A Trip to Austin

Currently I’m anchored down in Houston, and in an effort to pass a little time I decided to take my father-in-law on a five-hour road trip to Mellow Johnny’s Bike shop in Austin.  I enjoy visiting bike shops, just as I enjoy checking out wood/metal workshops and artist studios.  When done well these spaces have an energy, and it’s in the dark dusty corners that you find the good stuff: the stuff that reflects the personality of the craftsperson.  Most modern bike shops are sterile, just a show space for mostly non-interesting off-the-shelf mass-produced stuff, but sometimes you get lucky.

Mellow Johnny’s was easy to find, and we parked the car a block away and stepped into the mid-nineties heat; I had to remind myself that we were well into November.  Walking in the door I was unimpressed, not much different than your typical Performance Bike Center, but perhaps I should step back here.

A fairly typical bike shop

There isn’t much about Lance Armstrong that isn’t controversial.  I don’t think that, even given the opportunity, Lance Armstrong and I would be friends, but that doesn’t mean that I hate his guts either.  As a lover of everything that has to do with bicycles I can’t deny that Armstrong upped the United States Bicycling game.  Way back in 2012 I was standing along the road at Yellow Lake cheering on the Ironman Canada athletes when I turned to my friend and said “dang the Lance Effect is huge.”  I was referring to the fact that fully thirty percent of all passing competitors were flashing some sort of Armstrong/Livestrong paraphernalia: jersey, cap, wristband, whatever.  Lance was everywhere.

The dude inspired people.

On the other hand, I simply cannot understand cheating.  Back when I was a teenager in Des Moines, IA I remember seeing this goofy lady named Rosie Ruiz on the Evening News supposedly winning the Boston Marathon.  She held the title for eight days before officials concluded that she had merely jumped out of the crowd half a mile from the finish line and run to victory.  Even as an ignorant, shellfish kid this totally mystified me.  Even if she had “gotten away with it” she wouldn’t have gotten away with it because the most important person – her – knew that she hadn’t won.  All the adoration in the world means nothing if you can’t look yourself in the mirror, but I guess some people have different mirrors.

Lance Armstrong was a cheater, and I don’t buy the argument that back then everyone was dirty and had everyone been clean he would have won the Tour seven times anyway.  Lance Armstrong and his teammates proved that they were better cheaters; they failed to prove that they were better cyclists.  On the other hand, Armstrong lit a fire here in the United States with respect to road cycling and bicycle racing.

In the nineteen nineties you could go into a bike shop and scarcely even see a road bike on the display floor.  Mountain biking was taking off and road biking was a niche of a niche.   Sure, you could buy a middle of the road Trek, but a high-end racing machine, to get that you practically had to rob a bank and fly to Italy.  Fast forward ten years, and road races are being sold out and American bike shops are lined with high end carbon machines.  Lance Armstrong woke up a sleeping beast here in the U S of A.

So I guess on the whole I can give Armstrong credit for perhaps doing something that he unintentionally did, while seeing him as a jerk for something he most certainly intentionally did (note that I’ve written nothing about the Livestrong Foundation, was that sincere or was it a cynical way to make people blind to his faults, I don’t know and I don’t want to speculate).

This was cool

Anyway back to Mellow Johnny’s.  The memorabilia – which is basically why I drove the two and a half hours – was thin: seven yellow jerseys mounted high on one wall.  The tour bikes, on the other hand, were cool.  I’m a bike geek and I dig picking over the minute details of racing bikes: what cables are they using, what type of derailleur pulleys.  Also the paintjobs, many were surprisingly intricate.  A bike that had appeared to be monochromatic on TV actually contained dozens of artistic details.  The not behind glass or velvet rope closeup view of one-off Tour bikes made the trip worthwhile. 

Other than some branded gear there was nothing new or interesting in the shop.

I think that the idea of combining a café with a bike shop is a winner.  But if you plan to start and end a group ride at a café that café must serve food.  The selection at Juan Pelota Café, located inside of Mellow Johnny’s, was thin at best.  The distinctive aroma of over-roasted bitter “lumberjack” coffee told me to skip the road joe, and the only food on offer were chips and few items in an open refrigerator case.  Perhaps COVID had something to do with the thin selection, perhaps.

It could be that my expectations were a bit too high, but Mellow Johnny’s was just a bit more than a typical concrete-floored sterile bike shop.

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