Pedal taverns, party bikes, cycle pubs — whatever you call these human-powered mobile refreshment stands, they tend to create strong opinions in Nashville, mainly among the bachelorette parties who love them and the commuters stuck behind them who loathe them.
Now that Nashville is one of the top weekend party destinations in the country, the city is seeing more and more driver, pedestrian, and pedaler interactions, both jovial and hostile. It’s only natural that there would be a bit of friction when a group clad in jorts and cowboy boots slowly pedals its way around town, often with plenty of beer on board and an inflatable phallus or two to wave at passersby.
At the helm of these roving watering holes is the pedal pub driver, who’s responsible for providing entertainment for the crew of lushy Lance Armstrongs while simultaneously ensuring their safety. These pilots also bear the brunt of abuse from curmudgeonly locals who just don’t understand the fun and were just trying to get across town during rush hour to buy a damned bottle of Smirnoff before the weekend kicked off, okay? (It’s a sore subject for many.)
Anyway. To better understand this unique profession, we spoke with Josh Cloud, a manager at Nashville Pedal Tavern, the city’s oldest and biggest party bike operator (and the city’s top-ranked food and drink attraction on TripAdvisor). Like many Nashvillians, Cloud came to town to break into the music business. Unlike many in the Music City, he auditioned to be on season 8 of American Idol in 2009, made it to the final 50 in Hollywood, but, thanks to a crappy contract stipulation, wasn’t allowed to sign a new label deal for at least two years after getting eliminated. With his music career stalled, Cloud was surprised to see his next gig literally rolling by one day. This is his story about getting into the pedal pub industry, dealing with local scorn and overly joyful bachelorettes, and why everyone should cut him and his colleagues a bit of slack.
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“First time I ever saw a pedal tavern, I was actually singing on a stage downtown,” he says. “It was in between songs, and I heard these girls singing Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ at the top of their lungs, and they were pounding on this thing as it was rolling by. I was like, ‘What in the hell?’”
In a strange moment of kismet, Cloud happened to run into the new owners of the local pedal tavern at a bonfire — in his own backyard. They asked if he’d be interested in becoming a driver.
“I was like, ‘No! No way! I’ve got a reputation to uphold. I’m not going to drive that thing around.’ They said just come out try it out do a tour with us, and within five minutes, I was sold! I had already bartended everywhere in town, and this just seemed like a really good fit for me. I love being outside and I love people, so being around people for two hours from all over the country and all over the world was really nice. I enjoyed not working after midnight as well.”
Christina Lepoutre worked for a different beer bike company in Nashville. Sprocket Rocket is a little different from Nashville Pedal Tavern in that their bikes employ both a driver and a pilot, plus they have a small electric motor to help with propulsion in case a team of riders isn’t quite up to the task. She jumped on board on a whim. “I was in between jobs at the time and became friends with the owner of Sprocket Rocket and figured I would give it a whirl! I started off as a bartender and quickly moved my way up to management and also became a driver.”
Cloud’s bike didn’t have the benefit of the technological boost. He found himself at the helm of a rolling party wagon with 15 seats, 10 of which are equipped with pedals to aid the propulsion. “So as long as there’s at least eight people pedaling out of the 15, this thing’ll move. It’s not going to be easy, but it’ll move.” Fortunately the routes that Cloud takes are primarily downhill to the river with a few stops at bars along the way before the staff tows the tavern back up the hills to the company headquarters.
He knows almost immediately if a group will be a fun one. “You know pretty much what you’re going through the rules what groups are going to want. If you can’t get through the rules without them interrupting you a bunch, you know they’re not going to listen to interesting facts about the buildings when you get downtown. I also read the groups by being the DJ. My fourth song is usually one from Taylor Swift, and if they sing along then I know it’ll be a Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls kind of crowd.”
Some riders are looking for a tour guide while others just want a booze pilot. “We have girl drivers for the bachelors, and we have guy drivers for the bachelorette parties, so the girls have to deal with a little bit more of the crazy drinkers,” explains Cloud. As a female driver, Lepoutre had a slightly different perspective. “The reason most of the drivers are male is because the girls tend to be young and petite and afraid of driving something that large. It takes some getting used to but once you have it, it’s easy. I will say you have to be a certain height to be able to reach the gas and brake pedals. Having said that, some of the best drivers I had were girls. It’s more about the dynamic between the driver and the bartender in my opinion. I think girls make better bartenders because the space is already tight, and I also think girls are better in general at multi-tasking and anticipating needs. Remembering what 16 different people are drinking and where you put all their individual drinks in the cooler can be challenging.”
