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Bikes + Books

H.W. Brands, Stephen Harrigan, Lawrence Wright and Rob Spillman lead a two-wheeled tour of downtown Austin.

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About a dozen cyclists stretched across the boardwalk, lazily making their way down Lady Bird Lake and accidentally blocking the industrious Sunday morning runners. “Just look at that view of downtown,” one of them admired. The air was crisp and clear, a nice change from the summer heat that lingers through late October in Central Texas.

Of course, this wasn’t just a random group of riders. Among them were four literary greats who can each crowd a room. Historian and author H.W. Brands has written more than two dozen books, two of which were finalists for the Pulitzer. Stephen Harrigan is best known for his novel The Gates of the Alamo and is also an award-winning journalist and screenwriter. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Lawrence Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and Rob Spillman is the editor of Tin House magazine and the editorial advisor of Tin House Books.

So what drew these power players together? Four words — the Texas Book Festival.

On October 25, hoards of book lovers (and book sellers) descended on the capital city for a knockdown, drag-out weekend of literary love. For almost two decades, the event has attracted national authors and audiences, and it practically takes over downtown. But by Sunday, even the most lettered start to lag.

In response, the festival has organized fun diversions that allow attendees to be more active (after all, you can only sit in so many panel discussions and wait in line at so many book signings). When the festival asked Brands to brainstorm about a possible event, he took it to his power group. Brands, Harrigan and Wright all ride their bikes to Sweetish Hill Bakery in the mornings (the fourth member of the club, Greg Curtis, drives). As they sat around the bakery, they came up with a brilliant idea — a bike tour of downtown Austin.

To Brands, the idea made perfect sense. After all, the UT professor has commuted across town since college on his bike. (He says that when he taught at A&M, he “lamented that I couldn’t make that commute too.”) He owns a car, but pretty much only uses it when he has a guest or is picking someone up from the airport. “If there was a safer bicycle route,” he commented, “I’d ride my bike there too.” The attitude fits with Austin’s bike-loving, environmentally friendly ethos, something that the group wanted to share with festival-goers. Plus, it’s the best way to see downtown.

The first ride took place last year. That morning proved rainy, and the guys were just about to call it off — “until people started showing up,” Wright remembered. Four or five hearty souls rode around with the writers through the rain. And this year, some of them came back.

On Sunday morning at 8 AM, a group of 15 met at Eighth and Congress, right next to the B-cycle stand, so that those who needed could rent bikes. Others had brought their own, including a repeat cyclist and his wife, who had traveled all the way from Midland for the event. Also in tow was a “contingent” (as Wright called them) from New Hampshire. One of their rental bike’s seats loomed dangerously low to the ground, making it look “like she was riding a tricycle,” Wright says. He was a bit worried about her as well as an elderly woman on the ride. “She proved terribly hearty, though,” Wright remarked, “and she outpaced many of the people.”

Brands had scouted out a path from Eighth and Congress over to East Fourth, through East Austin on the hike and bike trail all the way to Pleasant Valley, then back to downtown on the boardwalk. “It’s thrilling to see how the boardwalk has opened up a vista of the city that no one had been able to appreciate until now,” Wright says. The tour moved slowly enough to chat the entire way.

So, was it all books and business? A mix. A few deals were made (let’s just say UT now has online access to the entire Austin American-Statesman), but “mostly it was just an enjoyable ride,” Brands says.

And as for the turnout? Well, the authors were thrilled. “It’s a nice way for people attending the festival to have a more intimate moment with some of the writers,” Wright noted. Meanwhile Brands worried that with this kind of “exponential growth,” they might have to expand the tour into several groups. But as he says, “We’ll take that success as it comes.”

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Credits

Photography by Jessica Attie

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