An e-mail from friend David Herlihy, author of The Lost Cyclist, about an American around-the-world bicyclist who goes missing in Turkey in 1894, alerted me to his latest yarn about a member of that exclusive club of globe-girdlers.
In the mid-1930s, Birchmore rode across Europe and Asia on a single-speed, 42-pound Reinhardt bicycle, named Bucephalus after Alexander the Great’s horse. Later in the decade, he rode 12,000 miles in making his way across North America. During his travels in Europe, he crossed paths with figure skater Sonja Henie and Adolf Hitler.
David tells the tale of Birchmore’s adventures in an article on the website of Smithsonian, the magazine of the Smithsonian Institution, which has Bucephalus in its National Museum of American History.
He interviewed Birchmore at his Athens home, which he shares with his wife of 72 years, Willa Deane.
In Cologne, David wrote, Birchmore “attended a student rally — and came face to face with Adolf Hitler. Working up the crowd, Hitler demanded to know if any Americans were present; Birchmore’s friends pushed him forward.”
“He nearly hit me in the eye with his ‘Heil, Hitler,'” Birchmore recalled.
As for Sonja Henie, the Norwegian Olympic skater and future Hollywood actress: “I just happened to ice skate on the same lake where she practiced,” Birchmore said. “She came over and gave me a few pointers. Beautiful girl.”
Birchmore also wrote of his travels in a book, Around the World on a Bicycle, reissued in 1996.
I asked David if the Smithsonian article meant that he’s about to write another book on round-the-world cyclists. His reply: “I am planning a longer article on Birchmore for Adventure Cycling, but my next book probably won’t be about another round-the-word tour, though I’m still looking at options.”
He said he’s off next week to Paris to attend the 22nd International Cycling History Conference May 25-28.
If David does decide to write a book about Birchmore, there’s plenty of fodder.
After Birchmore was married in 1939, he and his bride, for their honeymoon, rode more than 4,500 miles on a tandem bike through Latin America. In his 70s, he hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail, more than 2,000 miles from northern Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. He developed a talent for walking on his hands, using it to cross streams without getting his boots wet, and he reportedly walked on his hands down the staircases inside the Washington Monument.
Birchmore may even by the origin, according to Wikipedia, for “a derisive term used by ‘serious’ road cyclists to describe other cyclists who do not conform to serious road cyclists’ norms with regard to dress and equipment, and appear amateurish to them.”
“In one famous incident while touring in Italy,” the online encyclopedia said, “Birchmore passed a bunch of racers during a race he had crossed paths with by chance. And despite going up hill on his loaded 50-pound non-racing bike, he passed the finish line well ahead of the racers. The cheering crowd at the finish line assumed him to be the winner of the race.”
Birchmore is quite a celebrity in his hometown. Dan Magill of the Athens Banner-Herald profiled Birchmore for a story published Nov. 29, 2009, Birchmore’s 98th birthday.
“Fred still works out regularly at the new Athens Y on Hawthorne Avenue,” Magill wrote. “He learned tumbling and boxing at the old Athens Y, and his first major athletics accomplishment was winning the Southern Conference bantamweight boxing division (119 pounds) in 1930. As a tumbler, he did the difficult ‘double front flip’ with ease and he was a featured acrobat on the Y’s famous boys’ tumbling team that toured the South.”
Another interviewer asked him about his purpose in life. “For me,” he replied, “the great purposes in life are: to have as many adventures as possible, to brighten the lives of as many in this world as possible, and to leave this old world a little bit better place for having been here.”
As for longevity and his fellow compatriots: “Americans eat too much, sleep too little, work too hard, and travel too fast to live to a ripe old age.”