Bikecentennial Transformed Career and Life Path of Bob Norbie, Director and CEO of Special Olympics Montana

December 14, 2015

Bob Norbie enjoys a banana split. Bob says he spent $600 on ice cream during the summer of 1976.

How old were you when you did Bikecentennial?
I was actually 24 when I participated in the development of a pilot Leadership Training program at the Glen Helen Outdoor Education Center at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH, during Thanksgiving of 1975. I was also one of the Bikecentennial leader trainers on the west coast at the Camp Meriwether Boy Scout Camp in Tillamook, Oregon in early summer before leading TAWK612, which left Reedsport, OR — nearly two weeks before my 25th birthday.

What inspired you to be a trip leader for Bikecentennial?
It wasn’t “what” inspired me. It was “who” inspired me. The “who” in my life was one of my college professors at Southwest Minnesota State University, Jean Replinger. Jean had a long and rich history with Minnesota Outward Bound and American Youth Hostel. She was a mentor and a teacher of Greg and June Siple and Dan and Lys Burden when they were all in Ohio in the early 1960s. She was very close to them and was a catalyst, I believe, to consider their dream of doing an adventure cycling trip from Alaska to the tip of South America. In fact, Jean still has in her kitchen a big framed picture of them on their Hemistour trip pushing bikes through a stretch of muddy road construction on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway in British Columbia. 

Jean Replinger in her kitchen, in front of a photo of the Burdens and Siples during their Hemistour trip.

As Jean’s student, she inspired me much the same way she inspired Dan and Lys, and Greg and June. Interested in outdoor adventure, I went bicycling in northern Europe for a summer after I graduated from college. Upon my return, I went to work for American Hoist and Derrick, a manufacturer of cranes, in Minnesota. Jean knew I was a bit restless with my work at American Hoist and Derrick and called me one day to say she had just talked to Dan Burden, and that they were looking for people to train bike trip leaders for “Bikecentennial.” I wasn’t enamored with my job at American Hoist and Derrick and jumped at the chance to be part of Bikecentennial.

In preparation for Bikecentennial trips, I was invited to attend the pilot Leadership Training Course during Thanksgiving 1975 in Yellow Springs, Ohio. As I recall, Tim Leifer facilitated that training. Our objective was to test drive and refine a leadership training program that would be formally adopted the spring of 1976 with hundreds of other trip leader candidates.  

This pilot leadership training course was spirited and playful. How could it not be with Tim Leifer’s dry sense of humor? I’ll remember Tim introducing us to a rendition of “Father Abraham.” For our Thanksgiving meal, we shaped and baked about five pounds of hamburger into a turkey. In spite of it being undercooked, we were quite proud of ourselves. 

To learn more about group dynamics, we did a number of initiatives. One such initiative was setting up a tent blindfolded. Of course, there were training sessions specific to managing group travel, safety, and creative bike maintenance. All this was culminated with a road trip on the backroads of Ohio. As we explored strategies and techniques that would help us assess and produce capable, qualified bike trip leaders, we learned a lot about ourselves and each other.

In the spring of 1976, I took the train from Minneapolis to Missoula to work in the Bikecentennial office. While no pay was involved, Dan said they could provide room and board. I remember arriving late at night with my vintage ten-speed Raleigh Grand Prix and panniers. From the train depot, I went looking for the office a few blocks away on Higgins Avenue. I hauled my bicycle up a long flight of stairs at 11 p.m. and Bonnie Leifer was there doing a mass mailing. I asked if she needed any help. With bulk mailing containers and envelopes scattered across a table she probably thought I was stating the obvious, but said “yes.” Into the wee hours of the morning, we folded, stuffed, and licked envelopes. That was my indoctrination to Bikecentennial headquarters.The energy of the organization, regardless of the hour of the day, was palpable: dynamic, forward thinking, and unstoppable. 

Dan and Lys hosted my stay for the first couple of nights and then Leadership Training Coordinators Bonnie and Tim Leifer opened their home to me for several weeks. Many of us, in fact, were their guests. With sleeping bags scattered around their home, these free spirits assumed chores to maintain a livable space … and remain in good grace with Bonnie and Tim. Among those fond memories were the numerous crockpot meals we prepared. I lived that communal lifestyle for about 30 days before heading to the Oregon coast to serve as an instructor trainer for our leadership training courses. 

What sticks out in your mind when you reflect back on the trip?
Fifteen complete strangers coming together to undertake a major expedition from coast to coast is no easy task but, in hindsight, worth every bump in the road, so to speak. There were some trying moments for our self-sufficient group pedaling across the country. People got on each other’s nerves occasionally, but we made it through intact. My TransAmerica group, TAWK612, was co-led by Joke Van Zee and ranged from 16 to 39 years old. We had lots of cultural differences and celebrated them by naming our group the Dutch Apples because six were from the Netherlands, one from New Zealand, and eight of us were American.

The Dutch couldn’t start a day without strong coffee. Camp coffee wasn’t always to their liking, so they would stop at the first place that smelled like coffee beans and order a cup of brew and pie ala mode. Sweeping the group most every day, I would stop with my Dutch friends for pie and a “strong” glass of milk since I wasn’t a coffee drinker. I got plenty of grief for that!

To care for individuals in our group, we looked at ways to give each some personal space. One way was to let Dutch Apples take side tours and not ride with the group. In the mornings, we’d look at the map and review alternate routes that individuals could take to our destination. Traveling in pairs, I felt that it was relatively safe. If they didn’t show up at our evening camp, I knew where to look for them. It really helped relieve tensions that normally occur when people live so closely together for such a long period of time. We also stopped to do some fun and different activities like a canoe trip on the Jacks Fork and Current Rivers near Eminence, Missouri.

