Biking Across Kansas

Fifty Years of Biking Across Kansas

by Pete Simonson and Charles Walther

Though we might think of BAK in terms of its ‘B’—the biking—it's actually an ensemble of many things, as it has been since it began in 1975. Biking Across Kansas is of course riders on their bikes, but it is also organizers, volunteers, small towns, back roads, families, old and new friends, food, stories, Kansas’s weather and landscapes, and a spirit of adventure and community shared among people from different backgrounds. Details have changed along the way, but all these things were part of BAK from the start.

Flash back to September, 1974. A small group of friends from Wichita are sitting around a campfire outside Winfield after riding a century. The conversation turns to what rides they’d like to do in the future. One of them, Larry Christie, suggests biking across the state, thinking it would just be six or so of them and a support vehicle. Over the next months, however, the idea grew, driven by Larry and his wife Norma.

The group by the fire were members of Wichita’s Oz Bicycle Club, which had formed the previous year. That club, whose leader was called the Wizard, set a tone for BAK that continues today. It included folks of all ages, of different political persuasions and stations in life, united by a love of cycling. There were middle-aged professionals, countercultural 20-somethings, and eager teenagers. Some preferred leisurely tours in the countryside, while others liked to ride fast. They socialized with each other, welcomed newcomers, put out a newsletter, and hosted regular meetings that included presentations on various aspects of cycling. Members worked on and sometimes built their own bikes, and they shared a collective do-it-yourself ethic.

The first BAK took shape against the backdrop of a larger bicycle boom. Beginning in the 1960s, bikes began to be more than childhood pastimes or transportation for those who couldn’t afford a car. They also became desirable objects for adults, especially those in the white middle and professional classes. Between 1965 and 1974, the number of bikes sold to adults in the U.S. increased twentyfold, with 1972-74 being the high-water mark. When a new shop opened in Hays in the summer of 1970, for instance, it sold 75 bikes on the first day. The American-made Schwinn Varsity was a popular entry-level 10 speed, but more serious cyclists who could afford them bought the company’s high-end Paramount or European imports from companies like Raleigh, Motobecane, Peugeot, and Gitane.

One driver of sales was increasing public attention to physical fitness and health. President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1955 heart attack had initiated this trend, and his physician, Paul Dudley White, became a high-profile advocate for cycling as a means of cardiovascular health. Jogging as we know it began in Eugene, Oregon in 1963, and a book on the subject published in 1967 sold a million copies. Larry Christie bought a Schwinn Varsity in 1966 but didn’t begin riding regularly until 1972, when at 37 he felt the need to get into better shape. Others who purchased bikes were motivated more by the era’s new environmental awareness, which sometimes overlapped with a sense that fast-paced, technologically driven modern life damaged society and soul alike. From this perspective, the bike was a non-polluting mode of transport, a form of leisurely self-renewal, and an appealing countercultural symbol. The fitness and environmental sides of the bike boom were aided by new government support for bicycle infrastructure—dedicated bike paths, designated routes on shared streets, and rails-to-trails projects. This took place as advocates debated whether cyclists should have their own bikeways or insist on the same rights to the road as cars and trucks. As a cross-state tour on open highways, BAK also functioned as an argument, in Larry Christie’s words, for the right of bikes to “continue to be able to share the roads with other vehicles.”

The bike boom brought renewed interest to long-distance bicycle touring. American Youth Hostels (AYH) published an atlas of bike touring routes and accommodations. In 1972, two young couples with AYH connections set off on a ride from Alaska to the tip of South America which was publicized in a National Geographic article. Along the way, they hatched the idea of a coast-to-coast U.S. route to celebrate the nation’s 200th birthday, which they dubbed Bikecentennial. The Christies learned of it and offered their eight-day cross-state ride as a test-run for the Kansas portion of the route and possible overnight accommodations along the way. They were also aware of the first Great Bicycle Rides Across Iowa, in 1973 and ‘74 (now known as RAGBRAI), though they would say that it didn’t much influence their own plans. There was almost no precedent for what they were doing. In the words of Al Hicklin, who ran Newton’s Coventry Cycles and served as the mechanic on the first BAK, “BAK was a very, very big dream in 1975. Outside the box. On the edge.”

BAK in 1975 was an Oz event, but the Christies took the lead and did most of the work. They enlisted a public relations firm to help get the word out, submitted notices of the event to national cycling magazines, reached out to other Kansas bike clubs, and sent letters to mayors in the overnight towns along the route. Mailed notes of interest poured into the Christies’ house, many from out of state. There was no advanced registration—people were just to show up in Tribune for the Saturday morning start. There were also no fees. The club would raise funds from selling three-dollar T-shirts that members silk-screened in the Christie basement. Along the way, they also took up donations to help pay for accommodations in the school gymnasiums, 4-H buildings, and, in St. Paul, a former monastery, where they stayed the nights. Local hosts may have been unsure of what to expect from the group, but they were typically very accommodating within the bounds of local mores. The Superintendent of the Ransom schools, Carl Thieszen, who would later ride BAK himself, was happy to offer the gym in his new high school but requested that there be “no smoking in the building and no beer or strong drink taken on the school grounds.”

