Theresa Whalen Leland: Remembering Bikecentennial 1976

June 1, 2015

At twenty-five, Theresa Whalen Leland was ready for adventure! She rode Bikecentennial as a young, single, middle school teacher from Great Falls, Montana and recently shared some great memories and photos with us. To stay in touch with Adventure Cycling about the 40th anniversary celebration please fill out this form.

How old were you when you did Bikecentennial? 

At twenty-five, I was ready for adventure! I rode Bikecentennial as a young, single, middle school teacher from Great Falls, Montana and I left on June 5, the day after I began summer vacation. I was born and raised in Montana, graduated from Montana State University, and then taught school for four years in Montana, so I was excited for the opportunity to expand my young horizons. 

Theresa Whalen Leland
Theresa Whalen Leland at age three. It all began when her
dad raised the pedals of here trike so she could reach them.

What inspired you to do Bikecentennial?

I grew up appreciating outdoor activities and had recently discovered bike touring. I rode TOSRV West (the annual tour of the Swan River Valley in Montana) several times and did a weeklong self-sag tour with friends from Banff to Jasper in Canada. I was a novice with a new passion. I had a modestly priced ten-speed and was ready to ride! 

The National Geographic article and inspirational photos of Dan and Lys Burden and June and Greg Siple on Hemistour grabbed my imagination. I signed up for their TransAmerica Trail ride and began counting the days to departure. It was the biggest thing I had yet done in my life and as it turns out, I set off on an adventure that unexpectedly evolved into a life-shaping experience during a time of innocence. 

Theresa Whalen Leland
Theresa Whalen Leland at age 6, pictured with her
brother Mike, received her first bike for her birthday.

I joined the trail in Missoula, Montana, 169 miles from my home and began the jouney with Ray Flaherty's Bike-Inn group.  Ray was a friend who grew up with me in Great Falls and his group had been invited to a potluck at my brother's house up the Rattlesnake Valley north of MIssoula.

Theresa Whalen Leland Bikecentennial
Theresa Whalen Leland leaving from Missoula in June 1976 for Bikecentennial. 
Her brother Mike Whalen gives her send-off advice.

What sticks out in your mind when you reflect back on the trip?
Well, as Jimmy Buffet sings:  “All of the faces and all of the places…I’ve seen more than I can recall.” (Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes)

Faces: In Montana we have more cows than people and not much diversity. Bikecentennial introduced me to the melting pot of America and the world beyond. I became friends with bikers who extended invitations for me to stay with them as I continued touring the East Coast after Bikecentennial. I made friends from other countries that, years later, came to visit me in Montana from Australia, Holland, and Japan.

One of the more memorable friendships was with forty-nine year old Wilma who owned and ran a roadhouse in Buchan, Australia. She visited me twice after Bikecentennial and we corresponded until her death. 

She was the definition of a lady. Even on her bike, she wore a knee length skirt, panty hose, girdle, and healed street shoes. She ditched the hose and girdle when it began to heat up in Kansas! 

Wilma Ramsay Bikecentennial
Wilma Ramsay from Australia biking in Ray Flaherty's Bike-Inn group during Bikecentennial.

The other half of Wilma was her fifty-two year old brother Albert, a prospector and mechanic from Alice Springs, Australia. He achieved local fame for having ridden his vintage Indian motorcycle across the Outback. 

Wilma and Albert had not seen each other for twenty-five years. She heard of Bikecentennial and wrote Albert saying it would be great to become reacquainted by registering with a Bike-Inn Group and cycling together. Albert agreed before he realized the trip was by bicycle and not motorcycle, but was too stubborn to back out. 

With his greying hair and bushy full beard and mustache, he was quite a sight dressed in his one-piece jumpsuit and stout over-the-ankle work boots. After the cool weather of the Rockies, he switched to shorts but kept his tobacco pipe close. 

His 3-speed bike was even more astonishing. Unlike the majority of the ‘76 riders, Albert carried no handlebar bag or rear panniers. Instead of handlebars curving downward, Albert adjusted his to curve upward to carry his flannel sleeping bag and other swag. He carried the rest of his gear strapped to the top of his rear rack along with a full-edition, Sears & Roebuck catalog as a take-home souvenir and a large wooden mallet for defending himself against dogs. A homemade billy can, his lightweight cooking pot, swung from the cross tube. 

