Ride a bike, change your life.
It may sound like a sticker slogan, but it happened to Harry Baulisch, now a regular at the Omaha Bicycle Company (OBC) in downtown Benson.
The first time Baulisch met Sarah Johnson was four years ago when she was working at a downtown bike shop. “I was in Omaha visiting relatives, and there was no one in the store, so I chatted bikes with a nice young lady behind the counter for the better part of an hour,” he said.
Little did Baulisch know then that Johnson, who opened her Benson bikes + coffee company in 2013, would play a role in convincing the Omaha native (he grew up in Gretna) to return to Omaha from his home in Westbrook, Minn., population 739.
“I was the bike nut in Westbrook, a cornfield mechanic of sorts, and I enjoyed fixing up old junk bikes for kids,” he said. The retired U.S. Navy veteran was also willing to tinker with other bikes in need of repair, working out of his garage and asking their owners to pay for parts while supplying the labor for free.
Fast forward a few years, and Baulisch was back visiting in Omaha when someone told him about a new bike shop in Benson. He couldn’t resist checking it out. “I asked if it was okay to bring my dog in with me,” he recalled. “They told me to come on in, and I thought I was in heaven – a dog-friendly place that sold bikes and coffee – what a cool concept.” Sally, a black-and-white rescue dog with boundless energy, seemed to agree.
The Minnesota transplant struck up a conversation with Johnson over a cup. “She kept telling me I should sell my place and move back – she told me her mom was a real estate agent and would help me find a place – it started me thinking,” Baulisch said.
Turning real estate in the tiny Westbrook community is no small feat, and Baulisch – after deciding to make the move – eventually gave his home to a neighbor down the street who was having problems with his own house. In exchange, the neighbor paid the transactional fees and helped move his friend to Omaha in three trips. Last spring, Baulisch first rented and then purchased the Papillion home of his late aunt and uncle – a place filled with memories of holiday dinners and playing in the yard.
The actual date of last year’s move to Omaha, March 1, is significant for two reasons – it’s Nebraska’s birthday, and it marked 38 years of sobriety for the philosophical cyclist. Baulisch used his extensive bike collection (which includes a Dutch Basman, the ninth such bike to hit this country’s streets when he purchased it in 2010) to help transition to a new life in a familiar yet new community.
A self-described recreational rider at the time, he clearly remembers his first OBC Thursday night ride, a route that took the group north through the Ponca Hills. “It was all young people and me, and at one point I had to get off my bike and push it up hill,” he said. “When I got to the top, they were all there waiting for me.”
The Thursday night rides quickly became part of Baulisch’s routine, as did the bike shop’s Saturday morning coffee rides and daily shop visits for coffee and conversation. “I’ve been able to meet all kinds of people through Sarah and the shop, and the coolest thing is the acceptance I’ve received – the texts, the emails, the invitations into people’s homes,” he said. “It’s one of the most non-judgmental places I’ve ever been in my life.”
Johnson refers to Baulisch as one of the coolest ‘old dudes’ around. “He’s always getting compliments on the way he dresses or the gear he has; his laughter is contagious, and his adorable pup is the sweetest,” she said. “We’re super lucky to call him a friend and happy we convinced him to call Omaha home again.”
His increased time in the saddle has also allowed the former rodeo announcer to take better care of his overall health and manage his diabetes. “The young folks I ride with eat so healthy,” Baulisch said. “I’ve learned a lot about nutrition by watching what they eat.” In fact, he shed 17 pounds in four months by riding with the OBC gang.
And although Baulisch no longer drinks alcohol, this fit and fabulous “senior” enjoys the occasional bar hop via bike with his new cycling friends. “OBC is a special place – people who love biking and coffee come together and create great life experiences,” he said.
If you ever run into him, he’ll encourage you to come along for the ride.