Rider and Rig: Musician Ben Weaver’s Salsa Blackborow
On the eve of a weeklong winter bikepack, we catch up with musician and poet Ben Weaver as he preps his Salsa Blackborow. Ben’s no stranger to long, music-themed bike tours. We ask him how he uses his bicycle as a way of connecting with his audience and find out about his summer tour, celebrating 20 years of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route through riding and music…
Salsa designed the Blackborow for the ‘creative thinkers’ of the bikepacking world. Minnesotan musician and poet Ben Weaver certainly fits this description, in the way he uses riding and music to connect with his audience and share his message.
We caught up with him on the eve of a 325-mile winter tour that began with a performance in Ely, Minnesota, and saw him riding all the way to the Canadian border and back down to Two Harbors.
Can you tell us about your background as a musician and poet?
It goes back a long way. In those early days I was skateboarding as much if not more than riding and the skateboard was the thing that connected me to music. I remember going to the library when I was in 2nd and 3rd grade to check out LPs. My mom would help me dub them onto cassette. Then I’d listen to them on my walkman on the way to school. This was everything from Iron Maiden to the Descendants. One morning I came down for breakfast excited because I had just gotten License to Ill by the Beastie Boys. My mom had stayed up listening to it while she dubbed it but wouldn’t let me listen to it because she deemed it inappropriate. I still found a way. I never wanted anything kept from me. I wanted to experience it myself.
The poetry came not long after. I’ve always had a lot of words in my head and heart. You can see that in my answers here. I started seriously writing poetry in about 8th grade. I essentially copied E.E. Cummings, Jim Morrison, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I made my first book the summer between 8th and 9th grade with a stapler and photocopier.
How did you get into biking, bike touring, and bikepacking?
My dad walked me to the bike shop in the rain. I was in Kindergarten. I rode it home and didn’t miss a single puddle. When I was young I was mostly into bmx. I was never that good. I remember doing frame stands at the bus stop and building dirt jumps in the park across the street. This was the 80s. My most formative time on a bike came in the 90s when I was in middle and high school. We did a lot of sneaking out at night and riding to this donut shop that was open 24/7. We spent many hours riding homemade singletrack strung between a few nature centers in the neighborhood, and hanging out under bridges burning incense and addressing our pre-adult existential woes. This was when the Bike as a tool of freedom was solidified permanently into the underbelly of my spirit, when I learned its power to transform everything into a story.
I have a favorite and telling memory from this time. It went like this. One night I snuck out of the house. I would have been a freshman. A friend of mine was camped out in his backyard, heartbroken over a girlfriend who broke up with him. Somehow my mom and stepdad discovered I had snuck out. When I came home the next morning they chained my bike in the shed. In less than an hour, I had gone out with a hacksaw and cut the chain.That about sums it up. Blisters on my hands from holding the wobbly chain in place while the saw cut my two wheels free.
I didn’t start using the bike as long-distance travel tool until much later. But from very early on it was my way to see one world while escaping from another.
I always picture musicians in a beaten-up truck touring the country. You’ve often chosen a bicycle to propel yourself between venues, whatever the weather. I’ve heard you mention the notion that “bicycles and music draw people out”. Can you tell us more?
Your vision is somewhat apt because when I first started playing music that was what I used. I had this old 1985 F150 with a straight 6 in it that I drove around and slept in the back of. In those days I was very inspired by the Texas troubadours like Townes Van Zandt. Being a cowboy in a truck with no home but the song I was chasing was the point. I did that for almost 15 years. During that time I really suffered. I had grown up being outdoors and adventuring all the time. Chasing a music career is the most unhealthy I have ever been, because I wasn’t actively spending time outside. I was in airports, on buses and waiting for hours at soundchecks.
Eventually, I reached a point where I was just so unhappy and disconnected that I had to make a change. This was when I began experimenting with carrying my guitar and banjo on my bike. I was working as a butcher at the time with a good friend of mine who is a cyclocross superstar. I remember telling him what I was gonna do and he said, “well maybe you will love it, or maybe you will find out you don’t like riding your bike that far for that long.” Turns out I loved it. The first long trip I set I out on I rode 145 miles on the first day and 150 on the second simply cause I just didn’t want to stop riding.
This was when and where the musical bike touring began. I learned that I could ride 100 or so miles and still play a show in the same day. I began planning little tours around that distance.
The change in my music and my spirit was almost overnight. I’d show up happy and tired to the venues. Sitting around at soundcheck was no longer a problem cause I had worked all day. This made playing music cathartic and restorative.
