My parents tell me that they were prompted to go out on their own because of poor planning. The organizers running the 1979 Eastern Tandem Rally in Cape Cod, MA must have disliked children, as no provisions were made to support younger riders (i.e. hired sitters, crafts, shorter distances, etc). This was a problem for not only my parents, but several other parents who wanted to enjoy cycling with their young families and had the expectation that an event like the annual ETR would be the perfect weekend to do so. This seemed unlikely, as the organizers informed my parents and their friends that the ETR was not a place for children and suggested they bring along a sitter if they wanted rides fashioned for families.
To know my father in that era is to know a man who no longer exists. He had a bit of a temper and was not very skilled at hiding his rage once his hackles were raised. That said, he was furious. However, he was joined by a few other more even-tempered couples and, rather than argue a point with a group of folks not interested in growing the sport through the next generation of riders, they set out to plan the first Family Cycling Tour in Salem, NJ.
The Family Cycling Tour, or FCT, was formed out of pure altruism; an event that catered to the children first, emphasizing the joy of cycling rather than the suffering of long days spent climbing impossible mountains. Their first effort was perfectly simplistic, yet monumental considering the challenges they faced. The first day started from our red-bricked driveway in Vineland, with my father leaning out of a delivery van (our SAG wagon) replete with rations for the two-day excursion to Salem and back. His beard was reddish-brown, his glasses tinted. He looked like a giant as he addressed the raggedy crowd of families leaning on their tandems, single bikes, and trailers loaded with toys and toddlers. I recall standing between Greg Sachs and Randy Steketee as we stood by, faithfully listening to my father as he described the route, the rules, and the issues of safety before we embarked on the journey west toward the Salem Oak.
I rode with my mother on our dark blue Fast-Tab tandem. Her jersey pockets filled with He-Men and a Han Solo figure worn out from too many trips to the freezer (ahem, carbon freezing). The ride was long and hot, but we made it to the lunch stop based in a local elementary school playground. I watched as my mother, along with a few others, made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, served bananas, bug juice, and cookies while most of the fathers gathered around bikes to be repaired. Scott Steketee, a former olympic rower and lanky mountain of a man, produced a soccer ball from the sag wagon and an impromptu game broke out. One would assume that our gang of kids would have been worn out from pedaling all of those miles to the lunch break. We weren’t. Our energy renewed, we traded seats (and parents) as we hopped onto the tandems of others and set out for our final destination of the day – a small hotel in the sleepy town of Salem.
Salem, like many small towns in the early 1980s, was a town teetering on the verge of collapse, with few industries remaining and little to hold the town together other than its status as the eponymous county seat. The town feature was, and likely still is, the aforementioned Salem Oak Tree located in the Friends Burial Ground. This was the last tree left standing after the area was cleared by Salem’s father John Fenwick in 1675. Needless to say, this tree was massively impressive as it stood guard in the old cemetery, looking out over the depressed town and gloomy, long forgotten headstones. As I stood under that great oak sipping a juicebox I imagined the town as it was hundreds of years ago, long before our gaggle of wool-wearing cyclists wandered in.
We settled in to our motel room, which had a foul odor of pine air freshener, bathroom cleaner, and old food. The group ate dinner together and while our parents met to revel in their successful fight against the ETR establishment, our room became the headquarters for the evening’s entertainment. Two dozen kids piled onto two lumpy motel beds, watching library-borrowed reel-to-reel films, including Hardware Wars among others. I remember drifting off to sleep as the sun was setting, it’s blue hue gleaming through the drapes. I was tired but ready for the next day.
We were awakened by my parents already dressed in their bright-yellow Woolrich rain gear. It was going to be a long ride back, we thought. The smell of damp wool clothing and leather Dettos permeated the room, blocking out, if only for a moment, that strong odor of pine cleaner. Natalie and I reluctantly got out of bed, dressed, and prepared to spend a day riding in the rain.
It wasn’t nearly as bad as we thought and by the time we got moving all complaints about the rain were behind us. When we eventually reached the lunch stop we were soaked, but happy. One rider pulled off his leather Duegi’s to reveal a foot stained blue-black from the leather dye. Another had feet so white and saturated with rain water they looked like they were about to burst. We sat indoors at a local arts camp, eating more of the same PBJ sandwiches as we waited out the storm, which, thankfully passed overhead.
Some of the worn out kids, including me, ended up in the SAG wagon driven by our “Aunt” Wilma, a friend who became our surrogate grandmother when ours passed away just a few years prior. We sang songs as we ambled down the road in the bouncy delivery van, occasionally passing our friends and waiving out the window, much to their dismay. It goes without saying, but these were the days before airbags and mandatory seat belts, so 5+ kids in a delivery van was not unheard of nor considered unsafe.
The time and conditions were quite different in the early 1980s – Drivers weren’t distracted by phones or GPS devices, and we only had the occasional asshole drive-by and call us weirdos, or worse, faggots. The road seemed wider and safer, and we weren’t constantly looking over our shoulders to make sure a teenager in a Chevy Tahoe wasn’t about to wipe out our families as we wandered down the road, many of us on wobbly BMX or imported 24” road bikes. Sure, our parents watched over us with the protection of a lion pride, but I never felt insecure and the road seemed to be laid out for us, not the cars that occasionally passed by.
These families had a bond that transcended the moment and we would have many more adventures together. The group would grow each year and our annual tour would move to larger surroundings, the best of which was an old resort in Maryland, complete with crab trapping and board games for rainy days. The core collective eventually dwindled, replaced by families with smaller, younger children as we aged into our teen years and were reluctant to enjoy the same old trip. I suppose we stopped going because, naturally, teenagers lose interest in such things. Some of us have reconnected through the usual social media outlets, though I doubt we will ever have the same connection we once shared as the children of renegades, fighting the system so that we could ride together as a family.