Bike Touring Circa 1980by Matthew Cole
This is bicycle touring circa 1980. I'm in Mingo, Iowa, the morning of Tuesday June 10, 1980, outbound for Madison, Wisconsin, then Idaho, Colorado and Britain. It was a good summer. This was a nippy morning so I've got on the wool shirt and pants; they'd come off within half an hour. Weirdly, later in life, and to my surprise, by August 2013 this photo was for a while the top hit in Google image searches for "bicycle touring".
This page is mostly about the bicycle but since this is in the History of Photography, I'll start with the cameras.
- The photograph is by my old friend Steve O'Brien, who lived in Mingo and with whom I stayed the first night, having done a relatively short day just to cross and clear the Des Moines area. He used a Mamiya C220 twin lens reflex with the 80mm f/2.8 Sekor lens, a red filter and Ilford Pan F film. My buddies Paul Salamon and Mark Preston had come through about a week earlier on a tandem, also heading for Madison (by a somewhat different route than I took) and then Boston. They made it to Boston in 29 days, including a couple of days off in Toronto. (also, please remember that if you click on these photos, you'll get a larger version)
|Keep on Truckin': The Tandem about to depart for Boston, Tuesday June 3, 1980. That's Mark on the left, Paul on the right and the Reynolds 531-tubed Roberts tandem in front. It had some cool stuff on it; a magnesium-bodied Phil Wood disk brake on back operated by a two-cable lever in front was the most notable component. These guys gave the stoker (the back guy) the Campy downtube shift levers figuring he knew as well as the driver when it was time to shift; I have never seen this on any other tandem. Riding back from a fully-loaded shakedown ride to Booneville a couple of days before this Mark sat up on back and laughed saying, "Cole, there ain't nothin' can stop this bike!" Paul didn't even hesitate: "Including the brakes." They made Boston, 1,721.4 miles distant, 29 days later. June 1980, Fujica ST-801, Vivitar TX 28mm f/2.5, Kodachrome 64
- For the first phase of the summer I carried only my Rolleicord Vb and shot all black and white film. I normally used Plus-X Pan professional. I also carried a Sekonic L28C2 selenium-celled light meter, since the Rollei didn't have a meter, and a Rollei 4X4 lens hood, made for the Baby Rollei but it works and does not vignette like you'll read some places. Very ecological, this outfit, no batteries required.
- Later in the summer, I'd add a Rollei Treasure Chest with close up lenses, hood and filters and a panorama head for the Rolleicord and also took my Fujica ST-801 SLR with the Vivitar 28mm f/2.5 TX lens and Fujinon 100mm f/2.8 EBC lens. To these I added my Vivitar 283 flash. I shot Kodachrome 64 on this camera in Britain, and carried all the gear in a Velocipac bicycle front bag that would replace the homemade one in the photo.
- Do you want to see some of these snaps? You can see a few more photos here. In the meantime, you can read about the bike.
Bikes have evolved since these days. Among the notable items about the bike:
- Nice frame. The Motobecane Grand Record was in some ways not terribly focused. It had an uncompromising race-oriented Campagnolo Nuovo Record derailleur and shifters. The Nuovo Record, the same sort of derailleur in use by professional Tour de France racers at the time, wouldn't handle more than a 26 tooth cog, and I actually only had a 24 tooth cog on at the time, so I mostly shifted with a crisp and quick efficiency right into first gear and lugged up the hills. Despite this racing derailleur, the bike frame had gentle angles and slender chain and seat stays to give it a comfy ride. I had friends with the more racing-oriented Gitane Tour de France bikes which had beefier stays for less flex. Still, this was (and still is) a nice frame with double-butted Reynolds 531 for the front fork and three main tubes, ornate lugs and Campy dropouts. Also, there were no decals other than the ones for the Reynolds tubing; all the names etc. on the frame were painted on.
