1976 tour story   


       July 4, 1976, was the culmination of 2 years of intense planning on the part of many members of the Wheelmen.  As we rode in formation to the front facade of the Henry Ford Museum, a cheering crowd of thousands watched the spectacle.  It was the realization of a dream for most of those assembled, for this was the send off to the long awaited 13 day cross country trek to Philadelphia.

       Upon receiving official greetings from Governor Milliken of Michigan which were to be presented to Mayor Rizzo of Philadelphia, the formation of some 75 bicycles rolled by the reviewing stand and out onto the streets of Dearborn.     The 25 miles from Greenfield Village to Waltz was ridden under police escort, so within 2 hours we were at the Louis Niemann residence enjoying a little rest and preparing for the next two weeks. Everyone's primary interest was to see that his or her bike was in top condition for the long trip ahead.  After a potluck dinner there was a meeting in which the activities of the next two weeks were outlined.  About 9 P.M. all departed to their quarters in preparation for the first morning's ride.

       About 6 A.M. the first of the bicycles rolled out of Waltz on the way to Oak Harbor, Ohio.  The riders took a route through country roads on their way to Toledo.  We were treated to lunch, courtesy of McDonald's Restaurant.  At 12:30, under police escort, we rolled out over the streets of Toledo and out onto the Southern shore of Lake Erie.  It grew very hot that afternoon, and the sag wagon got a real workout.  About 4 o'clock that afternoon, the first of the riders rolled into Oak Harbor.  We were greeted by a welcoming committee, but most were too tired to care.  A distance of 72 miles had been covered that day.  To make matters worse, we were informed that we had a short ride to our campsite.  That short ride turned out to be a distance of 4 miles out of our way.  Well, after a good shower at the local school, everyone was in much better spirits for the evening show.

       The next two days of riding would be the most level we would enjoy for the duration of the trip.  Our next two stops would be Wakeman and Streetsboro respectively.  The weather stayed fair as we passed on roads south of Cleveland.  As we neared Streetsboro on the 7th of July, we began to encounter our first hills.  These proved to be quite a challenge to those who were used to the level Michigan and Ohio farmlands.

       Unfortunately, this was only a foreshadowing of things to come.  As we rode out of Streetsboro on July 8th, the hills became more defined and we began the task of walking up many of them.  At 11:00 A.M., the first riders crossed the Pennsylvania state line.  It was the wish of the town council of Sharon to provide us with an escort.  It was a long, slow trek into Sharon, about 8 miles covered in 2 hours.  The riders then proceeded to the campgrounds at one of the local churches.  After the evening show, we were treated to a banquet put on by the town bicentennial committee.  It was a very enjoyable welcome to the state of Pennsylvania.

       By this time many people were becoming mysteriously ill at a rate of about 2 or 3 a day.  It was a heavy bout of the 24 hour flu as we would soon discover and in the next week almost everyone would fall victim to it.  That morning as we rode out of Sharon in a heavy fog, some 3 or 4 riders had fallen sick. 

       By mid day the fog had passed and the riders began their descent into the Allegheny River Valley.  Just outside of Emlenton we experienced the steepest hill of the entire trip.  It was a terrific drop of some 500 feet to the river below, all within 1 mile.  Descending such a steep grade even on foot was a real trick.  One heroic rider did choose a swift descent down the hill and witnesses report he nearly died in the process.  At the bottom of the hill ran the Allegheny River and 500 feet up on the opposite side of the gorge was our campsite.  It made for a very beautiful setting with this town scattered up and down the deep gorge cut by the Allegheny.  By far, this was the most beautiful town we would encounter.

       The next two days we saw our hills turn into the steep slopes of the Allegheny Mountains.  The ride from Lock Haven to Milton, a distance of about 45 miles, was over four lane roads.  No one had much of a problem with the ride to Milton since by now most of the major hills had begun to subside and the short choppy hills turned into long, gradual ones.  There was one serious injury that did occur that day, however.  Dr. Jim Thompson of the California Wheelmen suffered a major fall that resulted in two broken arms.  Doc spent two days recuperating in the hospital, but happily he did rejoin the group at Brickerville two days later.

