By June J. Siple
“It’s another perfect landing by the Pinochle Brothers,” is a quip I’ve heard at least annually since starting to date Greg Siple in 1967. What does it mean? I’m not sure, although to Greg’s way of thinking it somehow refers to the two of us. Yes, I’m one of the Pinochle Brothers. His quip coffer holds a ton of oft-used, perennially funny phrases. During the last 25 miles of my second TOSRV, in 1967, one of them put me into such a fit of giggles that I lost control of my Carlton and tumbled into a grassy ditch, weak with laughter. Greg won me over with his sunny outlook on life. I swear he’s half-bike, and he may be one of America’s most influential cyclists.
Just a few years before we met, he was just a shy, skinny youth with glasses who rode a bicycle to Eastmoor High School in Columbus, Ohio. He worried about his future — while other students had goals, he felt stuck.
“Bicycling was just not part of the culture — I was going against the grain,” he recalled. But outside of school, his bicycle-loving father backed every sojourn into the Ohio countryside. Greg enjoyed a short-lived, lackluster career in racing (the only rider smiling in a pack but rarely placing), and he quickly morphed into a bicycle tourist. Having joined a local outdoor club that promoted cycling and other outdoor pursuits, he realized that bike-riding girls were part of the group as well. “It was as if I had discovered a new species!” he said.
He needn’t have worried about his future. Not only has Greg enjoyed a four-decades–long career in bicycling, a few of his escapades have helped promote and shape American bicycle touring, like completing Hemistour, the Alaska-to-Argentina bicycling expedition from 1972 to 1975, and the founding of the Tour of the Scioto River Valley (TOSRV), which he’s ridden more than 30 times.
Greg is one of four cofounders of Bikecentennial ’76, the little acorn nonprofit renamed Adventure Cycling Association in 1993. The other three cofounders quickly fell away, including organizers Dan and Lys Burden after three and a half years, and myself after a mere nine months. But Greg steadfastly remained an employee, and with his retirement at the end of January in 2017, he will have served the organization just short of 40 years.
In 1962, Greg and his father Charles R. Siple started TOSRV, a two-day, 210-mile tour from Columbus to Portsmouth, Ohio, and back. Nicknamed “Mother TOSRV” and reaching 6,000 riders at its peak, it parented nearly all other weekend bicycling events in the U.S., many set up by TOSRV riders who took the idea home. At least eight spin-off events made use of the TOSRV acronym and formula: a mass weekend ride with food stops and big mileages. “This strong influence of TOSRV resulted in lots of other rides,” Greg said. About half the TOSRVs survive to this day, but many other spin-offs remain, the most famous TOSRV child being the Five Borough Bike Tour in New York City. But its formula is completely different — a one-day mass ride for 40 miles. Started in 1977, it boasted over 30,000 riders in 2016.
As a laid-back trip leader for the Columbus Council of American Youth Hostels in Ohio, he lead many groups on local day trips during the late 1960s, and he took National American Youth Hostel’s (NAYH) leadership training course under Bill Nelson in 1967. Greg led four extended bike tours for NAYH between 1968 and 1978.
On the Hemistour expedition, Greg and I were the first to travel the length of the Western Hemisphere from north to south. We traversed 15 countries from Anchorage, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina, and 29 cyclists rode with our group for varying distances between June 16, 1972 and February 25, 1975. Hemistour’s core group of four was comprised of Dan and Lys Burden (8,628 miles to Salina Cruz, Mexico) and Greg and me (18,272 miles to Ushuaia).
On April 3, 1973, during Hemistour in Chocolate, Mexico, Greg announced his idea to get a massive group of cyclists together in 1976 and ride across the U.S. to celebrate the Bicentennial. Upon his return to the U.S. from Argentina in September of 1975, the Burdens had a job waiting for him at the fledgling Bikecentennial organization. Having majored in advertising design at the Columbus College of Art and Design where he had graduated in 1967, Greg eagerly took the reins of publication and design work at Bikecentennial. He’s worked in that capacity since then, except for 1977 to 1979 when he contributed as a contractor with future director Gary MacFadden while the organization struggled to survive.
In 1976, Greg and I cofounded the Missoula Bicycle Club (now Missoulians On Bicycles). He led numerous early trips for the club and edited their newsletter for many years. Greg has been part of the club for four decades as the originator and organizer of the annual Western Montana Hill Climb Championships, a Missoula event that requires every rider to bring a prize to enter, with all prizes distributed at the end without regard to finishing status. The hill climb, a four-mile time trial, has been ridden by bicycle racing royalty, including Tour de France riders Levi Leipheimer and Tejay van Garderen, who participated as youths. “It’s a little corner of the cycling world, a tiny niche. I’ve stuck with it all these years — I’m not just interested in grand things,” Greg noted.
Not that Greg is responsible for all his success — he feels it has been in strong collaboration with others. “I’m like the chainring pushing these ideas, but without the chain, cluster, and derailer, nothing happens.”