- Tubular tires, or sew-ups. These puppies were light. I toured all summer on a pair of Clement Campionato del Mundo Setas which weighed 290g each. That's for the tube and tire combined. They're called sew-ups because the tube is sewn into a fabric carcass (silk, in this case, which is what Seta means in Italian) with a rubber tread on it. The tire is glued to the rim, unless you were lazy in which case you wanted to watch how hard you turned because you could roll the tire right off the rim which would have been exciting though I never personally ever did this. Each day I'd pump the rear tire to 105 psi, the front to 95 psi (more shock absorbent you know) and they'd lose 30-40 psi by the next morning. The del Mundos only weighed as much as they did because the rubber casing came around the silk sidewalls farther than usual and I think the silk might have been thicker than on the lighter tires. At other times I generally rode 250g Clement Criterium Seta silks, one of which is folded under my seat as a spare in this photo, and had friends who sometimes rode 220g tires. We never did use the sensible-sounding 275g Paris-Roubaix Setas for some reason. I had one flat all summer. I also rode several miles of gravel on these, loaded, without any problem (other than squishy steering).
- Knurled rims. This was a 1970s thing. The rims had little radial cuts in them to increase braking effectiveness. I don't know if they worked or not, but they did eventually wear down most of the way. I imagine they shortened the life of the brake pads, too.
- High gearing. Seventies gearing tended to run high. This bike was no exception. The chainrings were 42/52 and the cog was a 14/24, giving me a low gear of 47 inches. Luckily I was young and vigorous and never had to walk up any hills due to pure bloody pride, but this gearing now would prove fatal to me. The high gear, of about 100 inches, I basically never used. The only time I can remember using it at all was riding up to Ames once, unloaded, with a ferocious tailwind. I sat up high, put her in tenth gear, and spun at about 30mph the last ten miles to town. Those gears are for racers, not schmucks like me. While touring, I never needed it to propel myself, and down long hills the loaded bike outran my ability to spin that quickly anyway.
- Everything clamps on. The downtube shifters, cable clips, water bottle cages (of steel), derailleur cable guides, cable housing stops, rear rack seat stay eyelets and pump clip are all clamped to the frame whereas now virtually all this stuff would be brazed on. The tandem also has a vast number of clamp-ons. Among the Campagnolo gear on my bike: all three rear brake cable clips!
- Brooks leather saddle. These were more common in those days and are still available and in fact seeing something a major resurgence in popularity after Brooks had a couple of near-death experiences in the late 1990s. I still ride Brooks saddles, though this one is now on my son's bike. The leather takes a while to break in, but it's still in use 35+ years later. It conforms to you, it breathes, it stretches, gives and can be adjusted. It's got good karma. Mark and Paul also rode Brooks Professionals and they put them on the tandem. When they sold the bike in Boston the only thing they kept from the tandem itself was their saddles. You will hear tales of how tender these are to getting wet; this one has been soaked for days on end and still rides just fine. The saddles are from Britain, for God's sake, a bit of damp isn't going to kill them!
- Silca Pump. Nowadays I carry a small Blackburn Mammoth pump nestled under one of the water bottle cages or a small CO2 inflator. When pumping was a daily chore, I carried the Silca pump with a metal head on it, the better to bash dogs with. It was also possible to have amusing pump blow-outs, when you would inadvertently angle the Silca and press the little Presta screw in the tire valve. All the air in the tire would suddenly vent into your pump, blowing the pump apart and leaving you with ringing ears, a deflated tire and your right arm behind you holding the pump innards. Yo-ho, very fonny! Time to put the Silca back together and pump another 120 strokes!
- A three-pin crank. Made by TA, a French company. The racing derailleurs were impressive but the 3 pin crank with alloy rings was very flexible so that even my less-than-awesome sprinting power would flex them and rattle the chain against the narrow Record front derailleur. It's hard to find these chainrings now although one day in Des Moines (at Bill's on SW 9th in late 1990) they had three; a 40 tooth, which I bought to slightly lower my gearing, and a 56 and 60 (!) tooth. Ouch. Even though this is at the end of the Lightness Decade, when people drilled out everything but the water bottle looking to save weight, my missing dustcaps are not to save the 1/4 ounce but because the TA dustcaps were made of the cheapest possible alloy and the Allen hole would round out, so I just left them off.
- Inadequate brakes, at least by today's standards. This bike, loaded, on its thin high-pressure tires, would roll very quickly down long sweeping curvy hills. This was before bike computers, but it wouldn't surprise me if I did 45-50mph a couple of times. When the time came to stop, I depended on Weinmann center-pull brakes to bring me to a halt, equipped with the long, curved, finned (for cooling you know) Mathauser brake pads on them. I cut the leading edge of these pads into a > shape to "plow" water from the rims in the rain, to me an obvious but rarely-employed way to address wet braking.