We all made it to the end, but two in our group couldn’t finish by bicycle. In Kansas, a motorist hit two of our Dutch cyclists from behind. Frank Van Dyke had to be transported to a hospital in Wichita because he was in a coma. The other cyclist, Jef Boers, had minor injuries and went to a hospital in Eureka, Kansas. It was an ugly scene. I remember the image of Jef’s bike seat stuck in the hood of the car. The motorist said the sun blinded her and she didn’t see Frank and Jef.

I made a detour to Wichita to be with Frank while our assistant leader, Joke Van Zee, rode on with the group. I stayed in Wichita for three days until Frank came out of the coma. One day when I went into the hospital the nurse on call told me: “He’s gone from bad to worse.” When I asked why, she said Frank woke up from his coma and asked for a “peanuts butter sandwich.” I knew Frank loved peanut butter and that’s how he pronounced it. I was relieved and thought, “Thank God.”

I was determined to bicycle across the U.S., so I did a couple of century rides to catch up to the group after Frank woke up. I remember getting to the group camp late in the evening after everyone was asleep. They didn’t know I was there until they woke up in the morning. The reunion was great; they were thrilled to have me back and I awoke to them dragging me around the camp in my sleeping bag. It put things into perspective: while it was a wonderful adventure, there was some risk involved. The accident brought us closer together and showed how committed we were to looking out for one another.

Frank and Jef couldn’t ride the rest of the trip, but when they were discharged from the hospitals they rented a car and caught up with us. As we neared the Atlantic coast, Frank and Jef join us for a police escort into Yorktown, Virginia on the Colonial Parkway. It was wonderful to have them part of our celebration at the end.

We pinched pennies throughout the trip, withholding about $20 each day so at the end of the trip we had about $600-800 leftover. I gave the group the option of dividing up the funds between everyone or having a big end-of-trip party. They choose a party. We rented a room at a hotel restaurant and had our slides and photographs developed. We ordered all sorts of food, rented a slide projector, and looked at hundreds of pictures we took.

The Dutch Apples pose at the Colonial Parkway in Yorktown, Virginia.

How are you different because of your trip across the TransAmerica Trail?
At the time, it was the post-Vietnam War era. I got one of the last deferments to be in college. There were a lot of toxic feelings about our government, our country, and our values. For me, having the Bikecentennial experience put me in touch with everyday people. I was not shrouded in what the media sensationalized. I discovered that people were really kind and generous. People were hard working. They were simply good people. 

That restored a measure of faith in humanity for me. I felt pride in being an American. All of these things reminded me of why we have such a wonderful community in a local and global way. It was on the west coast, east coast, and everywhere in between. People are people. Everyone wants the same thing. They want to live in a safe place, and they want their children to have good friends. It helped me come to terms with who I wanted to be.

It was a slow burn because bikes don’t travel fast. You start thinking about things on a bicycle. I spent a lot of time on the trip thinking about who I wanted to be. I went from working in industry manufacturing things to realizing that wasn’t important to me. I wanted to impact people. I found myself working for organizations whose missions were to impact people and change lives. I did that through Outward Bound and have been doing that for Special Olympics Montana, the past twenty-three years.

My Bikecentennial experience was not just impactful. It was transformative. I don’t know why I am so fortunate to have had that experience. I attribute it to my relationship with Jean Replinger. While Jean was a favorite professor during my formative college years, she’s become so much more in my life and the life of my family. In a very real sense, she has been a mother to me. Now in her late-80s, we’ve spent nearly every Thanksgiving together since the mid-1970s, celebrating everything from the birth of our children to grieving the loss of her husband. And just like the book, “Tuesdays with Morrie”, weekly, I have Sunday mornings with Jean as we visit by phone about our shared adventures and the joys of living.   

Jean has opened many doors for me. Her thoughtfulness took me down a path called Bikecentennial. I could never have imagined such an experience without her encouragement. By pedaling across the USA with some wonderfully adventuresome souls from around the world, my life was forever changed. It’s been a blessing! 

The Dutch Apples at a Bike Inn in Walden, Colorado.

Which bike trips have you done since then and what’s still on your bucket list?
My wife, Mary Lou, and I have biked significant chunks of Canada — British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, not to mention other roads trip in the United States. I also love canoeing and have canoed extensively the US-Canadian border waters, extended expeditions on the Yukon River, and from Northern Minnesota to Hudson Bay. Through my work with Special Olympics, I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to Greece, Morocco, China, South Africa, Panama, and many other unique destinations. 

On my bucket list would be an extended bike trip with my 28-year-old son, Erik. Bike travel is all about relationships, adventure in contrast and discovery. The bicycle has been the best vehicle for it—an extraordinary, simple machine that brings you closer to the world in ways one could not otherwise be able to do.

Story and photos courtesy of Bob Norbie.


MT Bike Celebration

40th ANNIVERSARY HIGHLIGHTS is posted every other Monday by Adventure Cycling’s events and outreach coordinator, Eva Dunn-Froebig. Eva and guests will preview 40th anniversary events and projects and interview Bikecentennial cyclists. Adventure Cycling’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2016 will honor the past and look to the future of bicycle travel. Fill out this form to express your interest in the 40th anniversary.



Tom Kabat December 14, 2015, 9:51 PM

Thanks for the adventure. ITAWB607

Kristin Tufvesson December 14, 2015, 2:43 PM


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