PEZ Interviews: Author/Rocker/Cyclist Michael Ward
Anyone watching OLN’s Tour de France coverage last summer heard about a new children’s book called “Mike And The Bike”. It’s certainly not your average cycling book, but exactly the kind of story we love to cover, so we called up the author and famous rock guitarist Michael Ward for a PEZ-Clusive interview…
Pez: Mike and the Bike has been a huge hit. A number of national parents’ groups have endorsed your book and almost every bookseller has done really great review of the book. What do you think it is about the story that has made the book such a hit?
Michael: Well I will be honest, you use the word story. There isn’t much of a story, its just a little bit of an introduction to the character and a flavor of what we are trying to go for. So, I don’t take a lot of credit for the words that I put together. To start from the beginning, I have been a musician my whole life. But I am a cycling fanatic. I fell in love with cycling in the early nineties. It did help me get out doors and get fit. I take the bike when I am traveling out on the road. And when the rest of my band mates with whom I am playing with are sleeping, I am out seeing where we are, meeting people and having a great time. And of course it helped me lose weight. I started racing and just got really fully into it. I sort of forgot that I was musician for five years.
Michael chases his inspiration – and son – Tenneseee.
Then about six years ago my son Tenneseee was born, and we just started piling up those children books all over the house. I have always loved Dr. Suess and that kind of vibe. They have such a magical thing that kids can dig. And they are not preachy. Its always really fun and clever. So that was my inspiration. I kind of wanted to do a rhyming and colorful thing. I could never compare myself to the Dr. Suess books. They are just classics.
So when I realized that I could get Phil Liggett involved, I just started to compile this team. Once I met Lance, he stared introducing me to everyone in the cycling world. That’s how I knew Phil. When Phil agreed to do the narration, I just got super excited. I always wanted the book to have a CD because I come from the music field. And I got my boy to sing the songs which was really another huge thing. He has a tough legal team. I had to do a lot of negotiating. I think the magic of the book is really the whole package. My illustrator, Bob Thompson, is a great friend of mine. He is a great musician and a cyclist himself. I think the illustrations are really nice. So, you have Lance’s introduction, the great illustrations, Phil Liggett, the music, the CD. I really wanted to put together kind of a special value pack.
PEZ: I thought it was great that you got Lance to write an introduction to the book, then I put in the CD and here is Lance reading his intro on the CD – that was perfect.
Michael: I am currently playing in a band. This guy Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. Ben happens to be friends with Lance. The publisher’s name is George Starks. And he sent me a text message when we were finishing up the book. And he asked, “what was the chance of getting Lance to narrate his thing on the CD?” And I said forget it. How am I going to pull that off? Even when Lance was in town hanging out with Cheryl, coming and going from L.A. And about a day after my publisher sent me that text message, I get a text message from Lance. The message was: Hey man, what is it going to take for you and Ben Harper to come and play on my radio show? Unbelievable! He wants me to come and play on his radio show, we will be in a recording studio and I am going to hold him hostage and I’ll make him do it then. It was such amazing timing; I could not believe it!
Michael Ward in his natural habitat… rockin’ out.
PEZ: Speaking of Tennesee, he is certainly one of the stars of the CD. And he sincerely does a great job. And I know that Tennesee is pretty young, but tell me about his perspective as a kid and how that influenced the book and potential future story lines?
Michael: Oh absolutely. When I read it to his class yesterday, one of the kids in the class said, “Well where is Tennesee’s picture?” And Tennesee flipped to one of the graphics of Mike in the book and pointed and said, “That’s me”. So he definitely influences everything about it. I would not have even had the idea without having a child and thinking more about how kids think about bikes and trying to reacquaint my own mind set. He is very vocal about what should be on the web site and the games that are on the web site. We are going to be a doing a series of books and he will be more and more involved. He is actually writing some songs now. I have encouraged him to not just record the songs that I write, but start writing some Mike and the Bike songs. I try not to make a big deal about it, buy I am so proud of his input. I always try to let him know about the little things that we are working on.
PEZ: I read last year that you had some Tour de France coverage for children on the Mike and the Bike web site. If someone were to go to the web site next year during the Tour, what might they see?
Michael: Well, I will tell you what we did this past year. I was really proud of it because we had to really kick butt and get it done in time. We did a Tour de France guide for kids, and to my knowledge it was the only one I have ever seen. We had a great graphic of France. A big map of France, and you could click on any stage and get information on whether it was a flat stage or a hilly stage or a time trial. And it would tell you how long each stage took and how many calories the riders needed and it compared that to how many hamburgers or carrots you would need to eat. There were all these things that a kid could check out. There are also some great games, like you can race against Lance. There are also cycling tips for kids, and I write a daily blog in the voice of Mike. It is somewhat of an irony because we try to get kids on their bikes and away from the TV and commuters, but all of us like to ride our bikes all day and come home and log on to PEZ! You have to have something to do while you are eating that recovery meal.
Uncle Pez took the book to the toughest critics…
Have you followed the Tour de France in the past?
Michael: Yes, I was there in ’02. I have seen the Tour a couple of times before I even met Lance. I was the total fan on the side of the road. One time, I finished a music tour with John Hiatt. This was in ’94. And I stayed on to follow the tour for a week with a friend of mine who lived in Holland. So I saw Lance go up one of the major climbs, and I admitted to him later that he did not look too happy to be there. Of course he wasn’t the Lance Armstrong that we know now.
