more about the book?
Michael: The best place would be our website, mikeandthebike.com. There is a daily blog from Mike on the site, plus lots of great games, cycling news, safety tips, and photos people have sent in from all over the world. To my knowledge it's the only children's cycling website in the world.
CNZ: Who is a bigger star, Ben Harper or Lance Armstrong?
Michael: I think if we could scientifically combine the two of them into Lance Harper, politically-minded Tour de France champion who sings protest songs on the bike whilst wiping out the competition, we'd really be on to something. And I could ride as his domestique and take all the guitar solos.
Dr Ben Miller (left pictured with Michael Ward right), Nutrition & Metabolism Columnist