To the Christies’ delight, 76 cyclists showed up in Tribune, aged 13 to 70. Most were from Kansas, with the bike clubs of Wichita, Topeka, and Lawrence highly represented. About 10 came from out of state, including three men from Columbus, Georgia, two women from El Paso, and a 62-year-old dairy farmer from Wisconsin. The editor of the Hutchinson News sent two reporters, Mary Jane Dunlap and Randy Attwood, who cycled and phoned in their stories daily. Everyone had to arrange for someone to haul their gear, which sometimes meant taking turns driving the VW bus a group drove out in. The group launched on Saturday morning, with Cy Higgins, a wheat farmer and head of the Greeley County Historical Society, cutting the ribbon for the mass start—a BAK ritual that continued until 2005.

The riders ate in cafes and steakhouses along the way, some of which, despite Norma Christie’s best efforts, were totally unprepared for the crowd of famished riders. Other times, civic groups prepared meals as fundraisers. There was a contingent of young racers and fast riders who were often last to stir in the morning and first to arrive in the afternoon, eager to grab a gym mat for the wood floor. Others meandered, taking in the wildflowers and historic sites in a way unavailable to motorists who sped past them. Young men with beards and women in cutoff shorts mingled with clean-cut fitness enthusiasts in their sixties. They often took cold showers in schools that had turned off their boilers for the summer. Newton’s Coventry Cycles provided roving mechanical assistance. The group was small enough that those who were interested could talk with all the other riders. There was a great sense of shared adventure and community. People in the local communities were curious and generally quite welcoming to this unusual group, though there were two reports of local teenagers mooning cyclists. It turned out to be the first instance of what a later rider would call the “cultural exchanges” that occur on BAK between small towns and the passing ensemble. To keep the community and vibe going, the Christies organized a second, south-to-north ride that September.

BAK by the Decades
After 1975, BAK became an annual event and fixture of the Kansas cycling community. In 1976, it gained recognition from the state’s Bicentennial commission, with one requirement being that history be emphasized. Larry Christie, who worked as a graphic designer in the aviation industry, incorporated historical background information on his meticulously drawn route maps, which continues to this day. Evening meetings were the main mode of communication during the week, and they blended information, entertainment, prizes, and brief talks about local history and geology by Oz’s Bill Easton. Organizers used walkie-talkies to talk with each other along the route, a practice that continued until cell phones became common in the 2000s. Meanwhile, if riders wanted to talk with their loved ones back home, they needed to wait in line for pay telephones in the overnight towns. Safety was a major focus, and at a time when most riders wore cycling caps, the Christies arranged to sell Bell helmets as part of the registration process. In 1977, they established BAK as its own entity, but they would continue to draw heavily on a volunteer committee largely made up of Oz club members. That year, instead of a cross-state ride, there was a weekend rally in Abilene, complete with rides and educational seminars. The community and family-oriented spirit of the first ride was solidified further by mailing out a list of names and addresses of all the riders to facilitate connecting with others. This was deepened through BAK reunions that took place—through Labor Day gatherings and then on the weekend of Octoginta, the annual 80-mile ride in Lawrence, where the Christies put on elaborate multi-projector slide shows and dropped teasers about the next year’s ride. Friendships solidified among the riders and volunteers, many of which remain to this day.

The 1980s brought different kinds of growth to BAK. As the fitness boom expanded, ridership did too. While the 1970s BAK’s were heavily populated by serious cyclists who logged thousands of miles annually, the event went more mainstream in the 1980s. Relatively casual riders signed up for the experience, many of whom reported that they cycled fewer than 500 miles a year, or less than the total they would do in the 8-day BAK. Ridership reached 200 in 1981, which prompted the Christies to expand BAK to two routes in 1982 to maintain the intimacy of the earlier rides. It doubled to 470 riders in 1985 and continued to grow, raising safety concerns for the organizers, who added a third route in 1989. The logistics became more complex, and the Christies recruited BAK committee member Sherry McKee from Salina as a third director to assist them during the event. She continued in this role until their retirement in 2001. With ridership cresting 1,000, BAK took over the Christies’ modest house. The phone rang constantly, and the post office stopped delivering mail because the volume had gotten so high. Much of the organizational and planning work was tripled, but the event continued with volunteer labor from the BAK committee, and the Christies never took a salary. The SAG volunteers, who often took a week’s vacation to be part of the experience, began to develop their own culture and lasting friendships, and by the ‘90s a group of self-identified “SAG Hags” were dressing in costumes and having a complementary sort of great fun. 1984 saw the introduction of the Macintosh personal computer, which the Christies soon adopted to draw route guides, maintain entrant databases, and put out a regular BAK newsletter. Committee member Dave Rohr, a young graphic designer who would later become Chair of the BAK Advisory Board, helped Larry Christie create the first digital route guide in 1985, and they are the only two people to have drawn route maps over BAK’s history. The 1980s also saw increasing competition from other cross-state tours, which by 1987 numbered 44.

