The Simplicity of Vintage Cycles

Vintage Bicycles Done Proper :: Corvallis, Oregon

Cycling in Print: National Geographic, 1973

1973 was quite a turning point for bicycles in America as the May issue of National Geographic carried not one, but two multi-paged spreads on the subject.

The second of the two articles is titled, Backpacking Across Alaska and Canada and featured 12 pages describing how a group of four individuals lived for months in toe clips, slowly making their way, by bicycle, from Anchorage, Alaska, to Missoula, Montana.

Cycling in Print :: IV

National Geographic – May, 1973; Slogging through the thick, Canadian mud.

The 3,103-mile journey was part of Dan and Lys Burden, Greg and June Siple’s ultimate goal of a 20,000-mile trip beginning in Anchorage and terminating at the southern tip of Argentina, South America.

Cycling in Print :: IV

Cycling in Print :: IV

The “Pedaling Vagabonds” include (L to R) June and Greg Siple, Dan and Lys Burden

Sloppy, wheel clogging mud, pessimistic local advice, pothole riddled gravel roads and 50+ pounds of heavy camping supplies, now considered ancient, pulled down on heavily their steel framed bicycles. These were just some of the numerous challenges encountered by the crew as they bravely pioneered their way down the west coast. Unexpected events inevitably cropped up withing the article. Problems such as frame failure (which was welded back together in a small down) and a robbery in which bandits stole spare bike parts, specialized tools, film, cooking utensils, a week’s worth of food and even their dirty dishes. Supple pavement, that we have come to expect in this era, came at a premium during those early days of bicycle touring. Coarse gravel, loosely packed was found treacherous at first, “like negotiating a sand beach littered with golf balls.” Luckily, only one serious spill occurred causing painful scrapes and a black eye. However, “after several days we learned to pick a way through the fickle surface almost instinctively.”

Cycling in Print :: IV

Moose, bears, coyotes, foxes, deer and lynx were common site and humans were not, sometimes the group would ride for hours without sighting another human being.

Cycling in Print :: IV

Greg and his customized Gitane

What was gained was rambling coarse, which sought points of interest and intimate knowledge of the countryside from an open-air vantage point all through thousands of feet of lung crushing elevation gain and loss. But there was more gained during that 3,000+ mile stretch which took 84 days to complete. Something that, to this very day, is sought after and can not be found through a website or as an iPhone App. Physical exertion and some small discomforts found this crew something wonderful. They found freedom. “We felt the landscape belonged to us, just as the early trappers and mountain men must have felt it belonged to them.”

Cycling in Print :: IV

June shows the best way to pass the hours while in the saddle

Did the crew ever make it to South America? What ever became of them? These questions and more about these fascinating couples are answered here on the Adventure Cycling Association website. The Adventure Cycling Association is a national cycling association, based in Missoula, Montana which provides services for cycle-tourists, publishes maps and campaigns for better cycling facilities.

© Josh Capps and The Simplicity of Vintage Cycles. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Josh Capps and The Simplicity of Vintage Cycles with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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14 comments on “Cycling in Print: National Geographic, 1973

  1. adventurepdx
    November 1, 2012

    It’s a great article! I met Greg when I visited the Adventure Cycling offices in Missoula, Montana when we went through on tour in 2011.

    One interesting thing to note about their bikes is that they didn’t use either 27″ or 700C wheels, they instead had custom built 650A (26″ x 1 3/8″ or 590mm) wheels built. The thinking was that the first two sizes were still exotic in the early 70’s, the 26″ x 1 3/8″ much more common, which would come in handy when they needed new tires and tubes. (No FedEx back then!)

    • Josh C.
      November 1, 2012

      I would not have considered wheel size being such an issue until recently.
      I was at a bicycle shop, killing time, perusing the new bikes when I noticed the Surly Long Haul Trucker came with a 26″ or 700c wheel option. The salesperson said that this was beneficial because if you are touring in, let’s say, Argentina, you are much more likely to find a tire that would fit 26″ rather than 700c. Apparently, 26″ wheels are fairly standard around the world whereas 700c are not.

      That was smart thinking on the Pedaling Vagabonds part to consider wheels, tires and tubes then put in fail-safes so it would not be an issue. With a catastrophic failure on any of the three components, without a replacement, you are stuck.