I think music is powerful as a tool because it opens people up whether they want to be opened or not. It is sneaky in this way. Somehow it is able to penetrate and get in the cracks in a way that no other form or communication I have experienced is able to. A wise mentor once told me, you aim for people’s hearts, so that their minds can be activated to send messages to their hands so they can reach out and connect to what is in front of them.
Can you tell us a little about past music-themed bike tours?
The first long tour I did was called It’s All the River. It began from my home in Saint Paul, MN and went down the Mississippi River, ending in New Orleans. I was joined by my good friend and journalist Jonny Miles who wrote a piece about that trip for Bicycling Magazine. This was the first long tour where I began playing shows in non traditional venues, working with schools, nature centers, galleries, farms. I wanted to perform in close proximity to the things I cared about, and I wanted my music to give back to those things. After It’s All the River, I kept building more tours and focused most of them around some form of water advocacy. I went up the Pacific NW coast mostly performing in bike shops. Then around Lake Superior. I was invited to join some friends in Alaska for a packraft and fat bike trip, and I began doing some winter stuff around the Boundary Waters.
I started making the evolution towards even less traditional venues that would allow me to build my routes around dirt. The first tour I did like this was called Sees Like a River. I released my ninth record (of the same title) and to support it rode from The Boundary Waters in NE Minnesota across the UP (along the bottom of Lake Superior), down Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, and then home to Saint Paul. This was about 1,500 miles in two weeks with 13 shows. It was significant geography for me because it connected the main waterways I had been focusing my touring around since 2014.
And future ones?
Last summer when I was on my Sees Like a River tour I was somewhere between Ontanogon and Houghton, MI, on a remote logging road/snowmobile trail. It had been raining all day, the surface was clay with sand on top, and was a mess. I was riding in the tall grass along the edge of the road to keep my drive train from dying. I stopped for a snack on a bridge, my ears full with the sound of rain on a billion leaves. Between handfuls of whatever I was eating, I looked up at my bike with the guitar and banjo strapped to it, all covered in mud and the river rushing by behind. I realized no one had any idea the extent of what I was doing or where I was. I felt this feeling of accomplishment that was totally private. It was beautiful and overwhelming. Simply because of how much I loved riding a bike, I had figured out how to travel 100 plus miles a day under just about any condition, on about any road, carrying my instruments and camping gear with me, and in five years had not missed a single show.
The fact that no one knew the extent of this wasn’t something I felt I needed validation for, but rather, it shed light on the greater potential my work had to impact people. It’s safe to say that my previous trips have had a profound impact on the people for whom I’ve performed, but in the scale of things my story had only reached a small amount of people given the possibilities.
While sitting on that bridge it crossed my mind, what would happen if I brought this dirt and musical travel story to a known route? Would that possibly help increase the potential to impact more people both on and off the route?
In the hours that followed I had a clear vision for the project I am currently preparing for which I have titled: Music for Free on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (see trailer at bottom of page). 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the route and I am partnering with Adventure Cycling to celebrate by riding it and offering performances to the people along the way who have supported riders for the past 20 years. I’m excited to be joined by my friend Keenan Desplanques who will be shooting a documentary focusing on our interactions with the people who populate this unique corridor.
Has bike touring itself influenced your music and your way of seeing the world? The message you’re sharing?
I believe that the land is alive and always dreaming. When we go onto the land we open ourselves up to becoming part of those dreams. I also think we are reconnecting with our deepest human pieces when we are outside in the dirt and water. I’ve never felt ownership over my music and poetry. Rather, I see them as gifts brought to me by something bigger, that I have a responsibility to answer to. Whose message I’ve accepted the call to carry. I feel very similarly when I ride a bike. A route is just a suggestion. Same as a melody. Same as the first line of a song. It’s your job to listen to the quest, to the landscape and decide where to go next. Most times when I write a song it goes through many changes. It doesn’t mean it starts bad and becomes good. It evolves. How far I push it depends on how closely I listen to what it is saying. It turns out being a good songwriter or efficient rider for me has been about being a good listener and honing the craft of both.
You’re just back from a week-long winter bike tour and on Salsa Blackborow, as pictured here. Can you tell us a little about the trip and your bike setup?
The Superior National Forest sits up in NE Minnesota. Sometimes it’s referred to as the Arrowhead. It’s a magical place, and one that you can easily disappear into for days without seeing another person. Over the years I have done a handful of trips up there, but in the winter never stayed out for more than one night at a time. Having recently acquired a Seek Outside Redcliff shelter with a titanium stove, I was excited to get up there for some extended winter exploration.