Albert carried a bottle of Everclear spirits to “shape up the tea” which he brewed nightly. His colorful Australian accent and manner of speech made for interesting conversations and I was sad when our correspondence ended upon his death. Wilma and Albert were members of Ray Flaherty’s Bike-Inn Group.

 

Albert Schultz
Albert Schultz, Wilma's brother from Australia biking in
Ray Flaherty's Bike-Inn group during Bikecentennial.

My initiation to life on the Bikecentennial trail began when I connected with an Accelerate Bike-Inn group of 13 guys. I traveled with them, covering 550 miles in six days, into Lander, Wyoming. It was the biggest challenge of my life! They ranged in age from twenties to sixties. It was a very eclectic collection, which included an aspiring Olympic athlete, a few free spirits, a New York City electrician, a production manager of a California trailer truck company, a university math teacher, and a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. 

One of the group members, Joe, was a 58-year-old marathon runner from Australia who was traveling with an ultra-light ten pounds of gear. To keep the weight down, he used a space blanket sewn into a sack for sleeping and stuffed newspaper under his shirt for an added layer of warmth. 

I forged a life-long friendship with Walter, the only black person I saw on Bikecentennial. Walter was the assistant group leader and an IBM computer programmer from Philadelphia. In my travels after completing the Bikecentennial trail, I visited Walter and his family in Philly. We still correspond and he continued riding his bike into his seventies, introducing his grandchildren to his passion. This accelerated group eventually passed all the regular paced groups and became the west to east frontrunners and one of the first groups to arrive at the trail’s end. 

I became an honorary member of Lloyd Sumner’s camping group of “Peanut Butter Pedalers.” As their leader, Lloyd had recently completed a bike trip around the world. I first camped with this group in Darby, Montana and we leap-frogged across the United States finishing Bikecentennial together. After Bikecentennial, Lloyd and I shared a Nordic ski trip as part of his new adventure, “Around the World in Eighty Ways.” We kept in touch until his untimely death from a heart attack. 

Bikecentennial
Crossing the Ohio River with members of the
Peanut Butter Pedalers, Lloyd Sumner's camping group.
Lloyd Sumner Peanut Butter Pedalers Bikecentennial
Group shot of Lloyd Sumner (left, wearing a red shirt)
and the Peanut Butter Pedalers at the end of the trail.

I also have fond memories of the day Dan Burden took the iconic photo of us grouped together around the bike wheel. 

The hospitality of folks living along the Bikecentennial route stands out in my mind. Though strangers, bonds of friendship quickly formed between locals and bikers when we were invited into their homes or to stop at roadside stands to fuel up on cookies and lemonade and sign guest books.  

Bikecentennial
Bikecentennial photo by Dan Burden of Theresa Whalen Leland, Independent rider adopted by the Peanut Butter Pedalers. Starting at 11 o'clock: Theresa Whalen Leland, Lloyd Sumner, Susan Brigham, Bob Buccinni (Monkey's Mama), Sharon Copeland, Doug Yukich, Tom Kalina, ?, Terry Copeland?, ?, Ann Brigham, Hiroyuki Morita, Dave Brown.

Places: I have always considered myself fortunate to have been born and raised in Montana. Biking across the country gave me appreciation for our great State. It also gave me an understanding of the uniqueness of the varied sections of our country. 

Leaving the familiar Rockies behind and entering western Kansas taught me that I still had miles of biking ahead even though I could see the ubiquitous grain elevators on the horizon. Toiling against unrelenting headwinds and scorching sun on flat straight roads, I learned to appreciate the respite offered by small town soda fountains and city swimming pools. 

Biking through eastern Kansas I enjoyed beautiful sunrises and crops of wild sunflowers bobbing their heads in encouragement as I rode along. I marveled at the numerous large turtles on the road, which was a new sight to me. 

Bikecentennial turtle
Turtles on the road in western Kansas.

Missouri is remembered for the challenging roller coaster ride through the Ozarks, surreal foggy mornings, old-fashioned general stores, and amazing natural outdoor swimming at Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park. 

