Monday, September 26, 2011

Missoula, Montana

Friends: I first became aware of Greg Siple in May of 1973 when he and his wife June, along with Dan Burden and his wife, were featured in a National Geographic cover story about a bicycle trip from Alaska to the tip of South America. I was a month away from graduating from Northwestern. The story planted the idea of long distance bike travel in my mind, though I wasn't able to act upon it for several years.

If I were the ardent cyclist then that I am now, I would have recognized the name Siple, as he and his father in 1962 founded TOSRV, Tour of the Scioto River Valley, a two-day 210-mile tour in Ohio, a tour that spawned Indiana's Hilly Hundred and Michigan's Apple Cider Century and Iowa's RAGBRAI and countless others.

I next heard of Siple in the summer of 1976 when he and his wife and the Burdens established a coast-to-coast bicycle route called Bikecentennial to celebrate the nation's Bicentennial. More than 3,000 cyclists, most in groups of ten to fifteen, rode the route.  A friend in Chicago was among those. He loaned me his maps and I began my career as a touring cyclist in 1977, the first cyclist across the route the year after the mass migration of cyclists.

I have wanted to meet the Siples and Burdens ever since that National Geographic article, and even more so after they established the Bicentennial organization that was renamed Adventure Cycling Association. I was fortunate enough to meet Dan two years ago when I helped move a friend, who was hired by him to be his assistant running his Walkable Organization, from Orlando to Port Townsend, Washington, where he is based. He was a most affable and easy-going individual with loads of inspiring stories.

Greg Siple has continued with the Bikecentennial/Adventure Cycling Organization, based in Missoula. He wasn't around in 1977 when I passed through on the Bikecentennial Trail and I hadn't been back since. When I learned from fellow touring cyclist Nicolas (, who I met while touring in Maryland this past spring, that the Adventure Cycling office had one of Ian Hibbell's bicycles, Missoula immediately became a bicycling pilgrimage site for me. Hibbell too has been one of my inspirations. This English cyclist is a legendary figure--the first cyclist to ride from the tip of South America to Alaska, including the Darien Gap, at least as best he could, and also the first to ride from the northernmost point in Europe to the tip of Africa in the 1970s through the Sahara.

When I walked into the offices of the Adventure Cycling Association's offices this past Friday morning there was Greg talking to the receptionist. He immediately recognized me as a touring cyclist and offered me an ice cream cone from the freezer in the the reception area for touring cyclists, which also included a computer for Internet use. I told him I was most interested in seeing Ian Hibbell's bike. He corrected my pronunciation of Hibbell. It is actually a long i, not a short i. The same goes for Siple's name.

I was happy to see the National Geographic article on the wall alongside the receptionist's desk. There were bicycles mounted on the wall in the large, high-ceilinged main office. The building had formerly been a Christian Science Church, the religion I was raised in. Adventure Cycling purchased the building in 1992. The door handles on the pair of doors of the main entry into the former church were bicycle handlebars with green foam handlebar tape.

Greg said he was under deadline, editing the photos for the nine-times a year Adventure Cycling magazine, but he could give me a quick tour. In the touring cyclist receptionist area were photos of touring cyclists who had visited Missoula over the years. The first was Frank Lenz in 1892, the cyclist who disappeared in Turkey on an around the world tour that was the subject of David Herlihy's biography last year, "The Lost Cyclist," and the cyclist that I went in search of in Turkey last fall.

Greg specializes in photographing cyclists and asked if he could take my picture as well, though later in the day would be best when he was done with his work and the lighting was better. I said I was in no hurry and had planned to make the day a rest day in Missoula.

Adventure Cycling is the largest bike membership group in North America, with 45,000 members. It has a staff of 30 and an annual budget of $4 million. Last year 1,100 touring cyclists stopped by, and this year was on a similar pace. It is a bare trickle compared to that Bicentennial year and what it ought to be, though the organization itself is thriving. Greg said he is still amazed that the idea for the Bikecenntenial Trail that has grown into this thriving organization got its birth in a tent in Mexico.

Greg saved Hibbel's bike to the end of my tour. It is hidden away down in the basement. It was the bike that Hibbell rode through Africa. It was complete with several of the three-liter containers that he carried with him. It was a custom-built frame with no decals on it. It was a small frame with down handlebars and skinny tires. Greg said he was about his height, feet feet eight inches. Greg said the bike he saw Ian on in Mexico now resides in some bike shop in the mid-west.  I asked which, as I would make that my next destination after I returned from this journey.   Greg said he didn't know nor did Ian even remember.  Greg would like to track it down himself, so he could add it to the Adventure Cycling collection.

