TALLAHASSEE — If the best-known resident in our state capital is Gov. Charlie Crist, No. 2 might be the Bikini Bicyclist.
The Bikini Bicyclist is a large, middle-aged, mostly hairless man who rides a fat-tired bike along city streets while wearing a headband, a good-luck medallion and a spectacularly tiny thong.
He is hard to miss, though many people try, averting their eyes as he rolls into view. Not all turn away, though. Startled motorists whip out cell phones and take pictures they can share at the office or with Internet buddies.
"Exhibitionist!'' apoplectic motorists shout.
The Bikini Bicyclist flashes the peace sign.
"Keep on trucking!'' others holler in delight.
The Bikini Bicyclist flashes them the peace sign, too.
He usually rides in the late morning through early afternoon. He rolls past lobbyists hustling to the Capitol and weary FSU students heading for class. His usual habitat includes the city's notoriously bicycle-unfriendly thoroughfare, Apalachee Parkway.
"Get off the road, you idiot!'' somebody yells.
The Bikini Bicyclist never looks at critics or supporters, never returns a catcall or a cheer, never even slows. He flashes the peace sign and continues his ride as if his life depends on it.
Perhaps it does.
• • •
Erin Albertson, a 31-year-old computer expert for the Association of Rehabilitative Facilities, always has had a soft spot for eccentrics. As a Florida State student a decade ago, she admired the uninhibited jogger who, depending on mood, dressed as Batman, Popeye or Superman. Even more colorful was King Love, who donned a cape and a crown while making his amorous rounds. "You've been loved,'' he declared, as he tapped a lucky pedestrian with his magic wand.
Alas, the city's celebrated eccentrics died. In February, when Albertson saw a big lug riding a bike in his briefs, her heart began to pound. She told her friend Whitney Fruge, 23, about bicycle boy. Whitney was already a devotee.
The pals came up with an idea. Why not create a support group for him on Facebook? The Classy Tallahassee Bikini Bicyclist Fan Club was born.
Tallahasseeans began joining — in droves. Hundreds at first. Then more than 1,000.
Brian Ramos, a 36-year-old vice president of a marketing firm, joined in May.
"In Tallahassee,'' he says, "everything is about politics, politics, politics. It was nice to have something else to talk about even if it was a guy riding his bike in a bikini.''
In June, Ramos was driving along Old St. Augustine, a perilously narrow two-lane road near the Capitol, when he saw The Man. Something was wrong: The Bikini Bicyclist was pushing his bike.
"Immediately, I recognized this as a rare photo-op,'' Ramos remembered.
He parked his car and nervously approached.
"You're a celebrity in this town. Do you mind if I take my picture with you?''
"Whaaa?'' asked the cyclist, sounding tipsy.
"You are a celebrity. People talk about you all the time.''
"I'm a celebrity?''
Ramos explained about the fan club. He asked what was wrong with the bike. The handlebars were broken. Ramos drove the Bikini Bicyclist home.
Later, Ramos shared the story of the Bikini Cyclist on Facebook.
"We wanted to get the town talking,'' Albertson says. "Now the whole town is freaking talking.''
But nobody knew anything about the man with all that exposed flesh. He remained a mystery.
• • •
The Classy Tallahassee Bikini Bicyclist turned out to be Richard Irby. He is 55 and lives in a trailer with his pet Macaw parrot, Sammy. Irby doesn't smoke or drink or swear. He subsists almost entirely on fast food and is partial to frozen White Castle hamburgers he can buy at the nearest grocery.
In high school, Irby suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was hit by a car while crossing an Orlando street.
Almost four decades later, he still walks and speaks with difficulty. Problems with concentration and a tendency to behave oddly keep him from working. He pays bills with government disability checks.
He moved to Tallahassee a decade ago to be closer to family. His bike is his sole means of transportation and his greatest pleasure. When he rides his bike, he feels utterly alive. About two summers ago, tired of riding in the heat, he shed most of his clothing and metamorphosed into the Bikini Bicyclist. He became a somebody.
Ramos put all of this on the Web site. Now the Bikini Bicyclist has 4,000 fans and growing. They wanted to meet their hero.
• • •
The meet-and-greet took place at his favorite restaurant, Helen's Silver Bullet Diner, which has good burgers. The people who couldn't get to Helen's met Richard Irby the next day at the Corner Pocket Bar & Grill, which also serves good burgers.
They had many questions.
"I ride in a bikini because it's comfortable,'' he told them. (On this occasion, he wore clothes.)
Shouldn't a man who already has suffered a brain injury be wearing a helmet?
"I don't like them. They're hot.''
Do you wear sunscreen?
"I don't like sunscreen. It runs in my eyes. I have been checked for skin cancer. I don't have it.''
Are you an exhibitionist?
"I just love to ride my bike.''
A woman from a Tallahassee law firm, Diane Carlisle, got Irby's autograph and posed for a picture with him. Allan Porostovski, who works for the Department of Environmental Protection, brought T-shirts of his own design. They show the outline of the Bikini Bicyclist flashing a peace sign.
"Ten bucks,'' Porostovski said.
The money went into a hat with other donations.
Before they met him, the Bikini Bicyclist's fans had regarded him as an amusing curiosity. Now he had become an interesting human being. They raised enough money to buy their unusual friend a new bike.
• • •
The next morning, after a night of watching classic movies — his favorites include King Kong and Godzilla — it was time for one last ride on the old bike. He keeps his head and legs and arms and chest shaved — everything except his hard-to-reach back, which is exceptionally hairy. He pulled on his headband and draped his good-luck charm around his neck. He wore white socks and white sneakers. He has a dozen thongs, Speedos and bikini bottoms, but chose a black one for this promenade.
He barreled down a hill toward Tallahassee, with harried motorists doing the usual double takes. After 20 minutes of vigorous pedaling he abandoned the friendly two-lane road and blended expertly into the heavy, scary traffic of Apalachee. There, several motorists managed to take cell phone photographs without crashing.
Some laid on their horns and swore at him. Most grinned and a few cheered out open windows.
The Classy Tallahassee Bikini Bicyclist flashed the peace sign. Then he turned a corner and was gone.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators.