ExperiencePlus! Blog

My Life on Two Wheels

My Life on Two Wheels

By Clifford L. Graves

(Manivelle Press, La Jolla, CA; 1985)

Clifford Graves: My Life on Two WheelsThe history of Americans touring Europe by bicycle is yet to be written. When it is, it will likely begin with some of the early pioneers who bicycled or “tricycled” Europe in the mid-1880s. Then it will pick up with Frank Elwell’s first commercial trip to Europe in 1889. Yet a good portion of that history will include Clifford L. Graves and his activities as founder of the International Bicycle Touring Society (IBTS), a group which first emerged in 1964 after the first international tour in New England. It was an international tour because it included cyclists from the U.S. and from France.

Clifford Graves’ autobiographical account of bicycling spans forty years from his first ride as an adult in Denver during gasoline rationing in 1942 to his last in the 1980s (I’m at a loss to say when he died: his book was self-published in 1985 and he died sometime in the late 1980; he was born in 1907 or ’08, about the same time as my father was born.) During those forty years Dr. Graves had as many bicycle adventures as anyone in the country.

The book begins with an engaging account entitled “The Day My Bicycle Saved My Life,” that describes the day Graves awoke December 16, 1944 near the Belgian-German border to find twenty-five German divisions charging three American divisions. The Germans had been in retreat but attempted one last push to break the American advance as the Battle of the Bulge ensued. A surgeon on the front lines, Graves was faced with a quick evacuation. Fortunately he had his bicycle with him and he used it to successfully escape the advancing German troops.

From this episode Graves weaves a tail of travel by bicycle that includes rides in New England, Japan, New Zealand, China, France, California, England, and Mexico. This isn’t just a catalog of bicycle tours, though. Dr. Graves includes accounts by two French friends, Jean and Helene Nogrette, of their rides in the U.S. “New England with the Amazing Americans, 1964,” for example, describes the ride that the Nogrette’s took with Dr. Graves and forty invited friends. This trip, in fact, resulted in the creation of IBTS, the group that continued to organize non-profit international bicycle rides for another twenty years under the guidance of Clifford Graves.

The participant list for this trip reads like a who’s who in 20th century American bicycling. It included John Auerbach, Executive Director of the Bicycle Institute of America, Otto Eisele, president of the Amateur Bicycle League of America which was to become the United States Cycling Federation (USCF); Keith Kingbay, public relations specialist for the Schwinn Bicycle Company; “Huffy” Huffman of Huffy Bicycles; Jack Hartman, 1960 US Olympic sprinter; and Stephen Dietz, president of the American Youth Hostel Association. The list also included Dr. Paul Dudley White the physician who had treated President Eisenhower for his heart attack in 1955 and, likely, set the entire baby boom generation on the path to a more active lifestyle. Dr. White had argued for years that walking, running and bicycling were the antidote to the heart disease which was beginning to afflict our sedentary culture.

The group also included Dan Henry, a pilot with American Airlines. “Dan Henry arrows” are famous among touring cyclists of the period. These were arrows that he invented for use in assisting touring cyclists to find their way. Each morning Captain Henry preceded the group and painted a large “O” on the ground with a directional arrow eminating from it. Dan Henry arrows were adopted by many bicycle clubs in the northeast after Captain Henry’s example. The concept, though not the arrows, are similar to the arrows used by ExperiencePlus! to navigate on all our tours.

Dr. Graves provides variety in his book by including two chapters – you might call them eulogies – to important touring cyclists who, clearly, inspired Graves in his travels. One was Thomas Stevens, the “First Round-the-World Cyclist”. The second is about Paul de Vivie, a French cyclist know by his nickname, “Velocio.” Dr. Graves refers to him as the “patron saint of bicyclists” or the “founding father” of bicycle tourism.

Thomas Stevens successfully journeyed around the world in 1884 to 1886 on the most improbable of bicycles, a Columbia 50 inch high wheel “penny farthing.” The name “penny farthing” was adopted because of the single large wheel balanced behind by a small “balance wheel,” and which established the bicycle, at least initially, as the domain of the young macho male rider. Stevens’ trip around the world is certainly the first of many touring cyclists to attempt such an undertaking. Graves provides a synopsis of Stevens’ ride, admiring the audacity of this young man, and expressing only a little envy at this first round-the world adventure.

Velocio, on the other hand, did not pedal around the world but rather became one of the first bicycle advocates in the 1880s in France. Paul de Vivie’s imagination was so captured by the possibilities of the bicycle, that he sold his silk import business, began importing bicycles from England and launched a magazine, “Le Cycliste.” He moved to St. Etienne, not far from Lyon, and opened a bicycle shop in 1887, thus establishing this small town as a major center for bicycling to this day (note how often The Race goes through St. Etienne as a legacy to Velocio!)

Clifford Graves might have been my father as he was born the same year my father was born in 1907. I don’t ever remember seeing my father (or my mother for that matter) on a bicycle, but certainly there’s a cycling gene that Dr. Graves and I share, along with thousands of other lunatic fringe cyclists. Dr. Graves was clearly closer to the fringe than I. The all-night rides he describes and his entering the 750 mile Paris-Brest-Paris race, don’t attract me at all. But we share a conviction that the benefits of cycling far outweigh any hazards: physical well-being, a fine antidote to jet lag, an appetite stimulant unmatched by anything, and an opportunity to meet people across the socio-economic spectrum.

Dr. Graves wrote: “Adventure comes readily to the traveler under his own steam. But it escapes the traveler who wants to know exactly when and where he is going to have lunch. Lin Yutang, the Chinese philosopher, summed it up beautifully in this quotation: ‘The good traveler does not know where he is going. The perfect traveler does not care.’” (Actually, Dr. Graves adapted Lin Yutang’s line to his own needs. Yutang’s real quote is: “A good traveler is one who does not know where he or she is going to, and the perfect traveler does not know where he or she came from.”)