The Accidental Bicycle Tourist: A Life Journey

Spring finally comes to the Pacific Northwest on a clear, cold April day in 2011, overdue for the first bike ride of the season. I’m on the road at last, after a long wet winter that started with ice that cut short December riding in Montana, and heavy rains that discouraged riding in Washington. A couple of early spring trips to the gym to ride the stationary beast had at least verified that not all the strength and endurance had wasted away over winter.

This first ride is planned as an overnighter, to our son’s house in Olympia Saturday afternoon, then home on Sunday via Ruby Street Quiltworks in Tumwater, a total distance of 55 miles. It’s not exactly a tour, more of an extended commute: Judy, my life partner and tandem stoker, is off at a weekend weaving workshop in Olympia, while I had an afternoon writing workshop in Shelton: I plan to join her to babysit the grandchildren in the evening and to attend my meeting in Tumwater the next day, without driving separate cars, in the age of four-dollar gasoline.

bicycle commuter
The Bicycle Commuter, 2009

My steed these days is a 15-year-old Specialized Hard Rock, more suited to the short commutes to work for which it served for a dozen years or so than touring or long-distance training, but it’s what is in the stable now, for another month at least. The fat tires roll along at cruise between 12 and 15 miles per hour, for an average trip speed of 10 miles per hour, down a mile or two from when the bike and I were both younger, and much slower than my old road touring bike, which is still in Montana.

Grandson Ethan, ready to ride

The ride goes smoothly, following the gentle grades of US Highway 101 toward the city, then a few miles of quiet beach drive rolling along the inlet before climbing through West Olympia and diving down and across the city. The afternoon ride ends after a climb up the Woodland Trail, a rail-trail pathway parallel to Interstate 5. Grandson Ethan, 7, who rides the trail with his father, is impressed as I arrive, knowing it is more than 30 minutes in the car at freeway speed to Granny and Grandpa’s house.

Larye on the Hiawatha clunker, with Jane, 1953

It’s been 60 years since I, at Ethan’s age, pedaled away from my father’s steadying hand for the first time. My first–and, for the next 25 years, only–bike was an ancient Hiawatha one-speed with 24-inch wheels, fat tires, and impossibly wide handlebars. I rode mostly in the summer, and never to school or on my newspaper delivery route. A few of my more affluent friends had “English” bikes, with large, graceful wheels, skinny tires, dropped bars, and three-speed internal hubs. Mine wasn’t even a motorcycle-wannabe cruiser—just a clunker. I last rode it between my freshman and sophomore years in college, home for the summer with no job.

I was 32 the summer of the Bicentennial, living in Newport, Rhode Island, when I decided to try riding one of a pair of Sears folding 3-speed bikes to work, so the family could have the car during the day. The bikes were a legacy from my then in-laws, impractical monsters with heavy frames and 20-inch wheels that actually came apart rather than folded, held together by tab-and-slot and two large wing nuts on steel plates that joined the halves of the triple down-tube. Taken apart, the bikes would fit in the trunk of a very large sedan, but barely. The weight of the bike and years of pastries, cigarettes, and a sedentary desk job took their toll. My legs were so rubbery after the first 4-mile ride, I fell down when I dismounted at the bike rack at work. But, I persevered, continuing to ride except in the worst winter weather, and soon developed endurance of a sort.

I knew nothing about bike maintenance, having ridden the clunker of my youth so little it rarely needed servicing. When the tires wore bald on my commuter, I simply switched bikes, as we had two of them. After a couple of years of steady bike commuting, I decided I needed a better bike rather than repair the folders. I trotted off to the toy store (also knowing nothing about performance bicycles) and bought the biggest 10-speed they had, a powder blue C. Itoh, about three sizes too small. But, it was relatively light and vaguely resembled the European racers. I put several thousand miles on that bike, to the point where I would have had to consider a major overhaul, when it was stolen, the cheap combination lock-chain filed through while I was hoisting a few at the pub after work in the spring of ’79.

By this time, recreational bicycling and even racing were enjoying a resurgence in America, so I was aware that there were serious bicycles available. I also realized that, as an all-weather bicycle commuter, I was at least a semi-serious bicyclist. This time, I discovered actual bicycle stores, with light, strong frames sized to fit adult riders and “name brand” drive train components. I bought a new red Fuji Gran Tourer, with a six-gear freewheel for (theoretically) 12 “speeds” (actually, gear ratios).

