Reading about riding; Adventure Cycling

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Looking around like I own the place, this is my second trip to Adventure Cycling headquarters in a year and I know where all the secret stuff is stashed.  The ice cream and sodas are in the cooler, you must sign the guest book for fear of Greg Siple’s becalming wrath; and the cycling library is straight ahead, left at the tandem and right toward the kitchen.  This may be the most extensive cycle-centric library in the country and it’s chock full of Dervla Murphy, Ian Hibell, Joe Kurmaskie, Barb Savage and other usual and unusual titles.  There are hundreds of old travelogues; some have become timeless classics and some are out-of-date stories of sweating up hills and running out of food.  In fact, while Barb Savage’s Miles From Nowhere is considered a classic bike touring text, her penchant for hyperbole is a little off-putting and after the fourth time that Larry retrieves escaped ball bearings from his freewheel, I lost interest.  Still, the book is widely read and was a gateway for many American cycletourists.  I was on the hunt for an adventure of a different caliber, and Ian Hibell’s Into the Remote Places was the reward.  Ian’s writing is even and descriptive, with a honest sense of his immense adventure– there’s no need for hyperbole when the truth is unbelievable.  The book begins with cyclists hacking a route through the Darien Gap, surviving on handfuls of rice.  It continues similarly.  Long out of print, it is books like these that make the ACA cycling library special.  For your next trip to Missoula, set aside a day to lounge in the shade reading about riding.

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Ian’s Norway to Cape Horn, South Africa bike is now prominently displayed in the reception area, featuring an old Carradice Overlander handlebar bag (the red one is not original, but is nearly identical to the black one he used) and Carradice panniers.  As well, large water reservoirs are contained atop the panniers, the load supported by an integrated steel carrier.  The bike is smartly packed for a trip spanning continents, and the Sahara Desert.  Before the days of fatbikes such a trek required a bit of walking.  Walking through too much water in the Darien Gap and with not enough water in the Sahara is what sets Ian apart from the field of long-distance cyclists, although the “field” is rather thin to begin with.  He is the first to travel, completely, from Tierra del Fuego north to Alaska.  At the time the road to Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay wasn’t built, so Circle, AK near Fairbanks was the northernmost road-accessible point on the continent.  In the late sixties, my boss and the owner of The Bicycle Shop in Anchorage, AK hosted an English cyclist for a week.  Leaving town, he pedaled with him out to Palmer.

“An English guy?”  There must be thousands, I think.  “What has his name?  (Pause.)  Was it Ian Hibell?”

“Oh yes, Ian.  He’s the only guy I’ve ever allowed to stay with me.  He stayed a week.”

And so it was.

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Greg Siple is always a treasure of information, especially of the early days of Bikecentennial and TOSRV.  This time we spoke of the influence his father had on his cycling career, and cycling in general.  Charles is still living in Ohio, and David Herlihy (author of Bicycle: A History) is soon to visit him to harvest stories of his experiences with six-day racing in America.  There aren’t many living cyclists front the pre-war era.  And since 1982, Greg takes our portraits for his collection; more recently he has begun to weigh the bikes that come through Missoula.  Mine weighed one pound more than last year at 67 lbs, without much food or water.  The heaviest bike weighed was a Swiss cyclist whose panniers contained over 174 lbs.

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This photo is from my visit last year, dated September 20th.  These are impromptu Polaroids taken in the office while Greg’s collection of photos are taken in the back alley in front of a large white background.  Convincing the organization to pay for film in 1982 was a challenge, he said.  He still shoots film, and presumably, doesn’t have to twist any arms to get it.  It’s impossible to see, but Carla Majernik’s chrome Peugeot in the background features rubber handlebar grips, installed on the drops.  Thirty years before I hacked Ergon grips to my drops, others were concocting similar solutions.

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I’m spreading the word, and have created demand for Ian’s book and for the ACA bike library– last year George the Cyclist came looking for it and spent the entire day reading; Sean’s return to Missoula had him looking for the same title, and I told a grip of young cyclists on the Trans-Am Route about it yesterday.  The door pictured at the top of the page was the entrance to the original headquarters on the second floor above Eddy’s Club on Higgins Street.  In a recent trip to Missoula, Dan Burden (Dan and Lys Burden cycled the first half of Hemistour with Greg and June Siple) signed his name on the door in the night.  Greg didn’t even get a visit from his old friend.

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Missoula’s many hands

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FreeCycles is a Missoula institution, a community bike shop offering tools, parts and bikes, for free.  The operation runs on volunteers and donations and Bob Giordano has been the ringleader for about 15 years, extending a helping hand to the community even when his own are deep in another project.  When the Missoula Urban Demonstration (MUD) needed to transport their tool library to the Missoula Home ReSource project (building materials reuse center), a lightbulb flickered in Bob’s mind.  With a repurposed John Deer haywagon, a homemade three wheeled tandem “tractor”, and a couple of able bodies pushing from behind, several tons of tools could be transported across town entirely by human power.  The result was a jalopy of well-loved tools and sweaty bodies ambling and rambling through Missoula’s urban center at rush hour.  In a friendly mid-sized cycling city like Missoula, rush hour isn’t much to speak of, but pedestrians and motorists offer hurrahs and cyclists lay down their bikes to assist the effort, pushing for a block or two.  Actually, many skeptics turned down the offer to assist but several touring cyclists and locals jumped on the proverbial haywagon.

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Our route took us around the railroad tracks to avoid any topographic challenges.  With enough hands, anything is possible.

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This is Sean’s first day in town and I’ve signed him up for 5 miles of strenuous wagon-pushing.  He’s been following the blog for almost a year and when I put a call out for cyclists to join me this summer, he responded and bought a plane ticket.  He has optimized his 90’s Novara Aspen ATB with drop bars and 2.3″ Kenda K-Rad tires, which you’ll be seeing more of over the next few weeks.  A wide range of gears, platform pedals, homemade fenders, a Brooks saddle and some Swift Short Stack panniers round out the ride.  Leaving Missoula, we’re headed for the Divide.

I visited FreeCycles for the first time last fall, and was inspired by the experience.

Greg Siple; ACA, Hemistour, and TOSRV

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He looks like someone’s dad, on his way to grandfather; secretly, he’s one badass dude. It’s likely that Greg isn’t described that way often enough. Maybe I just like saying that because he’s so nice, and humble; and half a foot shorter than me.

I first heard about Greg in relation the the Hemistour trek from Alaska to Argentina that was undertaken with his wife June, and a handful of others in the early seventies. For all the Long Haul Truckers, Europeans, and Rohloff hubs riding that length today; Greg and June did it on handbuilt 650A (26×1 3/8, 590mm) wheels, customized long-cage Campy derailleurs, and TA handlebar bags– these should be reminders that good wheels and simple gear is adequate for the long haul.

The puzzle solved itself further when I realized that Greg and June had founded the Bikecentennial project– with others– and the subsequent organization to continue the work that made for a successful summer on bike in 1976. Bikecentennial became Adventure Cycling in 1993, and as a result, youngsters such as myself know even less of the momentous and memorable summer of “76. In truth, it’s Grant Peterson who’s been insistently telling the story of the American bike industry, planting Bikecentennial and Earth Day firmly between Schwinn (of old) and Trek (Red Barn); that’s how I first heard about the happiest, healthiest summer in recent history. Bike touring is alive and well in the US, but maybe it could use another kick in the ass. Does a big summer sound like a something that could happen? help? The time may be right. The time is always right for riding bikes.

In my recent visit to ACA, I was humbly informed by Greg that he and his father had organized– a little by chance– the Tour of the Scioto River Valley (TOSRV)– the first, largest (for a while), and most prominent multi-day group tour in the country. In 1962, Greg and his father Charles embarked on a two-day ride through Ohio countryside on a weekend in May. The next year, two more joined them. Within years, there were 16, then 45, then hundreds and thousands.

Anyone who has ridden Seattle-to-Portland (STP) or another multi-day tour; the Trans-Am trail; or the length of the hemisphere, owes a bit of thanks to Greg and his cohorts. There are likely no more than two degrees of separation between Greg, and every bike trip in America this past year. Not “kind of”; Greg is a big deal.