Kentucky was full of long difficult climbs through the Appalachian Mountains, often on narrow deteriorating roads shared with intimidating overloaded thirty ton coal trucks… don’t mess with Big Bertha, White Lightening, or Woman’s Man! 

The green rolling hills of Virginia offered delightful biking. Then, we came to The Vesuvius. From the passing westbound bikers we had been hearing for weeks about the difficult climb up The Vesuvius to get onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. The climb lived up to its reputation. The reward was the view of the Shenandoah Valley from the Blue Ridge Parkway, which brought visual understanding to the words of a popular song of the era, “Country Roads” by John Denver.

Other reflections:  Bikecentennial was a journey of discovery. The farther I pedaled across the country, the more I wanted to keep going. As we began to encounter groups traveling from east to west, we would swap stories of what lay ahead. In particular, we shared recommendations of where to find the largest ice cream cone ever for twenty-five cents, Eminence, Missouri, where to eat the best pizza, the most delicious pie, etc. As one biker remarked, “We toured America with our stomachs!” 

The best and biggest ice cream cones for 25 cents in Eminence, Missouri.
Pictured are members of Lloyd Sumner's camping group, the Peanut Butter Pedalers.

Very few 76’ers wore bike helmets, special bike shoes, or bike specific clothing. I did have a homemade mirror attached to my sunglasses, and I had toe cages. I climbed Togwotee Pass in a wet sloppy June snowstorm wearing my Adidas tennies and cotton sweat pants.  Today, I still ride, but on a much better 27-speed bike, wearing a helmet and cycling shoes and clothing.

Theresa Whalen Leland Bikcentennial
Theresa Whalen Leland at the top of Togwotee Pass during a
June snowstorm, with a member of an Accelerated Bike-Inn group.

We 76’ers wholly embraced our TransAmerica journey. From the bicycle saddle, we were a part of every scene we passed through, not as a passive observer through a vehicle window, but fully engaged with heightened senses. We felt changing temperatures on our skin, inhaled aromas of the earth, and heard chirping crickets and songbirds. Traveling by bicycle one has time: time to notice the passing of a shadow overhead, time to look up to view the hawk soaring the skies above, and time to look down and see the wooly caterpillar soundlessly creeping along. Life slows down. The conventional sense of time is set aside. Traveling self-contained with no set agenda except for the rhythm of the road was pure freedom and contentment. The goal was the travel and the destination was the journey. 

I remember the anticipation of coming into a town, where I had pre-arranged a mail drop months in advance, and picking up a stack of letters from general delivery so I could keep in touch with friends and family. I wrote nearly four dozen postcards to my parents in order to share pictures of places I had been. In the ensuing 40 years, the technology of mobile devices, Wi-Fi, Facebook, Instagram, etc. has made that method of communication obsolete! 

Theresa Whalen Leland Bikecentennial
Theresa Whalen Leland's bike picture at a local roadside rest stop in Colorado.

How are you different because of your trip across the Transamerica Trail?

The choices I have made and the paths I have taken in my life were influenced by my experiences on Bikecentennial. I spent miles evaluating my tenured teaching job and upon my return, I chose to finish out the year and move on to other work experiences, not because I didn’t love teaching, but because I wanted to explore new opportunities.

While on Bikecentennial I learned how much I value being outdoors and I moved to a different area of Montana so I could be closer to the outdoor activities I love. 

Also, through the experience of Bikecentennial I became committed to the goal of personal fitness and healthy choices and an active lifestyle.

Which bike trips have you done since then and what’s still on your bucket list?
Bike touring grabbed my soul and never let go. After Bikecentennial I shared a number of self-contained long distance tours with friends which included biking the West Coast from Oregon to Southern California, touring the San Juan Islands, circumnavigating Lake Superior, and riding the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. I did two solo self-contained multi-month bike tours in Ireland, England and Wales, and several overnight camping tours locally in Montana. I currently participate in day rides with friends and event rides with the Helena Bike Club and the Gallatin Valley Bike Club. 

