Still Nervous, Even with a Bike Helmet

Local jazz musicians and fans know him as “Nervous Neal” Smith. To me, he’s the bike-riding saxophone teacher of my youth. And after more than a decade of years knowing him — the question at the top of his website makes a lot more sense: “Why so nervous, Neal?”

“I don’t think I could ride a block around my neighborhood without wearing a helmet,” Quad Cities saxophonist “Nervous” Neal Smith told me. “I’m a musician. I can’t afford any broken parts, on me or my bike.”

Quad Citizens have most likely heard Smith’s sax on multiple occasions: as the background for every “Courtesy” or “Keystone” car commercial, in the LeClaire Park bandshell during the Bix Festival, in Manny Lopez’s Big Band at Rock Island’s “The Speakeasy,” in the lobby of the Hotel Blackhawk, or as a member of the band ,“The Kabalas.”

Nervous Neal is everywhere. How? All he needs to do is saddle up.

“I really don’t need a car,” Smith said. “My house is five minutes away from a HyVee and an Aldi is right down the street. I buy groceries a backpack at a time.”

On those bike grocery trips, Smith said to me that he usually thinks about what to buy for his snack table before thinking about what to buy for himself. The snack table, a Nervous Neal staple, is always flush with food for his music students and their parents—candied walnuts, freshly baked cookies, Earl Grey tea for the winters, crisp lavender lemonade for the summers.


“Nervous Neal” Smith

But, when all you have is a bike, stocking the snack table for every lesson requires some maneuvering. “The HyVee down the street opens at 6 a.m.,” Smith said. “I ride my bike over right when it opens. At 6 a.m., there’s no cars, no people, and no heat. I get the streets to myself.”

Smith has his bike-grocery conveyer system down to a science. He had a lot of time to think about it; Smith spent 2009 to 2013 on cruise ships playing his sax, traveling the world, and not spending a single penny.

“When I got off the ships, I had enough money for either a house or a car. I chose the house,” Smith said. “Plus, after four years on cruise ships, I thought I owed the planet something.”

Deciding he needed a bike, Nervous Neal got one custom made by a hay farmer not far from his hometown of Princeton, IL. It cost Smith $500 and he’s used it ever since, saving thousands of dollars a year on would-be car expenses.

Of course, the Quad Cities’ weather isn’t always hospitable to bicyclists. Plus, Smith has to lug around his sax with all of his music, mics, and other equipment that’s required for gigs. What to do when there’s too much to carry or too much ice on the ground?

We live in the Midwest—the answer isn’t that hard.


Gabe Lareau, Moline Cycling Blogger

“Most of the musicians in the area know I don’t have a car and they give me rides,” Smith said. “Since I don’t want to be a freeloader, I always try to pay them, which they decline.” Instead, Smith just makes a donation to the King’s Harvest No-Kill Animal Shelter.

Ironically, Neal will probably kill me for letting that tidbit slip. But, fellow bicyclists, that’s just who Nervous Neal is. He never wants the credit and is always thinking of other people before himself, which is another reason he hates driving.

“I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt,” Smith said. “But when I’m in a car, it always brings out the worst in people, including me. You’re stuck in a bubble; instead of you hitting my car in a wreck it’s always ‘you hit me.’”

“I’ve been on one recreational ride: 10 years ago with my brother in Michigan,” Smith said. “I don’t really get the appeal. One time, in the summer, my brake cable needed to be replaced, so I walked into a local bike shop hoping for a quick fix. The guy barked at me: ‘RAGBRAI!’ It’s like he was speaking a different language. I haven’t been there since.”

“You know, I rode RAGBRAI last summer,” I said. “I’m so sorry!” Neal replied, with genuine sympathy.

To book or take lessons from Neal, please go to