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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  1/1/2020

2020 Hindsight

How many journalists are going to write retrospective articles in the next month using that headline? It’s too good to pass up and it will never come up again…use it or lose it! So excuse me for being predictable but I just couldn’t resist. And I do have a column in mind that looks backward. Whether it exhibits 20-20 vision remains to be seen.

My look backward is about this column on this website: I call it On The Road. That is of course the title of Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel about cutting loose on the ragged fringe of bohemia…hitting the road to find what’s over the horizon or just to find oneself. They say Kerouac wrote the “book” as one long, continuous stream-of-consiousness scrawl on one long, continuous roll of butcher paper.

I take that long, continuous butcher paper image as my leitmotif for this column. Okay, maybe not continuous, but at least regular. I wrote my first On The Road column in July, 1999 and I have cranked one out every month since. That’s 247 columns…247 months. How long a role of butcher paper would that be? Given the nature of HTML docs on the internet, it’s hard to quantify. There are no page breaks and no word counts. The columns just roll along like that butcher paper. At a guess, at an average of maybe four-plus pages per column, that would be around 1000 pages of copy. 

Calling the column On The Road is not just a tribute to those old boho boyz from back in the day. It’s also, at least in broad strokes, the theme of all these columns: road bikes on roads. The good folks at BikeCal.com have generously and tolerantly allowed me a great deal of leeway over the years to wander far afield from that fundamental topic, but then isn’t that what happens when we set out on a ride? If we have our eyes and our minds open to the world around us, as we toot along on our bikes, an almost endless array of thoughts and themes and topics will unspool in front of us. At least that’s the way it is for me. 

If you are a regular reader of these columns—I know there are some of you out there!—you may recall my dipping into this particular topic before. Not writing about riding but writing about writing about riding. Without checking my archives, I can think of at least a few times I’ve gone down this road, including—briefly—just last month. If you want to take a hard line with me on the matter, you could accuse me of being narcissistic and self-absorbed. I would have to do some heavy lifting to prove I’m not. What it boils down to is this: after almost 250 columns stretching back almost 21 years, I simply feel justified in using that 2020 Hindsight header as an excuse to reminisce about that long road…that long roll of paper.

It actually goes back a bit further into the misty past than 1999. So, as briefly as I can…

I had the nuts and bolts of journalism pounded into me as my high school newspaper Editor and then as a Journalism major at University of Oregon. But I never did much with it, aside from working as a sports reporter for a while. Other roads and other careers captured my time and interest for most of my middle-adult life. Then around 1990 I came back to it by way of cycling. First I took on the job of coordinating the Santa Rosa Cycling Club’s monthly ride calendar. No journalism there. I just like planning and organizing rides. But the ride calendar in those days lived in the center-spread of the monthly club newsletter and the Editor at that time was proving to be a problem.

She did okay with her content but she was chronically tardy in getting the newsletter printed and distributed. By the time it arrived in members’ mailboxes, often the first weekend of the month had gone by already and whatever rides were on that weekend were lost. (No internet then: no alternative way to find out the start times and locales for the rides.) After working hard to fill the dates with good rides, they’d go up in smoke because she couldn’t hold up her end of the deal. It drove me nuts. Finally I blew my stack…tore a major strip off her one month. She took offense and said, essentially: you don’t like the way I’m doing this, fine, you can do it! Really? Okaaaay…

So, early in 1992, I became the Editor of the 8-page newsletter. Pretty small time you say, and I wouldn’t disagree. However, a newsletter is the town hall of a club…the water cooler…the place where all the members meet to share their yarns and theories and woes. And beginning about the time I took over, the club began to grow, both in membership and in its influence around the Bay Area cycling scene. Much of that was due to the rising popularity of cycling in general but at least some of it was due to the club banging out a good, readable, informative newsletter each month.

Of the eight pages in the newsletter, four were taken up with standard forms each month: the aforementioned ride calendar—which I was still preparing—on pages 4 and 5, a membership application form on page 7, and assorted boilerplate on page 8. That left about four pages for original copy each month. I kept cranking out the copy for those newsletters from 1992 to 2014…22 and a half years (at four pages a month = about 1100 pages). I finally stopped when I guess I kind of burned out. It was a lot of work, taking up a number of days each month. And after so many years I felt like I was on a bit of a hamster wheel, recycling the same topics and copy, month after month, year after year. Anyway, by then the club had a well-established web presence and the old-school newsletter was not so important. (Someone still has to write the content that appears on the website…or not. But that’s a story for another day.)

Meanwhile…a fellow club member got me interested in organizing week-long cycle-tours for the club. It had never occurred to me that such things were possible. We staged our first prototype tour in 1994 and have been having one or two a year ever since. At first we just printed maps and route slips for the tour participants but in the later ‘90s I started preparing preview booklets for each tour: not only the routes and maps but also descriptive copy of each stage, including photos. There are currently 23 such previews available at my own website, Adventure-Velo, but I’ve done over 30. I just haven’t gotten around to loading the latest ones at the site. The booklets run from 25 to 50 pages. Minus the maps, route slips, elevation profiles, and photos, the copy runs anywhere from 15 to 30 pages per book (times 30 books = about 750 pages).

Somewhere along in there, what with all the copy about assorted stages and routes, Mountaineers Press of Seattle offered me the assignment of creating a good old-fashioned hard-copy guidebook: 75 Classic Rides Northern California. That’s another 325 pages. Add it all up and it’s over 3000 pages of copy, all more or less about bikes and biking.

So anyway…back to 1999, when Tom at BikeCal asked me if I would like to write a column each month about cycling for the website. My first reaction, understandable I think, was to be flattered and enthusiastic. My next reaction was to wonder what the hell I would write about, once each month. Could I really keep producing interesting and—I would hope—at least occasionally original content that would appeal to cyclists…get them pumped up about riding and bikes and all the aspects of the pastime that come with that…racing, wrenching, advocacy, health, history, the environment, frothing rants about the anti-bike element, etc. 

I wasn’t at all sure I could find enough ideas and words to last out a year. I certainly had no notion that I would still be writing the columns 20 years on; still finding new ways to look at the activity and to find it fresh and revelatory, all over again. That at least is my hope: that I’m keeping it fresh. I am well aware that many may not find it so wonderful. But I do get fan mail from happy readers when I write something that resonates for them. Every so often I get it right.

All of those 3000-plus pages of bike chat haven’t made me famous, nor rich. Even though my mug shot is up at the top of the column, no one recognizes me on the street, especially not in bike kit. If I introduce myself to another rider, I usually try to just say, “Bill.” But if they manage to latch onto my full name, then it’s not uncommon for something like this to unfold: “You’re Bill Oetinger? THAT Bill Oetinger? OMG!” This I find embarrassing and uncomfortable but secretly sort of gratifying. It’s not that my ego needs the boost. (Well yeah, it does.) But more because it tells me I’ve written something that has reached this person, that has piqued their curiosity or stoked their enthusiasm…or perhaps launched them on a ride down some new roads they’d never been on before. That makes it all worthwhile. 

So thanks to the folks at BikeCal for allowing me this little space on their home page for all these years. And above all, thanks to you for clicking through to the columns, every month or every so often. 

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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