While the normal tour lasts about an a hour and a half, including honky tonk stops, Cloud’s longest tour was with a celebrity pedaler and her entourage. “The strongest group that pedaled up and down and up and down and up and down was Kelly Clarkson. They did everything. They pedaled from downtown to Midtown and back around again. We got to the end of the tour which was a two-and-a-half-hour tour, and when we finished whoever booked it for her didn’t tell her that we didn’t end up where we started from. So she said ‘what are we doing?’ I said, ‘This is it.’ She goes, “No we got to keep going. We’re having too much fun! Can we book it for another hour?’ So I called my manager and he said, ‘It’s Kelly Clarkson. You do whatever the hell she wants!’ So she ended up going for five-and-a-half hours. It was a blast. They pedaled their butts off.”
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His most memorable tour also involved celebrities, but of the fictional ilk. “There was a bachelorette party from San Diego, and they all dressed up in professional Disney princess costumes for the weekend. It just so happened that “Frozen — Disney on Ice” was here in town so that pedal tavern was driving with 15 Disney princesses on it, and little girls’ minds were blown while they stood on the sidewalk and saw Cinderella, Snow White, Belle, and Ariel pedaling past them. Every time we stopped they would jump off the tavern and take pictures with the little girls that were walking up. It was awesome! The girls from San Diego went from being a bachelorette party to being something that they felt was really special.That’s absolutely my favorite memory.”
One of Lepoutre’s favorite tour memories came from a group who didn’t even know each other when they got on the bike. “One of my best rides was the first week I was working. It was raining. It was three couples in their 50s from Ohio that were celebrating a birthday. They showed up super early and were paired with a girls 21st bday party who was running late. You can imagine what the beginning of the ride looked like! They ended up ordering pizza on the bike in the middle of the ride and having a blast. By the end of it, they were all best friends! I remember seeing them later on Broadway – these silly, super loud young girls and the three couples in tow – bar-hopping with them all day and night! It was great.”
If anything really insane happens, Cloud has to end the tour for the safety of the participants. “We all have to have our ABC license even though we don’t serve the alcohol. We provide the cooler and the ice so they just bring whatever they want to drink. There are no laws about open containers in Nashville as long as you don’t get off the bike with it. Just no glass — it’s ‘pool rules.’ We can recognize intoxicated people and that’s something that our company makes us do, so we educate our drivers. People’s lives and alcohol are two fragile things, and we try to know as much about it as possible. A lot of our drivers are former bartenders, which is great because they have that experience.”
Then there’s the hitchhikers. “People try to hop up on the bike in the middle of the road. A lot of people think it’s just a rolling bar, and they’ll see an open seat, so they’ll run over and try to jump on. Especially if it’s a bachelorette party, an intoxicated guy will run over and try and jump on so we have our defense mechanism for that. Everyone points and yells ‘Stranger Danger!’ That usually embarrasses them enough for them to jump off and run away.”
By far, the biggest headache for a pedal tavern driver is traffic, both being in it and being blamed for it. “We try to stay out of traffic’s way as much as possible, and we do everything we can to have a light footprint on the city’s traffic situation. We do a good job of of staying out of most of the roads that are two-lane highways. The parts where we find the most problems are the construction areas downtown because everything is choked down to one lane. There’s not even sidewalks on most of the streets right now, much less two lanes to drive in.”
New regulations ban the taverns from the streets during the height of rush hour, but Cloud doesn’t think they’re the root of the problem. “A lot of people see a pedal tavern on the road, and they’re going to blame us for the traffic, if there’s any traffic at all. They don’t even notice that that four-lane highway is shut down to two because of construction. There are just very small sections of our route that cars cannot go around us because it’s two lanes. I’ll find that during rush hour we would pretty much have been behind the same car the whole way, and that car is is going the exact same speed as we are. We’re not causing any traffic. We’re in the same traffic as everyone else.”
When he does get the chance to take a native Nashvillian on a ride, Cloud finds that they’re enthusiastically surprised by the trip. “We have locals come on all the time that are griping when they sign those waivers, and they’ll get on the bike and be like ‘I cannot believe I’m doing this! If anybody sees me on here I’m going to be so embarrassed.’ By the end of the tour they’re 100% fans of the pedal tavern. They apologize to me for being rude to me on the roads and say they promise they’ll be back and bring their friends.”
“Another thing that they love is because you’re outside and you’re moving at such a slow pace, it’s really a different way to see Nashville. You’ve got the smells, the sewage, the horses, but also the food. You’ve got the sounds of the bands playing as you’re driving by and you’re getting to see the buildings at such a slow rate you realize there’s so much change going on down here. Almost every single local that goes on a tour is like, ‘Man, I didn’t realize the city was this beautiful’ or ‘I didn’t know this building was being constructed,’ ‘That old hotel’s gone’ or ‘This new hotel’s going up’ or ‘the Country Music Hall of Fame really is beautiful.’
