Steve Bauman: the Father of the TD Five Boro Bike Tour

Steve Bauman at the TD Five Boro Bike Tour


I’ve been acquainted with Steve Bauman, the father of the TD Five Boro Bike Tour, since my days with Bike New York, which began nearly a decade ago, but I’ve never really known him: I was in communications, and Steve’s forte was logistics, so he and I rarely had occasion to interact until I found myself in the command center at Fort Wadsworth at the end of that year’s Tour. Steve would invariably be seated next to longtime Tour stalwart Fred Jones, aka the Voice of God, whose jovial baritone worked like a warm breeze to ease the tension in the collective highwire act of keeping a bike ride for a small city running relatively smoothly. Fred joked and Steve laughed, easily and often, although his sights were always focused on the Tour: his baby had grown into the world’s biggest bike ride. It required significant care and feeding.


Unsurprisingly, that’s what our first long talk was about. In 2016, I interviewed Steve and a host of other folks to put together an oral history of the Tour for its 40th anniversary. This time, I wanted to talk to Steve about Steve. It was harder than I’d expected.


It’s not that Steve is cagey about his life. He’s forthcoming, generous, and happy to chat. The problem is that Steve can’t help but bounce from himself to talking about other people. It’s what Steve cares about. (That, and a very accurate route map.) I start by asking him what originally drew him to bikes, and after briefly mentioning the influence of an older brother and a formative bike tour of hostels around New England in the 1950s when he was in his teens, within two minutes he’s jumped ahead to describing his desire to “give back to the sport that I was getting a lot out of,” which led him to become a volunteer ride leader for the American Youth Hostel (AYH) in his early twenties. Before I can get a second question in edgewise, Steve is on a roll, racing ahead in time, throwing out names, dates, addresses, and timestamps that led to the first Tour—for 250 high schoolers in 1977—as if all these details had been on the tip of his tongue for 45 years. His memory is as detailed, accurate, and as lightning-fast as the digital circuits he designed as a student at MIT and, later, as an engineer.


Steve explains that this ability to think systemically, combined with an inveterate meticulousness, made him and his fellow Tour co-founders uniquely well-suited to planning an event as logistically complex as the Tour. In fact, after they’d managed to gain the confidence of the NYPD by demonstrating their logistical acumen, the cops would later insist that Steve and his fellow ride planners help organize all other bike events, even ones that had nothing to do with the AYH. That’s how he came to be involved with the first New York City triathlon, even though Steve “was never any good at sports”—that’s why he stuck to bikes.


Once again, we’re off the races—this time literally. But my goal here is to get to know Steve, not necessarily his sprawling institutional legacy, impressive as it may be, and so, as on a good bike ride, we slow down, pump the brakes, and backtrack a bit to focus on the man behind the Tour.


Steve was born in 1942 and raised in Flushing, Queens. As a kid of 10 or 11, he’d ride the train alone down to Ebbets Field in Crown Heights to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers play double headers. This, Steve points out, was not terribly unusual for the time. Kids were freer then. But freedom ain’t worth much if you’re stuck going only wherever the subway goes. When the aforementioned older brother turned him onto bikes when Steve was 16 (at the time, you had to be 18 to get your driver’s license in New York), his world sprang open. Suddenly, he could go anywhere and everywhere (insofar as New York City is Everywhere in microcosm). And so he did, starting in Queens and then going further afield, mostly on his own, as fast as his 3-speed would take him. As a high schooler, he rode from hostel to hostel around New England and down to Washington D.C. with a buddy. “As a kid,” Steve explains, “the bicycle represented freedom more than anything else.”


For the rest of our conversation, like kids on bikes with nowhere to go, we maunder around these topics: kids, bikes, freedom. The good stuff. And it makes sense: bikes are tools, sure, but they’re also toys, and that’s the mode in which most of us first fall in love with them. (If you didn’t get that chance as a kid, take one of Bike New York’s free learn to ride classes. It’s never too late and once you learn, as they say, you never forget.) Even though Steve is approaching 80, and the Tour that began as a ride for high schoolers is firmly middle-aged, it’s still all about kids for Steve. When I ask whether he still rides, he notes that he still likes to run his errands by bike, but the focus almost immediately bounces, once again, like an electrical charge along a circuit, from himself to other people: he tells me about his volunteer work with Ed Fishkin and his Kids’ Ride Club, which operates out of Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, an area plagued by asthma. “Why,” I ask, “are you still so committed to getting kids on bikes?”


“There’s a lack of independence among kids these days,” Steve explains, “and one of the things that bicycles allow you to do is explore on your own. In life, you’re going to be presented with a lot of challenges and you have to have the confidence to go forward, to look at all avenues of how to do things, how to get there, and unless you have the confidence, you’re going to be frightened.” Steve grounds these insights in his experience as an engineer and researcher, when he would occasionally work with engineering students: “I had a first lieutenant from the Air Force Academy, and I laid out every step—A, B, C, D, E, F—and he was good, but if I left out a step, he couldn’t think beyond that. The ability to think and do things on your own is vitally important, and cycling helps you do that.”


“If we get kids on bikes,” Steve goes on, “we have a chance to pique people’s curiosity. They learn, as I learned, that you can do things on your own, and if they do things on their own, they can think on their own, and if they can think on their own, they can think in ways that are better than people previously thought.” Like an engineer, logically moving from one step to the next.


These steps, Steve believes, are the key to restoring America’s “tinkerer’s spirit,” something he sees as critical for our continued progress as a nation. After all, “if you look at the world today,” Steve notes, “ we haven’t thought of everything.” That’s why it’s so important to get kids on bikes— they’re up next to think of the next big thing, and bikes can help them do that.


* * *


But, alas—though bikes can make you feel like a kid, time passes, and Steve is getting older. A few years back, Steve’s doctor told him that he’d put on a few pounds. He recommended that Steve consider going for a bike ride. Had he heard of the TD Five Boro Bike Tour? In a display of ego that’s charming for someone so habitually selfeffacing, Steve joked, “Do you know who I am?”


Before I called Steve up, I thought I didn’t. I was wrong. Like the millions of people who’ve felt like a kid as they rode through the City on the first Sunday in May, I do know Steve: he’s every one of the meticulously planned and routed miles; he’s the rest stops stocked with food; the lead, sweep, and SAG; the barricades and signage keeping us on track; every detail that makes us feel free as we pedal through the City; the connections formed along the way; and he’s the one laughing like a kid in the command center, thrilled to have pulled it off, once again. That’s Steve.


by Sam Slaton, Former Communications & Marketing Director