The Fuji proved to be a wise purchase. A few months after I acquired it, my family packed up and moved to New Mexico. The bicycle became my only vehicle for the next year. Most of my riding was from wherever I was living to work, but I had ridden one of the old three-speed folders to the auto wrecking yard at the north end of the island for car parts once. With the superior fit of the Fuji, I began to ride farther, touring the city on weekends and making at least one 45-mile round trip to Massachusetts. I became interested in performance, charting the gear ratios and practicing step changes while keeping a steady cadence.

In the summer of 1980, my bicycle and I boarded a plane and headed for Bremerton, Washington for a new work assignment at the submarine base on the Hood Canal. With my commute extended from 4 to 15 miles, I outfitted myself with black wool cycling shorts (with the real chamois pad—no spandex in 1980), cycling shoes and toe clips, a helmet, fingerless cycling gloves, and, of course, for the Pacific Northwest, a cyclist’s rain poncho and ski underwear for chilly mornings. With no car, a new territory to explore, and some decent riding gear, weekend excursions extended to 80-mile round trips. The family joined me in the fall, but, with only one car, I continued to ride year around, even when my commute extended to 17 miles one way, from Bremerton to Poulsbo. With mileage increased to 3500 miles per year, I soon learned about bicycle maintenance. All-weather biking and long miles took its toll on the drive train, brakes, tires, and cables. I went through several sets of tires, tubes, and chains a year, and had to replace the rear freewheel gear cluster about once a year and the front chain rings every couple of years. Pedals wore out or got trashed in potholes. A rear axle broke once, three miles from home. I started carrying spare tubes after discovering repair patches don’t stick to tubes in the rain: it took three hours to get to work one rainy morning after puncturing on road construction debris, normally a one-hour ride. And, I got tire liners to keep glass cuts from slitting the tubes.

I didn’t ride much for recreation those years, though I did take the Boy Scout troop on Cycling merit badge rides and even made a couple of courier trips to Seattle to pick up package shipments. I also took bicycle commuting to the limits, packing the bike on the plane for a business trip to Minneapolis. I took a day off after the business meetings to ride to my parents’ house, 30 miles north of the airport. Returning to Seattle a day ahead of my colleagues, I rode home to Indianola, on the Kitsap Peninsula, via the Bainbridge Ferry, discarding the bike box at baggage claim. The only thing I didn’t plan for, arriving late at night, was extra batteries for my lighting system, which left me pedaling the 15 miles from the Bainbridge Ferry by starlight and the taillights of rare passing cars.

In the early spring of 1983, I had been the one to leave home as my first marriage finally unraveled.. This time, after bicycling everywhere became impractical, I bought a junker car that cost about the same as I had paid for the Fuji. No longer commuting to work, but with free time, I started training after work for long-distance rides, participating in the Chilly Hilly ride on Bainbridge Island in February and making increasingly longer rides, with my first “century” ride of 100 miles on Mother’s Day, 1983. I upgraded to aluminum wheels, replacing the stock steel wheels. On the summer solstice weekend, I joined a thousand other one-day riders for the 4th running of the 200-mile Seattle-to-Portland Classic,, which I completed in just under 14 hours, placing 750th. I was 39 years old. I had started riding at the same age that Lance Armstrong would be when he won his sixth Tour de France amid rumors of impending retirement, and I had graduated from city bike commuter to endurance cyclist.

That summer, after the double-century ride, I became a true bicycle tourist for the first time. I made several long-weekend camping tours, traveling as far as Victoria, British Columbia. A knee strain put me off the bike for a few months by late summer. Even so, I logged 5,000 miles that year. In the previous seven years, I had ridden far enough to circumnavigate the earth, and had the chiseled thighs and calves of a professional bike racer, if not the speed. In my one and only (unsanctioned) race, I came in next to last, between a guy older than me who recently had a knee replacement and a 5-foot tall woman on a bike heavier than mine.

In late spring of 1984, I was transferred back to Rhode Island, arriving as I had left, by plane with my bike in a box. I strapped it on the rental car, drove to Newport, dropped off the car, and settled in my new home, ten miles from work, a beach cottage at the extreme north end of the island. I rode the whole summer, renting a car about one weekend a month, as I had children visiting for the summer. When school started, I had one child at home yet. I bought another $300 clunker car, and dropped my son off at school on the way to work, putting the bike aside. When I transferred back to the West Coast in early 1985, I junked the Rhode Island car, getting my other junker out of mothballs back in Washington.

