For the past half century, Mother’s Day Weekend is more than just cards and flowers in Portsmouth. As the turn-around point in the Tour of the Scioto River Valley (TOSRV), the city becomes a Mecca for cycling enthusiasts around the country when the calendar hits May.
Whether it’s a small group of two or a mob of six thousand, TOSRV has been bringing bikers to the city since 1962. It all began when father and son founders Charlie and Greg Siple wanted to give Mrs. Siple a weekend to herself on Mother’s Day. Little did they know that their round-trip ride from Columbus to Portsmouth would spark one of the largest annual bike rides the world has ever seen.
Each year, the Siples would invite a few more friends to their “Annual Columbus to Kentucky and Return Bicycle Tour.” Eventually, family friend and member of American Youth Hostel Charlie Pace, saw a fund-raising opportunity for his budding organization.
By 1966, with the help of American Youth Hostel, TOSRV was officially recognized by the city Portsmouth. Forty-five riders paid entrance fees for the first time in the Tour’s history. From that point on, there would be no stopping the “Mighty TOSRV.”
The tour couldn’t have started at a better time. As the 1970s and ’80s rolled along, the American cycling industry experienced a boom in popularity that it had never experienced before, partly inspired by Greg LeMond’s success in the Tour de France. As one of the few public bike tours in existence at the time, TOSRV quickly grew to host thousands of riders. The tour topped one thousand riders in 1970, and continued to grow until participation peaked at six thousand riders in 1989.
TOSRV’s unique, non-competitive format attracted riders from all parts of the world and all walks of life. As a boy working in a bike shop in Michigan, John Bodell heard stories from friends who had conquered the tour.
“I heard about the stories, and riding it for the first time in 1991, I actually saw it first hand,” Bodell, 54, said. “It’s like a Woodstock on bicycles.”
“There were people wearing tuxedos. One guy rode at least most of the way on…the old 1880s high-wheelers,” said Tom Klausing, who rode his first TOSRV in 1976. “People did stuff like that. There were a few years when they had people riding full aerodynamic, completely enclosed land-speed record type bicycles.”
With participants traveling from as far away as Alaska and Canada, the tour was quickly beginning to outgrow its humble roots.
“After a couple of years, they just capped it at three thousand because they were running into problems of finding where people could stay,” said Bill Gordon, director of TOSRV. “There were too many people on the road coming out, it was getting dangerous.
Any time a rider climbs on to a bike, there’s a chance for disaster. Unfortunately, TOSRV is no exception. The tour’s first and only fatality took place in 2008 when a cyclist was struck by a car in a hit-and-run. However, most riders have felt extremely safe on the route, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Columbus Outdoor Pursuits Staff.
“[I’ve ridden TOSRV] more than ten times, I have never once felt unsafe or have I felt like the crowd was a little out of control,” said Bodell.
Now, with so many other bicycle tours available to cyclists across the country, TOSRV has returned to being a regional phenomenon. There’s less of a Woodstock feel, but that’s OK with the cyclists who keep coming back year after year.
“I think one of the things that’s just fun is the people that get together,” Gordon said. “You talk to people that have been around for a long time, you talk about how this is the only time of year they seem some folks. So…it’s kind of a reunion.”
Though many aspects of TOSRV have changed, the route, for the most part, has stayed the same. The 210 round-trip course is highlighted by a scenic stretch between Chillicothe and Waverly that is a favorite among participants.
“The trees are bigger, they’re fuller, they have a lot more shade,” Bodell said. “There’s something peaceful about that part of the ride.
Another constant of the Tour is the unpredictability of the early May weather.
“I did it every year both days, Saturday and Sunday come hell or high water,” Klausing said. “Frequently, there was a little of both.”
Often times, TOSRV rewards riders for sticking with it when the weather turns nasty. Jeff Vistain, 63, who has been riding the Tour since 1975, recalls a time when he and a buddy had to pull off the road when a storm passed through Waverly.
“We just stood there, like cattle, back to the gale force winds,” he said. “We figured ‘we’re as wet as we can be,’ got back on our bikes, starting riding. About a half an hour later, the sun came out, we dried up, it was a great way to finish to the ride.”
It used to be that when riders reached Portsmouth, they would meet at a local church for a chicken dinner and live music. Now, the meeting point is Tracy Park in downtown, where the famished riders have their fill of hot dogs and beer.
“They could be the worst hot dogs in the world, but when you’re hungry they taste great,” Vistain said.
“It’s a very euphoric feeling,” says Bodell of reaching Portsmouth. “You can’t help but have a little bit of a buzz going because of what you’ve just accomplished.”
However, the euphoria quickly passes when the riders wake up on Sunday morning and realize they have to do it all over again.
“It’s almost like a funeral march from Portsmouth to Waverly,” Gordon said. “Everyone is just tired and groggy and trying to get their bodies moving again.”
But once the riders get back in the saddle, it doesn’t take long to get back in the swing of things.
“It’s an amazing sight when you can look up and look ahead on the road, and as far as your eyes can see, and see nothing but these brightly colored t shirts and jerseys,” Bodell said. “Thousands of cyclists that are strung out on the road before you. It’s very motivating. It keeps you going.”
All in all, TOSRV lifers couldn’t imagine going through the year without it.
“It’s kind of like a right of passage. You’ve got to do TOSRV to start the season,” Vistain said. “Even if it’s only one event, it’s kind of like the “Grandaddy of Them All.”
Alex Hider can be reached at 353-3101, ext 294, or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter