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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  8/1/2005

Every Moment Counts

In 1999, about to embark on my second trip to France, I contemplated purchasing an Air Friday. Would fellow Almaden Cycle Touring Club member Bill Bliss let me take a "test ride" on his AF? Bill didn't hesitate a second. Not only did he say yes, he also adjusted his Friday for my petite height and gave me a route to follow from his Willow Glen home.

On June 24, 2005 a pickup truck struck Bill while he was riding a west-to-east transcontinental route in Colorado. He died instantly. And Bay Area cycling lost one of its most ardent champions.

Often referred as "the Lockheed Bill Bliss" or "Bonnie's Bill Bliss" he shared his name with another active ACTC member. Bill "is an ACTC legend," said Esther Snively, who had invited him to share his expertise on riding in the rain with the ACTC Academy. "The article I included in the Academy Handbook came from Bill's talk," she remembered. "He has been a great role model for all cyclists."

Club statistician Don Axtell remembers how Bill would lead rides from San Jose to the Great Western Bicycle Rally in Paso Robles. "Bill had been riding this route for many years, going south of Hollister on Hwy 25 on some very isolated roads. [When] we ate breakfast at Jerry's in Hollister, Bill would always tip with a $2 bill, saying it was more special that way."

An inveterate volunteer, Bill enthusiastically supported San Jose's public TV station, KTEH. It took a minimum of his gentle persuasion to get the club involved by donating a year's membership -- with two club jerseys thrown in -- to the station's annual fundraising auction.

Bill's cycling adventures got started when a Lockheed colleague, Vladimir Baicher, talked him into commuting from his home at the edge of San Jose's Willow Glen district to his engineering job in Sunnyvale. From 1972 until his retirement in 1999, he took the same harrowing urban commute through San Jose and Santa Clara, rain or shine.

Fellow Lockheed retiree Sandy Vaurs recalls one early 80s winter day when Bill slipped on snow and fell his way to work. "I sensed something on the other side of my cubicle wall and got up to see why it was moving. It was Bill, hanging onto it for support. He had broken his pelvis. Eventually, his boss got him to agree to go to the doctor and they wheeled him out of the building on an office chair. He was told not to cycle for six weeks, but I think he was back on his bike before then."

An Advocate's Advocate

The more Bill rode, the more active he became in bicycling advocacy. His signature sandy-haired handlebar moustache became a customary part of regular bicycle coalition meetings. First he joined what is now the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, leading him to serve for several years as president of CABO, the California Association of Bicycling Organizations. He also served on REBAC (now the Bay Area Bicycle Coalition) and on the board of directors of the San Francisco Bay Trail. And he was always sure to report the latest news from these groups as ACTC's Political Action coordinator.

No doubt due to his quiet, thoughtful approach to listening to everyone at these meetings, Bill was invited to serve on the State of California Recreational Trails Committee. He never failed to ride to Committee meetings -- as far away as San Diego! He'd ride on freeway shoulders when there was no alternate route for bikes. On one such trip he rode about 130 miles along I-5 south of Coalinga. "I was stopped by Highway Patrol Officers four times!" he reported. But he managed to convince all of them of his right to the roadway. "Every one of these officers was polite and courteous," he reflected, "but it would be nice to go more than 35 miles without repeating the experience!"

A True Adventure Cyclist

In 1976 Bill joined the first TransAm expedition with Bikecentennial, the fledgling cycletouring effort that eventually became Adventure Cycling Association. Not content to do the TransAm trail alone, he took his family with him. He built a triple tandem, complete with child adaptor cranks, for himself and his two daughters, then seven and nine. His wife, Bonnie, rode along on her single.

"It was a really fantastic trip," Bonnie told me. "Every afternoon when we rolled into camp, we were such a distinctive sight. The girls loved it." Today that triple graces the Bliss dining room wall, a fond memory of their transcontinental trek.

Before committing to Bikecentennial, Bill decided to see how he liked bike camping by doing Super Tour first. Yes, Super Tour, the climb-every-mountain, 100+-miles-a-day annual summer event that he enthusiastically returned to year after year. "Bill never rode the bus," recalls fellow Super Tourer Ruthie Klonizchii. "He mostly rode alone. He liked to ride by himself, had his own pace and didn't want to hold anyone up."

Ruthie, who also did a TransAm Southern Tier trip with Bill a few years ago, remembers that he was "very safety conscious. He never took shortcuts. And when it was his turn to cook, he always did something special, added something unique. He was delightful to be around. When something broke he was right there to fix it. Always ready to help."

Around the World

Ruthie's words echo those of David and Lisa Valkenaar, who rode often with Bill on Odyssey 2000, the turn-of-the-century world tour he finished in January 2001. "He'll never pass up a chance to stop and help someone in need," they reported on their Odyssey 2000 web site.

The Valkenaars later reported from China that, riding out of WuzHou into a construction project, "several riders fell in the [slick, red clay] mud. No one was hurt, but Bill Bliss came out the worst. He went down and rolled over trying to get up. He looked like a tar baby in red mud."

By the end of Odyssey 2000 Bill was one of only eight riders who had completed 20,000 miles, riding every inch of the tour, including all the optional routes. Yet, as fellow "O2K" riders Larry and Joan Dolinsky put it, he was "always taking time for that extra cup of coffee and a little conversation before departing for the day. He made it a habit to stop and assist those cyclists who appeared to be in trouble along the roadside," whether they were dedicated to the 20,000-mile goal or not. It "seemed to be irrelevant to him," they said. "Bill was warm, friendly, unhurried, knowledgeable about biking, and accessible."

A Friday Fanatic

According to Bonnie, Bill had accumulated five or six Bike Friday foldables over the years. And he was always ready to sign up for events sponsored by Green Gear, the Eugene, OR, company that markets the Bike Friday. Lynette Chiang of their marketing team called Bill a "BF Champion, someone who regards his or her bicycle as fundamental to their daily life as their toothbrush."

Both this year and last, Bill was a prominent figure at the Desert Camp co-sponsored by BF and PacTour. "Bill shared his vast knowledge of cycling to many of the beginner riders," said camp director and former RAAM champion Lon Haldeman. "He was patient and kind when explaining how to change a flat or decipher the cue sheet. I spent afternoon lunches with him as the final riders would arrive. He encouraged each and everyone of them - to continue riding - as he believed in riding the bike; not riding in the sag! And he rode every mile of Desert Camp!"

After Desert Camp, Bill headed out on yet another expedition, back across the country on the same TransAm route he'd traveled with his family 29 years ago. That's the way so many of us will always remember him -- riding off to the next adventure.

At a memorial reception in San Jose, hundreds of people read the words that had guided Bill throughout life:
The past is history.
The future is a mystery.
The moment is a gift.
That is why the moment is called the present.

Vaya con dios, Bill. You made every single moment count.

William Baumgarten Bliss
December 23, 1935 to June 24, 2005

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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