Judy and I married soon after I returned to Washington, becoming a two-car family, and I gave up bicycle commuting for ten years. She was interested in keeping recreational bicycling as part of our life together, rather than me spending all my energy commuting. But, like most adults then, she hadn’t ridden since childhood, and I was used to riding 100 miles before lunch. To even the field, so to speak, we ordered a Santana Arriva XC mountain-style tandem for our first anniversary in 1986. We took delivery of the “Leviathan”–as a co-worker christened our big black bicycle, with its oversized frame and fat tires—on Capitol Hill in Seattle, taking our first ride at a terrifying 25 miles per hour through downtown Seattle traffic to catch the ferry, stopping once to fix a loose handlebar. Amazingly, we are still married, 25 years later.

Deception Pass, MS Tour 2006

And, through those 25 years, the Santana tandem has served us well, through more than 10,000 miles, most in the first five and last five years. We rode the Seattle-to-Portland (the two-day version) in 1987. Over the years, we’ve toured the Flathead Valley in Montana, the San Juan Islands, Victoria, Hood Canal, Skagit Valley, Sumas Valley, and Bitterroot Valley. In 1988, we rode across Glacier National Park and through the Canadian Rockies from Radium Hot Springs, BC to Jasper, Alberta. The first years, we rode many of the big 50-60-mile spring classic rides in the Puget Sound area and joined group rides as well as making our own weekend tours. After a ten-year lapse, with few outings, we hit the road again in earnest after moving to the Bitterroot Valley. From 2005-2007, we rode the 100-mile weekend MS Tour in the Skagit Valley and Fidalgo Island, and the 2007 100km Ride the Rogue tour in Oregon.

Beginning in 2004, we rode my “birthday miles” on the tandem at the beginning of fall, as a training goal to break out of the short daily commute rut. But, in the last three years, I’ve been on my own, and now back in the Pacific northwest, I need a better bike. I keep the Fuji in Montana to ride to work when I am in residence, but 12 speeds just never were enough for modern riding styles and hilly terrain, even 30 years ago. The Hard Rock, which I acquired for commuting through the Duwamish industrial district in Seattle in the mid-90s and then rode through ten Montana winters, is, well, a low-end no-suspension mountain bike, not well-suited to the kind of road riding I do solo now. The three bikes have absorbed the bulk of the lifetime riding miles, now approaching 50,000, and are, while well-maintained and serviceable, no match for the currently available technologies. Also, both the Fuji and the Santana are designed around Suntour drive-train components, which have not been manufactured for 20 years and are getting scarce, not something one wants to risk failing on tour, with little recourse for repair.

Finally, in 2011, we traded in our 17-year-old Jeep bike-hauler, replacing it with a modern one that our venerable Yakima tandem rack won’t fit on. Bike-friendly buses and trains in the Pacific Northwest are great range extenders, if we could take advantage of public transit, and the Santana is just too big. We’d like to be more flexible in our options and be able to travel with our bike instead of transporting it. So, we’ve ordered a modern, light-weight take-apart convertible tandem/single system from the Green Gear folks in Eugene, Oregon. We expect to take delivery of our new Bike Friday Tandem Traveler Q model by mid-May, in time for our early summer Montana tour, and have it well-broken in for an Adventure Cycling early fall tour in Upper Michigan. What started as an expedient way to maximize utility in a one-car family 35 years ago has become a major life-style activity as we ease into our “golden years” and take more time for travel and to focus on keeping fit and healthy enough to enjoy watching grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow—and, maybe, to ride with them.

Emerson's first bike ride

Meanwhile, the season-opener weekend ride continues: in the morning, I help install a bike seat for two-year-old Emerson on his dad’s bike, and the four of us ride around the neighborhood before parting, me headed south toward Tumwater, and they north toward the bike trail. Of course, it rains, a downpour just ending as I start from Tumwater toward Shelton, prompting me to unpack the rain gear, then repack it a few miles down the road, but keeping it ready at hand as black clouds loom over my destination. The last mile, like the first, is in rain. I have a bit of post-ride stiffness, but not bad for a 20+ mile ride early in the season, and back-to-back riding days with no residual soreness. Bicycling is truly for all ages—the weekend is proof that, at 67, I’m in much better physical condition that I was when I started at 32, justification enough to invest in a new bike and keep riding.