Monday, June 24, 2013

Cycling in the 60s: To Europe with the AYH

The pamphlet describing the trips offered by the San Gabriel Council of the AYH, including the trip I took. Why is this pamphlet dated1966 rather than 1967? Did I get the pamphlet a year before I went? Did the AYH figure the 1966 pamphlet was good enough so didn't reprint it for 1967 to save money? I have no idea.

American Youth Hostels (AYH) is an affiliate of Hosteling International, a federation devoted to enabling young people of different nationalities, cultures. and social backgrounds to meet informally, share experiences and to learn about themselves, each other and their surroundings (paraphrased from Wikipedia). Although hitchhikers and train riders are welcome and in practice many such stay in hostels, Hosteling International definitely gives enthusiastic support to young people who experience their surroundings by hiking and biking from hostel to hostel. Among the activities it sponsored back in the 60s, AYH offered chartered bicycling trips that went from hostel to hostel in Europe. I don't recall how I found out about those trips, but once I did, going on one completely captured my imagination and I put all my time and my life savings into making it happen. Part of my enthusiasm for this trip came from the prospect of spending all summer on my bike, but another part came from the opportunity to be in what we in the US considered the heart of cycling, Europe. All the best bicycles were made in Europe, all the best bicycle racers were European, and so bicycling in Europe must be perfect.

Yes, this is a Youth Hostel. In 1967, many of the hotels and motels in Europe had a "low rent" section for hostelers. In a youth hostel, you almost always stayed in a communal room with lots of beds, and occasionally even the beds were communal, one large bed for several hostelers. In addition to its normal rooms, this motel had a dormitory section for hostelers. That said, I suspect that the reason I photographed this particular hostel is its deluxe appearance; I made the mistake of photographing the remarkable and forgetting to photograph the typical.

Despite being labelled a "Hotel", this hostel is a bit more of a typical hostel. Notice the kids in the window on the upper left (and my bicycle out front.) Most of the hostels I stayed at in England looked more like a village B&B, and many of those in Europe looked like a low rent ski lodge.

The San Gabriel Valley Council of the AYH, the group I travelled with, offered several different tours. These tours varied by route (northern, central, or southern Europe) and by schedule. Although all groups spent 60 days in Europe (July 1 through August 30) one set of groups didn't use bicycles at all but travelled by bus, train, boat, or VW van, and we shall say no more about them. A second and third set of groups travelled "by bicycle and train." If memory serves, these groups travelled mostly by bicycle with trains used to bridge segments of the bike trip. The second set of groups stayed together for the entire 60 days, whereas the third travelled together for 42 days, with 18 days at the end allocated to independent travel. The last 18 days did not have to be spent on a bicycle, and based on my experience with one of these groups, most people opted not to bicycle these last 18 days. I was in a fourth group, the "Independent Hostelers Program." We were dropped off in London and 60 days later picked up in Brussels. What we did in between was up to us. I bicycled during that time, but I could have taken the train or hitchhiked if I had been so inclined. All four groups flew from Los Angeles to New York, from New York to London, and then 60 days later from Brussels to New York and New York to Los Angeles. I don't know how many of us left from Los Angeles or how many AYH groups departed from cities other than Los Angeles, all I know is that the "Independent Hostelers Program" departing Los Angeles consisted of forty people. Extrapolating from that, however, there must have been a fair number of us who set out to spend the summer of 1967 bicycling around Europe.

Mr. Hetchins who built the custom touring bike I rode through Europe standing over my bike in front of his shop. Once I landed in London, I somehow got to Hetchin's bike shop and picked up my bike. Getting it back home at the end of the trip was an adventure in itself. Hetchins bikes are now considered classics.
A british rider we encountered at one of the hostels in England. Notice that he has a very fine bike, but it has only five speeds, five in the back and one in the front. In the US, this configuration was only found on bikes with flat handlebars and comfy seats intended for casual riding, but in England, this configuration was the rule. My bike had 15 speeds, five in the back and three in the front, which the british cyclists found hysterically funny. Also notice the grey AYH panniers on the bikes on the ground. This is what most of the riders on my trip used.

Included in my independent trip was two nights each in hostels in New York City, London, and Brussels. While in the New York and London hostels, I made a friend, a rider from one of the bicycling clubs in Los Angeles. This club took themselves way more seriously than the Modesto Roadmen did. They dressed the same all the time both on and off their bikes. On the bikes, they wore their club jerseys and red berets. (This was in the days before helmets.) Off the bikes, they wore matching jumpsuits. Finally, they all had nicknames they used instead of their real names. Thus, I have no idea of what my friend's real name was because, at his request, I always referred to him as "Edifus."

