Odd memories from a 1984 bicycle tour; Day 1 to Charles City, VA.

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After dipping our tires

My friend Bruce unearthed this old photo of us walking across the sand at Virginia Beach after dipping our rear tires in the Atlantic Ocean to start our cross-country bicycle tour in 1984.

After our ceremony, we climbed in a car with our girlfriends and drove to Yorktown, Va., where we actually started our 11-week tour.

It seems odd to start a bicycle tour with a ceremonial tire-dipping, then jump in a car and drive to a location to start, but that’s what we did.

No cellphones

As I think back to that TransAmerica bicycle tour that started 28 years ago today, I’m reminded of other stuff that seems odd, when compared to bicycle touring today.

– We carried no cellphones; hadn’t been invented yet. Ditto with laptop and notebook computers. The only way to stay in touch was with a small bag of quarters and a vigilant look out for pay phones at gas stations and roadside cafes. We also sent postcards, via snail mail.

– Our bikes weren’t equipped with bike computers. Although digital devices might have been available then, the only device I was aware of at the time was a counter that attached to the front hub. Obviously there was no GPS. This all made way-finding a little difficult, even with a set of Bikecentennial maps.

– The closest thing we had for energy bars were Fig Newtons. Also ate lots of Mother’s brand cookies. PowerBar had just been developed in 1983. Energy gels were a good decade down the road. Gatorade — lemon-lime flavored — was widely available, but I don’t remember drinking it. We partook mainly of water and orange juice, with the occasional Pepsi or coffee for a pick-me-up and beer in the evening where it was available.

No lycra

– Didn’t have an ounce of lycra. We did have bicycle shorts with chamois, but they didn’t stretch and they had pockets. Same with our tops — T-shirts and sweatshirts only. I know I used some man-made fabrics, as I remember a pair of socks melting in a dryer.

– Although we thought we had trained for our bike tour, the day we left was the first time we’d headed down the road with all our gear. We covered 274 miles in our first 7 days, and 453 miles in our last 7 days. Our first week included a rest day in Charlottesville where we went to the post office and sent a bunch of stuff home.

– We carried small point-and-click cameras. Digital cameras weren’t available, though, so we shot Kodachrome and Ektachrome slides. We didn’t see the results until we returned home and had the film processed. As you can see from the image above, the colors already are washing out.


We did carry spiral notebooks on the trip and wrote down a lot of what we observed and experienced on our trip. I turned that into a TransAmerica Journal that I reprint at BikingBis.com every year.

That’s terribly redundant to those of you who have read it before, but there always seems to be new readers who enjoy the stories. Also, I enjoy reliving them as well. At risk of boring everyone to death, I’ll begin posting them today. Here’s the first:

Dude — Where’s my campground?

Sunday, May 13, 1984
Yorktown to Charles City, Va.
40 miles

View 1984 Bicycle Tour in a larger map

See the story index at TransAmerica Tour 1984.

Gene’s journal

Our first day on the TransAmerica bicycle route started with butterflies in our stomachs, a flurry of goodbyes, and a frantic search for a campground that no longer existed.

My bicycling buddy Bruce and I unpacked the car at the Yorktown Victory Monument, a park that commemorated the surrender of Gen. Cornwallis at the end of the Revolutionary War. You could say it marked the end of the road for the British, and the beginning for us. (more)


We kissed our significant others — Marie and Becky — goodbye and, having checked the Bikecenntial map one last time, headed out.

It was an inauspicious start. Two minutes later I had us lost at the first turn onto the Colonial Parkway. The route map that I carried on my handlebar pack had written directions for “eastbound” and “westbound.” I, of course, couldn’t make sense of the directional arrows on the map and got us turned around. I decided to sort out the whole map thing later, and simply followed the road signs to Colonial Williamsburg, the next town.

The Colonial Parkway runs between the historic York and James rivers. No trucks. No billboards. Essentially flat. I spent the next few miles trying to get comfortable on my bicycle.

Hard to believe, but I’d only made one training ride with all the gear. Loaded, it handled sluggishly. With front panniers — low-riders — the steering was heavy and the bike wanted to lean. With full rear panniers and a pup tent on the rack, it wanted to sway. I had converted my circa 1977 Fuji “Dynamic 10″ into a 15-speed touring bicycle by adding a triple crankset.

We stopped in Williamsburg and consulted the camping guide that accompanied the Bikecentennial maps. Campsites in Charles City. Let’s make the first day an easy 35 miles or so.

Later we stopped in a little wood-frame country store. It was getting late. We asked the cashier, “How far to Charles City?”

“This is Charles City. Charles City County,” she said, displaying a gap-toothed grin.

“But where’s Charles City?”

“The whole place is Charles City,” she offered.

We never did find Charles City City. We pedaled until 6 and still couldn’t find the campground where we had expected to tent that first night. Finally, we stopped at another grocery store and asked about the campground. The cashier said it was right behind the store, but it had been closed for three years. The store owner lived next door, though. He was preparing to take his wife out for Mother’s Day dinner and told us through a crack in the door that we could sleep down the hill from the store for free. He left the men’s room in back of the store open for us all night.

We took everything — everything — out of our panniers. Anything we needed was packed below what we didn’t need. At this point, we felt like very inexperienced, yet very lucky, bike campers.

Bruce and I were in good spirits that night. If the way we overcame our problems today was any indication of how we’d survive the rest of the trip, we had an interesting road ahead of us.

Headline: May 13, 1984
Soviet officials in Moscow tell Olympic officials that they’re adamant
about not sending athletes to the Summer Games
in Los Angeles (our eventual destination).

Bruce’s Journal

A tremendous day to leave. By the time we climbed on our bikes at Yorktown, the sun had broken through and the clouds had scattered. Our shakedown course through colonial Williamsburg and along the James and other rivers went off without a hitch. Although I knew it would be difficult saying goodbye to Marie, both she and I, surprisingly, handled it well.

Our first difficulty came at the end of the day. It was getting late and we were riding past the courthouse at Charles City. A woman clerk at a country store six miles before had warned us, “If you blink you’ll miss it.”

We took note, however, because if we were at the courthouse, then we had passed our campsite, supposedly a mile back. Backtracking on a bike is bad enough, but when we got to where we were supposed to be, there was no campground. We tried to call the number from a pay phone at a country store and Bis lost his quarter. Finally, we asked the fellow whose house was behind the country store about the campground, and he informed us that it hadn’t been open for three years.

We explained our situation and he let us stay in his back yard, which, we learned later, was where the old campground had been. His father had started it with 50 sites, and according to his son, “It was a pretty good rig.” But the old man had died and it would have cost too much to maintain it and to “put in recreations and a swimming pool.” So the son closed it up. He couldn’t run a campground and the store, too, he said.

The next morning, he explained that in eight more years his family would have run that store for 100 years. I mentioned that his young son, who gave us the key to the bathroom the night before, could easily make it 150. The man said, “Nah, he’ll never stay around here.”

I bought a package of blueberry Pop Tarts, thanked him again, and we got on the road.

Day 2: Cross-country bike tour’s first roadside attraction — Shirley Plantation

About the picture: Bruce, right, and me at the Yorktown Memorial

Permanent link to this article: http://www.bikingbis.com/2012/05/13/odd-memories-from-a-1984-bicycle-tour/

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