Greg and I stood in the basement for a moment, admiring Ian Hibell’s bike– bike church.

Photographing bikes and riders: Greg has long been attached to both bike and camera, but has– with dedication– photographed touring cyclists visiting Missoula since the early 80’s. He possesses a vast collection of photographs and stories of all variety of bike travellers; dogs, trailers, folders, handcycles, octogenarians and babies all make the list. An exhibition of his work can be seen inside ACA headquarters, at a travelling show (currently in Helena), and pasted to the sides of a utility box in down town Missoula. I share a few choice examples from downtown Missoula.20110915-095256.jpg20110915-095453.jpg20110915-095643.jpg20110915-095734.jpg20110915-095814.jpg20110915-095849.jpg20110915-100111.jpg20110915-100155.jpg20110915-100220.jpg

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Table for one

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It’s no secret to most that the impetus for this trip came from being un-friended in a rather major way. What to do when a girlfriend of an exact handful of years and 15,000 touring miles says, “meh”, and quits?

Within two weeks I was on my bike– I don’t fool around.

Riding the Divide has been on the list for years; I often work during summer, so my thanks for the opportunity to quit my job to traverse the mountainous west goes to you-know-who.

But, this is about life on the road, alone; love, lost; friends for three days; and how not to be alone in a crowd.

Enter, me– in Missoula.

I raced to town, into a headwind for 54 miles on a half-gallon of chocolate milk and oats. ACA was closing early, so after Greg Siple showed me the sights and I suggested my way into the basement to see Ian Hibell’s bike, I was loose on the streets of Missoula. All my acquaintance-friends from Mexico were awol, and so was I. Lost and lonely in an exceptional city of how many? It makes sense when you don’t speak the language; it’s confusing when you are good at it.

Wish Jane was still around. Somewhere between maple-bacon ice cream and lazing riverside, I wouldn’t be scouring my psyche. That’s not the answer,but she reminded me how much I like people. I really like people on bikes.

I’m over-fed and well-hydrated; the riding is easy, and my bike fixes itself, if it were to ever break. Damned, if I’m not kind of bored, though. I occasionally blame the “route” for being rural/remote and boring, but it’s not boring and I know it. It’s beautiful, and the camping is anywhere you fall off your bike at the end of the day, deep in
USFS lands. Second to people– warm, interesting people– I miss milk and yogurt with my oats when I’m out of town. The feeling is called lonely; the milk is an addiction.

How do you slice and sautee a city like Missoula to make it more tender? Even a friendly city full of bikes has a shell, and Missoula doesn’t blink when a bearded guy shows up on a bike. Beer– the local cure-all– helps, but the result is rather like using sugar to feed yeast. With time and patience and healthy, mature yeast; bread will rise. With sugar, it will explode. Beer is cheating, and the result is fluffy white bread, which in real-life terms means you meet a lot of dudes who think it’s “sick” that you rode so far on a bike. Fluffy and white.

Then there is FreeCycles. FreeCycles is that daunting rustic loaf with nuts and seeds breaching the surface. For 15 years, this place has been helping people get on bikes. Operating much like other co-ops around the country, FreeCycles is bigger and better– better organized, better managed, and a lot bigger. A pedalbus to seat 21 is half-done, and Rockhoppers fight High Sierras for floor space. Bob, the founder and career alt-transportation advocate gave me a key to the place in less than a minute. It must have been apparent that I wouldn’t walk off with a dozen Huffys and a box of rusty chains.

Oscar is my housemate under the FreeCycles roof. He’s from Guatemela via Fairbanks, and one of those guys that keeps his hair neatly combed and some reading glasses nearby. I showed him the MayaPedal website. And we danced together, sort of, at the Union Bar. He’s a great dancer; but a little too old for me.

Even the abbreviated list of “why Missoula is better than wherever you are living”, must include the Good Food Store. Yep, good food. More of it comes from Montana than you’d expect. GFS beats the socks offa Whole Foods anyday.

Missoula has three Saturday Farmer’s Markets, the central and refreshing Clark Fork River, and some of the best on-the-ground cycling infrastructure in America.

Camping under FreeCycle stars for the night.

Be in control. Love Missoula. Ride your bike.
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