MINN OG: Baba O'Reilly
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If you’ve attended a Twin Cities bike event, or enjoyed a dark roast and donut at One on One Bicycle Studio, or competed in a cyclocross, mountain bike, or road race sometime in the past 30 years, it’s likely you’ve met Bill “Baba” O’Reilly. A true Minnesota cycling OG, O'Reilly's been a warmhearted — and very, very busy — fixture in the scene for decades.
Bill O’Reilly earned the nickname “Baba,” a reference to The Who, in the early ’90s, as a member of the Mountain Bike Gurus Forum (MBGF). Started by Mark Zeh and friends, the MBGF featured “the original outlaw mountain bikers in the Twin Cities,” says O’Reilly, with crew members like “Hoss,” and “Bustin’ Loose,” working together to stage wacky races.
Imagine the Hank Williams Country-Style Fitness Showdown, which included lassoing a chair, and the Don Shelby Bassmaster Classic, where “you’d race your bike through the woods and come to a clearing with four kiddie wading pools and Popeil Pocket Fishermen.” That was the goofy-creative crew Baba ran with.
O’Reilly’s bike journey began in the ’80s, when at 45 years old, his basketball habit began taking a toll on his body. To counteract his family’s history of heart disease, O’Reilly took up the “wimp sports” of biking and cross-country skiing. “Back then,” says O’Reilly, “everyone thought biking was wimpy and for nerds. They didn’t realize how much effort it took.”
Though he’d never raced before, O’Reilly became the third member of the Loon State Cyclists and won his first race. “You just learn how to keep up,” he says, “and you attack.” O’Reilly competed for awhile, and kicked ass, but being near 50 reduced the number of people he could race against and with.
That led him to mountain biking: “I went nuts on that. You’re out in the forest, your view changes all the time, it was so much more exciting and social for me. You get skinned up, dirty and scraped, but you don’t ever really break anything. I love to be out in the woods, just playing. I won a bunch of state championships as a mountain biker.”
O’Reilly was also on the scene as cyclocross took hold of Minneapolis. “We’d pick a spot at Hidden Beach,” he says, “and say, ‘Let’s have a race.’” Those were the days when One on One Bicycle Studio owner Gene Oberpriller organized cross races in the backwoods at Theodore Wirth, until neighborhood NIMBY’s (an acronym for those who shout “Not in My Backyard!”) forced them out.
A volunteer park and rec commissioner in Crystal, Minn., O’Reilly then took up the organizer baton and kickstarted his own CX race in Bassett Creek Park: “I organized that race for 12 or 13 years. That’s still the State Championship site, all these years later,” says O’Reilly. (The next one is coming up Nov. 18–19!)
O’Reilly’s race philosophy, whether he was organizing a multi-day criterium or a cyclocross event, was to keep things “as simple and fun as possible.” He calls himself “a big ideas guy,” who loses interest when things get too nitty-gritty and detail-oriented.
Along the way, O’Reilly started coaching: “I was fast, good, and older, so I was a mentor to younger riders and coached by example. They just had to keep up.” O’Reilly got certified by the United States Cycling Federation (now known as USA Cycling) and spent years training cyclists with Minnesota Junior Cycling (MNJRC) and the ultra-competitive University of Minnesota Cycling Team.
“It just makes you feel good, when somebody can learn,” he says, “I get a big grin on my face.” One student was Megan Lennon, a U of M rider who fell in love with mountain biking on a trip to Sedona, Ariz., and came second in the state at a mountain bike race a year later. Says O’Reilly, “I taught her right from the get-go and saw her get that far. She was a good student.”
If all that weren’t enough to keep somebody busy, O’Reilly worked with big names like R.T. Rybak, John Munger, and Matt Moore on building the network of mountain biking trails that have burgeoned around Minneapolis in the past decade. When did he sleep? “People go, ‘You’re gonna die anyway.’ They drink as much as they can, and smoke, and sit on a couch and rot away. That’s not me.”
Today, Baba O’Reilly’s still focused on riding as much as possible. “My resting heart rate is 38–40,” he says, “I just love being fit, doing intervals, and keeping at it, and getting my heart rate down. The main thing is that it’s fun.”