And, I am finally returning to multi-day touring. For the past two years I have ridden the supported and catered Cycle Greater Yellowstone week-long ride. It has been empowering to discover I can still climb the mountains and do the big miles day after day. Though I didn’t have to carry my gear, I did camp on those tours. Last summer a portion of the Cycle Greater Yellowstone route toured part of the 1976 Bikecentennial trail in Wyoming. It was fun to flashback…and Wyoming is still windy! I will be riding Cycle Greater Yellowstone again this summer.  

The spirit of the journey: The spirit of Bikecentennial was unique and perhaps can never be re-created, but certainly remembered and celebrated. Bikecentennial was more than the faces and the places. It brought together 4,000 bikers in the summer of 1976 to participate in a unique grassroots event celebrating America’s Bicentennial. We enjoyed the freedom loving era of the Seventies, the camaraderie shared with diverse ages, backgrounds and nationalities, the neophyte concept of long distance bicycle touring, the joy and excitement of discovering America on rural back roads, participation in the inaugural TransAmerica Trail adventure, and so much more that it is difficult to put into words. For all who rode their bikes across America that summer, it remains branded into our memories as very special.

And then, my Bikecentennial journey was completed. August 6. Forty-five cycling days. Over too soon. The finish was a jumble of bittersweet emotion and culminated an experience of a lifetime.  

However, nothing can compare to a self contained, long distance, multi month bike tour. My next test will be to discover if I can still do the miles, climb the mountains and carry my own gear. With pending retirement the possibilities are endless. The world awaits.  But, the reality is that time marches on and I am aware I need to grab opportunities while I still can. One thing I know for sure: as long as I can, I will keep biking the distances. It doesn’t matter how far or how fast. It only matters to keep moving!

Also, very special thanks to Greg and June Siple and Dan and Lys Burden for their dream and tireless effort in making it happen. Their vision and dedicated work to put together Bikecentennial despite great odds touched the lives of many who had the opportunity to ride the TransAmerica Trail in 1976 and are still riding it today! Please pass it on. 

Theresa Whalen Leland
Theresa Whalen Leland on a bike tour during the summer of 2014.

We thank Theresa for taking the time to share her experience of Bikecentennial. Her words and images from the road provide inspiration for us all!

Story and photos 1 - 7, 9 - 13 courtesy of courtesy of Theresa Whalen Leland. Photo 8 by Dan Burden.

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. 

 

Comments

Tom September 20, 2018, 9:38 PM

Great stuff Theresa! I am searching for photos and details about Lloyd Sumner. Would you please contact me directly:

user33 (AT) zasutra (dot) com

Thank you very much in advance, Tom, Australia

Barbara Forbis Kilts September 5, 2015, 12:03 AM

Your story brought back memories for me, too. I rode in '76 as a 20 year old assistant leader of camping group. I spent my formative years in Missoula as Bikecentennial was coming together, riding TOSRV and finding out how free and independent I became while riding. To think that I could ride across this country was mind boggling, but one day at a time, 4000 of us did and discovered ourselves and the goodness in humanity. I'm planning to be in Missoula for the 40th Anniversary celebration, perhaps I'll meet you there!

barb samsoe June 2, 2015, 9:39 PM

Wonderfully written. Theresa, what incredible memories you have of your many adventures. Bicentennial will always be at the forefront of my happiest memories.

Walter J June 1, 2015, 10:19 PM

Theresa, I had, and still have, the utmost respect and praise for your bravery, strength, and search for adventure. In 1976 I knew no young women who would have attempted a coast to coast ride as an independent. I'm glad we continue to correspond almost 40 years later. Walter

Fred Werda June 1, 2015, 6:38 PM

Cycled Bikecentennial as an independent rider and repeated crossings in 2002 and 2006. Great reading accounts as it sure sends a shiver through me with fond memories, reflections and sadness of a time long gone during the summer of '76.

Brink June 1, 2015, 1:55 PM

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your wonderful account of this journey!

Theresa Leland June 1, 2015, 12:57 PM

Bikecentennial was a coming of age experience. It has been fun to reminisce an experience that helped shape who I am today!

Eva Dunn-Froebig June 2, 2015, 1:05 PM

Thank you for sharing your story, Theresa!

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