A Brief History of the Greg Siple Award for Young Adult Bicycle Travel

May 21st, 2019

Adventure Cycling began essentially as a youth movement, when the four young cofounders of the organization decided to celebrate America’s 200th birthday in 1976 by organizing a bicycle ride across the country. They called it Bikecentennial.

Around 4,000 people answered the call to ride from Yorktown, Virginia, to Astoria, Oregon — or vice versa — during that foundational summer. When you look at the thousands of photos taken in 1976, youth is a unifying theme. Which is not to say older people didn’t take part as well; a few were well into their seventh or even eighth decade.

But young people were smitten by the notion of riding across America in 1976, and they showed up in droves. Many of them continued to ride for the rest of their lives. Now they’re in their 60s, and some of them are still members of Adventure Cycling.

They have lots of company, as 60 is close to the average age of an Adventure Cycling member, according to Eva Dunn-Froebig, the organization’s Events and Outreach Coordinator.

Dunn-Froebig was originally hired to put on Adventure Cycling’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2016, but she quickly inherited reponsibility for what is now known as the Greg Siple Award for Young Adult Bicycle Travel.

When it was first established six years ago, the award was simply called the Young Adult Bicycle Travel Award. The idea for the award came from Adventure Cycling members.

“The reason they came up with the idea for the program is that they see there’s a lot of people their age traveling by bike, and they want to see younger people,” Dunn-Froebig said.

It’s a great idea and an important one for the future of the organization and bicycle travel in general. The namesake of the award, Greg Siple, was one of the cofounders of Adventure Cycling. He was the longtime art director of this magazine before retiring in 2017 with 41 years of service behind him.

The idea to name the award after Greg came from the staff after he retired.

“A few of us thought this was great timing to name it after Greg,” Dunn-Froebig said. “He started when he was young and inspired so many people.”

Indeed he did.

I worked with Greg for more than 20 years, from 1982 until I left my position as editor of Adventure Cyclist in 2003, and I am certain there is no one better suited to have his name on an award designed to inspire young people to travel by bike than Greg.

That’s because Adventure Cycling was not a job for Greg; it was his life. And so it’s only fitting that if the organization he cofounded is going to have an award meant to encourage young people to travel by bicycle, it should be named after him.

The Greg Siple Award comes in two iterations: Intro to Road Touring and Outdoor Leadership. Dunn-Froebig explained that wasn’t the case when the award was first put in place, which was before her time.

“It changed before I started working on this program,” Dunn-Froebig said. “What they found was there can be a pretty wide range of experience. We don’t want to just give the award to people with more experience.”

The Intro to Road Touring award, named after a course Adventure Cycling offers for people new to bicycle travel, is for those applicants with less experience.

“Those winners get to take the course,” Dunn-Froebig said. “They often don’t have as much experience traveling by bike, maybe have been on an overnight or one longer trip, but they are excited and passionate about learning more.”

The winners of the Intro to Road Touring award also get a brand new touring bike, along with panniers and camping equipment, most of which is donated by industry supporters.

For people with lots of bicycle travel experience who want to take on a leadership role, there’s the Outdoor Leadership award. Winners of this award get to take a Leadership Training Course with Adventure Cycling, along with a $100 gift certificate for the Cyclosource catalog and a paid self-contained bicycle tour with Adventure Cycling.

“We pay for their travel to get to and from the leadership training course, including their bike,” Dunn-Froebig said.

The award doesn’t include the cost of traveling to the trailhead for the self-contained Adventure Cycling trip that comes after the leadership training course, but it does cover the cost of the tour itself.

All of the winners also have to perform some sort of outreach program to bring more young adults into the world of bicycle travel.

Dunn-Froebig said Adventure Cycling gets between 100 to 150 applications each year for the four spots — two in each of the categories of Intro to Road Touring and Outdoor Leadership.

“It’s pretty competitive,” she said.

Last year, Dunn-Froebig added a new element to the application process. After narrowing the field down to 10 in each of the two categories, the finalists are asked to submit a two-minute video explaining what bicycle travel means to them and talking about their outreach projects.

