John Seigel-Boettner’s (Not So) Wild Ride
Lifelong Bike Nut and Retired Teacher Launches Santa Barbara Chapter of Cycling Without Age
By Nick Welsh | Published December 19, 2019
It was late in the afternoon when I got taken for my ride. The sun was hanging low in the December sky, and I was grinning like a fool. I wouldn’t stop until the sun went down.
I was sitting in the front seat of the three-wheeled bicycle rickshaw being propelled by John Seigel-Boettner, an ebullient cross between Big Bird, Johnny Appleseed, and Mr. Rogers. He was giving me a test ride down Hollister Avenue in the suburban wilds of outer Noleta.
I was waving at everybody we passed. Everybody was waving back.
You couldn’t not. They couldn’t not either.
We were a two-man parade on three wheels.
I’ve ridden in the back of bicycle rickshaws many times before. For a brief period, I pursued the idea of becoming a pedicab driver myself. I even went to the bother of submitting my fingerprints to the Department of Justice to prove I wasn’t a menace to potential passengers.
But the ride with Seigel-Boettner was altogether different. First, there’s the design. The seat bucket of his Danish-made rickshaw — with an electric motor for much-needed pedal assist when climbing hills — was in front of the driver, not behind like most others. This makes conversation between pilots and passengers infinitely easier, and the front seat, replete with seat belts and blankets, is broad enough that two can sit abreast.
Then there’s Seigel-Boettner himself. He stands 66 with a bird’s nest of white hair, a semi-handlebar mustache, wire-rim glasses, and brown eyes that dance. At age 66, Seigel-Boettner is a homegrown Santa Barbara local, a recently retired middle school teacher, and a lifelong bike nut. His bipedal rapture is rooted not so much in the astringent aesthetics of pure kinetic performance as it is in the everyday exaltations available to those lucky enough to see the world from above their handlebars.
“You’re closer to people; you’re closer to the community,” Seigel-Boettner explained. “And you’re closer to the sky.”
A natural storyteller, historian, and teacher, Seigel-Boettner is a conversation waiting to happen. He’s a talker who listens, a listener who likes to talk. His antennae are fully extended, and his curiosity is a living thing.
It’s with this combined mojo that Seigel-Boettner started his latest initiative: Cycling Without Age. Since late March, Siegel-Boettner has been showing up at three different retirement communities once a week, where for two hours, he takes residents on rides in his three-wheeled machines.
The response was instantaneously affirmative, prompting Seigel-Boettner to double down, buying a new “tri-shaw” bike with plans for a third. He’s vetted and trained five other pilots so far, and another 20 are ready for lift-off. Their payload is Santa Barbara’s 17,000 senior citizens, many of whom can’t get out on their own, let alone ride a bike.
“That’s a lot of people up in their room,” he said, “just waiting for Godot.”
‘The Best Medicine’
When I caught up with Seigel-Boettner last week, he was pulling his black trike into the circular driveway in front of Heritage House on Hollister Avenue. He was wearing shorts, athletic shoes, and his signature Mr. Rogers T-shirt, which suggests, “Believe there is good in the world.” (Mr. Rogers, he believes, was “really radical — radically kind.”)
Sitting in his front seat was a 92-year-old former two-star general for the U.S. Air Force named Philip Conley and his daughter, Kathy Conley, a pilot in her own right. During the course of an accomplished military career, Conley the elder distinguished himself as a serious badass, flying 70 combat missions in Korea. When he retired, he was the commander in charge of the Edwards Air Force Base.
But coming in for a landing at Heritage House, Conley was all grins and glee. His daughter was too. “He was as happy as a clam,” she confirmed later.
On their trip, Seigel-Boettner shepherded the Conleys down along the bike path to the Goleta Slough. From there, he swooped down to Goleta Beach, where he’d set a picnic table with a checkered tablecloth and cloth napkins. For the occasion, he brought panettone, warm eggnog, chocolate cookies, and, due to the brisk weather, a heavy blanket.
Conley and his wife, Shirley Conley — a onetime TWA stewardess who in her youth had toured all over Europe on a bicycle — are now restricted to wheelchairs. They both live, their daughter said, in the moment. For her parents to get outside on a bike, she added, “That’s the best medicine there is.”
Heritage House is where Siegel-Boettner started Cycling Without Age. It helped that he already knew the folks in charge there, but he still needed to get insurance and the required licenses while establishing trust with staff and residents. In particular, getting residents into and out of his rig requires collaboration with staff and an elaborate dance of bodies, hoists, and straps. That’s not something Seigel-Boettner tries to do alone.
