by Kat Hunter
Brad Houston will extol the virtues of the 1966 Schwinn Stingray at length, from its banana seat and five gears to the butterfly handlebars and stick shift.
“I remember riding that bike thinking I was the king of the world,” he says. An unexpected gift from his father when Brad was in fourth grade, the bike was cutting edge in its time, and a whopping $72.
In today's world of $2,000 carbon frames, electronic shifting, and custom paint jobs, the Stringray might not seem quite as impressive. But when cycling becomes an integral part of a person's life as an adult, the memory of that first shiny cruiser stands out.
Most Austin-area cyclists know of Brad Houston even if they've never met him face to face – in addition to running a law practice that specializes in helping injured cyclists, he sponsors eight local cycling teams and the Driveway Series, and is also the founder and organizer of Gruppo VOP, an informal cycling association currently in its twelfth year.
Brad's no cat 1, however. In fact, he'll be the first to tell you he's not an elite racer. He simply enjoys riding, and his involvement in the cycling community arises partly from a sense of obligation, since nearly 80% of his clients are cyclists, but more importantly, from a love of the sport. Whether it was the childhood joyrides, college commute, experimentation with triathlon, influence of friends, or some combination of all his experiences on two wheels, for Brad Houston, cycling has never lost its shine.
In a sport in which we so often celebrate and admire the elite riders who cross the finish line at the front of the pack, it's important to also recognize the contribution of the individuals who are its backbone and heart, turning what some people would call a "hobby" into an all-consuming lifestyle, in many cases giving back as much as they take from it.
Love of the Law
Brad's turning point was a triathlon gone wrong – he'd been competing in tris for three years, and hoped to qualify for the 1986 national triathlon championships at a regional event in Houston. The swim buoys on the course hadn't been weighted down properly, however, and with the strong winds and ocean currents, what was supposed to be a 1.2-mile swim turned into a 2-mile swim. Swimming was his weakest event, and Brad missed qualifying by several places.
"I was so angry that I'd spent that whole season training and getting ready," Brad says. "I'd been thinking about going to law school for eight years. I knew that if I put as much effort into law I was going to have a better return on my time. So I decided that day after the race, at the race site, that's it, I'm going to law school."
Despite his original intent to return to land management and real estate after graduating, during the three-year law program he soon found himself on the "conveyor belt" at a big firm. "It was really interesting, but I just knew it was no way to live, billing hours and keeping track of every six minutes of your life," he says. "Funny, I look back at the lawyers back then who were in their mid-50s. Most were overweight and looked like they had hypertension, like they were about to have a heart attack, and they were on their second marriages and were talking about how they liked their partners better than their wives. So I kind of developed an exit strategy."
Now 53 years old, Brad has worked in many areas of law. In addition to real estate and commercial litigation, he has served as assistant county attorney and assistant district attorney for Travis County. In 1996, he opened his own personal injury practice, and there, he says, is where he found his true calling.
That year, Brad took his first cycling case, representing a client who was an expert mountain biker. On a training ride, the cyclist had gotten into a road rage situation with a delivery truck driver. The two were stopped at a traffic light, and when the cyclist rode ahead, the driver intentionally clipped him with the truck's side view mirror. The cyclist managed to stay upright, but was badly bruised, later discovering he'd also sprained his back. He had passed a police officer prior to the incident, so rode back and reported the crime, then biked himself to the ER.
The employer of the truck driver, a national grocery store chain, refused to pay the cyclist's hospital bills, and the case went to trial. The jury voted in the cyclist's favor, and a judgment was granted against the employer. Brad says that he'd like to claim it was his brilliant lawyering that did the trick, but admits it didn't hurt that the mountain bike racer had the look and demeanor of Steve McQueen.
"It wasn't a big judgment but it was vindication for him," Brad says. "He goes and tells the biking community that Brad Houston is Perry Mason."
Brad now focuses almost exclusively on cycling cases, representing competitive cyclists, recreational cyclists, triathletes, and bike commuters. The majority of cases are settled out of court, he says, though they vary widely in scope. For the most part, he takes only serious injury cases, but offers a free 1-2 hour consultation to help those with simpler cases navigate the claims process. He also plans to create a step-by-step information packet for certain types of cases that don't require full legal representation but are still very complex – for example, accidents that involve property damage and contusions but no broken bones.
Brad says he has never regretted the decision to concentrate on representing cyclists. "I've become friends with almost all of my clients and I get to talk about cycling with them, about their bikes and components... It's just so much more fun than most law jobs. And the thing that really makes it good for me is what makes anybody's job good for them – it's satisfying. I get a lot of satisfaction taking someone who's vulnerable, someone who doesn't know the claims process or the legal process, and representing them to make sure they don't get taken advantage of by an insurance company."
"A lot of my clients have really, really bad things happen to them. My job is to minimize the financial impact, and as best as I can, try to make a positive out of it. They shouldn't be in debt because of somebody else's mistake."
Gruppo VOP & Local Teams
Rides now start five times a week from the end of Brad's driveway, most well attended. He says Gruppo VOP has been one of his favorite hobbies for the past 12 years. He credits its success to two factors: The first, that he's a tough taskmaster. The latest a VOP ride will start is 3-4 minutes behind schedule. And the second, that the ride is completely inclusive. Gruppo VOP is not a competitive team, but a training group. Brad says that is what has made the group unique, the fact that many different teams can ride together and feel welcome.
"We have riders from Team Brain and Spine, Joe's Pro Bikes from San Antonio, Austinbikes, Austin Nationals, Wooly Mammoth... VOP is so non-exclusive that you become a member even if you don't want to become a member, and you can never quit," he says. "All you have to do is ride with us once to be a member, and there are never any dues or assessments."
Violet Crown (the team for which he races), Austin Flyers, Austin Nationals, Wooly Mammoth, UT Cycling, Team Brain & Spine, Super Squadra, and Snapple-ATC Racing.
Sponsoring local teams wasn't exactly a business decision, Brad says, though some clients might prefer a lawyer who shares their passion for the sport. Competitive cycling is a niche group, and with many of the teams he's sponsored, he's had no direct connection with his law practice, no referrals or related cases.
The first team he sponsored, roughly five or six years ago, was a women's team. "Team Joy Ride" later became the Austin Flyers. "I've got two daughters, my Mom's kind of a women's libber, and my wife came up through Title IX and was a trailblazer in girls' high school sports in the 70s. I felt I needed to support women's sports."
The other sponsorships, naturally, seemed to follow. Team Brain and Spine, Super Squadra, and Snapple-ATC Racing are new additions for 2012. "My kids may not go on vacation this year," Brad says, laughing.
You might wonder if sponsoring so many competitive teams might offend different factions. When it comes to the world of bike racing, is it possible to have your finger in too many pies? Well, when you're the Perry Mason of cycling, perhaps not.
To join Gruppo VOP on a training ride, visit Brad's website for details – contact him by email or ask around for current times, as they change by season. Until daylight savings ends, the weekday rides start at 6:45am, the Saturday ride starts at 7:30am, and the Sunday ride starts at 8am.
For an overview of issues affecting cyclists, check out Brad's 2011 "Laws of the Street" article.