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Cyclical spotlight: Johan Wangbichler

Posted: December 19th, 2014 | Columns, Communities, Featured, The Spoken Word | 2 Comments

By Hutton Marshall | The Spoken Word

Through a program with New Belgium Brewing and its annual Tour de Fat, I donated my car and pledged to live car-free for a year in exchange for a commuter bicycle. I’m using the experience to take a look at the state of bicycling in San Diego, and how it fits into the city’s economy, culture and future growth.

Every month, Johan Wangbichler, a gregarious German transplant, leads a pack of fellow bicyclists on a ride beyond our southern border through the streets of Tijuana.

Although he’s called Bankers Hill home for the last 15 years, bicycling — not cycling, a sport Wangbichler doesn’t partake in — has taken him all throughout the region.

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Johan Wangbichler at the 2013 San Diego Tweed Ride
(Photo by Jinna Thomas)

In addition to the trips down south, the fast-talking architectural designer organizes several other regular rides around the city, including the Tuesday Dinner Ride — you can guess what that one entails — and the Urban Bike and Social Club, a recreational-turned-civic-minded group that meets monthly for day trips and various volunteer activities, like bike lane cleanups.

Plus, once a year, he runs the San Diego Tweed Ride, in which a horde of tweed-wearing bicyclists pedals around the city (in case it’s not obvious yet, Wangbichler is a sociable guy).

This blend of community organizing and social planning, in addition to his service with several bicycle advocacy nonprofits, recently earned him the title of “Volunteer of the Year” from the San Diego County Bike Coalition.

Although many of Wangbichler’s unpaid efforts appear social on the surface, he has a tenaciously progressive civic mind driving him. The Tweed Ride, the trips to Mexico — they’re all a subtle way to normalize bicycling and work toward a less car-dependent society.

Wangbichler has an interesting relationship with the automobile, and while upon hearing him opine some might label him “anti-car,” the truth is a bit more muddled, as is often the case.

Wangbichler owns five cars, along with a few motorcycles and a collection of vintage bikes. He was born in Detroit, Michigan, where his father worked in the auto industry — he biked to work everyday — before the family relocated to Munich, Germany, where Wangbichler lived until moving back across the pond when he was 15.

In his Bavarian upbringing, Wangbichler tells of a radically different car culture than the one we’ve grown accustomed to in the U.S. — the idea of “driving to dinner” still strikes him as odd. Out of all his gripes, one seemingly innocuous feature found in even the most modest American automobile is to him the epitome of our car-heavy lifestyle: the cup holder.

“The same cars available in Germany are available in America, but they have to add cup holders to them, because [Americans] are spending so much time in their cars,” he said.

Arriving in America on the cusp of his 16th birthday — when every teenager eagerly awaits their first car as a right of passage — he began questioning the roots of this car-happy culture at a young age. In his social study, he saw a car portrayed as a symbol of independence, as a key to taking someone wherever they want to go. But in his mind, the resulting traffic overload born out of everyone and their mother owning a car has led to something of a gasoline-powered prison.

“People sit in traffic to go to the jobs to pay for the house they’re never at,” said Wangbichler, with shades of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club.”

But times are changing, he proclaimed, and people are beginning to realize that transportation is possible with or without the beloved four-wheeled contraption.

(I would like to insert a brief interjection and just say that this whole conversation is making me feel fantastic about my decision to give up my car for a year.)

This changing tide, he said, has led him to promote bicycling as a mode of transportation, rather than purely a sport, as it’s often perceived. He said bikers don’t always look like spandex-wearing speed demons. They don’t look like anything, in fact. They’re just people, and saying otherwise can cause an unhealthy, dehumanizing effect, leading to something of an “us vs. them” relationship.

“I hear, ‘a person ran into a bicycle.’ No, they ran into a person,” Wangbichler said. “A bike doesn’t define who I am, just like a car doesn’t define who you are.”

This led to the clever invention of the Tweed Ride, which he brought to San Diego seven years ago after a trip to London. On the surface, it appears to be a bunch of jolly hipsters taking a casual ride about town, but the Tweed Ride is really about normalizing the public’s perception of what a cyclist looks like.

“I go to city council meetings and people call me ‘the bicyclist,’” he said. “And I say okay, you can call me the bicyclist, but don’t expect me to call you the motorist.

“Everywhere you go, there are people who ride bicycles, you just might not know it,” Wangbichler continued.

Wangbichler now serves on the San Diego County Bike Coalition board, and he was a founding member of BikeSD. While the Tweed Rides and his bike club have made him a well-known face, he said the less glamorous volunteer tasks, like sweeping up neglected bike lanes, are making San Diego an increasingly bike-friendly city.

“The city has limited funds, and I think if more people got involved with anything that affects their lives, there’s no reason for our city to be as broke as it is,” Wangbichler said.

I wish I could include all of Wangbichler’s opinions on bike culture in San Diego, but you don’t have the time to read them all, nor I the ink. To hear about how he thinks we should close off a chunk of downtown Hillcrest to auto traffic, or how the airport would be better located elsewhere, or how John Spreckels got public transit right 90 years ago, or to simply ride around with him and his cohorts, find “Tuesday Night Social Ride,” “Urban Bike and Social Club” or “San Diego Tweed” on Facebook.

—Contact Hutton Marshall at hutton@sdcnn.com.

2 Comments

  1. Phil says:

    Johan passed away last night. he will be missed.

  2. […] was bold, cheerful and full of life. Rest in peace, Hans. A few stories about Hans. […]

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