October 5, 2015
Bill Harlan was one of the few people to have the opportunity to work for Bikecentennial after the ride on the TransAmerica Trail in 1976. After the summer of '76, staffing cuts of 75–80% were needed because of the organization's dire financial situation. Bikecentennial went from a staff of twenty-seven down to three or four, according to Harlan. Most weren't sure if the organization would survive.
How did you first hear about Bikecentennial?
I was very active with American Youth Hostels (AYH) from 1965 to 1969 and was doing a whole lot of bicycling. I grew up in Michigan, but I was kind of on the fringes of the Columbus, Ohio AYH. I wasn’t friends yet with Greg Siple and Dan Burden, but I knew who they were. I became aware of their idea of a mass bicycle ride across the United States and knew they came up with it during Hemistour, their 1972 expedition from Anchorage to Argentina. It was always in the back of my mind as an item of interest.
When I got out of the Navy in 1973, I set off in April 1974 on an extended journey through the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe. I did 22,000 miles in one and a half years (editor's note: a forty mile per day average). During that trip my riding companion, Scott Price, and I came through Montana in the summer of 1974 and I called up the number listed for Bikecentennial. I explained who I was and that Greg and Dan might remember me, because we had met when I’d been around Columbus AYH in 1968–1969. Greg was on Hemistour at the time, but Dan and Lys were in Missoula. Scott and I told Dan that if he gave us a place to stay for a while, we would like to do some volunteer work for Bikecentennial. We spent two weeks in Missoula stuffing envelopes and doing whatever needed to be done. We had a marvelous time and were inspired by the work they were doing at Bikecentennial. By the time I finished my trip in the fall of 1975 I was back in touch with Dan and told him I’d enjoyed working with him, and that I would be very interested in coming out to Missoula to work for Bikecentennial full time.
It was often said that most who came to work for Bikecentennial ended up doing a different job than originally intended. I was hired to be a typesetter and I got out there just a few days before Christmas in December 1975, driving an RV from Coachmen Industries in Indiana, the use of which was being donated for TransAmerica Trail research. By my second or third day in Missoula, it was apparent I wasn’t going to be a typesetter. I ended up working for Donna Norris, a wonderful lady, in the Trips Department.
It was very much a family type of atmosphere. I immediately felt welcomed and valued. Everyone from the executive director, Dan Burden, down to the newly arrived kid was getting paid the same: $350/month. We were doing something that there was no blueprint for. We solved problems and got it done by putting in enormous amounts of effort. It was a group effort, and it was extremely exciting. As I remember it, in the winter of ’75 and early ’76, there were probably only three to four hours a day when no one was in the Bikecentennial office. Some people stayed late and then others would come in and get an early start. It was an exciting and magical time.
What were your bike travel experiences before Bikecentennial?
When I was thirteen years old, in 1962, the next door neighbor kid got an amazing bike, a Schwinn “Varsity 10-Speed,” as it said on the downtube. The thing must’ve weighed about forty-two pounds. I had a three-speed Columbia and turned the handlebars upside down. I liked bicycling like every other kid. I got a ten-speed Schwinn Continental in 1963 and began taking day and weekend trips. Around that time I became aware of American Youth Hostels. Detroit AYH advertised a “Lake Michigan Holiday,” a one week camping and hosteling bike trip. My dad drove me to downtown Detroit to the AYH office. I met Jackie Colombo, the woman who was the trip leader and also the Executive Director of Detroit Council. I was captured by the woman. She was absolutely wonderful. I immediately bought clunky gray canvas AYH saddle bags and I signed up for the trip, August 1965. I met my friend Scott on that trip. After that, I discovered this was what I really wanted to do. From 1965 to 1968, I was on an AYH trip most weekends, along with several week-long tours. That was my passion. By 1969, I’d started racing bicycles. Then in late 1969 I went into the U. S. Navy. I wasn’t bicycling or hosteling as much during that time, except for TOSRV. I got out at end of 1973 and in April 1974 I started out with Scott on my 22,000 mile trip.
What were the biggest challenges you faced while working for Bikecentennial?
One challenge was just finding enough hours in the day to get everything done. There was no instruction book for what we were doing. We were putting in a whole lot of time and long hours, but it didn’t seem like “work.” It was a labor of love. I never thought of it in terms of what were the biggest challenges. We worked along with everyone else, side by side.
Another challenge for me personally was not running out of money! I managed to save $25 each month just on principle. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t living beyond my means. Every Wednesday we on the staff rotated and someone would host Dinner Club. We would have everyone over for dinner and everyone would pitch in.