       The ride to Millersburg on July 14th would be one of the most enjoyable encountered.  The scenery was beautiful that day and the roads were good.  To get to Millersburg, it was necessary to cross the Susquehanna River.  There is however, no bridge crossing the Susquehanna at Millersburg.  It was therefore our fortune to be taken as passengers aboard the Millersburg ferry.  This was an experience that I am sure no one will forget.  There was a note of pessimism in the voices of those boarding the ferry.  Nevertheless, the old boat made it safely to shore and we departed onto the eastern bank of the Susquehanna.  The Millersburg City Park was designated as our campsite.  There was even a dance held at the adjacent city pool and the music serenaded us until 11 P.M.  That night was also one of the highlights of the trip.  Harold and June Swihart of Bourbon, Indiana, newlyweds of just about one month, were treated to an old fashioned chiverie.  Most did not get to bed until late that night, and all those sleeping in tents got wet.  About 11:30 P.M. the rain started and continued all night.

       The morning dawned cold and damp.  Soon the sun did come out and warmed things up a bit.  As we pedaled on almost a southerly course, we began to see signs that we were entering the Amish country.  Horse and buggies became a common sight as well as Amish families hard at work at their farm chores.    Late in the morning we bypassed Harrisburg and began angling east toward the town of Hershey.   At Hershey we enjoyed a lunch break.  Many took the time to visit Hershey's Chocolate World.    From Hershey it was a 30 mile ride to the Brickerville Youth Hostel.  The big topic of conversation that evening was the next day's ride.  It would be our last long hall, for tomorrow we would ride into Valley Forge.

       That last push to Valley Forge went by quickly, and about 1 P.M. the riders began pulling into Cabrini College.  That day was heart breaking for one man.  Twenty five miles outside of Valley Forge, Michigan Wheelmen Richard Porath took a serious header that resulted in a broken arm.  Nevertheless, Richard remounted the bike and rode some 12 miles before being virtually pulled off the bike by Wheelmen who were concerned for his welfare. 

       As the majority of the riders pulled into Cabrini, a light rain set in.  No one cared though, since everyone knew that for all practical purposes the ordeal was over.  Soon those Wheelmen who had not been along for the tour began to arrive.  There was much reminiscing and talk of the past two weeks as those new arrivals queried the cross country riders.  That evening about 30 people enjoyed a bus ride into Philadelphia for a sound and light show given at Independence Hall.  Others enjoyed a slide show given back at the college by Bob McNair.

      Early the next morning saw the riders up and ready to go for the final assault on Philly.  Wild jubilation broke out among the cross country riders.  It was finished.  They had conquered the eastern half of the continent!  When the final tally was taken, it was discovered that the tour riders between them logged 17,365 miles and each had ridden an average of 668 miles of a 700 mile course.  The youngest rider to complete the ride was Michigan Wheelmen Mark Niemann, age 16.  The oldest rider was Dr. Thompson who was 68.  Doc, before breaking his arms rode 460 miles.  Along the route 8 riders took serious falls, 6 people were taken to the hospital (4 for X-rays), 2 people suffered broken arms and 2 received minor fractures.  Repairs to bicycles were numerous.  Tiring had to be replaced or rewired 25 different times.  There were over 60 broken spokes, 6 broken pedals, and 5 serious breaks that had to be welded or replaced completely as well as 10 loose cranks that had to be repaired.

      We returned to Cabrini late that afternoon. That evening a banquet was held.  The major part of the banquet was devoted to the presentation of awards to those completing the entire tour.  A ribbon was presented to each rider to be worn as part of their uniform and a bar was added to the individual's name tag identifying his or her feat.  After the banquet, a swimming party was held at nearby Eastern College.  A barbershop quartet entertained and a gay 90's swim suit competition was held.

      Breakfast Sunday morning at Cabrini was the scene of the Wheelmen Annual Business meeting.  The high point of the meeting was the election of the new Wheelmen officers.  After breakfast, all riders departed to Fairmount Park in Philadelphia for the final 4 mile ride to Independence Hall.  A group picture was taken at Memorial Hall, the only building still surviving from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial.  The 4 mile tour, held in conjunction with the Antique Carriage Club, was attended by over 100 cyclists.  This was the largest high wheel tour ever to be assembled in modern times.  The ride to Independence Hall was a proud moment for all.  We assembled in front of the building before a fairly large crowd.  Here, greetings were received by a representative of Mayor Rizzo from Governor Milliken of Michigan and Governor Walker of Illinois.  A gift was then presented from the city of Philadelphia to be presented personally to Governor Milliken.  After a brief Wheelmen demonstration, the group returned to Fairmount Park.  The great Philadelphia tour was over.  It was indeed a fitting end to an epic journey that will probably not again be repeated.

By Michigan Wheelmen John Niemann
Reprinted from The Wheelmen Newsletter
Vol. VI No. 3, September 1976


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