Missoula, Mont. — The bicycle tourist -- vigorously peddling his two- wheeler loaded down with brightly colored panniers and packs -- is becoming an increasingly common sight on the highways and byways of America.
From the narrow, winding roads in the Rockies, where the bicyclist is dwarfed by the monumental scale of nature, to the more human-sized scenery of the East, more and more people are bicycling cross-country for their vacations.
One of the prime movers behind the growth of this novel recreation is a small , nonprofit organization here called Bikecentennial -- the brainstorm of two couples who were bike-touring enthusiasts before the "bicycle boom" of the early 1970s.
Greg and June Siple were on a two-year bicycle tour from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego with Dan and Lys Burden in 1972. While camping in a small village in Mexico, they began talking about ways to help other people experience the joys of bicycle touring which they had come to love.
Though the Burdens had to leave the tour early, in 1973, the Siples continued to the southern tip of South America. When the Siples returned to Missoula, they began planning for a United States bicentennial celebration for bicycle tourers. Thus was born Bikecentennial -- an organization which, it now appears, will outlive the implications of its name.
"My original idea was to announce a rendezvous in Golden Gate Park on a certain date, have thousands of people show up, and set out across the country like a swarm of locusts without any planning or organization," says Greg Siple, a slight young man whose free spirit and ready sense of whimsy lurk just below a serious surface.
But as 1976 approached, the people involved saw the need for greater preparation and planning. They realized that adequate road maps were not available. They decided that a large number of small groups were preferable to one large mob of cyclists.
As a result, the two couples, plus a staff that grew to 40, threw themselves into an orgy of preparation.
"People worked day and night with very little compensation," Mr. Siple recalls. "We even had an eating group. Each night a different couple would prepare dinner for everyone. After eating, it was back to work," he says.
The biggest job was preparing a transcontinental route, which they called the TransAmerica Bike Trail.
"A bicycle touring route is always a compromise," explains Stuart Crook, a tool and die maker who has become Bikecentennial's routing expert.
In preparing the route, the Bikecentennial people tried to balance scenery, safety, and services.
The TransAmerica route that they came up with begins in Astoria, Ore., and loops through Missoula and down through Yellow- stone and Grand Teton national parks. From there it veers southward through Wyoming and Colorado, threading the Rocky Mountains. In southern Colorado, the route turns eastward again, crossing Kansas (the state whose residents are said to be friendliest to bicycle tourers), Missouri, the southern tip of Illinois, and Kentucky, terminating in Yorktown, Va.
It takes most groups about 90 days to pedal this route, says Mr. Crook. Hard-driving cyclists can cover it in 60 to 70 days.
"With modern transportation we have made the world smaller and smaller until there's nothing left to see. With the bicycle, we are trying to make the world bigger again. There are more roads in the world than one cyclist can ever see," explains Mr. Siple.
In 1976, some 4,000 people cycled part or all of the TransAmerica route. The following year, however, the number of riders dropped off substantially. "We didn't realize how much the Bicentennial had energized people," says Mr. Siple. As a result, the organization had to drastically cut back its operations.
But cross-country bicycling has been growing steadily since 1977. Today Bikecentennial has over 10,000 members. And since January inquiries have been running at about 1,000 per month, almost a four-fold increase from last year, reports David Prouty, the executive director.
This summer somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 people are riding the TransAmerica trail, he estimates. The number of cyclists taking other routes is "way up" as well, he believes, although it is difficult to put in figures.
For each route, Bikecentennial prepares a series of road and terrain maps. A directory lists food, lodging, bike shops, and telephone numbers bikers can call if the run into emergencies along the way.
"This year we have a total of 225 participants on our organized tours," says Mr. Crook. Each tour is limited to 10 cyclists. The basic cost is $12.00 to $ 12.50 per day.
Unlike "full service" bicycle tours, Bikecentennial combines camping with touring and does not have a "sag wagon" to pick up tired or lagging cyclists.
"In this way, you get the full freedom of cycle touring," says Mr. Crook, who believes this freedom to be unequaled, even by backpacking, in which food becomes such a major consideration.
Besides the attraction of a truly nomadic life style, bicycle tourers also cite the interesting people they meet as one of the alluring aspects of cycling cross-country.
Mr. Crook tells of one experience which exemplifies this. While cycling through the Appalachians in 1976 he and his companions stopped in front of a house. An elderly man was sitting on the front porch. They began talking and the man offered them a drink of water.
Although blind, the man on the porch had a guitar and played it well. By noon, two other groups of cyclists had stopped, attracted by the bicycles and the music.
"Two of the cyclists had guitars, and I had a harmonica. There were 25 to 30 of us, literally from all over the world, singing and playing together. It was a magical afternoon," recalls Mr. Crook.