What Do Bo Jackson and Lance Armstrong Have in Common?

The former pro football and baseball player leads a group ride through the U.S.’s least bike-friendly state. His goal? Raise money for tornado victims.

Each year a host of big-name athletes join Bo Jackson (left) for his "Bo Bikes Bama" event. Among those who have biked for his cause are Lance Armstrong (middle), Ken Griffey Jr., and Bo's former rival Brian “the Boz” Bosworth. (Honey Davis and Mary Lou Davis)
Photo: Honey Davis and Mary Lou Davis

You knew Bo Jackson could hit back-to-back home runs. You’ve seen him bust through a wall of linemen like a Mack-truck through a picket fence. You might recall his 40-yard dash clocking in among the fastest in NFL history. And if you remember the “Bo Knows” commercials of the ‘80s, you don’t need to be reminded that Bo was freakishly good at more sports than should be humanly possible. 

But did you know that Bo knows cycling? 

Every spring, you’ll find Jackson pedaling through Alabama, launching from Auburn and leading a peloton packed with superstars: Lance Armstrong, Ken Griffey Jr., Picabo Street, and even Bo’s former football nemesis Brian “the Boz” Bosworth. They’re mixed into a motley assortment of riders, from racers astride $10,000 bikes to fans on clunkers excavated from dusty back-yard sheds.

(Honey Davis and Mary Lou Davis)

It’s like this every year at Bo Bikes Bama. Proceeds from the annual charity ride—the fourth one was held earlier this month—go toward the construction of community tornado shelters in Alabama, which leads the nation in tornado deaths. Bo created the ride after watching 62 tornados ravage his home state on April 27, 2011. More than 250 Alabamians died, and many small towns suffered. “I felt I needed to do something,” Jackson says. It would not be a race, or even a ride that takes itself too seriously. “It is what I call a celebration ride. You can have kids from their early teens to senior citizens, and everyone is having fun.” 

At six foot one, 275 pounds, Bo is the physiological antithesis of the archetypical cyclist: a skinny guy with the quads-to-biceps ratio of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. After hip surgery, he discovered cycling not so much as a sport but as a way to stay fit without the pounding of running. He is not the fastest rider in the pack, or the strongest climber—don’t even think about trying to chat with him on a hill.

But he may just be the best advocate for cycling in the nation’s least bike-friendly state. Last year, Mississippi bumped Alabama from #49 to dead last on the League of American Bicyclists’ list of Bike-Friendly States. Alabama remained in dead last this year. Infrastructure and laws for cycling are poor to nonexistent. Bike lanes are scarce. There’s no three-foot law. Drivers unaccustomed to seeing bikes on the road are, at best, unsure how to pass, and at worst, view cyclists as targets for their road rage. But many of them are also football fans.

“You couldn’t ask for anyone better than Bo to do this in our football-crazed state,” says Faris Malki, owner of Cahaba Cycles, a Birmingham bike shop.

For the inaugural Bo Bikes Bama, Jackson rode nearly 300 miles across the state, from town to tornado-torn town, drawing cameras and donations to places forgotten when the media circus moved on. He got Trek and Nike and other sponsors on board, and invited his fans to donate and ride, with the goal of raising $1 million for the Governor’s Relief Fund. After that first year, he changed it to a one-day event, with a 60-mile course and a 20-mile option. After four years, the ride has grown to around 900 cyclists and raised an estimated total of $960,000, says event director Rebecca Falls, an employee of Trek Travel who hails from Tuscaloosa. “Next year we’ll easily pass the $1 million mark.”

(Honey Davis and Mary Lou Davis)

As celebrity rides go, Bo Bikes Bama isn’t the first or the largest. Levi Leipheimer’s GranFondo, set in the hills of northern California, draws around 7,000 riders a year. George Hincapie’s Gran Fondo counted 1,300 riders last fall, in only its second year. By comparison, the four-year total number of riders in Bo Bikes Bama is around 2,400. But Bo Bikes Bama is a tight-knit, intimate group, with devotees returning year after year from 28 states.

Certain celebrities also come back every year. Armstrong rode this year and in 2012. Street, the Olympic gold medalist alpine skier, and Griffey Jr., 13-time MLB All-Star, have ridden all four years. Olympic triple-jumper Al Joyner rode the first three. Riding shoulder-to-shoulder with them feels like the Gods of Sport have come down from Mount Olympus to walk among the mortals. 

Except, on a bike, they are mortals too. They don’t train for this. Their butts get just as sore. They struggle up hills like the rest of us. ESPN’s Greatest Athlete of All Time is still fit, still a legend, but he is not built for climbs. After four or five days of cycling foothills during the first ride in 2011, Bo drank pickle juice for cramps, walked his bike up at least one hill, and endured Armstrong quipping, “Bo don’t know hills!”

(Honey Davis and Mary Lou Davis)

This year got interesting when Bosworth asked to join. The former Seattle Seahawks wrecking ball, known for his swagger and Max Headroom hair, was a big-time rival of Bo’s when the two were star rookies in the NFL. They clashed famously on November 30, 1987, when Bo blew right through the tackling arms of the Boz, scoring a touchdown for the Raiders. “Next time,” Bo told Bosworth in the end zone, “Bring bus fare.”

Bosworth, who takes his wife’s indoor cycling classes, has not spent much time riding a bike outdoors. But he easily hung with the lead pack on last Saturday’s 60-miler. That group included Armstrong and Christian Vande Velde, a former member of the U.S. Postal team. When the pace grew frisky (by social-ride standards), Bosworth and Bo both rode strong. The competition was friendly, but palpable. Vande Velde gave Bo a friendly hand-on-back push up a hill. But the descents belonged to Bo.

“This is where my 275 pounds works in my favor,” Bo shouted, passing Vande Velde on a downhill, “and your 150-soaking-wet does not!”

And then, around mile ten, Bo got a flat. Samaritans swarmed him like flies on butter, falling all over themselves to help. Riders rubber-necking as they passed him by very nearly caused a pileup. “What are you looking at?” he said, smiling and waving them on. Having fixed the flat and continued on, Bo pulled back into Auburn on his custom pink Trek Madone, which bore on its top tube the names of 252 Alabamians who died in the storm. As riders streamed into the after-party and tucked into BBQ sandwiches, he stood for two hours signing autographs for fans.

One of them was Ashley Mims, who lost her 21-year-old daughter, Loryn Brown, to the EF4 tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa four years ago. Mims tackled the 20-mile ride—her longest ever—on the back of a tandem bike, with a photograph of Loryn pinned to the back. Bo put his arm around her for a photo and said, “I’m so sorry.”

(Honey Davis and Mary Lou Davis)

Ashley Mims is the reason Bo Bikes Bama matters so much to this state and the people who live here. At least 50 community tornado shelters have been built with the money Bo raised. The ride now seems as much a part of the Bo Jackson legacy as the Heisman trophies and MVP awards. How long will it continue? Just ask Bo.

“As long as a bike can hold me,” he replied.

Filed To: Adventure / Biking
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