Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

29 August 2018

If You Want To Escape, Pack Light

The first rule of thumb for cycle touring is:  Feel guilty about carrying anything more than your maps and water bottle.

It's the sort of advice I might have given when I was younger.  But I cannot claim credit for it: The honor belongs to Doug Shidell and Phillip van Valkenberg. Their pearl of wisdom came in a book they co-authored:

Now tell me:  Does that book look like it came out of the early '70's, or what?  Well, it did, a couple of years after Shidell and van Valkenberg met.  The former was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the latter was a recent alumnus.  They were a couple of long-haired guys with "hippie tendencies" and a recently-found passion for cycling.

Doug Shidell and Phillip van Valkenberg.  This photo was published on the inside of the back cover of Bicycle Escape Routes.

They also loved their home state of Wisconsin, and their book is as much a billet doux to the Badger State as it is a guide to cycling in it.  In addition to maps and descriptions of rides, it gave sage advice about how to deal with snarling dogs and whatever else a bicycle tourist might encounter, as well as counsel on how to live in the moment:  "Marsh hawks spend much of their time sitting on fence posts in the fields," they wrote.  "If you see a bird sitting or flying low over the fields, stop near a tree or bush to remain inconspicuous and watch him for a little while."

The book also had a sense of humor about everything, including the squeaky bearings on Shidell's bike:  "We were serenaded by this bicycle's version of 'Song of the Volga Boatman' on every upgrade.  Respite of sorts came later when a spot weld let go on one of Doug's racks, creating a squeak that completely drowned out the original noise."

Since that book was published, van Valkenberg, now 73, has written seven more about cycling in Wisconsin.  He has also been a nearly non-stop advocate for cycling in the state, having worked to bring about the Elroy-Sparta State Trail and organized tours, races other rides.  These days, he and his partner, Georgia Kaftan, ride a tandem recumbent bike.

Shidell is 67 and lives in Minneapolis.  He was the first employee of Quality Bicycle Products, from which he's retired.  He also has written about bicycling and bike advocacy for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and started a website and map-publishing effort called Bikeeverywhere.

Interestingly, he says that his cycling and  bike advocacy were motivated by environmental concerns.  He first heard about global warming in the 1970s, he said, and because the "dangers made sense to me", he thought, "I'll just start riding a bike instead of driving around."

I wonder whether either of them carries anything more than his maps and water bottle--and, if he does, whether he feels guilty about it.


  1. This Mr. Valkenberg person sounds eerily like a sort of alter-ego of mine. I have been (and rather recently as a matter of fact,) accused of having those same tendencies. I also vividly recall reading about global warming, climate change and the stability of the antarctic ice sheet about 1978 or so, and spent the next couple of decades seriously wondering why a lot of people were not seriously worried.

    He and I also share one thing that maybe influenced our lives with regard to bicycles: we were both born the same year as Eddy Merckx and saw his career unfold before our eyes.

    I have gone on longer rides with only maps, water bottle, and a credit card. Should I feel guilty?

  2. Leo--I am trying to purge guilt from my own self, so I will not tell you or anyone to feel any sort of guilt!

    I recall hearing about global warming when I was in college, around the same time you mention. And I, too, wondered why more people--especially those who could make decisions that affect such things--were not more concerned.

    Ah, yes, Eddy. And Bernard. Would that they could race now!

  3. i'm not sure how much global warming or climate change had to do with it, but recent record-breaking torrential rainfall in southwest Wisconsin has severely damaged large stretches of the Elroy-Sparta state trail, rendering much of it unridable for the foreseeable future. The same storms have caused severe flooding along the Kickapoo valley, inundating towns that now have been hit for a second time in about 14 months. i hope that as soon as those towns can recover that the Wisconsin DNR can find the funds and labour to repair that trail, which is important to the economy of that area.

  4. Mike--You describe an issue that few people are discussing. And I'm glad you point out the importance of the trail to the economy of the area: A lot of people might not understand why cycling and hiking trails should be given importance when homes are destroyed.