- Cheesy seatpost. I really could use a 26 or 27" road frame, and this is a 25". In the days before mountain bikes, really nice long seatposts were hard to come by and I used a cheap ($1.50) steel Schwinn seatpost with a cruddy old clamp on it to hold my leather Brooks Professional saddle.
- Phil Wood hubs. I was a relatively early adopter. These were already three years old at this point. In those days we did lots of our own work, and I built these wheels myself. The tandem had Phil hubs as well with an extremely cool magnesium-bodied Phil disc brake on back, though it's obscured in the photo by the panniers and those units were reported to be one of Phil Wood's only doggy products, with disks prone to shattering which must have been exciting. Phil still makes hubs. If you need something weird, like a 48-spoke tandem hub with a cassette and disk brake provision, they're your company.
- Natural fiber clothing. Nowadays serious cyclists wears 100% polyester, though of late wool seems to be making a comeback. Under my Filson wool twill pants and wool shirt I have on wool cycling shorts (by Cool Gear!)(I'm not excited about it, the company name had an exclamation point) with a natural chamois leather lining and a cotton cycling shirt. The shorts had a rugged summer; I had a minimal wardrobe with me and they would serve as my swimsuit. The salt water of the English Channel proved hard on them. After the summer was out I replaced the chamois using a Kodak Photo Chamois but then a year or so later some moths got to the wool. I'll bet that doesn't happen with Supplex! You might mock wool but it doesn't reek like all these synthetic fabrics when you sweat in it and nowadays the merino wools are lovely and soft.
- Leather shoes. These are classic cycling shoes with nailed-in cleats. You'd first ride these steel-soled ballet-slipper-tight things with no cleat to get a good pedal impression of where the cleat needed to go, then played shoemaker with tiny nails and a hammer. Nails would fall out and if you didn't pay attention eventually your cleat would too (known as "dropping a cleat"). When you walked around you'd click a lot and your toes would be higher than your heel. Because these were unsuitable for normal wear, I also carried a pair of Adidas Runners (the hot running shoe that year, in an attractive bright yellow) which are strapped on the very back and whose laces I tied to the rack in case they fell off so I wouldn't lose a shoe.
- A helmet. These were pretty new in these days. My tandem-riding buddies and I all had new girlfriends at the time and they all were concerned about our noggins. We all got these Bell helmets. Their girlfriends must have been more impressed, because they married by buddies; mine dumped me. Oddly enough, the only time I have ever been attacked and actually pecked by a bird was while riding my bike up to Ames to buy the helmet (I got a 10% discount at Michael's Cyclery up there and in those days riding an 80 mile round trip to save $3.90 seemed like an ok idea). It was spooky. These Bells were ok. They're heavy compared to current models but proved wonderful in cold weather (not on this trip, but later) because you could wear a wool watch cap under them. They proved to be a complete novelty in Britain and I'm sure we were mocked, though not to our faces.
- Mixed luggage. The front bag is a homemade creation on a generic metal bag frame. It was done with a Coast camera bag, the back of which ripped out about a month later. I then got a Velocipac front bag and used that the second half of the summer. It was pretty good. On the tandem, the boys just used full-sized Velocipac panniers front and rear and mounted the front ones backwards.
- A radio. This is pre-Walkmans, if such a time can be remembered. I had a little Sony AM/FM radio which lay in my front bag with the speaker aimed up. It can get lonely out in rural Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. I remember listening to Paul Harvey and the Rest of the Story, speculation on who shot JR on Dallas, Elton John's Little Jeannie, Pete Seeger's Against the Wind and other classics. Little Jeannie still instantly calls to mind the area southwest of Miles, Iowa, for some reason. On the whole, I'd recommend against a Walkman while riding but a radio arrangement like this works well because you can still hear traffic just fine. I didn't take the radio to Britain, where I rode with a friend.
- The Cannondale panniers were manufactured in much this form until the late 1990s, with some improvements to the mounting system. I had modified them with an aluminum plate to raise them, move them back and tilt them up a bit, as well as have the rack hooks placed precisely between the cross bars of the steel rear rack. This kept them from sliding back and forth and left room for my size 13 feet. I liked these quite a lot and the outside pockets worked really well. A couple of General Mills International Coffee tins fit great in the long horizontal pocket, perfect for keeping things together. I made a "tarp" (of Gore-tex no less) (it was leftover fabric) to go over this stuff in the rain. I lived out of these panniers and the front bag from early June to late August.
