The year 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of America’s National Parks. Author Wallace Stegner referred to their creation as “America’s Best Idea.” It also marks the 40th anniversary of Bikecentennial, bicycling’s best idea.
Bikecentennial was a massive organized ride across the country that intentionally coincided with the nation’s bicentennial. As Lael Wilcox, a Montana Bicycle Celebration banquet speaker and long-distance bicycle racer put it “Bikecentennial laid the foundation of bike touring in America.”
More than 600 bicyclists gathered this summer in Missoula for the Montana Bicycle Celebration. It featured organized rides, exhibits, speakers, music, a trail dedication, banquet and other festivities. Despite the troubled times we find ourselves in, the spirit of this event was unabashedly positive.
Conceived by four cyclists while on their epic 18,000-mile Hemistour from Alaska to Argentina, Bikecentennial was intended to be a cross-country tour to celebrate America’s bi-centennial in 1976 and to establish a trans-America bicycle trail. The founders – Greg and June Siple; Dan and Lys Burden; along with an intrepid crew of people they hired or recruited as volunteers – fleshed out the concept. What they created was a stroke of bicycling genius.
Bikecentennial attracted 4,100 participants, including more than 2,000 who rode the entire 4,250 coast-to-coast route. There were a mix of bicycle camping and bike inn groups, the latter who slept indoors each night as opposed to pitching tents outdoors. The route was glorious, winding through mostly rural, low-traffic roads in extraordinarily scenic and historically-significant areas.
As a Bikecentennial tour group leader, I was one of the fortunate participants. To qualify as a leader, I had to apply to and then pass a bicycling leadership course in Tillamook, Oregon. They had us lead short rides for the rest of the trainees, taught us how to fix bikes as well as how to manage group dynamics.
Most Bikecentennial riders were between the ages of 17 and 35. The oldest was 86 and the youngest, nine. Men outnumbered women by a 3:1 ratio. My group, pictured here, reflected these statistics. We rode from Reedsport, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia in 82 days.
The ride remains one of my finest memories, a movie permanently etched into my consciousness. As Erick Cedeno, aka “The Cycling Nomad” said during his perceptive talk at the Montana Bicycling Celebration banquet “…everyday miracles happen pedal by pedal” when you travel by bike.
This journey was not only a great experience, but it resulted in a great legacy for bicycle travel. The legacy has so far been manifested in the form of the Trans America Trail, the Adventure Cycling Association with its 50,000 members, its 45,000-miles of bicycle routes upon which it leads regular tours and its advocacy efforts that enhance and expand bicycle travel in the U.S.
When we rode across the country in 1976, very few places had bicycle infrastructure. Eugene, Oregon was one of the first cities to have a designated bicycle trail. Now most, if not all cities ranging from Butte, Montana to New York City have and continue to build bicycle trails, lanes, signage, racks and other facilities.
Missoula, Montana, home of Bikecentennial/Adventure Cycling, has built the impressive “Missoula Bicycle System.” It includes three large bicycle/pedestrian bridges that cross the Clark Fork River.
Adventure Cycling’s mission is to inspire and empower people to travel by bicycle. Bikecentennial did this for all of its participants, big-time. Some former Bikecentennial riders have become advocates for bicycle travel in their home towns.
The Siples and Burdens hit a metaphorical grand slam with Bikecentennial. They envisioned and then implemented bicycling’s best idea. The rest, as they say, is history.