Bike Touring Circa 1980

by Matthew Cole
History of Photography: 1980 Matt's Other Bike Articles The 1980s

Bike Touring in 1980, Mingo, Iowa

This is bicycle touring circa 1980. I'm in Mingo, Iowa, the morning of Tuesday June 10, 1980, outbound for Madison, Wisconsin, then Idaho, Colorado and Britain. It was a good summer. This was a nippy morning so I've got on the wool shirt and pants; they'd come off within half an hour. Weirdly, later in life, and to my surprise, by August 2013 this photo was for a while the top hit in Google image searches for "bicycle touring".

This page is mostly about the bicycle but since this is in the History of Photography, I'll start with the cameras.

Bikes have evolved since these days. Among the notable items about the bike:

Summer's End: Me in Oxford, August 1980
At the top of this page is a photo of me heading out on the summer's adventures. Here I am near the end, in Oxford. Later this day we'd take the trains down to London, Reading and Merstham and return to my Uncle John's. A day or two later we'd pack all this up and fly home. You can see here the Velocipac front bag, serving mostly as a camera bag. My nicely-pressed Filson pants are now wrinkled and oil stained. The stuffsacks have lots of dirty clothes as I've accumulated mugs, souvenirs and books. Photo by Holmes Lundt, Yashica FX(?), Carl Zeiss 25mm f/2.8, Kodachrome 64

Unlike my Gitane Tour de France-riding friends with their rigid frames, I still have and (very occasionally) ride my Motobecane. The slender fork and stays make it a comfortable frame even now. However, things have changed from this 1980 photo.

What I'd do now, if I were touring:

In the pre-digital age, this is what I said (this is primarily for amusing historical context): Back to actual recommendations:

Having not done a real tour since this (well the kids and I Rode to Duluth but we stayed in a hotel), you might wonder why I claim to really like touring. Well, it was a really good time. You see the countryside with an intimacy missed completely in a car or even on a motorcycle. When you're out in rural Iowa and you cycle past a house where someone's putting up the laundry or mowing the grass, you wave and they wave back. People talk to you in small towns when you stop at the town square and get a drink from the water fountain. Your route keeps you on minor roads that go from nowhere important to somewhere even more obscure, absolutely a different experience than cruising down yet another anonymous Interstate looking for yet another MacDonald's and listening to yet another classic rock station. The daily long-term average distance of 70 miles is not a fast way to get anywhere, but it is a very pleasant way.

That summer there was a confluence of enough time (having just graduated, jobless, from college) and money (largely borrowed from my Dad and which took a while to pay back) to do this. Once back and working, the limitations of two weeks of vacation closed in and the languid pace of bike touring became less of an option. I later got a motorcycle, which is a decent compromise between bike and car touring, and actually used these bike panniers on it for a trip, and later got married to a mostly non-cycling woman, and then had kids, and the right mix of time and money just hasn't come together again.

They've Been Tearing Up the Railroad, All the Live Long Day!
They've Been Tearing Up the Railroad, All the Live Long Day!"   A year and a half after my bike trip the east/west tracks through Slater, Iowa, came up. This is the spring of 1982, and Slater is on the route we used to ride from Ames to Des Moines. Their school had closed in 1975. Slater's saving grace is that it is close enough to bigger towns that people will stay. Further out-state, the school closing and the loss of the railroad mark the start of the decline of many small towns. March 1982, unsure of camera, Nikkor 28mm f/3.5, Kodachrome 64

At the risk of sounding like a fogey, it also happened to be a good time to tour. In the intervening years thousands of family farms across the Midwest have gone out of business and so there aren't as many ladies hanging out the wash to wave to nor as many small-town cafes to stop in. Just in Iowa there was a huge loss of railway trackage which isolated many small town grain elevators. In towns like Martelle, through which I rode, there are now pointless highway overpasses which make no sense unless you mentally drop a railway underneath. Power lines run diagonally across farm fields where they used to run next to a now-undetectable railbed. Lose the elevator, consolidate the school, close the combined gas station and car dealership because of leaking underground storage tanks and the next thing you know everyone's driving to the Wal-Mart in Anamosa and the town is drying up and blowing away. There was a certain gentle charm to a more populous rural Iowa, some of which is dissipating in the face of progress.

Britain has evolved, too, from the malaise of the 1970s and early 1980s. Car ownership has gone up 50%, road miles driven have doubled while the miles of roads have hardly changed. The result: bigger cars, busier roads, road rage, supermarkets and a loss of so much that was charming about old Britain, the tea shops and pubs and Saturday markets and The Archers and much of British Rail's local service. The Brits are as yuppified as we are, with their BMWs and cell phones and, while much has been gained, something also has been lost. Even in 1991 I talked to a couple on Bredon Hill who said they rode only mountain bikes because even then the roads were getting so crowded and dangerous.

Unabashed nostalgia? Yes, it is.

I linked earlier to a site of a guy who rode cross-country at the age of 41, about my age when I first wrote this page. He did it in eight weeks. For all the languid pace referred to earlier, 70 miles a day does add up. I remember fondly that summer of 1980 and am grateful that when I had the time I rummaged up the money to do this and that I took enough gear to document it in photographs. I'd urge you to do the same if you take a tour.

Can't get enough of my writing about bikes? You're in luck! I have started a blog called Two Cities  Two Wheels that you might enjoy.

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