He said Ian had delivered it to their offices shortly before his death in Greece in 2008. Greg and June had actually met Ian in 1972 in Mexico, after the Burdens had abandoned their trip due to hepatitis. Ian had already crossed the Darien Gap and was still recovering from the ordeal. The Siples were headed that direction. They flew over the Darien Gap, as did I when I made the trip in 1989. Neither of us cared to spend several weeks hacking through the jungle for a couple hundred miles.

Greg maintained a close friendship with Ian ever since then. Ian and a girl friend began another trip to South America in the late '70s in Missoula so he could visit the Siples. Ian wrote about that trip, in which he crossed South America at its widest point from Lima, Peru to Recife, Brazil in the book "Into the Remote Places," published in 1984, his only book. The book also included his Cape Horn to Alaska trip as well as the North Cape to Cape Town trip.

I have long been in search of the book and wasn't willing to pay the $150 that Amazon wants. It was among the hundreds of bicycling books in Adventure Cycling's library. I could have spent the rest of the year reading many of its rare cycling books--bios of Hinault and Anquetil and Cadell Evans and Davis Phinney and lots of oddball touring books, many decades old, such as "Elvin's Tales" about Harold Elvin's rides in Thailand, Lapland and Cambodia and "Crackers and Peaches" about bicycling in Georgia by Jane Schnell and "Cycling, Wine and Men" by Nancy Brook about biking in France.

Greg was most happy to let me sit and read all day. He kept checking on me every hour or so, offering more stories and food. He told me that in 1968 when he was touring in Europe he crossed paths with the Tour de France and biked along with Raymond Poulidor for a few miles as he warmed up pedaling from his hotel to the stage start.

After several hours he said, "You're the first person to sit here all day and read a book." It was 204 pages long and riveting, stirring many memories of my own, having traveled many of the miles he wrote about. I stuck with it, resisting all the other temptations the office walls offered. I could have easily spent the day simply looking at all the photographs that Greg had taken of touring cyclists the past couple of decades when he began the National Bicycle Touring Portrait Collection, and reading the brief description the many cyclists offered of themselves. I will most certainly have to return.

It was just before five when Greg was ready to take my photograph. But first he added an appendix to Hibbell's book. The woman he traveled with through South America until she had to abandon the trip due to hepatitis eventually became his wife, though it didn't last long. She later returned to Missoula with a second husband and Ian's child as well as a child by her second husband.

Greg told me to bring my bike around back in the alley where he had a white canopy to drop down as an official backdrop for all his touring cyclist photographs. Behind it was a scale that he weighs every bike with its gear. Mine came to 107 pounds, a bit more than I would have guessed. Greg said I needed to send 27 pounds home. I did have a dozen water bottles to donate to the Free Cycle bicycle shop a few blocks away, one of eight bike shops in Missoula, plus REI, which also sells bikes and accessories. He was happy to take my photo with the ten water bottles in a basket atop my tent and sleeping bag that I had scavenged along the way, definitely something he had never photographed before.

He also wanted me to write in my profile that in my US bicycle travels I make Carnegie libraries a quest. Carnegie built 17 libraries in Montana, including one in Missoula. It was right across the street from Adventure Cycling, though it was now an art museum. It had been desecrated by a second floor addition that was less in keeping with its original look than any addition I have ever seen on a Carnegie. Most are quite seamless and virtually undetectable, such as the one in Hamilton, Montana that I had visited the day before.

Greg presented me with a dozen bicycle past cards of his photography before I left. Just like his founding partner Dan he was a wonderfully unassuming, quietly self-assured, decent and considerate gentleman--someone I could have spent hours chatting with. It is one of life's great occasions to meet a person one has always admired and respected and wanted to meet and to discover that person has been worthy of the high esteem one has given them.

Later, George


george christensen said...


Maybe you should put in a link

To how Ian was killed.

I long for days of touring as we had when we first met. It was not as early as Hibblell but still a bit different from today.


I don’t know how to make a comment on your blog. It’s kind of a pain as Don Jaime said.

joan136 said...

how interested are you in buying hibell's book? i can get it today for $82?? joan

george christensen said...

Joan: Thanks for the offer, but not necessary.

JeffOYB said...

Bravo, George! What a neat experience. A fan of bike museums certainly needs to stop at the ACA HQ. I, too, was inspired early on by Ian and by the Siple/Borden tale in Natl Geo. Rockin'! It's great to close these circles. :)

JeffOYB said...

PS: 107 pounds? Wow! Tough guy! I'm such a wimp that the last time I bike-toured I decided that 15 lbs of stuff -- including rack and packs -- was about right! (Probably 50 lbs total with bike, water and food.) I just don't use much stuff when out for just a week. ...And that was for 3 seasons! (Cool nights.) I spose if I stayed out for months like you that I'd haul a fair bit more. A 60-lb total rig used to be my multimonth weight. 80 lbs was most ever -- and I mailed stuff home a few days later. Someday maybe I'll get old enough to be as tough -- and old! -- as you! :)