The program is only gaining in popularity. One of his first passengers was a 96-year-old Italian woman who got all dolled up for the ride, doing her hair, jewelry, and fingernails. Upon returning to Heritage House, she hustled back to her room to put on a disguise — sweats and a Boston Red Sox hat — so she could go again. The facility’s operations director, Philippe de L’Arbre, described Seigel-Boettner as “an accomplice in mischief and a collaborator of good,” an assessment with which administrator Rosemarie Harris concurred.
Raleigh to Rickshaw
Given the two-wheeled trajectory of Seigel-Boettner’s life, it’s almost inevitable that he wound up launching Cycling Without Age. One of six kids, he grew up on the city’s Westside in a large Catholic family of three boys and three girls. He attended Harding, La Cumbre, and San Marcos. His father — who moved to Santa Barbara at age 6 when his dad got a job cleaning Montecito’s drapes for Mission Linen — was a professional public principal, running the show at Franklin, San Marcos, Lincoln, and Wilson. (The latter schools were razed to make way for downtown parking.)
Seigel-Boettner shared his first bike with the rest of his family; it was “more rust than paint,” with chunky rubber tires that eventually crumbled off the rims. When he was 9, his parents broke down and bought Seigel-Boettner a black Raleigh three-speed for Christmas. But he didn’t appreciate it at the time, more smitten with the much cooler and colorful Schwinn Varsity.
He rode the bike as a paperboy, delivering the News-Press, and was an athletic kid, playing basketball, football, baseball, and volleyball. (He remembers the terror of facing fullback Sam Cunningham at the line of scrimmage in junior high, years before Cunningham would go on to become a gridiron legend.)
Later, Seigel-Boettner would ride throughout the United States with his wife, Lynn Seigel-Boettner, up until she was eight months pregnant with their first child. They once camped out on the property of an Amish couple with 14 kids. The Seigel-Boettners promised to name their first child Jacob after the father of that family; the mother, in turn, would knit the expecting Santa Barbara couple a baby blanket. When Jacob was born, Seigel-Boettner biked him home from Cottage Hospital wrapped in that blanket.
When Seigel-Boettner started teaching at Santa Barbara Middle School, he became integral to the private school’s celebrated commitment to cycling culture, leading large groups of students on lengthy cross-country bike adventures. He retired three years ago.
Not long afterward, someone brought his attention to a TED Talk by Ole Kassow, the person who started Cycling Without Age in Denmark. It was love at first bite. He couldn’t not do it. Today, Santa Barbara’s Cycling Without Age is one of more than 1,200 chapters — and he is one of 13,000-plus pilots — worldwide.
Stories Spill Out
Eight months in, Seigel-Boettner is even more jazzed than when he began. Stories just spill out. There’s one about a woman who celebrated her 101st birthday on a ride, only to pass away four days later. But not before Seigel-Boettner stopped on the side of the road to pick her some sour grass to chew. Or before she gave him a kiss. There’s also the retired judge laid low by a stroke and the 96-year-old woman who hadn’t been on a bike in 90 years.
It’s been ages since many felt the wind in their face. “Do you know how long it’s been since a hat blew off my head?” asked one passenger. Some can no longer speak. “Even when they can’t talk,” Seigel-Boettner said, “they can still grin.”
One, a regular from the Friendship Center in Montecito, once ran 18 marathons in one year, earned a doctorate in divinity from Harvard, and interviewed the Dalai Lama, Ram Das, and Norma Shearer. “This guy is like royalty,” said Seigel-Boettner. After his first ride, he kicked his feet and fists into the air and let out a loud grunt of joy.
As a baseball fan, Seigel-Boettner grew up worshiping at the shrine of Eddie Mathews, the famously ferocious star of the Milwaukee Braves who was raised in Santa Barbara. His name came up while biking an older woman around one day. “Oh, I went to high school with Eddie Mathews,” she replied. “Guess what? I beat him at Ping-Pong one time. And he was really pissed off.”
Seigel-Boettner varies his routes, sometimes rolling through downtown, where they can see and be seen and other times exploring the waterfront. He’ll veer off the bike paths if riders are feeling adventurous.
Occasionally, he plops a SBMS student in front to ask questions. Sometimes they even get answers; sometimes they don’t. “Do you think it matters that you asked?” Siegel-Boettner asked one 13-year-old he brought along for the ride. “Do you think it matters when we talk to babies even though they can’t answer?” The moral of the story? “We’re humans on both ends of the scale.”
Seigel-Boettner doesn’t hit it off with everyone he rides around, just most of them. He’s blown away by the stories he hears and gets goosebumps thinking about the people he’s gotten to meet, like the landscape architect who helped design Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden. But it’s not easy, he acknowledged, for many people to accept their loss of control. Sensitivity is definitely required, and it’s hard for some people not to be pedaling the bike.
“I know what it’s like to take the wheels off,” said Seigel-Boettner. “And I’m just learning what it’s like to put them back on.”