“It gives them a chance to get into more detail and allows us to see their communication style,” Dunn-Froebig said. “Some are great writers, and others are better at speaking in public. These folks become ambassadors for Adventure Cycling. We want to see how they do.”

A selection committee made up of a few staff members, including Dunn-Froebig, a board member, and at least one tour leader, picks the winners. Dunn-Froebig said a passion for bike travel is a big determining factor, along with the outreach project, but video production skills are not factored in.

“Not everybody has those skills,” she said.

Scores from 1 to 10 are given on five or six different categories, the scores are added up, and the selection committee discusses the finalists in a conference call.

“We’ve been pretty lucky to come to a consensus pretty quickly,” Dunn-Froebig said. “Not everyone always agrees, but we’ve always had a really good pool of applicants.”

Once the winners are picked, Dunn-Froebig makes the much-anticipated calls to those lucky four applicants. Mohamed Ukach, who was still in Central High School in Omaha, Nebraska, at the time, remembers getting the call in the middle of class.

“The teacher said to go outside, I was too excited,” Ukach said. “I was so excited.”

Ukach was one of two winners in 2018 in the Intro to Road Touring category. Now 19 years old, Ukach was born in Kenya and came to the U.S. in 2004 with his grandmother. Both his mother and father died when he was still an infant.

“We landed in Fort Wayne, Indiana,” Ukach said of coming to America. “In 2006 we moved to Omaha until 2007, then moved to Ohio until 2008. In 2009 we came back to Omaha. That’s when the cycling started. I was nine years old when I started cycling.”

Ukach said he was walking around his neighborhood in Omaha, wondering what to do to stay out of trouble. That’s when he discovered Community Bike Project Omaha, a neighborhood-based program “working to improve access to bicycles for everyone,” according to the organization’s website.

The Bike Project proved to be a godsend for Ukach, who quickly picked up mechanical skills as well as experiencing bike camping and sleeping outside for the first time in his life.

“I had no clue how to camp,” Ukach said. “I didn’t even know what gear I needed.”

Last summer, Ukach took his Intro to Road Touring course and did a 200-mile ride on the Oregon Coast on his new REI touring bike, using his new panniers and camping gear, compliments of the Greg Siple Award.

“It was my first time being in Oregon, my first time seeing the ocean and the beach,” he said.

Ukach is currently working for Trek Bicycle Co., assembling bikes.

“My plan is to save a lot of money, and then I’ll see what’s next,” he said. “Maybe go on a big tour, maybe open up a shop.”

The other 2018 winner of the Intro to Bike Touring award was Ankur Kumar, who was a full-time student studying industrial engineering at West Virginia University. Kumar, 23, graduated in May 2018, two months after finding out he had won the Greg Siple Award. 

Kumar said he had never ridden his bike more than 30 miles before he decided in the summer of 2017 to round up five or six friends and ride the C&O Canal from Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington, DC.

“I liked my bike, but I was by no means a touring cyclist,” he said. “I’m a backpacker. I liked camping and I was definitely outdoorsy, but I didn’t know this was an option. Who knew you could load up your bike?”

The trip was a revelation.

“If it rains on the C&O, you’re in for a mud bath,” Kumar said. “The whole way it rained so much. My favorite memory was trying to cross a bridge and falling into the canal, bike and all. That was my start. I jumped into it headfirst, and I just fell in love with it.”

In the fall of 2017, Kumar began researching this “lovely new thing” he had found and came across an “awesome organization” called Adventure Cycling dedicated to teaching people about bicycle touring.

“I went through each and every link on the website, reading every page,” Kumar remembered. “One link was the Greg Siple Award page. I thought, ‘This could be really cool. If I did this, I could do a big tour.’ That’s what I was gearing up for. How do I do a big tour?”

When Kumar got the call from Dunn-Froebig, he remembers screaming on the phone and feeling a little embarrassed about it.

“I flipped out,” he said.

Kumar took the Intro to Road Touring course in the fall of 2018 in Vancouver, Washington, then rode the entire West Coast to San Diego.

“It was great,” he said. “I work as a freelance web developer. I found a way to do this whole bike touring thing and operate a business at the same time.”