PUBLISHED FAR AND WIDE
From writing and photography to illustrations and “Biketoons,” Greg Siple’s credits run the gamut of cycling publications and beyond. Here’s a sampling of where his work has appeared over the years:
America’s Bicycle Route
High Country News
National Geographic World
National L.A.W. Bulletin
The Buckeye Hosteler
The Mighty TOSRV
Trans-America Trail News
Greg has been such a stalwart presence for the stream of visiting cyclists who arrive every year at bicycle touring’s mecca, the Adventure Cycling headquarters in Missoula, that he is virtually the icon of the organization. Like a favorite uncle, he’s at least fondly regarded, if not loved outright, by those whose lives have been touched by the sweet yet toughening reality of bicycling long distance. He photographs them, interviews them, weighs their bikes, encourages, advises, prods for more information about their trips, follows up when their trips are complete, and learns even more about cycling while making daily connections with bicycle tourists from early spring into late fall every year.
Many of those connections are chronicled in the “National Bicycle Touring Portrait Collection,” a project started in 1982, and demanding a unique combination of skills. “An understanding of photography, and use of design elements. A certain passion and excitement about all these people who come in the door is vital. I look at the riders, I look at their bikes, I look for the reason to take the picture — something about the way they look, the story they tell, or something they have with them. It may be where they are from, what they are doing, even what they don’t have. I’m always on the lookout for something interesting. It’s kind of like investigative reporting. I collect model releases and send a follow-up asking them to trace their route, write about how the trip turned out, and I sometimes send a note to encourage certain riders to respond.
“Then I make a story selection for every issue of Adventure Cyclist for the ‘Open Road Gallery,’ the page many readers turn to first. [For this purpose] I only shoot black and white film. It doesn’t break down, doesn’t get hacked, doesn’t go down with the hard drive. It lasts.” Greg also developed a traveling portrait show from the collection of roughly 5,000 photographs he’s amassed.
He is most proud of four things — starting with TOSRV at the top of the list. “I think of TOSRV, Hemistour, the portrait collection at Adventure Cycling, and bicycle commuting as my biggest accomplishments.” His dedication to bicycle commuting dates back to 1957 when he began riding to school, and his decades of commuting have saved thousands of gallons of gasoline, not to mention money. (We did not own a car for 28 years, from 1969 to 1997.) “For 60 years or so, including walking to school from age six until the seventh grade, I’ve never used a car to get to work or school, except for one semester when I was staying on a farm in southern Ohio and driving to Ohio University,” Greg added. However, during the last 40 years at Adventure Cycling, he was delivered to work twice via car — after toe surgery.
But Greg humbly omits one of his bedrock contributions to the organization: designing and laying out Adventure Cyclist and myriad publications starting in 1975. Greg also pointed out, “I bring an institutional memory to the place,” which can lend cohesion to an organization and bring a historical perspective.
Greg’s favorite pursuits include owning bikes, riding bikes, collecting bicycle literature, recalling early bicycling days, reading, and recycling. His son Zane and daughter-in-law Rowela Flynn are just as high on the list, along with his two Siple brothers Bruce and Doug in Ohio, and other family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Small deeds of environmental importance belong on the list, like hoisting items out of neighbors’ trash cans to reuse, or donating such treasures to a local secondhand store, or recycling them. We informally crowned him “Missoula’s Lead Baron, 1976–1986” once he had accumulated more than 300 pounds of lead motor vehicle wheel weights that we picked up off the side of Montana roads. They were then given to a friend to melt down into a sailboat keel. In fact, Greg is such an indefatigable recycler that in the office setting he has become something of a recycling curmudgeon, tolerated by most employees as just one aspect of an otherwise entertaining personality.
Always abike, he dutifully picks up lost wallets, phones, and credit cards to return to strangers. Greg loves his job and his brief daily .8-mile commute to work. Greg has donated 18 gallons of blood. His trademark? A custom-made Chuck Harris rear-view mirror hooked onto his glasses.
He speaks French gibberish so well that a native speaker (a visiting bike tourist) once said, “The accent is right, but it does not mean anything,” according to then-director Gary MacFadden.
Greg is happy to retire at age 71. Plans to travel by bike and otherwise are in the works, plus tooling up to get back in the saddle, as the previous camping equipment purchases were made way back in 1983. At one point more than 30 bikes and bike trailers festooned the garage, all but a few having been purchased used. More than 18 have been sold off, but the numbers are rising again.
Greg will finally have time to put his GoPro camera into action. No doubt photography, fine art, illustration, editorial cartooning, and bike art will be pastimes as well. New T-shirt designs may come forth via a yet-to-be-developed website at juneandgregsiple.com.
Several books, including one about Hemistour, are on the docket, as are hopes to present slideshows and lectures.
According to Greg, “I am not a great designer, illustrator, photographer, or writer, but I can do all four,” which made him a valuable asset in the early days of Bikecentennial and Adventure Cycling. “Sometimes I think of Adventure Cycling as my child,” he waxed poetic. “It’s grown up now, but I’ll still be watching how it does. And I hope I get invited to drop in for a visit now and then.”
June J. Siple is the first woman to bicycle the length of the Western Hemisphere, a cofounder of Bikecentennial, and has been married to Greg Siple for 46 years. She is a contributing writer for Adventure Cyclist. June’s email: email@example.com Greg’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org