Last April 27—the anniversary of the worst tornado outbreak in history—we joined Bo Jackson for a 50-mile bike ride through parts of our state still ragged from the storm that killed 252 Alabamians. It was the inaugural Bo Bikes Bama charity ride, which ESPN’s “Greatest Athlete of All Time” created to help raise money for his home state. Along with Ken Griffey, Jr., Picabo Street, Al Joyner, and other legends of sport, Bo rode 300 miles across his state, suffering up our Appalachian foothills just as much as the rest of us.
This Saturday, Bo returns with an updated ride that’s even easier to join. With a 60-mile loop ($60) and a 20-mile option ($40), the ride will be based out of a different tornado-torn town each year. This year it’s Cordova, where an EF-4 killed 13 people and stayed on the ground for 116 violent miles.
Bo called us from his Chicago home a month before the ride and told us about last year’s progress, this year’s event, and his vision for the future of Bo Bikes Bama.
What inspired you to create this annual ride?
Even though I live in Chicago, I was born, raised, and grew up in Alabama, and I still consider it home. I care about what happens in my state. Any little thing I can do, like putting on a charity bike ride to help raise money and build tornado shelters for the future, and help families get back on their feet, if I can do that, hey, that makes me feel good.
You grew up in Bessemer, Alabama, just outside Birmingham. Did you have friends and family who were directly affected by the storm?
I didn’t have anybody directly affected from it. I think the most damage as far as my friends and family had was downed trees and stuff like that. But I do know of people that lost loved ones in Tuscaloosa and Cullman and Jackson. And that hurts.
You’ve raised more than $600,000 so far, and several tornado shelters were built last year.
Several shelters were built, and we helped some families get back into their homes. But there’s still a lot to be done.
What’s your goal moving forward?
My goal, my baby is to build one to five community shelters across the state on an annual basis. And continue to do that. The only thing we have to do as a group is find a land owner that is just as passionate about the state as we are to donate not even an eighth of an acre. Another one of my goals is to make the whole event sponsored by Alabama businesses. It’s for the state, for the people in the state, so why not have it sponsored by companies within our own state? Everything home-grown. Every bit helps. If we only raise $20,000 to $30,000, that’s fine. If we raise half a million, great.
Last year, someone yelled “Roll, Bo, Roll!” Do you remember that?
I remember that. That was one of the funniest things that I heard. When I heard it, I almost fell off my bike. I think we were going through Hueytown, I think. Or Pleasant Grove. It was a trucker. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that in my life.
You seem to be bridging a lot of divides on your bike. And not just the Alabama-Auburn rivalry. You’re really the perfect advocate for cycling in a football state where we have lovely roads and wonderful people who aren’t used to seeing bicycles on them. Can you talk about the need for that?
The state really needs more bike paths. I’m not saying this in a negative way. A lot of cyclists are afraid to ride on our streets because the motorists don’t give you that 3 or 4 feet of space you need to ride your bike. A lot of cyclists are restricted to riding in the park or on trails. There are some towns and cities that have incorporated bike lanes, but there needs to be more.
What else can we do to promote cycling in Alabama?
It would be fun if you could take a week and just have a group of people to ride the length of the state. Just to see the state from another point of view, from the seat of your bike. The majority of us have only seen it from the seat of our car. We call it “Alabama the Beautiful.” But you don’t really see how beautiful it is until you see it from the seat of a bicycle. You can only go so fast, so you notice more. You see more.
Anyone can sign up to ride with you, and it’s even more affordable this year. The 60-mile loop is $60, and the 20-mile option is just $40. How can non-cyclists participate?
We are having a VIP function on Friday night at Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in downtown Birmingham from 6 p.m. to 8:30. We’ll have a silent auction, a VIP section set up for a meet-and-greet with celebrities, sit down and have a nice time, and get to know a lot of people. We encourage people to come out and donate and have a great time with us before the ride.