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How a Mountain Bike Saved my Life

1992 white Trek Antelope MTB leaning against a red brick wall

In 1992 I bought a bike so I wouldn’t kill anyone driving home from the bars in Milwaukee. I went to the bars a lot back then. It was an entry-level mountain bike painted white with black splatter paint and blue Trek logos. I added a halogen headlight since I would mostly be riding at night and had a rack installed so I could carry stuff. I don’t know for sure if that bike saved anyone else, but I am pretty sure it saved my life.

In the mid 1980s I was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota working on a Masters in Journalism, but barely taking any classes. I spent most of my time working for the Minnesota Daily, a really great student newspaper. At night I went out and took part in the very exciting music scene, seeing Prince, Hüsker Du, The Replacements, Soul Asylum, and so many more great bands. I was making decent money at the paper, and I only was going to school so I could work there, become a better photographer and eventually work as a foreign correspondant.

In 1987 I got the opportunity to participate in a journalist exchange program with a Sandinista newspaper in Nicaragua. Before I knew it, I was stepping onto the docks in Bluefields after a long ponga trip down the Rio Escondido. In addition to working for the Bluefields Sunrise newspaper, I began freelancing for US News and World Report.

While I was in Nicaragua my then-girlfriend, now wife, got a good job as a teacher or Milwaukee Public Schools. On a very scratchy phone call, she told me she was moving all our stuff and our cat to Milwaukee, and I could do what I wanted when I got back. Since I was already living my dream as a photojournalist working in a war zone and shooting for a news magazine, I saw no reason to finish my graduate degree.

B&W photo of a photographer with camera who stands next to Sandinista soldiers.
Me and the boys on a routine patrol up the Rio Escondido when I worked for the Bluefields Sunrise in Nicaragua.

Back in my hometown of Milwaukee I started freelancing for wire services like United Press International and the Associated Press. I did regional work for national news magazines like Time and Newsweek (I was a “B” shooter, never in the “A” class doing glam cover shoots). I also shot for newspapers, both local and national. I shot for a ton of trade and business magazines (guys in ties stuff). I did some fun stuff for the likes of Milwaukee Magazine, Art Muscle and some other funky mags. But what I enjoyed shooting most were documentary projects oversees and in Wisconsin.

Shooting a Brewers game back when I still could follow focus manually.

I did that for about 15 years and during that time I would work odd hours, traveled a lot, and lived by a pager (remember those?). I  shot a lot of professional sports and often ended up going out with other photographers after the games to have a few beers, shoot pool and bitch about work. 

After shooting a Milwaukee Bucks game, we would head over to the Hotel Belmont across the street from the Newspapers and wire services offices. After a Brewers game, we would head to Tony’s on S. 2nd street in Walkers Point. While I wasn’t getting drunk per se, I was still getting back in a motor vehicle to drive home after having two or three beers. If there was a long homestand, I might do that five nights in a row.

One night a friend gave me a lift home from Tony’s and he side-swiped a parked car when he was turning into the parking lot behind my studio to drop my off. That got me thinking that could have been me if I was driving. And I could have hit someone head on or a pedestrian. While I wasn’t getting drunk, I was certainly driving impaired most of those nights. And I was doing it a lot. Sometimes we would go out every night during a five-game homestand.

At the time my personal mantra was life ain’t that great I need to live forever. I was smoking two packs a day and figured I would probably die in some war zone. But I didn’t want to hurt anyone else, so I went to Wheel & Sprocket and bought a Trek 820 Antelope mountain bike to when I was shooting local sports and going out to bars.

I was more into classic cars than bikes when I was a photographer. This is me and my 1963 Triumph Herald.

I really enjoyed my vampiric bicycle life.  I made a point to take odd routes on my way home, poke around the dark corners of Milwaukee and explore places I had never seen in a car. When a friend found out I had a mountain bike he called to invite me to go ride the “single track” in the Southern Kettle Moraine. I had no idea what single track was, so I took another drag on my cigarette and respond “Uh, you don’t understand, I have not put on a pair of shorts of any kind in about 15 years. That is not what this is about.” 

I kept rolling around from bar to bar and home again at night, cig hanging from my lower lip, camera bag on my rack.  But mountain biking was getting really popular then and people kept bugging me to go to the Kettles. Eventually I caved and agreed.

Turned out I really liked mountain biking and I started doing it a lot on my own. Before I knew it, I was lugging my big Motorola brick cell phone in my back jersey pocket (freelancers can’t miss a call) and riding in mtb trails in the Kettles 3-5 days a week. Eventually I realized I could not keep up my cigarette habit (as much as I loved those old “mod” Vantage soft packs) and ride like I wanted to.  So over time I tapered off and eventually broke my cigarette addiction. 

Dave Schlabowske wearing a bike jersey stands next to his bicycle on the Colorado Trail in Colorado mountains.
Me riding my Waterford with Ritchey WCS 1.75s and a Nitto Mustache Bar on the Colorado Trail somewhere between Durango and Silverton.

I also stopped going out every night, so I could wake up early enough to hit the Kettles and still shoot a baseball or basketball game in the evening.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am no saint these days, but I haven’t bought a pack of smokes in more years than I can remember, and I only go out to a bar a once or twice a week instead of seven. 

About the same time I began to make a conscious effort to reduce my driving for environmental reasons (reasons I learned in the woods of the Kettle Moraine), and dislike the amount of driving I had to do.  I specifically remember being stuck in traffic on my way to Chicago one day to shoot some guy in a tie and thinking about a BMW ad that bragged about the charcoal air filtration system that left the air inside your beemer fresh and clean.  I realized I was part of the problem not the solution, no matter how many meaningful documentaries I shot.  I remember thinking I wanted to be the kind of person I wanted to take photographs of, not a person taking photographs of people I admired. So I quit, just like that (ask my wife).  

I embraced the bike lifestyle as fully as I could.  I began racing. My resting heart rate was below 50. I bought a lugged Bridgestone XO-1(Hopp!). I went to work for Waterford Precision Cycles as a builder. Then I worked for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin and was the first Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator at the City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works.

I’m not sure I can truly say that Trek 830 Antelope with the 80s white splatter paint and purple anodized bar ends saved my life, but I know I am a better person for having ridden it.

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    pmrphoto
    June 17, 2021 at 1:50 pm

    my favorite old car of yours was the Sunbeam… loved riding in that with you, and getting to see your Dad’s shop with all his various projects… “Those were the days, my friend…” pm-r 🙂

    • Reply
      David Schlabowske
      June 17, 2021 at 2:18 pm

      Hey Pat, thanks for reading and writing back. That car was actually a 1963 Triumph Herald, not a Sunbeam Tiger. They do look similar. I could do a U-turn in a Third Ward alley in that car. It got close to 40mpg too! Shoulda kept that one.

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