The 1990s brought technological and other innovations as upwards of 1,200 riders spread across BAK’s three routes each year. The routes, which were given clever ‘B-A-K' names (e.g., Bumpy, Awesome, Kinky), ran roughly parallel while coming together in the last town of the week for a grand celebration. In 1991 (the same year Fort Hays State offered a one-credit course for students riding BAK), the Christies partnered with Wichita’s Bill Sheldon to organize a south-to-north Mountain Biking Across Kansas in October, beyond the regular June ride. That one-time event reflected the growing popularity of mountain bikes, mass produced since the early 1980s, while anticipating the gravel biking boom of the 2000s. In 1994, the Christies received the Governor’s Tourism Award in recognition of two decades of work helping thousands of people experience the beauty and small towns of Kansas at bike speed. In one estimate, an overnight stop of 400 cyclists created some $10,000 of new business into a town. The1990s saw riders on recumbent bikes, carbon-fiber bikes, and specially designed bikes for people with disabilities. The decade also brought the rise of the Internet and e-mail. An AOL electronic bulletin board, BikeNet, launched in 1993, and Rohr developed a website for BAK two years later. It included information on the ride, an entry form, an e-mail link, and, during BAK week, live daily updates available to interested parties scattered across the new, virtual world.

In 2001, after 25 years, the Christies retired as directors. According to their son, Doug (who had ridden the first BAK at 13), they did the hard work for so many years because “they just enjoyed getting all these people into cycling, and when it got to be an annual deal, all these friendships were made.” The Christies sold BAK to longtime rider and volunteer Charlie Summers, who ran it with Denise Duerksen’s assistance for a decade. In 2004, BAK returned to a single route, which has continued since. In 2006, that route saw an outbreak of norovirus, a highly infectious disease that causes vomiting and diarrhea. A quarter of the riders became ill, some were hospitalized, and the state health department launched an epidemiological investigation. Organizers learned a lesson that prompted the SAG-stop handwashing vigilance we see today. A less localized virus took center stage in 2020-21, when organizers canceled the regular event because of COVID 19—though some people rode their own, individual BAK distances as an alternative. After the long hiatus, the BAK community came together again for a weekend rally in Great Bend over Labor Day in 2021. On the technology front, cell phones began to proliferate among riders in the 2000s, which eventually ended the longstanding ritual of standing in line at pay phones and afforded the possibility of today’s text-based messaging between organizers and riders. Social media also came on the scene in the first decade of the century. BAK launched its Facebook page in 2009, Twitter and Instagram in 2013, all of which facilitated their own kinds of virtual community. Meanwhile, GPS devices have allowed cyclists to download the route onto a head unit or phone, but the tradition of meticulous route guides with historical commentary continues.

In 2012, Summers sold BAK to a newly formed non-profit, Biking Across Kansas, Inc., comprised of several long-serving BAK volunteers. The board of directors was headed by Rohr, a former Oz club member whose relationship with BAK dates to the 1970s. Many others who serve as volunteers or BAK riders also have decades-long participation in the event, carrying forward the ethos of the early years. In 2012, the board hired Stefanie Weaver to serve as BAK’s executive director. She brought a background in business and event planning and helped further professionalize an organization that had been built on grassroots, do-it-yourself communal effort. Weaver retired from the position in 2023, and the board appointed Bryan Toben the following year.

Longtime riders who participated in the first BAK’s widely comment on the fact that, though the event has grown, it maintains much of its traditional feel. Over five decades, those riders have seen changes that include population decline in western Kansas, the growth of regional population centers, improvement in the quality of roads, and the building of new schools with modern facilities and reliably hot showers. At the same time, most riders stay in gymnasiums or camp outside schools, just as they did in 1975. And as has long been the case, each year friendships are made and renewed as people turn away from the stresses of everyday life, experience the beauty of landscapes that change slowly from west to east, battle the winds and weather, relish food made by local volunteers, push themselves to accomplish something hard, and take part in small-scale cultural exchanges with different kinds of people along the way.

Pete Simonson ( is a retired professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who specializes in the history of communication. Charles Walther ( is a teacher of social studies and Kansas history at Shawnee Heights Middle School in Topeka. They are both Kansas natives who met and became friends on BAK. This short history is based on oral history interviews, research in the BAK archives at the Kansas Historical Society (KHS) in Topeka. and supporting literature on bicycle history. They would like to thank those they interviewed for sharing their memories, the KHS archivists for research assistance, Alec Murphy for collating data on riders, and Dave Rohr for offering orientation and essential support at every step of the way.