An interview with Mike Ward, October 21, 2005
Grammy Award-winning guitarist Michael Ward, known mostly as a member of the band The Wallflowers and currently playing with Ben Harper, is not your typical rock star type. For one, he is a passionate fan of all things cycling - at times bordering on feverish.
After immersing himself into the cycling world during Lance Armstrong's first wins at the Tour de France, Ward became a father. His son's books gave the artist a spark, and with the encouragement of friend Armstrong, Ward decided to create a children's book about cycling, called 'Mike and the Bike'. Cyclingnews' North American Editor (and now rock star interviewer) Mark Zalewski sat down with Ward at the 2005 Interbike to talk about the book and where it's going.
More friends such as Phil Liggett and fellow musician Bob Thompson joined Ward and his project took off. The book has spawned a website which followed the Tour de France in 2005, giving younger fans their own perspective on the race and cycling. Now, with such quick success, Ward and his crew are riding the wave to create an entire series around the character, all with the goal of helping kids create a healthier lifestyle through involvement in cycling.
Michael Ward came into cycling, or even riding a bike, rather late in life. "I didn't ride much as a kid," Ward admits. "When I started cycling it was the early 1990s - I was about 24." Up until that point, the guitarist and musician was what you would think a touring musician should be like - waking up late, playing music, drinking 'adult beverages' and then repeating that in a new city the next day.
"I was in a band called School of Fish and we were touring," Ward remembers. "A friend of ours who was like our roadie, he was just 'Mr Fitness/rock climbing/cyclist' and I was like the boozy, overweight guy wondering, 'Why is he so happy, healthy and fit?' I got into cycling through him, got a road bike and just started going crazy. I discovered the whole world of the Tour de France, Eddy Merckx and this whole history, and I just went nuts. A few years that after I started racing - I went crazy. I almost forgot I was a musician; it was a blast!"
"In a rock band, you'll wake up at noon, go to sound check, do the gig and then leave never having seen the city you're in," Ward explains. "For me, I've done an 80-mile bike ride, having covered the whole city. I feel like I know this country so well having taken my bike with me on tour."
In 1997 Ward joined The Wallflowers and kicked off a tour in Austin, Texas - the same time Lance Armstrong was going through his recovery from cancer. "We were starting a tour in Austin (ironically, opening for Sheryl Crow). I knew some people and just tossed an invite out to Lance because I knew he was just coming through the chemo and I had a feeling he was just sitting around and wouldn't mind an invite to a show. Sure enough he called me, came down to the club, and we just hit it off. We became good buddies and about a month later he came out on the road with us; we just rode our bikes and drank beer."
Having Lance Armstrong as your personal entourage means that you are going to meet a lot of people in the cycling industry, and for cycling fan Ward, that was about the most exciting idea. "At that point I just started meeting everyone in the cycling world. Every city I went to, he was like, 'You gotta put all these people on the list!' So that's how I met people like Liggett and everyone else."
Not long after, Ward's son was born, and life took on a whole new perspective. "I was riding once, thinking about his children's books - and I thought that I could do a really cool children's book about cycling. Then it finally occurred to me that my name rhymes with bike...(laughs) and I thought, 'Wow, I know so many people I could get involved.' It just took off from there."
The original idea was just to offer another children's book, but the idea that this could instill the idea of a healthy lifestyle in kids at a crucial age quickly moved to the fore. "At first I just thought about the book. But then I thought this would be a great way to get kids more excited about fitness. Sure, every kid loves to ride their bike, and this was an opportunity to get kids into the whole world and excited. We're really committed to turning it into a character that kids can latch onto and to get on their bikes. As a parent, number one, I'm really concerned with children's health and fitness. But a year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with diabetes. So it's a double thing - because the heavier kids become, the more likely they are to get diabetes."
"So I had this idea. I even wrote a theme song, and I write this stuff on the bike. I'll take my cell phone and sing ideas into my voice-mail. Then I had my kid sing it, and it sounded so cool." At this point, Ward decided to bounce the idea off a few people, including cycling commentator Phil Liggett. "I emailed Liggett three years ago before coming to Interbike, asking if he would be interested in narrating this story for a CD. He said, 'I'd love to - why don't we try to do it next week in Vegas.' I was like, sure I can bring some recording gear."
As is normal with great ideas, the momentum that is created can sometimes move a little too fast. "I get on the airplane from Burbank to Vegas, which is a one hour flight, and I realise I hadn't written one word of the story. So I wrote it on the plane! But it hasn't changed one word since then! I'd been thinking about it for months, every time I rode my bike. So on this crappy little spiral notebook I write down all these rhymes. I get to his hotel room the next morning and he thinks I'm going to pull out a Powerbook and I pull out this beat-up thing! But he read it and did it perfectly right there. I was worried because it's the 'Voice of Cycling' and I hadn't written anything down!"
Soon after Ward returned home and put Liggett's narration with his son's vocal tracks. "My son who is six, sings all the songs on the CD with the book. And I'm so proud." Even fellow rockers have contributed to the project. The book's illustration is all done by a friend of Ward's from his touring days - a friend who now also rides a bike. "My illustrator, Bob Thompson, we were touring in a band and he was watching me ride. We found him a bike; now he's a great cyclist and the illustrator for the book."
Mike and the Bike's future
This past summer, Ward and his associates launched the Mike and the Bike website, which gives kids even more resources about cycling. "The website is really cool. To our knowledge, it's the only cycling website for kids. We had a whole guide to the Tour de France this year. It's small, but I'm already getting people coming up to me saying, 'Your website is my kid's favourite website. You've turned my kid into a healthy eater.' To me, it's amazing that some kid is eating broccoli because of 'Mike and the Bike'".
Now the focus for Ward is creating even more with the character. Not only is another book in the works, but talk of an animated programme is also circling, which Ward thinks is perfectly aligned to cycling. "We are defintitely doing a series of books, and we're talking about doing a TV show, an animated thing. I've been telling the people I am working with this the whole time that every time you get on your bike, it's an adventure."
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