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Spinning Tunes

This eco-minded band relies on pedal power.

James Vlahos

WILL PLAY FOR FOOD: Spencer, Lopez and Wollard have restored the tradition of itinerant musicians­—on bicycles.

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By James Vlahos

Kipchoge Spencer was somewhere in Mexico, and so was I. We had that going for us. But other than knowing that Spencer, ’96, and his rock band, the Ginger Ninjas, were riding bicycles across the state of Jalisco, I was clueless, and attempts to learn more—text messages sent, blogs scrutinized, a publicist interrogated by cell phone—hadn’t produced any concrete leads. I hired a taxi in Guadalajara. The driver took me four hours west to the town of Mascota. No Ninjas. I reached for my phone once again and then had a better idea: rolling down the taxi window, I waved to a passerby. “¿Visto usted los gringos en bicicletas?” I asked. “Si,” he responded, pointing straight ahead. Two minutes later I was shaking hands with Spencer.

The Ginger Ninjas—Spencer, singer/guitarist Eco Lopez and drummer Brock Wollard—and an entourage of a dozen riders were lounging in Mascota’s central plaza. A small group of Mexicans strolled by, some glancing discreetly, some gaping. The Ninjas had forgone many of the usual trappings of a rock band on tour, most notably the tour bus. The band was traveling 5,000 miles, from Northern California to southern Mexico, entirely by bike. Starting last November, the group had cycled for three months down the Sierra and across the Central Valley; atop the bluffs of the Central Coast and through the sprawl of Los Angeles; along the beaches of Baja, and now to mountainous Jalisco, 600 miles south of the U.S. border. The final destination was the jungle of Chiapas, near Guatemala.

With concerns about climate change escalating, it was perhaps inevitable that musicians would get in on the carbon-mitigation act. The Rolling Stones and Coldplay purchase offsets; Korn and the Dave Matthews Band tour in biodiesel-fueled buses. It is one thing, however, to trim emissions and another to eliminate them almost entirely, as the Ninjas have done. Theirs is possibly the world’s first self-supported bicycle tour by a rock band. The tour name is The Pleasant Revolution, which Spencer calls the ultimate experiment in “environmentally sustainable rock ’n’ roll.”

As I assembled my bike so that I could ride along for a few days, the band was having a discussion. “Who called this meeting, anyway?” Spencer asked.

“I did,” said Wollard, who was wearing a bright dashiki over Hawaiian shorts. (He had been hired, via craigslist in San Diego, after a disagreement with the group’s previous percussionists—“they insisting on LSD as their way to learn the songs, us insisting on practice,” Spencer explained in an e-mail to friends.)

“Okay, what would you like to talk about?”

“I would like to know, first of all, where the hell are we going?”

The question was not uncommon. The itinerary called for heading to Guadalajara, but, as was often the case, an intriguing detour had presented itself. In Talpa de Allende, an isolated mountain pueblo, Catholic pilgrims from hundreds of miles around were gathering for a festival. It commemorated a 17th-century, papally recognized miracle involving a decaying statuette of the Virgin Mary that had been struck by a bolt of lightning and made new. Thousands of people would be in Talpa to eat, drink, pray and celebrate. After a short discussion, the band members decided that they should go, too.

Pedestrians gawked as the two-wheeler caravan left Mascota on a cobbled road. The bikes were burdened with camping gear, clothing and musical equipment. Wollard toted a full drum kit. Joey Chang, a guest musician with the band, biked with a cello, which, I found out later, he could play while simultaneously rapping and beat-boxing. (His weren’t the only curious talents—entourage member Toby Robinson was a veteran of international footbag and rock-paper-scissors competitions.) Bear Dyken, another rider, pedaled up beside me and pointed down at his ride. “We have the kitchen, the bedroom, the music studio and the exercise gym all in one,” he said.

We turned onto a rutted dirt track. As it snaked upward into piney mountains, the convoy spread apart, and I rode with Spencer. Since graduating from Stanford with a degree from the interdisciplinary earth systems program, he has been a man of many vocations—musician, white-water rafting guide, television star (he was on MTV’s The Reality Show, in which he demonstrated environmentally sustainable living) and entrepreneur. In 1998, he and another Stanford graduate, Ross Evans, ’97, founded Xtracycle, which makes kits that extend the rear wheel of a bike to add cargo bags and a small wooden platform. The carrying capacity is up to 150 pounds, and most of the riders on the tour were equipped with Xtracycles.