      Very interesting and worthwhile addition to the story. Thank you for sharing!

      • adventurepdx
        November 1, 2012

        Yeah, that’s why you see a lot of expedition style touring rigs with 26″ wheels. 26″ has become the world-standard thanks to mountain bikes. In the 60’s and 70’s, the 650A was the world-standard due to it being the British three-speed size.

        Of course, for the Pedaling Vagabonds, some of the areas they went through were so remote (Yukon, anyone), that getting parts would be problematic no matter what.

  2. Don Pollack
    March 22, 2013

    The May 1973 article ‘Bikepacking Across Alaska and Canada’ by Dan Burden had a great impact on me as a youth growing up interested in cycling. I wrote them a letter to find out more information and they kindly responded. I still have it.

    I have been a life long cyclist ever since. I am also a visual artist and painter. Recently, I exhibited my work celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Since then, I focused on a project of bicycling Lincoln’s 2000 mile inaugural train route from Springfield, Illinois to Washington D.C.

    On April, 19, 2013, my Lincoln-Bicycle art project titled, “34 Days to Washington” will open at Perimeter Gallery Chicago. [You can see journey images and logbook at http://donpollack.blogspot.com%5D

    The exhibit will consists of, paintings, maps, writings, my gear, bicycle, and bicycle related themes focusing on the current American landscape and my experiences on the trek. The work explores the notion of cycling as an art form as well as the idea of how we actively create our landscapes. Or in other words,- The expedition is seen as a fundamental aspect of the American perspective

    All of this began with this simple inspiring National Geographic article 40 years ago!

    • Josh C.
      March 22, 2013

      Don,

      As you mention, this is an incredible inspiring, and for some, life altering article. Hearing the impact it has had on you and the actions you took are equally inspiring. The exhibit you are being featured in sounds fascinating and an essential piece of American history. Thank you for sharing your connection to this article and what it means to you. I encourage all who are in Chicago to check out the exhibit!

    • adventurepdx
      March 22, 2013

      Cool! I am definitely checking out your blog. Though the weblink you provided doesn’t work because of that %5D at the end. I got to it via:
      http://donpollack.blogspot.com/

  3. Beverly Stephenson
    August 26, 2013

    The May 1973 article ‘Bikepacking Across Alaska and Canada’ by Dan Burden was also an inspiration for me, Beverly Stephenson, to venture at age 15 camp bicycling with my bf 400 miles from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska June 1973. We saw the near setting sun June 21st. I used a Stephenson’s Warmlite tent and sleeping bag as they did as shown in the article and even mentioned by name. Our family owned and made their tents and bags. I later made the Family Co. products too as well as showed them to customers and at exhibits. The most fun was using the camping gear hiking or bicycling or wherever!

    • Josh C.
      August 26, 2013

      It is truly incredible to hear how others reacted when this, now decades old, National Geographic write-up hit the shelves. The bicycle has such an amazing ability to inspire.

      Thank you for sharing your story, Beverly.

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  7. Erik Smith
    May 29, 2019

    Wow, I know I’m seven years late to this thread, but I just stumbled across this article online — and it shows me I wasn’t the only one inspired by that 1973 piece in National Geographic. I remember reading it as an 11-year-old. The possibility of an incredible long-distance bicycling adventure had never occurred to me — nor do I think it had occurred to many people older than myself. Keep in mind, at the time, “ten-speed” bikes designed for the road were something new and exotic. I recognize they had been available since the early fifties, but they were known mainly to those immersed in biking culture. Prior to 1970, what you saw in the department stores were mainly five-speeds, British-style 3-speeds, and what we know today as “comfort bikes.” The specialty bike shops usually had one or two fancy imports on display, but in the early seventies, who could contemplate spending $400 or more on a bicycle? The dominant bicycle on the road was the Sting-Ray and its innumerable imitators. Yet starting in about 1970 and 1971, we started seeing Schwinn Varsities and Continentals everywhere. Suddenly everyone had to have a ten-speed. Little did most people understand that these bikes really were mediocre knock-offs of the high-end bicycles of the period. Consciousness was just beginning to dawn.