- Fenders. These were rare then and looked askance at by serious cyclists. These particular ones are English-made Bleumels fenders and the big un-aerodynamic mudflap on the front one proved to be useful in the English phase of the trip, which was very wet. I put a reflector on the rear fender. The tandem also had a set of Bleumels fenders. Fenders have never been thought cool but they do keep your bike a lot cleaner in both dry and wet weather so I've had them on most of the time since. (as I review this page in 2013, 14 years after initially writing it, I have to note that fenders are making something of a comeback and you can even buy scrumptuous Honjo and Gilles Berthoud metal ones).
- Light. You don't see it in this photo, but our standard lighting in these days was a leg light, a single-bulbed light powered by two C cells which you strapped on your lower left leg. The light had a yellow lens in front and a red one behind and it didn't light up shit, but it did wave around a lot as you pedalled and presumably made you more visible. They were always getting knocked "on", so our standard practice was to remove the top, reverse one battery, and put the top back on. One of my engineering buddies put a proper switch on his, but I never did. When we went to England, we had to switch legs and lenses since we rode on the other side of the road.
- Nutrition and Hydration theory has come a long way. In our typical local rides (up to 40 miles) we'd carry no food and one water bottle. With no particular preparation we'd ride off on these outings and every once in a while things wouldn't go well. These became known as death rides and we all knew the miserable feeling of being 14 miles from home with a headwind and no water and no food and legs weak and wobbly. I think they call this bonking now. The most epic of these added in either 98 degree heat with high humidity where we'd collapse in the front yard and pant or 30 degree temperatures and fading light where when we'd finally get home we'd rub our white unfeeling toes. Fortunately, on this trip I ate a lot and made the concession to carry two (small) water bottles. This was good as I sometimes went 20 to 30 miles without actually going through a town. Breakfasts were oatmeal and tea. Lunches were Wheatsworth crackers, cheese, an orange and a Coke. Dinners were big. Nowadays people carry bananas and PowerBars and Gu and Camelbacks. Nothing wrong with that, it's better than a Death Ride, but it does get away a bit from the simplicity of just getting on and riding.
|It was a wet summer in Britain. Here we are camped behind the Horse & Jockey, then a pub in Colwall Stone run at the time by my Uncle Arthur and Auntie Jayne Martin. The rooms at the pub were full of women cricketeers at the time and the weather, as you can plainly see, was not suited for cricket, so they were busy. Fujica ST-801, 28mm f/2.5, Kodachrome 64
- North Face tent and sleeping bag. This was when North Face was still pretty much a hardcore gear company and not a fashion line. The tent is an A-frame Sierra model, the bag a 5° Fahrenheit down model I bought used whose name I've long since forgotten. I think now you could easily save a couple of pounds in the tent and sacrifice nothing in performance. For small and light sleeping bags, it's still hard to beat down but you'd better keep it dry, and for touring you don't need a 5°F bag. There are some lovely 40-45°F down bags that are tiny and would work great. In those halcyon days of youth I didn't bother with a pad and stuffed the stuffsack with clothes for a pillow. I could and did happily sleep on a concrete picnic table like this one night. If I did this now I would be crippled for days.
- Coleman Peak 1 stove. One of the original green ones. These were very new in these days. My Peak One lived a short and exciting career. I crashed the bike on it (later this day, as a matter of fact) so it leaked fuel, then a week later a friend named John Koning backed his grandmother's loaded Buick over it. So much for that unit. I replaced it with a newer brown one with little fold-out feet which I still have. Paul from the tandem still has his green one, with most of the label and plastic knobs melted off from various comical and exciting mishaps over the years.
|At the top of this page is a photo of me heading out on the summer's adventures. Here I am near the end, in Oxford. Later this day we'd take the trains down to London, Reading and Merstham and return to my Uncle John's. A day or two later we'd pack all this up and fly home. You can see here the Velocipac front bag, serving mostly as a camera bag. My nicely-pressed Filson pants are now wrinkled and oil stained. The stuffsacks have lots of dirty clothes as I've accumulated mugs, souvenirs and books. Photo by Holmes Lundt, Yashica FX(?), Carl Zeiss 25mm f/2.8, Kodachrome 64
Unlike my Gitane Tour de France-riding friends with their rigid frames, I still have and (very occasionally) ride my Motobecane. The slender fork and stays make it a comfortable frame even now. However, things have changed from this 1980 photo.
