• U.S.

Sport: The Freewheelers

4 minute read

As every look-ma-no-hands schoolboy cyclist knows, the shortest distance between two points should never be a straight line. Take the 3,000 miles across the country, and this week 2,000 bikers are doing exactly that. Instead of pumping along in the breakdown lane of some Cartesian interstate, they are savoring a cyclist’s delight, a 4,250-mile route that meanders through two U.S. parks (Yellowstone and Grand Teton), five major historic sites, 25 national forests and just about every one-air-pump hamlet from Astoria, Ore., to Williamsburg, Va.

This orgy of organized peripatetic pedaling is Bikecentennial ’76, the dream fulfilled of a young Missoula, Mont., couple, Dan and Lys Burden. Four years ago, they set out to make it possible, in this special summer, for all Americans to have the opportunity to see the U.S.A. without a Chevrolet.

Back Roads. Financed by $10 membership fees from eager bikers and a grant from the Bicentennial Administration, and aided by an army of volunteers, the Burdens charted a relatively picturesque, somewhat historic, largely traffic-free, and not overly demanding route. Since crossing deserts is hazardous, the western end of the trail was kept wen to the north. The North Central plains tend toward macadam monotony, so the route drops south to skirt the Ozarks. To avoid urban sprawl, Bike-centennial is a Baedeker of back roads.

The route has been marked with special signs, and at intervals no more than a day’s journey (roughly 50 miles) apart, there are specially reserved campgrounds and bike inns. The bike inns are usually borrowed churches, college dormitories and school gymnasiums, where inexpensive meals, a bed and shower can be had, but a few are splendidly exotic. Two favorites: a gristmill in Kentucky and a marble-adorned Victorian-era hotel in Sinclair, Wyo.

Two-thirds of Bikecentennial’s tourists are traveling in prearranged groups often led by an experienced biker who has had a week of special training. Even for those who choose to cruise Bikecentennial’s route in solitude, reservations, insurance, physical examinations and advance deposits are required. Bikecentennial prices for those who go coast-to-coast: from $75 if you are alone, buy your own food and sleep under the star-spangled skies to $965 for coast-to-coast groupies who want prepaid meals and real beds at night. Reports from the trail put the average total cost per day at about $10.

Despite the elaborate logistics, the road through ’76 is not all downhill. A couple of campers in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia awoke one morning to find a bike had been stolen; they found it a few hundred feet away under a bush, badly mauled by a bear that had wanted the food in the saddlebag. A party of cyclists in southern Wyoming hit a late spring snowstorm and had to be rescued. Contaminated water made bikers sick at three campgrounds in Idaho.

The daily grind itself can be grueling: over snow-covered Rocky Mountain passes, through dusty Kansas cornfields and up testing Appalachian ascents. Yet only 5% of the 4,300 people who have hit the trail since it opened May 14 have dropped out before finishing at least one of the designated 900-mile segments. Last week the first groups of cyclists going coast-to-coast passed each other at Pueblo, Colo.

Not only are the cyclists enjoying America, but America is enjoying the cyclists. Refreshment stands, invitations to eat and conversation stops abound. Hereford, Ore., has held town-sponsored suppers for the bikers and renovated an old hotel for them. In Prairie City, Ore., a young Dutch cyclist who speaks little English stopped at the general store and asked to buy a copy of the state seal as a souvenir. The storekeeper tried to explain that he had no such thing. The biker left, but was found an hour later by the local sheriff, who presented the visitor with his sheriffs badge—emblazoned with the state seal.

What manner of masochist bicycles 50 miles a day in the name of patriotism? Though a few Bikecentennialists have million-mile legs, many are Sunday-driver types on their first overnight trip. Lightweight ten-speed dérailleurs are de rigueur under the derriere for most, but for some, anything goes that goes. A middle-aged Australian woman is making the entire transcontinental trek on an old one-speed coaster bike. An 86-year-old, Clarence Pickard, made most of the 1,500 miles from Williamsburg to Columbia, Mo., on a five-speed bike.

Time to See. After a few days of cycle therapy, even the neophytes start rhapsodizing like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “It’s a separate world all our own,” says Lee Gilbert, 18, of Fairfield, Pa., after covering 1,000 miles. “Nothing that happened before counts, and nobody is thinking about afterward. We just roll across the country enjoying each day.” Sums up Louise Elser, 22, of Annapolis, Md., standing beside her bike in Newton, Kans.: “You have time to see, time to enjoy.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com