Missoula-based cycling nonprofit looks back, plans for future

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1976, a cross-country bicycle ride organized by a small group of folks in Missoula took place.


Published December 27, 2006 by the Missoulian

Montana — Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1976, a cross-country bicycle ride organized by a small group of folks in Missoula took place.

More than 4,100 people from all 50 states and 22 countries rode over 10 million miles, with the riders ranging in age from 7 to 86.

The group, the brainchild of Missoulians Greg and June Siple and Dan and Lys Burden, called itself Bikecentennial, a play on the nation's bicentennial that same year.

“It was a time when there was a resurgence of interest in the bicycle as a viable form of travel,” Jim Sayer said recently. “The energy crisis was on, we were still in the last stages of the back-to-the-land movement and the time was right.

“We were also about 20 years into the national interstate system, and people were starting to question whether that was really the best thing.”

Sayer is executive director of Adventure Cycling Association, which is what Bikecentennial became in 1993. Bikecentennial had about 7,500 members back then; today, the group has about 42,500 members who pay at least $35 a year for access to the group's magazine, maps and mass of information on cycling.

Housed in a former church at 150 E. Pine St., Adventure Cycling is the largest nonprofit cycling organization in the country, a point of pride for the group's 28 staffers.

“We take a lot of pride in what we've brought to the cycling community over the years, and we're looking forward to what we can do over the coming decades as well,” Sayer said.

Some of that work is already under way. Part of what the group does is develop routes that offer good riding, decent amenities and a chance to see parts of the country that the interstate system bypasses.

Now Adventure Cycling is releasing a route that accomplishes all that and more. Dubbed the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, the ride courses along parts of the paths that slaves took north as they fled the South.

The group developed the 867.5-mile route – which runs from Mobile, Ala., to Owensboro, Ky. – with the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Minority Health, and Sayer said the path offers a rich, vibrant trip through American history.

“We worked with historians and local organizations to trace the route out, and it really offers a chance of both good riding and a chance to ride through American history,” he said.

Maps for the southern portion of the route were released in late summer, and Sayer said the northern part of the route, which winds all the way to the Canadian shores of Lake Huron, will be released in February, during Black History Month.

“Obviously, people took a lot of paths out of the South, but we feel like through all our research, we've retraced one of the most common routes and it has the benefit of offering a lot of good riding,” Sayer said.

The association is also deep at work on a much larger project, one that will create a network of bike routes across the country. Once complete, the network will have about 35,000 miles of potential travel, Sayer said.

“What we're really working on here is a sort of interstate system for bicyclists,” he said. “It's a huge partnership with federal and state agencies, but it's really a chance to create a sort of bike atlas for the United States.”

America, Sayer noted, is a car-centric place, but it's not impossible to sort of retrofit the country's vast road system to double as an interstate system for riders. It's a fairly gargantuan undertaking, but it's doable, Sayer said.

“This is the sort of thing our organization is good at, so it's something we're really committed to,” he said.

But if that sort of big thinking is too much to get your head around, Adventure Cycling probably still has something in store for you. Sayer said the group, mindful of the fact that not everyone is ready for a 1,000-mile tour, is working on more day-trip outings, trips of 20 miles or so.

“That's sort of new for us, but it's really what most people do,” Sayer said. “We're working on routes that stem out from city centers, where people can just get out for the day or even part of the day.”

On the other hand, if you're up for a tour of the country or maybe just the West, the folks at Adventure Cycling would sure like you to drop by. You'll even get your picture on the group's “Wall of Fame,” a distinction shared by about 600 people who came through Missoula in 2006.

“It's sort of the Mecca of bicycling,” Sayer said. “People just feel the need to come by, and we love to see them.”

Ride on

To learn more about Missoula's Adventure Cycling Association, go to adventurecycling.org. The site features more than 800 pages of information about cycling.