- I changed to clinchers. I got tired of pumping up the sew-ups every time I wanted to ride to Dairy Queen, so I bought some Specialized sealed-bearing hubs and built a set of clinchers and ended up riding those all the time. Within about a year of this tour I cut out the spokes from the wheels in the photograph, dumped the worn knurled rims and eventually sent the Phil hubs in for service (they had developed some play). When I built my Rivendell Atlantis out in 2005 I used the Phil front hub on that bike for a while until I got a generator hub, and now the hub is on my son's bicycle.
- I put in a sealed-bearing headset. An Avocet. I actually changed it myself, with no headset press, using 2X4s, a hammer, glistening beads of sweat and a fervent hope I wouldn't hurt anything. The original headset got a bit click-stoppy after I didn't quite get the torque right during one season's servicing session...
- ...then I had to put in a side-pull front brake. The Avocet wouldn't seat correctly with the center-pull cable hanger in the equation.
- I lowered the gearing slightly with the 40 tooth chainring. It wasn't anywhere near low enough. After we had Henry, our first child, I bought a Cannondale Bugger (trailer) to pull him around in and quickly decided to get a mountain bike for the low low gears.
- I raised the stem and seatpost, with nice new alloy ones. The stem was a bastard to fit as it was 22.2mm and the hole on this French bike, it turned out, was 22.0mm. You wouldn't think .2mm, .008 of an inch, would make much of a difference, maybe a bit of a squeeze, but damned if I didn't have to hone out the fork steering tube to make it work. Fortunately, but the time I did this I was married and my father-in-law Hank had a hone made for aircraft engine cylinders which did the trick.
- I got an alloy rack. This English steel one got rusty at a couple of points.
- I bought a mountain bike. First one kid, then two, and I got a Trek 750 (which got stolen from our garage in Saint Paul) and then a Marin Pine Mountain mountain bike. The low gearing proved darn useful for pulling the kids, especially during that brief time when they'd both ride in the Bugger at a combined 70 pounds or so. Now the gearing is darned useful because I'm a slug and the Motobecane hangs in my garage and intimidates me with its high gearing. I can hardly believe I toured on it.
What I'd do now, if I were touring:
In the pre-digital age, this is what I said (this is primarily for amusing historical context):
- First of all, not presume to give you too much bike advice because a motorcycle, marriage and kids have intervened and I never again mounted an ambitious tour. So, on the bike front, I'd recommend you search elsewhere for most of your information on frames, gear, luggage, clothing, etc. One site I like is Biking Across the USA subtitled, My friends had been telling me to get a life and so for 8 weeks I did, by a guy who rode cross-country at the age of 41. He does a good job describing his ride, has some decent photos and some good practical observations, like, "A 50% chance of rain will still get you 100% wet".
- For cameras, it depends on how hard-core you are:
- Nowadays, I'd just do digital. The compact digitals do a really nice job and they don't weigh anything. I'm very fond of my Sony RX100 which is quite tiny and, with the addition of a little handgrip, very usable while riding. The main problem with digital is battery states--getting enough charger time to keep them alive. I'd carry a couple of spare batteries and be a power vampire whenever around any electrical outlets. I think the iPad Mini or smaller MacBook Air would be about an ideal computer to go along, something to back up the photos to and useful for other things, although another battery you have to fret about.
- If you are somewhat more hardcore, I'd look at one of the many excellent APS-C sensor size cameras. The Fuji X100S is great, but only has a single fixed focal-length lens. Fuji makes some interchangeable-lens cameras which are well-thought of. The Sony NEX cameras are amazingly small for their sensor size and have finally (with the NEX-6) gone to a normal hot shoe for flash rather than a proprietary mounting foot. You could go full frame with the Sony RX1 but you'll spend $2,800 to get a single fixed focal length (28mm), which seems a bit steep. In 1980, I carried a Nikon FE SLR and a couple of lenses; I now own a Nikon D700, but, although it's a great camera body, I wouldn't take it cycling due to it's sheer size and weight. The old FE was light and compact, the D700 is a beast.
