A year ago a friend gave my wife the book Humans of New York and later Humans of New York Stories. It’s a compilation of pictures of interesting people in New York and brief descriptions. The first book is kind of like reading a National Geographic but just the pictures and captions – the latter book with the articles. The project began originally as a Facebook page and grew to three books, the third I have not yet read. When our family received the books, I read each book the night they were received. The books contain fascinating pictures of everyday and not so everyday people filled with joy, heartbreak and dripping with humanity.
Before that, maybe five years ago, I had the idea of creating a website called, “Stranger no stranger” where I wanted to take pictures of local people who I (and I assume many) see in our community but don’t know their story. The stories I’m telling fit this niche and are the reason why I began writing for WhatcomTalk. The person who I wanted to interview more than anyone, my family has seen for decades. We call him, “naked bike guy.”
You’ll know of him if you’ve ever seen him. He rides a road bike with nothing more than spandex shorts. Of late, he wears a helmet. My family thinks he’s a legend. So, my adventure to find him begins.
I email many of my local friends to ask if they know him. I get a lot of encouragement but no one seems to know him. They’ve seen him riding on the Guide or they’ve seen him on Elm Street. Finally a friend texts and says, “His name is Lee Becker but everyone calls him Natural Lee. He doesn’t wear a shirt, like ever.” So, there was hope, but no phone number. I search and find a link to Running Bear Painting and Remodeling. I leave a message on an automated answering machine. Nothing. Weeks go by. I miss my deadline. I keep leaving messages.
I ask my friend again, “Can you get his number?” I move on to other story ideas. I ask my editor what she can do to get his number. Then, on the same day, I get an email from my editor and a text from my friend with his number. I call and it’s … Natural Lee himself! We talk on the phone and Lee is very cordial. “You know I’m the guy who doesn’t wear anything, right?” he asks.
“Yep and I’ll be wearing bright orange,” I reply. We set a date for a bike ride to Ferndale on a Wednesday evening, perfect temperature for a ride. I prepare, fill my pockets with a water bottle and snack. We will meet at a church. I wait in my spandex. I ride around the block. I wait. No one there. It’s 20 minutes past our time to meet. I decide to ride thinking maybe I missed him. I call and I leave a message on his phone. No answer. I ride to Ferndale but don’t see him. Then I get a message on my cell phone.
“Dan, this is Lee. I’m sorry I missed the ride. I have no excuse. Please call me. Again, I’m very sorry.” I finish my ride and come home and give Lee a call. He answers and we make another date for a ride. Sunday morning.
Sunday arrives and again I’m in my spandex. I wait at the church. I check my phone with my head down and then hear a voice. “You must be Dan.” I look up and it’s Natural Lee, before me, shirtless, spandex shorts and a helmet. Lee in real life! Talking to me! So awesome!
We click into our pedals and are riding side by side toward Ferndale. The first and most natural question is why he rides shirtless. I heard an urban legend that I wanted to confirm. It was that his wife died of hypothermia so he wanted to honor her and acclimatize his body to all conditions, so he rode shirtless.
“No, that’s not it but 11 years ago when my wife left me, I was a discombobulated mess,” he says. He continues with the real story. “So, I was 15 or 16 living on Long Island, New York and I hitchhiked to New Hampshire to visit friends for the weekend. I had just purchased an $80 leather jacket ($80 in the late 1960s is about $600 today). I went to a dance at Nashua High School. We all left our jackets in a room before going to the dance and when I came back, the jacket was gone,” he describes. “I remember being outside and so furious that my jacket was stolen, I didn’t realize how cold it was.” It was January in New Hampshire. Thus, the awareness of what is cold and what is not was born. And Lee to this day just sees his shirtless bike riding as a way to be more aware.
We continue riding, almost to the Nooksack River bridge on Marine Drive. The next question, “When did you start riding?”
“I was 16. I got my driver’s license but I knew my parents wouldn’t let me have access to a car,” he describes. “I had a three-speed Sears bike, so I rode it. I had friends to see, things to do.” Lee goes on to say, “Cycling just works at the speed of my brain. There’s nothing like it. You feel like you are one with the earth.”
Indeed, that’s the reason many of us ride. You see more, you’re not in a cage. You’re not going too fast, nor too slow and you have a keen sense of grade and slope as you are doing all the work. We both bond over this fact. “It’s ultimate freedom,” Lee describes.
I recall seeing Lee on his bike with no helmet and was surprised to see him with a helmet when he arrived. “I’ve had 14 or 15 concussions,” he says. He goes on to describe hitting a crescent wrench and then crashing. He was awry for a few days after the crash, arguing with his wife for no reason. He got up groggy one morning, felt his temple to finally notice a scab the size of a grain of sand. That explained it. One more concussion.
Another time in the 1980s Lee was dumped by his girlfriend who moved to New Mexico. He decided to fly down to Phoenix, Arizona and bike to Taos, New Mexico – a distance of 550 miles which he completed in four days. Upon arrival to his ex-girlfriend’s house, he simply said, “I didn’t like the way you treated me,” and he rode back to Albuquerque to stay at a friend’s house. After his confrontation with his ex and before he reached Albuquerque, the front pannier bracket of his bike snapped and swung into his front wheel. He woke up to find a policeman hovering over him. He was taken to a hospital to recover. He had hit his right eye socket on the pavement and was bleeding heavily. With some help from strangers, a $250 hospital bill and a free ambulance ride, he made it to a friend’s house for the night. He then hitchhiked to Albuquerque. “I was livin’!” Lee proclaims. Six years later he heard from his ex. She appreciated how he reacted to the breakup and told him she’d changed how she treats people due to his feedback. “That made it worth it,” he smiles.
Since then, his present wife has finally convinced him that a helmet is worthwhile. I concur. I would have seen my dad die twice on a bike if it weren’t for a helmet, same with my college roommate. I agree that safer biking infrastructure would reduce accidents but cars have bumpers, cages, crumple-zones and seatbelts for a reason. That same reason is true of cyclists. In the Netherlands, people rarely wear helmets but they also rarely go over 15 miles per hour with safer more protected trails, cycle tracks and bike lanes. Drivers there are also much more aware of cyclists as many cycle as well. We don’t have that here yet, we both agree. We also have mountains and large hills!
Lee has family in northern Italy near the coastal city of Imperia. He’s visited them many times. He continues to describe the bike culture in Europe. He was cresting a mountain pass when a car came up from behind. He waved at them to pass him but the car waited from behind. As he crested the pass, the car passed and the people in the car cheered him for his efforts. “It’s simply a different culture in Europe regarding bikes,” he describes.
Lee grew up in New Hampshire and New York. He moved out west and lived in Glacier for many years riding his bike regularly on State Route 542 (Mount Baker Highway). He told me he’s one of the characters in a book, Philly’s Bridge by Scott Swanson, which I hope to read in the future. Lee now lives with his wife in the Geneva neighborhood just outside Bellingham’s city limits. His wife is a creative welder and has her own welding shop. His dad still lives in New Hampshire and his sister is there too, helping to take care of dad.
We arrive back in Bellingham and my epic ride with the legend, Natural Lee, had come to an end. We shake hands and I ask to see if we can ride again. We agree it would be fun. So, my hopes are high I’ll ride with him again. Maybe next time I’ll go shirtless…
Got an idea for someone you’ve always wondered about? Maybe you already know them but think they deserve some lime light. I’m looking to get to know others that make our community a better place, a unique place, maybe even a stranger place. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.