Heading into 2018 I set a goal to share my journeys with more friends rather than default to always riding solo. I was happy to share this ramble with my good friend Josh Kowaleski and manager of Spokengear bike shop in Two Harbors.
Josh and I started the ride just outside of Ely, MN, at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, owned by Paul and Sue Schurke (Paul was among the first expedition to reach the North Pole by dogsled in 1986 with Will Steger).
For five days we set up our home wherever we felt like it, slept on pine boughs, drank water that tasted like smoke with spruce essence and worked our asses off to simply stay warm, hydrated and fed. We saw six or so snowmobilers and two log trucks. The high temp was close to 5 degrees and most nights were down in the -20s.
It was an incredible time in the woods on incredible bikes. Sometimes trips don’t line up, the gear is off, the weather presents challenges, the riding partners don’t match. For this trip everything was in sync.
Both Josh and I were riding Salsa Blackborows (it should be noted that this bike’s name bears the backstory of Perce Blackborow, a stowaway on Shackleton’s Endurance). The Blackborow is the ultimate adventure bike. I set up mine with the stock build, however I swapped out the 27.5 wheelset for 26 x 80mm HED rims with 4.8in Maxxis Minions. It carried six days of food and gear, a hot tent, stove, and arguably out rode any fat bike I have ridden prior.
BIKE BUILD HIGHLIGHTS
- Frame and Fork: Blackborow and Salsa Bearpaw Carbon
- Headset: Cane Creek 40
- Crank Arm Set: Sram GX Eagle
- Handlebar: Salsa Salt Flat
- Stem: Salsa Guide Trail
- Seatpost: Promax
- Saddle: WTB Volt
- Grips: Salsa File Tread
- Chain: Sram GX Eagle 12 speed
- Shifter: Sram GX Eagle
- Brakes: Hayes MX COmp
- Front hub: DT Swiss
- Rear hub: DT Swiss
- Rims/tires: 80mm HED, Maxxis Minions 26×4.8in
How do you pack for a winter tour like this? And generally, how do you attach your guitar to your bike?
I used the Salsa EXP frame bags with 45NRTH Pogies and Wolf Tooth Fat Paws. On the rear I ran Salsa panniers on either side and a dry bag on top of the rack.
Camping setup included Seek Outside Redcliff shelter with Seek Outside Titanium XL stove, Big Agnes Crasho UL -20 bag with closed cell pad, and EXped Winter DownMat.
We had a backup MSR stove but were able to cook all our food and make our water on the wood stove in the tent. Riding temps ranged from -25 to 5 and I rode in Ridge Merino baselayer with 45NRTH Naughtvind pants and OR Ferrosi jacket with Steger Mukluks.
When I’m packing my guitar and banjo I carry them on the rear of my bike. My friends at Banjo Brothers made me a bag to carry the banjo. I’ve used a crappy soft case/gig bag in a 6 mil poly Duluth Pack liner and dry bag combination for my guitar. This has worked for the past 20,000 some miles and I’ve used the same four bungee cords to hold it to the rack. For my Divide trip I am having all new bags custom made by Cedaero up in Two Harbors, MN.
And lastly, as a family man, what role do bikes play in your daily life?
What I learned when I was young about the bike being a tool for transformation has stayed with me my whole life. The bike does not just transform people, but also places, actions, errands, conversations… the list goes on.
The bike as a family tool has allowed us to see places that we would not otherwise see as a family. I am incredibly proud of that fact that my kids almost always know where they are in the city when we are out riding and they almost always know how to get home. All the early miles helped establish an strong understanding of the landscape and provided them with a perspective of how they fit into it. It has also taught them how to manage physical challenge and moments of discomfort. If I had to name my favorite thing the bike has done for daily life (particularly with kids), it is the way it introduces endless opportunity for exploration and new perspective on redundant chores. The simplest things become something to discover even when you’ve done them a million times (school commutes). A trip to the grocery story is not a bummer, it’s a chance to breathe fresh air, have a conversation, and then take the long way home.
About Ben Weaver
To support Ben’s upcoming project Music for Free and get a free download visit Adventurecycling.org/musicforfree
Find out more info about the Salsa Blackborow in our first ride report. Also, stay tuned for part two of our Blackborow Rider and Rig double feature coming tomorrow.