- One thing I'd think about is a GPS tracker of some kind. I have the GP-1 attachment for my Nikon D700 which geotags the photos as you take them. This is unspeakably handy, especially if you're out and about a lot, like on a bicycle tour. My Sony RX100 and Fuji X100S don't have GPS built-in, but I use a Sony GPS-CS3KA which tracks your location and then writes the data to your camera's SD card (but doesn't work on the X100S cards for some reason) or allows you to import the tracks and match them up in Aperture or Lightroom. It'll run through basically one AA battery a day, so I use rechargeables. The little Sony unit isn't made any longer, but I got mine off eBay for about $40 and someone on Amazon is selling new ones for $500, so pick your poison. There are undoubtedly other ways of doing this as well, but that's my personal solution at the moment.
Back to actual recommendations:
- If you are really hard-core, the Mamiya 6 (or 7) medium format camera would not be appreciably heavier than my Rolleicord and light meter. However, despite frequent references to the Mamiyas as small and light, they are neither in an absolute sense or especially in a cycling sense, so you'd better think pretty hard about it. The lenses for these are also pretty hefty (if you take more than one), the film is expensive, subject to being light-struck once exposed, hard to come by and expensive to process. Sounds ideal! I'd carry spare batteries.
- If you are partly hard-core, I'd do the Contax G1 or G2 with 28 and 90mm lenses minimum, or 21/35/90 or 28/45/90 or some combination. Add the Vivitar 283 and a mini-tripod and you'd be all set. This is what I'd do tomorrow if I rode off somewhere. Of course, I already own a G2 so that's easy for me to say. I'd put it all in a Jandd Mountaineering front bag outfitted with Domke bag inserts and a strap to act as a quickly-detachable handlebar/camera bag. I'd shoot Kodak Elite 100 or Fuji Sensia and use Kodak PK-36 mailers to mail film in as I shot it. On a really long tour (say, cross-country) I might have a couple of rolls one-hour developed along the way to make damn sure everything was working. I would carry spare batteries. (Note: Contax is now out of business and Kodak has gone bankrupt though it is still operating. PK-36 mailers are no longer valid, pity, since I still have two).
- If that's too much for you, I'd look hard at the Ricoh GR1 (which I have never seen personally but read good things about). It is magnesium-bodied and has an apparently excellent 28mm lens on it. It would be tiny and sharp. Of course, being so ideal, it has apparently been discontinued. The Yashica T4 Super would be another good point'n'shoot. It got discontinued too, but Yashica makes a zoom version now. Either way, I'd still carry spare batteries. (those are both film cameras and the moral equivalent of a small point and shoot digital).
- I'd go to Radio Shack and buy one of their tiny radios. Get one that does AM, FM, TV and Weather bands, tunes digitally and has alarm clock functions. I certainly found the radio to be nice while riding alone. The weather band would be very handy when things look threatening. The radio with speaker allows you to get along with no earbuds. Alternatively, you could do an iPod Nano which has an FM radio band and use one earbud. This is what I do locally when riding around, leaving my traffic-side ear open to hear road noise. Of course, that's yet another battery state to have to fret about.
- I'd put on a kickstand. Many of the bikes in our fleet have Swiss Pletscher/Esge two-legged kickstands and they're darn useful. The purity of a clean bike is somewhat diminished when you have to drop it on the ground every time you park it. Or you lean it against stuff and it slips and dings your frame up some more. The Esge keeps the bike dead upright and is really nice. I'd recommend them to anybody not riding carbon. Note that although wool clothing, Brooks saddles and fenders have all made comebacks, kickstands remain objects of disdain among so-called "serious" cyclists. Just you wait, though, I was ahead of the curve on that other stuff and soon the cool kids will all have $50 kickstands and helmet mirrors!
- I'd put on a sprung saddle, probably a Brooks Conquest or Champion Flyer. My leather Brooks Professional is nice but a bit of suspension wouldn't hurt too much. I eventually got a Champion Flyer for my Marin when Brooks looked to be going out of business the first time. I ride a Countess sprung saddle in the winter (my wife didn't like it) and a B17T, somewhat wider than this Professional, on the Atlantis.