What are your most fond memories?
My fondest memories are about the people I worked with. After the summer of ’76 when we went from a staff of twenty-seven down to three or four, that was actually when there were the biggest challenges. It was definitely not guaranteed that the organization would survive. We called it Black Friday when Dan came in and told us that the organization’s financial situation was dire. He said that at our present rate, we would run out of money in just a few weeks, and that there was no choice: immediate staffing cuts were necessary. Not 20 or 25%, but 75–80% of us would have to be laid off.
After that, in late 1976, David Prouty was hired to replace Dan Burden as executive director. Dan and Lys moved to Florida so Dan could work as Florida’s state bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. Dave Prouty later said that the people who renewed their memberships after the summer and fall of 1976 literally saved the organization. It was touch and go from day to day and week to week. In the aftermath of the layoffs, some people were very upset. I'd been laid off with nearly everyone else. Four or five days later, one of the few staff who wasn’t laid off, Ernie Franceschi, decided the time had come to start his youth hostel in Missoula. Ernie was going to be Bikecentennial’s new office manager, and his decision opened up a spot for me and I became the office manager. Forty years later, Ernie remains a dear friend.
As the summer of 1976 was winding down, our perspective had changed. The preparation that had gone into Bikecentennial and what we were able to accomplish, made us hope that this could be an ongoing organization. But our finance director Don Morton had gone to Dan and laid it out for him: we were going broke. The few of us who ultimately stayed on staff felt honored to be a part of the small group saddled with the responsibility of hopefully enabling the organization to survive. We worked. People renewed their memberships. Our salaries increased, a little. We no longer worked fourteen hour days. Over the next few years, 1977 through 1980, largely through the leadership of the new director, David Prouty, we began to evolve into an organization that solved problems with planned foresight and professionalism. David ended up moving on to become Director for the U. S. Cycling Federation, but he was just what Bikecentennial needed at that time. Dan Burden is a wonder, an electric and charismatic personality, and very good at getting people excited about what he believes in. It’s people like Dan Burden who gets things started. More than any other individual, he made Bikecentennial possible. At a time of crisis, someone like David Prouty is needed to put an organization on an even keel and enable it to keep on growing and continue to grow.
It was in no one’s wildest dreams back in 1975 and 1976 that Bikecentennial could evolve into Adventure Cycling and that it would still exist and prosper well into the 21st century. When you are twenty years old you can work like we did for a year or two, but you can’t make a professional life long term doing that. But even with the challenges and the changes, my time at Bikecentennial was magical for me, a real life-changing few years.
As a staff member of Bikecentennial, were you able to participate? Which bike trips have you done since Bikecentennial and what’s still on your bucket list?
Back in ’76, Dan Burden said he knew that none of the staff was getting paid enough to afford to go on Bikecentennial. He arranged for every staff member who wanted to lead, or just ride on one of our organized trips, to participate, gratis. Several staff members ended up leaving and doing the entire trip. I led one of our shorter tours, from Pueblo, Colorado to Sinclair, Wyoming, the “Colorado Rockies.”
My career as a touring bicyclist kind of peaked in 1974-75 with my 22,000 mile trip. Thereafter, I found that taking little one and two week trips no longer had the magic for me, so I no longer did a lot of serious touring. In August 1980, after leaving Bikecentennial, I went back to school in Michigan to finish my bachelor’s degree. I worked in sales and marketing for Cycles Peugeot USA from 1982 to 1989. During that time, I was driving many thousands of miles each year and I had less time to bicycle. Sometimes a dealer and I would go on a bike ride in the evening, but serious longer rides became fewer. I used a bicycle daily for transportation as a student in Michigan, 1980-1982.
Nowadays, I spend more time hiking and going to the dog park with Molly, my St. Bernard. I have been down to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of Grand Canyon 19 times over the years. I still do some day rides, but I’m not loaded down with camping gear. I still get a little twinge when I see someone who’s out there on a loaded bicycle, on tour.
Photos by Greg Siple.
Celebrate the 40th anniversary of Adventure Cycling Association with Bike Your Park Day on September 24. Ride to or within your favorite parks and public lands with thousands of other throughout the country on the same day. Register at BikeYourParkDay.org. Thank you to the 40th anniversary sponsors: Raleigh Bicycles, Montana Department of Commerce, Salsa Cycles, Advocate Cycles, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana, Primal Wear, Visit Mississippi, Visit Idaho, Travel Oregon, Osprey Packs, Experience Plus!, Destination Missoula and Missoulian.
Find out more about Adventure Cycling’s generous sponsors.