OPINION

2000 miles a year on a bicycle

John Oncken

As had been my habit for 20 years (1989-2010), I annually spent most of a week viewing the world from a bicycle seat as part of a long distance bicycle touring group.

Most folks saw such an activity as the endeavor of fools intent on self destruction via getting run over by speeding cars and trucks or physical overwork. I and my riding companions – our numbers and the participants varied year by year – all saw it as a vacation or as a break in life’s routine.  

30 years ago

I first wrote about these bicycle trips in this column back in 1991 when our group of 17 made a 450-mile circle in Ontario, Canada. Our group, named Wright Riders after Wilbur Wright who along with Davey Crockett, a Madison fireman who started the whole thing in about 1975. 

On the road to Copper Harbor Michigan in 1994, and always careful to leave space for traffic.

These annual columns always drew lots of phone calls, e-mails, letters and one on one questions. I suspect it was partially out of curiosity and the fact that they knew that I  was not a kid nor a big time athlete, just a getting older, former farm boy.

The Wright Riders sort of died a natural death about ten years ago as personal interests and families changed. So, of course, I quit writing about the trips but readers still keep asking: What happened to your bike trips? Do you still ride a bicycle? How could you ride so many miles for so many years? 

Filled water bottles, trusty tire pump, full panniers, and the ever present helmet, Oncken’s Bianchi is ready to roll.

Buying a bike

I was already long past my athletic prime when I decided to buy a bicycle. My daughters could easily ride their bikes to town on a three-mile round trip – why not me? So, I began looking for a used 10-speed but finally settled on a new Japanese Takara for $125 or so and began participating in the Madison-based Bombay Bicycling Club's Sunday rides. 

On one Sunday ride I got caught in a big rainstorm and sought refuge in a tiny village café and sat at a table with another cyclist by the name of Wilbur Wright who talked about his little group of friends who took annual, lengthy bike tours. My immediate question was: How do I join?  “I’ll put you on my list and call you when there is space,” Wright said. “It will probably be a year of two.” 

I kept on riding and learning about long distance riding and soon realized my Takara was not the bike for long distance riding. I had long heard about Trek bikes that were made in Waterloo and visited the local Bicycle Shop to take a look.  

An early start was often needed but sometimes hard to get going.

What had I done?

It didn’t take long before I walked out with a new Trek model 715 bike bought for some $900 and the thought, 'what had I just done?'  I kept on riding and learning about pedaling, shifting, fixing tires and such. And sure enough, Wright called and invited me to a meeting of his touring group and to join them on the 1989 ride from Alton, Illinois to Madison. 

Our plans to ship our bikes via train to Alton didn’t work out but Wright offered to haul them in his pickup while we took the train. (Wright was diagnosed a few days earlier with a form of cancer and couldn’t bike that year but recovered and still lives today.) 

That first trip covered 572 miles, criss-crossing the Mississippi in temperatures of over 90 degrees along with many interesting stops including about 10 flat tires and a boat ride on the “Mighty Miss.” 

Boarding the SS Badger at Manitowoc for the trip to Ludington, Michigan, something the touring group had done many times.

So much to see

The next 19 years led us to Minnesota twice, Michigan five times, Indiana, Illinois and, of course, Wisconsin. We saw so much: trips across Lake Michigan on the SS Badger (the only coal-fired ship still running), Niagara Falls, the 3,000-cow Van Der Geest Dairy at Merrill, the Graf creamery at Zachow, (only me of the group had visited a dairy before) historical sites of all kinds and so much more. 

Visiting the Central Wisconsin Produce Market at Withee, Wis.

Looking

A bicycle trip of any length on public highways is all about looking: At the road just in front of your front wheel for cracks and potholes and in the rear view mirror for vehicles going at the speed limit or more bearing down on our 12-14 mph bicycles. 

The closest I came to a collision over those 20 years was with a man who backed into the street in New Glarus in front of me. I don’t guess he looked backward at all because after moving backward, he pulled into the right lane in front of me and proceeded to park at the curb. Oh well, I suspected he was deep in thought, maybe. 

A bike trip also includes a good bit of  silence. Mostly it’s just the quiet hum of tires on pavement and occasional conversation. Everyone has their own comfortable speed that can change minute to minute. So there were days when I could barely get going in the morning but was leading the way a couple hours later. (Note: The human body is strange in many ways and sometimes hard to figure out. More on that later in this piece.)

Enjoying the huge sand dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan.

Not campers

The Wright Riders were not campers, we stayed in motels thus carried extra clothing and supplies in panniers, adding about 20 pounds which made going uphill more difficult. We had very few mechanical problems over the years and by the year 2000 flat tires were a thing of the past.  

As the years went by and we all got older ,our tours got shorter and ultimately stopped but many of us continued to enjoy cycling. Yet today when going up a hill in my car, I still see it as if I were on a bicycle and am envious of the many cyclists riding country roads on sunny days. 

My three now unused touring bikes remain in my basement just waiting for the time they can get back on the road. How so? Perhaps a grandson, maybe a friend's son, perhaps a stranger/buyer, maybe even a needy kid?

A “cookie stop” at Olympic speed skating medalist Beth Heiden's home near Houghton Michigan. Beth is sitting on the bottom step on the far right.

As for me now: I parked my bike for the last time about 8 years ago after a short 10-mile spring ride. I’m not sure just why, but it was time.

That and the fact that my difficulty climbing a hill had led me to a Dr. exam suspicioning a heart blockage. “No way,”  they said but maybe an occasional irregular heart beat.  Then I remembered that this feeling of “not making it up the hill” had actually happened 7 or 8 times over the years. So, I take my warfarin and remember those memorable 2000 miles a year on my Trek and Bianchi bikes. So be it, older age isn’t all fun but the alternative is worse.

Touring the Penterman Dairy at Thorp, Wis., home of Holland Family Cheese and Mareika Gouda.

John Oncken, can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.