- I'd decide whether or not to camp and pack accordingly. The U.S. phase of the summer of 1980 worked fine because I was committed to camping and so packed tent, bag, pots, pans, flashlight, etc. In Britain, we were half-hearted. We took the tent and bags but no food prep stuff and when camping turned out to be not as widespread as in the US some of the stuff ended up being underused. In Europe I'd look hard at hostels, bed & breakfasts and that sort of thing and save the weight of the tent and bags. I would note, though, that bed & breakfasts in England have changed; through the mid-1980s, they tended to be really cheap and basic, like 8 pounds a night, whereas in recent years they seem to be more charming, fancy and expensive.
Having not done a real tour since this (well the kids and I Rode to Duluth but we stayed in a hotel), you might wonder why I claim to really like touring. Well, it was a really good time. You see the countryside with an intimacy missed completely in a car or even on a motorcycle. When you're out in rural Iowa and you cycle past a house where someone's putting up the laundry or mowing the grass, you wave and they wave back. People talk to you in small towns when you stop at the town square and get a drink from the water fountain. Your route keeps you on minor roads that go from nowhere important to somewhere even more obscure, absolutely a different experience than cruising down yet another anonymous Interstate looking for yet another MacDonald's and listening to yet another classic rock station. The daily long-term average distance of 70 miles is not a fast way to get anywhere, but it is a very pleasant way.
That summer there was a confluence of enough time (having just graduated, jobless, from college) and money (largely borrowed from my Dad and which took a while to pay back) to do this. Once back and working, the limitations of two weeks of vacation closed in and the languid pace of bike touring became less of an option. I later got a motorcycle, which is a decent compromise between bike and car touring, and actually used these bike panniers on it for a trip, and later got married to a mostly non-cycling woman, and then had kids, and the right mix of time and money just hasn't come together again.
|They've Been Tearing Up the Railroad, All the Live Long Day!" A year and a half after my bike trip the east/west tracks through Slater, Iowa, came up. This is the spring of 1982, and Slater is on the route we used to ride from Ames to Des Moines. Their school had closed in 1975. Slater's saving grace is that it is close enough to bigger towns that people will stay. Further out-state, the school closing and the loss of the railroad mark the start of the decline of many small towns. March 1982, unsure of camera, Nikkor 28mm f/3.5, Kodachrome 64
At the risk of sounding like a fogey, it also happened to be a good time to tour. In the intervening years thousands of family farms across the Midwest have gone out of business and so there aren't as many ladies hanging out the wash to wave to nor as many small-town cafes to stop in. Just in Iowa there was a huge loss of railway trackage which isolated many small town grain elevators. In towns like Martelle, through which I rode, there are now pointless highway overpasses which make no sense unless you mentally drop a railway underneath. Power lines run diagonally across farm fields where they used to run next to a now-undetectable railbed. Lose the elevator, consolidate the school, close the combined gas station and car dealership because of leaking underground storage tanks and the next thing you know everyone's driving to the Wal-Mart in Anamosa and the town is drying up and blowing away. There was a certain gentle charm to a more populous rural Iowa, some of which is dissipating in the face of progress.
Britain has evolved, too, from the malaise of the 1970s and early 1980s. Car ownership has gone up 50%, road miles driven have doubled while the miles of roads have hardly changed. The result: bigger cars, busier roads, road rage, supermarkets and a loss of so much that was charming about old Britain, the tea shops and pubs and Saturday markets and The Archers and much of British Rail's local service. The Brits are as yuppified as we are, with their BMWs and cell phones and, while much has been gained, something also has been lost. Even in 1991 I talked to a couple on Bredon Hill who said they rode only mountain bikes because even then the roads were getting so crowded and dangerous.
Unabashed nostalgia? Yes, it is.
I linked earlier to a site of a guy who rode cross-country at the age of 41, about my age when I first wrote this page. He did it in eight weeks. For all the languid pace referred to earlier, 70 miles a day does add up. I remember fondly that summer of 1980 and am grateful that when I had the time I rummaged up the money to do this and that I took enough gear to document it in photographs. I'd urge you to do the same if you take a tour.
Can't get enough of my writing about bikes? You're in luck! I have started a blog called Two Cities Two Wheels that you might enjoy.
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