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In 1970 four students who in due course I were to become Lys and Dan Burden and June and Greg Siple decided to ride bicycles the length of the Americas. Calling their project Hemistour, they started from Anchorage, Alaska in June 1972. Six months and 6,000 miles later they were rolling toward the village of Chocolate, Mexico when Dan Burden experienced a eureka flash: Wouldn't it be splendid if, as part of America's 200th anniversary festivities, people could pedal across the U.S. on a designated bike trail? That night the tourers discussed the notion and the next morning, while saddling up, June Siple, on whose bike was mounted the group's only odometer, looked at the instrument and saw that it read 1776. "After that I knew there had to be something like Bikecentennial," says Burden.
The vision of Chocolate has become a reality. Working out of a rehabilitated hotel in Missoula, Mont., Burden and 27 enthusiasts have plotted a transcontinental bike trail stretching from Astoria, Ore. to Yorktown, Va. and are completing the necessary logistics to support the 10,000 bikers who are expected to pedal the route this spring and summer. Like many of its anniversary counterparts, Bikecentennial has little connection with 1776, since bikes, macadam roads and Missoula did not exist 200 years ago. But the enterprise promises to be one of the more imaginative and refreshing Bicentennial bashes.
Shortly after leaving Chocolate, Dan Burden was laid low by hepatitis, and he returned with Lys to Missoula, where he had been a student at the University of Montana. (June and Greg Siple continued with Hemistour, reaching Tierra del Fuego after 18,000 miles and 32 months of pedaling.) For a year and a half Bikecentennial was headquartered largely in the apartment and imaginations of the Burdens. During 1974 and early 1975 other believers began to appear. A grant was received from the Bicentennial Commission. The first of 4,000 supporters began to sign up and send in $10 membership fees (to P.O. Box 1034, Dept. T.A., Missoula, Mont. 59801). Datsun and Raleigh, the bicycle manufacturer, contributed money and services to get the project started. "It was odd to find that foreign businessmen were much more interested than American ones in promoting bike touring in this country," Burden says.
Public transportation and land use agencies became involved in the scheme, most notably the U.S. Forest Service, which has adopted Bikecentennial as a Bicentennial project. The transcontinental bike trail passes through 25 national forests. In every one the service will provide "non-motorized" camping facilities, available at 50� per person per day, for the bikers.
Putting together a good bike trail was the crucial aspect of the project, and it was mapped largely by a process of elimination. "Desert had to be avoided," Burden says. "Because of the sun, heat and lack of water, it is intolerable to bike through. In the West we knew the trail had to run as far north as Oregon to avoid riding through a lot of desert. Long stretches of very similar country, say 1,000 miles of cornfield, are boring and discouraging when you are riding a bike, so we had to stay clear of too much prairie and plains country. Finally we wanted to keep away from urban areas and heavy traffic."
With this in mind the Bikecentennial planners roughed out a suitable corridor. It leads across Oregon, over the Cascades and through Idaho to Missoula, then jogs south, passing Yellowstone Park. In Colorado it turns east again, crossing Kansas, skirting the Ozarks in Missouri, dipping through southern Illinois and Kentucky before penetrating the Appalachians (the most difficult section) and then descending into the Virginia tidewater.
Once the general route was agreed on, experienced cyclists, bike clubs and local highway departments were contacted and asked if they would recommend specific rural roads that could be designated and marked as links in the great bike trail. Californians Jim Richardson and Linda Thorpe, who had been drawn to biking and eventually the Bikecentennial through weight watching, volunteered to ride the entire trail on a tandem to test the route. That done, the trail was fixed. It extends for 4,250 miles, of which about 100 miles is gravel. At a moderate pace (50 to 75 miles a day) and allowing for eight rest days, it should take a cyclist 82 days to cross the country.
Besides establishing the trail, the Bikecentennial staff has made a variety of arrangements to aid cyclists. Scattered along the route, never more than a day's pump apart, will be campgrounds and Bike Inns. The Bike Inns are not plush: high school gymnasiums, community centers, college dormitories and firehalls offering a roof, a bed, but no bedding, and a shower. In addition, residents along the trail are being hired by Bikecentennial as liaison personnel. They will be ready to assist cyclists who may have troubles or questions.
Bikecentennial offers a variety of plans. Full service is provided only in two areas and costs $17.50 per day. It is for bikers who desire Bikecentennial to pick up their luggage each morning and deposit it at the next Bike Inn. The standard Bike Inn plan ($965 for 82 days) includes lodging, three meals a day, accident insurance up to $500,000, a guidebook and the services of leaders and liaison people. The camping tour ($685 cross-country) calls for sleeping outside but all other services are included. Cyclists also may sign up as independents and proceed without a leader or group and with only minimum support services. The fee is $75—the biker gets a guide book, insurance and an identification card entitling him to use Bikecentennial facilities on a pay-as-you-go, first-come first-serve basis. Under any of these plans, cyclists may ride the entire route or, at a lesser fee, any combination of the five trail sections—Coast Cascade, Colorado Rockies and Great Plains, Ozarks, Blue Grass and Appalachian Piedmont. Groups may only be joined and left at the beginnings and ends of sections.
"We have had letters from experienced bike tourers who say they can make the trip across the continent for $400 or less," Burden says. "Maybe they can. We hope they can. That is why we are encouraging people to sign up as independents. But we think that a lot of people will be doing their first extensive touring as part of Bikecentennial. They are going to be exerting more energy than they are accustomed to and will need nutritious meals, a comfortable place to sleep and some support from leaders. We just haven't been able to find a way to do it for less than $10 a day."