Earth Matters: Love of cycling mixed with love of nature 40 years ago

Of the many grand adventures and rewarding milestones during my six decades, a large share have had a connection to nature. While these events and exploits have been sprinkled throughout my life, this year marks the 40th anniversary of an especially momentous year.

During that school year, my senior year at Penn State, I was able to connect my interests in nature and the environment to my academic pursuits.

Fascinated by my studies of landforms, climate, oceanography, human ecology, urban geography, remote sensing (as they called it in those days) and cartography, I was genuinely excited to get to class.

Serendipitously, I was also able to connect the sport I came to love to the things I was studying in the classroom, for bicycling and geography were two incredibly complementary disciplines. I came to realize there was no better way to see the natural or man-made environment than by bike.

I had been steadily improving as a cyclist and thought it would be fun to give road racing a try. Penn State belonged to the Eastern Intercollegiate Cycling Federation, and races were held at schools throughout the Northeast in both the fall and spring. The league would not have been mistaken for the Big Ten or the NCAA in those days. But we racers took it seriously and worked hard to compete, despite long trips, expensive equipment costs, chilly early spring weather and sparse financial support from our schools.

While some racers simply trained, most made the training an adventure and enjoyed the experience of the ride and where it took them. My mentors and riding partners back home had taught me to enjoy the journey, not just the physical test of the ride.

If I wanted to be faster, for rides, races and long tours, I had to ride more and more intensely. I put on many miles by myself, but rode some especially challenging ones with three legendary riders — Ken Steel, John Bradley and Gary Kephart. Every weekend, they would drag me through the beautiful countryside of Blair and the surrounding seven counties.

The winter of 1977-78, however, was a harsh one, and I was frustrated that I could not ride the training miles I had intended. So when the Penn State racing season began at Johns Hopkins University two days after St. Patrick’s Day, I felt ill-prepared.

The race was on a short, many-turn circuit on the college campus and after riders started being lapped, the volunteer race officials weren’t quite sure who was in what place. Penn State won the race, but the final results were decided as much by negotiation as they were by actual racing.

Much more comfortable on the open road, I was eager to set off for a stage race at Princeton and Rutgers later in April. Despite my training schedule being turned upside down by the lingering cold and rainy weather, I managed to finish in the top third of the field in all four stages of the race.

After a childhood of athletic futility and mediocrity, I had finally found a sport in which I could not only be competitive, but which also allowed me to enjoy the natural treasures of Pennsyl­vania in the process.

Next time, John continues the tales from 1978 with the collegiate cycling championship race and his preparations for a cross-country bike ride after college graduation. Visit for more on his upcoming book which features that interesting year.