The Tour is an insane spectacle. When I was racing, climbing was my thing. And it is still what I love to do. And I love the mountain stages, and all of the drama of it. So that is really the Tour de France for me. I love the sprints and all of that – but the mountain stages are the magic for me. To really go and watch that stuff and to do those climbs as a cyclist, if you have done all of those canyons in California you can go to Europe and do those climbs. They are doable. But what you gain is the respect, those climbs are just longer and steeper than anything else you can find. You can do them and get to the top but man they are just awesome. They are truly incredible. You know, you are climbing one of the passes and someone is hang gliding off the edge of the road. It is majestic and incredible. Not to mention, just the spectacle of the race is like nothing else in the world. I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed when the Tour organizers kind of dissed Lance a little at the presentation this year. It sounded like it was a little less than respectful. It seems like they quickly forgot. After the Festina thing and the Pantani deal, they looked at Lance to save the Tour. And to turn on him like that did not make a lot of sense to me.
… and upon completion of the story, the crowd’s eyes turned red and they went nuts with approval!
PEZ: Mike and the Bike had some very simple messages. One was to just go outside and feel a sense of independence by exploring the world on your bike. But personally when I was listening to Phil, I was flooded with memories of riding my own bike when I was a kid. During your travels, have other adults voiced kind of the same reaction?
Michael: Absolutely, I could not be happier. When someone comes up to me whether it is just a parent or a teacher, and they tell me hey, I did this with my kid, or we checked out the web site, or we read the book and we got excited and went riding… man, when you hear those stories you feel like you are making some kind of impact. Someone wrote into the web site and said ‘ you turned my son into a healthy eater from the book that you wrote. My son logs onto the web site every day.” That I could not even believe.
It is so hard to get your kids to eat well. We have had teachers read the book to their whole class and do projects with them. They get the class to ride bikes. I am just blown away, I am speechless to think that it is just the tip of the iceberg and we are going to keep this going. It is really exciting.
We have all had jobs. Most of us work. I am a musician; I am lucky with what I get to do. But sometimes you are out touring and maybe you are with a band that you are not really happy with. You are promoting some new single that is really not that great. And you are feeling like a huckster, a little bit like going through the motions. The great thing with this book is like any time I talk about it, it is so heart felt. I am so into cycling, I love it so much. It has done so much for my life that there is no sort of snake oil salesman aspect to it. It is straight from the heart and I am just really enjoying it.
Lance and Michael – so who asked for who’s autograph first?
LIVING WITH DIABETES
PEZ: The whole idea of supporting a healthy lifestyle has been one of your goals of the book, but you personally are also an example of someone who can have a healthy active life while living with diabeties. So do you think that there is potential for an adult “Mike and the Bike” book?
Michael: That is a good point. All of my friends joke with me that I should just write my memoirs, because I have just had a great gig touring with rock bands, or all these great people I get to meet from Lance to everyone else. I would love to write an adult version of my love for the bike.
We don’t focus on the diabetes thing a lot with “Mike and the Bike” because there have been so many things that we want to accomplish, we get over our heads. I purposely didn’t mention the diabetes aspect just because it’s a kid’s book. I didn’t want to get too heavy. But we are going to start working more and more on that. I didn’t get diagnosed with diabetes until about a year and a half ago. But I am insulin dependent; I have pretty full on diabletes. And I have come to live with it. I really have to watch it. I take insulin every day. It has been a crazy new challenge for me. And of course there are days when I feel pretty down. And I wish that I could just eat a sandwich and not worry about it.
But the odd thing is I never feel better and more normal than when I am just on the bike. I am always curious, I wonder if it has slowed me down, I am sure that it has, but I think that the bike really really helps me manage it in a huge way. I don’t expect anyone who is diabetic to go out and do four or five hour rides. But if we can encourage adults to get into this it would be great. One of the biggest challenges for diabetics is the exercise issue.
You know people who ride and people who don’t and it is hard to turn over that leaf as an adult and really get out there and start doing it. But I could easily see us get on a mission in that world too.
Check out the website and get a copy: MikeAndTheBike.com, and buy a copy for $16.99 US or $21.99 Cdn,or call 888-327-5794 for more info.
REGARDING YOUR MUSIC
PEZ: I would like to talk to you about your music – I have read about Shelby Lynn. She has been compared to Bobby Gentry and Dusty Springfield .
Michael: Well, I am playing with Ben Harper now. I actually had to move on from Shelby to go on the road with Ben. Ben works a lot; we go on tour for a year at a time. It was an opportunity that I could not pass up. The latest Shelby Lynn record is “Suit Yourself” and if you like John Hiatt, this record is so good. This record I am so proud of, and I am happy that I am a part of it. She is a brilliant writer, and singer. She won a Grammy in ’98. Best new artist for her five or sixth album. That is a Grammy committee for you.
PEZ: I have seen John Hiatt a number of times. The guy knows how to write a song. His lyrics are just very magical…
Michael: Yeah that was about ‘93-’94, so it was a while ago, but it was great. That was really a great experience for me. He was such a respected songwriter. We went all over Europe. I made a studio record with him and a live record. He had such great guitar players playing with him. It was a big challenge. I definitely thank him for the opportunity. The studio album was called “ Perfectly Good Guitar”. A friend of mine was about to produce that album and asked me if I would play guitar, and I had never really done sessions at that time. So I said, “I will do it for free!” But of course I even got paid for it. I should tell you that a great DVD just came out of us. The John Hiatt Band Live at Austin City limits. What a blast from the past to put that one on and check it out. You know that Lance’s people, Capitol Sports and Entertainment, and his agent Bill Stapleton actually own Austin City Limits. They put on the Austin City Limits Festival every year and they run the TV show as well.
PEZ: Michael, thanks so much for talking wih us and best of luck with the book!
Matt Wood has a full time job, but his passions include photographing bike races, and interviewing riders for PEZCycling. You can see more of his work at www.VeloPrints.com
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