    There was a line in the article that made sense to me as a kid, and still does today. It noted that any cyclist can attain 10 mph, and if you can just keep it up for 10 hours, poof, you’ve gone a hundred miles. Not bad for a day’s effort. The story also noted that an experienced cyclist can go considerably faster and cover a much greater distance. But 10 mph? I could go 10 mph, even at age 11. When you thought of it that way, no distance was really an obstacle. You just had to keep pedaling. That was all there was to it. Just load a sleeping bag on the back and some camping supplies and off you go. In a month you could cross the country. In six months you could bicycle around the world. What a thought that was!

    Anyway, I kept poring through National Geographics for the next couple of years, looking for a follow-up article. Nothing ever was published. Did our cyclists ever reach Tierra del Fuego? Were they waylaid by bandits in Central America? I always wondered.

    This article had a major influence on me as a teenager. I remember reading it with great excitement, thinking maybe someday I’d do something like it. I must have read it a couple dozen times, until my copy became dog-eared. I showed the article to my parents as proof cycling wasn’t a weirdo thing. I became a stronger and stronger cyclist, probably rode down every road within 35 miles of my house. As a junior in high school, I rode across the state solo, from Spokane to Seattle, and I did it a second time after high school graduation. My interest in cycling waned once I got my first driver’s license, as it does with many of us, but I took it up again after age 50. These days I think I’m in the best shape I’ve been since high school. I still ride bikes of ’70s vintage, toe clips and all, though they are of much higher quality than the spray-painted cobbled-together bikes of my teen-age years. During cycling season I do at least 200 miles a week. Last Sunday I rode 135 miles from Olympia to Portland. I’m getting set for my third Seattle-to-Portland run in July — and of course, I’m planning on doing the 200 miles in a day. I go considerably faster than 10 mph.

    People forget there was a time when biking didn’t require expensive shoes and lycra and designer water bottles. Somehow we managed to live without all the advancements in bicycle technology that have come since 1985. And from time to time, I’ve wondered — those people I read about in National Geographic all those years ago — what did they ride?

    Just a few minutes ago, I got a little curious about that article that started it all. Did they ever make it to Tierra del Fuego? I happened to be sitting in front of a computer, and Google steered me here. Unfortunately, I’m still in suspense. The link to the piece that explains what happened is broken.

    Erik Smith
    Olympia, Wash.

    • Josh C.
      May 29, 2019

      Hi Erik,

      First, I want to congratulate you. In the near-decade the website has been in existence, nobody has ever posted a longer comment than you. So, congratulations on that achievement!

      I appreciate your personal recollection from the era and the way in which you can help a reader, not from that era, understand how Schwinn dominated. Where now, Schwinn is nothing but a name that has been traded hands numerous times to be watered down and irrelevant. And known by people, not immersed in current bicycle culture, as a blanket statement for describing a bike. (“Oh, so you have, essentially, like, a Schwinn. The kind with the curly handlebars, right?”)

      Your evolution as a cyclist is a pleasure for me to read. Isn’t it amazing how early in life it can begin? And even when the love is put on hold for a few decades, one can quite easily come back and rekindle the friendship like an old, lost pal.
      You should be proud of your rides! Spending my last 15 years in Portland, I know these are not cushy nor easy journeys, even if one simply hits 10mph and keeps it up for hours! As you know, there is a bit more to it than that.

      Tierra del Fuego. What a let down it must have been to come to the post, read through until the end then click the final link only to go to a broken URL. The Adventure Cycling Association must have updated their pages at some point in the last seven years and my link broke. But, it is now fixed so I am going to leave it up to you to read for yourself how the adventure ended.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Erik.

      Enjoy the ride.

  8. Erik Smith
    May 30, 2019

    I certainly don’t mean to knock all Schwinns! I just picked up a 1973 Paramount (in Beaverton, of all places) and am in the process of acquiring the vintage parts to get it exactly to my configuration. Schwinn made all types of bikes, for all people, at every price point. In my home town, Spokane, I’d guess Schwinn had 50 percent of the market. The Schwinn Paramount was the epitome of what a bike ought to be. The Varsity was a starter — just a taste of what things could be. I still have the Centurion Super Le Mans I used in the ’70s, and it really wasn’t much better than the Varsity — but what did we know?

    The thing that has astounded me, in reading your post and others about that 1973 National Geographic article, is that so many people saw it the way I did — as a call to adventure of a sort we’d never dreamed.

    And now I’m looking forward to reading the story and seeing how that grand trip to Tierra del Fuego came out.

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