Left: Edifus at the start of the trip, in London. Squinting at the back of his jersey, I think (under SO. CALIF.) it reads "Rallye Team." Could this have been the name of his club? It sounds right. You will see this jersey again, in a future post.

Upper Right: Edifus, at the end of the trip, standing behind my mother, holding his little sister. He is wearing the official "Rallye Team" off-the-bike uniform, a biege jumpsuit. Notice the pins in his beret.  He collected pins as  souvenirs of the trip, adding to the collection on his beret. 

Lower Right: Similarly, I collected patches which, when I got home, I sewed onto a ski jacket which I have to this day.

Edifus was in the 42 day, central Europe group. When it came time to depart London, I spoke to the adult leader of his group, and we concluded that there was no reason I could not ride along with them, and so that's what I did for the first 11 days of my trip, from London to Amsterdam. Edifus and I did not become friends for life but I did see him again the following year at the Great Western Bike Rally (the topic of a future post).

Although I tagged along with this group because of one my new friend, I ended up becoming friends with the whole group, and so we were all a little sad when, in Amsterdam, I bid them adieu and headed off on my own, with a promise to reunite with them in Innsbruck, Austria at the end of their time together. Edifus and I, being the only members of the group who wanted to bicycle the whole trip, planned to join forces there and spend the remainder of our trip cycling, which we did. I could have stayed with their group for the entire 42 days, but I felt like I had made a plan to ride independently and that I would not have been satisfied if I abandoned that plan. Besides, I think I probably wanted to ride faster and take a more challenging route than the group, one traversing the famous mountain passes of the alps:

Map of my European Tour as published in the local newspaper. The  ><  icons along the route in Switzerland and Austria mark major mountain passes.

My route covered 2,300 miles, 1,500 by bicycle, the rest by boat or train. Collecting mountain passes was definitely part of my plan. In Switzerland, I passed over Grimsel Pass, a 20 mile climb reaching 8,300 feet, Furka Pass, a 6 miles climb reaching 8,700 feet, and Oberalp pass, reaching 7,500 feet. In Austria, I crossed Flexen Pass at 5,500 feet and Arlberg Pass at 6,000 feet. In my notes from the trip, I commented that I found Furka Pass to be the steepest and most difficult. I remember that there was a family on bicycles going up at the same time I did. Their family included young children and they had very basic bicycles, so they walked all the way up the pass. I insisted on riding, but had to stop quite often to catch my breath. As a result, we reached to top together. Of these five passes, I have pictures from four of them:

It was on this trip that I first heard about a "double century", a one day bicycle ride of 200 miles. The Modesto Roadmen routinely rode 100 miles in a day, but the idea of 200 miles in a day never occurred to us. When I got back together with Edifus in Innsbruck, he told me about receiving a letter from his bike club back home describing their first double century. He was so jealous that, on a rest day for his group, he took the opportunity to do a solo, 200 mile ride down one side of the Rhine and back the other.

I have approximately 200 photographs from this trip, which was quite a few pictures back in the days before digital photography when film and processing were not inexpensive. In retrospect, I am kicking myself for most of them; very few really captured anything interesting. For example, there are the pictures of cars. Second only to a fascination with European bicycles, the Modesto Roadmen had a fascination with European automobiles, so I have way too many pictures of random cars. That, and the pictures of poorly photographed, random, unidentified buildings left me with an almost manageable number of pictures appropriate for this post. The remainder of this post will consist of selected photos with what narrative there is contained in the captions.

This is the airplane we took from Los Angeles to New York. It may have been the same plane we took from New York to Longdon. Even back in 1967, propeller airplanes like this were obsolete. Using obsolete equipment that nobody else would use was one way that AYH kept the costs of the trip down.

An interesting event on the flight is one of the engines, visible right outside my window, failed and had to be shut down. At 17 years of age, I considered this hysterically funny. I couldn't understand why the adults around me were not similarly amused.

One of the things I was interested in was the Bike Culture in Europe. Apparently, I found this bike rack striking in 1967. Compare it to the next picture, a bike parking lot in Amsterdam in 2013.

Photograph from the New York Times, June 20, 2013, taken by Pavel Prokopchik. This is a bike parking lot in Amsterdam today.

Liechtenstein is a small country lying between Switzerland and Austria.

Switchbacks in the Swiss Alps.
I got very excited when I came across this whilst scanning slides for this post, but  then remembered it had come not from one of the mountain passes I crossed, but a cog train I rode to a scenic vista.

Ruins that caught my eye.

Coming into an honest to gosh walled city.

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