Spencer’s home is an off-the-grid retreat in the mountains north of Nevada City, Calif.; he humorously refers to himself as a “self-absorbed headstrong buylocalorganofascist.” A cult-of-personality figure in the bike-activist movement (for example, the Critical Mass events held each month when thousands of cyclists take to the streets together in cities around the world), he believes riding is the solution to many social and environmental problems. But Spencer is a lead-by-example rather than a lecturing type, and he says that people should ride bikes not just because it’s more sustainable but also because it’s more fun. “The Pleasant Revolution is about realizing that by giving up cars we gain a life that’s way more rich, humane and happy,” Spencer said. “Anybody who stops driving and starts biking feels that.”

The tour was also about luck. When the band and crew were hungry, strangers would materialize to provide a hot meal. When they couldn’t find a place to camp, newfound friends would put them up. “In 60 days of Mexican travel, we’ve paid for lodging three times,” Spencer wrote in an e-mail dispatch. “Most of the time we’ve found ourselves in secret villas and mystic ranches and even a couple of seaside mansions.” A musical performance won the group ferry passage from the Baja Peninsula to the Mexican mainland. A few days later, after a man saw them struggling up a steep mountain pass, he let them stay by a hot springs in a private ecological reserve. “Our joke is that The Pleasant Revolution may not be a revolution, but it definitely has been pleasant,” Spencer said.

After camping that night on the rim of a gorge under Ponderosa pines, we woke the next morning to shouts, laughter and exploding firecrackers. Correction: It was still night, starlit and cold, but hundreds of jubilant pilgrims were streaming through camp, which, in our exhaustion, we’d pitched more or less right on the trail. Some people carried clear plastic boxes on their backs that held statues of the Virgin; others had rocks in their shoes to increase the ardor of the pilgrimage. Many had been trekking for days.

We reached Talpa at midday after an exhilarating descent from a mountain pass. The historic pueblo, cradled in the valley below, was flooded with celebrants. Gilded steeples rose above the stone church that held the miraculous statuette. In the plaza outside, men blasted trumpets, trombones and tubas at triple forte; couples danced; and strangers would hand you a beer if you stood still for a minute. The location was ideal for a show.

That night Dante Espinosa, band engineer and roadie-in-chief, put two bikes on stands so that the rear wheels no longer touched the ground. When pedaled, they would generate electricity to power the sound system. As a crowd of curious Mexicans gathered around, Dante and another entourage member mounted the bikes and pedaled. Spencer and Lopez began to sing and strum, and sound exploded from the speakers, no electric outlets in sight.

The music combined rock, bluegrass and reggae, with lyrics in both English and Spanish—Lopez is Uruguayan, and Spencer speaks proficiently as well. The songs had the chilled-out confessional quality of Jack Johnson and the internationalism and political bite of Manu Chau. The audience response was tepid initially. Lopez called for volunteers to pedal but nobody came forward. Speaking in Spanish, Spencer announced, “We’re here to educate people about how to live without gasoline. It’s a slower but more fulfilling way of life.” He kept his composure even as an exuberant man lurched forward and attempted to pour rum down Spencer’s throat.

The band kicked into a second number, then a third. With each one the crowd got louder, larger and more appreciative. Between songs, a man wearing riding chaps and a Stetson came up and told Lopez that he never liked American rock music—until now. “No electricity?” asked another man, looking amazed. Lopez just smiled and nodded. I learned later that these reactions were typical. At first the Ginger Ninjas were the crazy norteamericanos, but soon everyone wanted to be their friends. The first show in a new place would be free, but the next night and the night after, locals would hire the Ninjas to play, providing much-needed funds to keep the tour afloat.

The next time Lopez called for volunteers, two men came forward immediately; for the rest of the set people were practically fighting each other for the opportunity to pedal-power the band. The gregarious drunk found his way back to Wollard, who accepted an offering of rum, while playing, but only after he realized that the man was going to pour it on him whether he opened his mouth or not. Hundreds of people cheered as the band kicked into an up-tempo ska number. Spencer and Lopez sang together, “Call it a renaissance, call it anything you like; a new culture’s coming and it’s coming on a bike.”

JAMES VLAHOS is a writer for National Geographic Adventure and other magazines. He lives in Berkeley.

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