Lepoutre shared some of Cloud’s initial skepticism, but was converted into a beer bike evangelist. “I will admit that before I started I was less than enthusiastic. I certainly understand the perception from the street. I put it like this – you are either a person who rolls your eyes at a party bike or high fives them. I started off rolling my eyes – I ended up being a high fiver. I think it has a lot to do with your attitude on life and how happy you are in general. If you are a miserable person, well, the party bikes are one more thing to be miserable about. But if you love living in Nashville because people come here to party, and you enjoy showing them a good time, then the party bikes are gonna make you smile. I’ve caught several friends who work downtown who are generally annoyed with the bikes smiling and laughing at me from the street when I pass by, so I know they secretly get a kick out of it! Its extremely difficult when thrown in that situation to have a bad time. You are in your own little pocket of awesome – having such a good time singing and pedaling – that people would often forget that the whole street is in fact NOT at the same party. When I encountered haters, I would just tell them how amazing it was and beg them to try it once. Once you’ve been on it, your whole perspective of them changes.”
Minds are also changing at the highest level of Nashville policy makers, and Cloud is noticing. “One of our most positive and happiest moments in the local media was when Mayor Megan Barry gave us a shout out when she was talking about the surplus in our revenue from tourism. Her quote I believe was, ‘So next time you’re stuck behind a pedal tavern, don’t get mad. Thank them for bringing people to Nashville.’ I wish that could be our slogan. She got the big picture of Nashville’s growth. We really liked her a lot.”
“I wish locals knew how much we love this city,” Cloud continues. “We really help to bring more tourists to Nashville. We hear stories all the time about people that book their pedal tavern tour first and their airline tickets to town second. I’ve worked for the company for years, and I’ve had repeat customers have come back that still talk about tours from six years ago. Some of them say that they’re still friends with the people they met on our tour.”
Lepoutre had a similar experience. “I had so many bachelorette and bachelor parties tell me that they planned their trip to Nashville specifically to do a party bike. That is crazy to me! I honestly think it’s the main reason that Nashville became such a huge bachelorette destination. The obvious reasons are there – it’s easy to get to, it’s affordable, it’s compact, it has a thriving music and party scene. But what people don’t realize is that the party bike itself is often the focal point of their trip.”
Primarily a tipped position, nobody is getting especially rich driving a pedal tavern in Nashville, but an active guide can expect to make between $100-150 for two hours of work and can lead three to four tours per day, as often as five time a week. Lepoutre said that her days could be long, but fun. “We were fully booked Friday and Saturday (6-8 weeks in advance!) so most people who worked those days worked 10am until midnight There were six rides per bike/per day with the last one going out around 9:30pm. Most people preferred to work the whole day (6 rides) because the money was better and once you are on the bike, time goes by fast. There were some employees, however, who chose to (or only had the availability to) work 1-3 rides a day.”
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Like Uber employees, the guides come from a variety of backgrounds. At Sprocket Rocket, Lepoutre describes the diverse lot. “They were mostly outgoing young professionals in their 20’s and 30’s who wanted a fun weekend job to meet people and bring in extra cash. I did have a handful of people who quit their other jobs and did Sprocket full time once they realized how lucrative and fun it was. A lot of the employees had regular 8-5s during the week and just did it on the weekends. The common denominator was a certain fun-factor that was either always there or brought out by job. I used to call us party professionals. After 2 years, I can assure you I know how to make people party!”
Many of Cloud’s co-workers shared a common background. “We have a handful of teachers. We’ve got a pastor, but I’d say 90% of our drivers are musicians, so they’re also used to dealing with drunk people and entertaining them. This is their night job while they write and record and perform during the daytime. The selling point is more the flexibility of the hours. A lot of our drivers are on the road touring in bands so they can be gone for two months over in the UK or on a West Coast tour and then come back and pick up shifts. It’s tough to find a job that’s that flexible and still regular.”
Nashville Pedal Taverns’ owners also came from the music industry, so they understand the drivers’ needs. A rarity for musicians, all full-time employees have benefits. “The company takes care of of us with things like that,” says Cloud. But the biggest benefit to Cloud is the people he works with and the tourists he cares for.
“The best thing is the people that we’ve hired for the team. We spend our holidays and our birthdays together. We’re pretty much all musicians. One of them sang the anthem at a Patriots game and a couple of them got past the judges on The Voice. We’re not just a bunch of crazies. We love this city, and we want to protect it. A lot of us moved to Nashville for the live music, and it’s the heart of the city. We want to respect this city. It’s been a great experience, and I wouldn’t change anything.”
Lepoutre concurs, “I’ve never had more fun at a job than I did at Sprocket. I honestly would say out loud all the time, ‘I can’t believe I get paid to do this.’ I looked forward to work every day. Sure, it had its challenges (mostly a constantly evolving downtown landscape and the limitations of the bikes themselves) but it was worth every minute!”