The 2018 winners of the Leadership Training awards are two women: Rachel Horn, 29, of Los Angeles; and Thea Garrett, 32, of Eugene, Oregon.

“It’s one of the proudest moments in my life,” Horn said of winning the Greg Siple Award, “because in a world where paying the bills means doing something you don’t love most of the time, it was a beacon of hope for being recognized for something I love to do.”

Horn did a solo bike tour from Los Angeles to Mexico City in the spring of 2017, planning the trip for a year and pushing ahead to take it even though her tour partner backed out.

“The dread of riding alone was semi-paralyzing, but after speaking with several women who had done similar solo trips, I conquered my anxieties and rolled through one of the best adventures to date,” Horn wrote on her application.

Ironically, Horn almost did become paralyzed just two months before she was supposed to take her Adventure Cycling Leadership Training Course last June, suffering a mountain bike crash that broke her neck. Horn was in a hard collar for six weeks and couldn’t ride for a year, which ends this June, when she’s scheduled to take the training course she couldn’t take last year.

“I’m really lucky,” Horn said. “I could have been a quadraplegic. For some miraculous reason I’m making a full recovery.”

Horn’s dream is to help Adventure Cycling expand both its route network and the diversity of its membership. For now, she’s looking forward to her Leadership Training Course coming up in Centennial, Colorado.

“Heck yeah, I’m going to learn something for sure,” she said. “I’m going to learn a lot of things.”

Thea Garrett was in Yellowstone National Park when I talked to her toward the end of March. She works seasonally for the National Park Service as a ranger naturalist and educator, including in Acadia in Maine, Canyonlands in Utah, and Glacier Bay in Alaska.

Everywhere she has gone, including the remote Arctic community of Kotzebue, Alaska, bikes have been part of her life. In Kotzebue, Garrett taught bike safety to the kids there, as well as bicycle maintenance, taking them on community rides that incorporated science and history curriculum.

Garrett told me in March that she accepted a job back in Kotzebue and would likely be headed back there soon, although she was also offered her old Glacier Bay job again too.

“I’m trying to figure out which makes the most sense,” she said.

Garrett was scheduled to take her Leadership Training Course in Indiana at the end of May, and then would figure out how to “get folks engaged in bicycles.” High on her list is getting people more active on their bikes in the national parks.

“I’ve had a lot of really great opportunities and experiences on my bike,” Garrett said. “Bikes are so exciting. Almost anyone can ride a bicycle. They’re really unifying in that way.”

The 2020 applications will open on November 1, 2019. To apply, go here.  

Living the Siple Life

Greg lived the life of bicycle travel from his head to his toes. His father, also a cyclist, was his first inspiration. Greg would often talk about the European bicycle magazines his dad subscribed to in the 1960s, when bikes were on nobody’s radar in the U.S.

Those magazines were, of course, racing periodicals, and Greg did try his hand at bicycle racing, quickly discovering he did not have a particular talent for it. But Greg also became aware of the English penchant for touring that country’s idyllic countryside, and he and his dad began to do the same in Ohio. Eventually they established the Tour of the Scioto River Valley (TOSRV) together  — a touchstone of Greg’s life that continues to this day.

This year marks the 58th annual TOSRV, making it 15 years older than Bikecentennial, the ride that marked the beginning of the Adventure Cycling.

Those four young cofounders of Adventure Cycling? Greg was one of them, together with his wife June and their good friends Dan and Lys Burden. The four of them met through the American Youth Hostels program in Ohio, which was organizing bicycle trips long before Adventure Cycling was even an idea.

Speaking of that idea, it came to the Siples and Burdens during their audacious bicycle trip from Alaska to Argentina, which they dubbed Hemistour. They were in Mexico when they dreamed up Bikecentennial around a campfire and immediately began working on it, despite being in the middle of an epic bicycle tour themselves.

The rest is history. And ultimately Greg spent his entire working life in Missoula, Montana, where Adventure Cycling is based, inspiring young and old people to travel by bicycle with his drawings and photography, and his own life example. Dunn-Froebig said he still comes into the Adventure Cycling office regularly, despite being retired.

“We see him at least once a month,” she said.

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