Before 4,000 miles of asphalt bike trails were laid around Minnesota, before bike lanes were painted on city streets and before long-distance bike treks became commonplace, Jim Klobuchar was pedaling his two-wheeler, wind in his face, leading groups of cyclists into a new biking era.
For 39 years, beginning in 1974, the former Star Tribune columnist led annual, weeklong Jaunt With Jim treks on routes showcasing Minnesota’s scenery and small towns. Klobuchar wrote his columns along the way, regaling readers with the delights of long-distance bike travel and small-town hospitality — and helped launch the state’s bicycling craze.
“Jim did a wonderful job of promoting biking before it was popular. He was way ahead of the curve,’’ said Bob Lincoln of Chaska, who, at 14, pedaled on one of Klobuchar’s early trips — and got hooked on the activity. In 2014, Lincoln took over Klobuchar’s annual bike ride and renamed it Tour of Minnesota. Klobuchar, now 87, lives in Golden Valley. He retired from the Star Tribune in 1995, after 35 years.
Daughter Amy Klobuchar, a U.S. senator from Minnesota, pedaled with her dad on several Jaunt With Jim trips, and also biked on some dad-and-daughter treks, including a 10-day ride from Minneapolis to the Grand Teton mountains in Wyoming in 1981.
“When he and I were on those trips, no one was doing anything like that,’’ she said. “He rode around Lake Superior with a backpack on, because there was no other way to carry the gear.’’
Klobuchar enjoyed other outdoor adventures, and wrote about them, fueling the outdoor adventure fever.
“Whether he was hang-gliding or climbing the Matterhorn in the Alps or hiking the Himalayas or biking to the Tetons, he was a very early, ardent supporter of adventure and exercise,’’ Amy Klobuchar said. “Now it’s become a full-time occupation for a lot of people.’’
Jim Klobuchar declined to take credit for the long-distance biking craze.
“It was already common on the West Coast, and the RAGBRAI [the now-famous cross-state bike ride] was underway in Iowa,’’ he said. “But when we started, not a lot of people were doing it. And I think ours was unique. The whole idea was a community on wheels. Friendships developed that are still alive. That’s really my biggest satisfaction — bringing people together and sharing the road together. And the joy of seeing Minnesota’s countryside, which can be spectacular.’’
Said Amy Klobuchar: “The bike trips were just this roving gang of people with nothing in common except they liked to bike, so it was a great way to experience a cross-section of Minnesotans and to see the state.’’
Usually about 140 bicyclists signed up. The bikers tasted small-town hospitality, often camping at schools and eating in churches, served by volunteers. Citizens embraced the visitors on wheels.
“One thing you learn on these bike rides is the wonderful folks we live with in this part of the world,’’ Klobuchar said.
The townspeople were paid for their hospitality. “We put millions of dollars into the rural economy over the years,’’ he said.
Klobuchar’s passion for bicycling was kindled in midlife.
“My colleague, [columnist] Barbara Flanagan, had a three-speed bike, and she spent a few hours every week biking around the city lakes, and thought it was a great joy. She asked me one day if I biked. I said, well, I did as a kid. So I got a bike and accompanied her on a ride, and I liked it and decided to get back into bicycling.
“It was a great thing for me, a guy who loved Minnesota and all of the lakes and natural beauty.’’
Not content to pedal sidewalks, Klobuchar embarked on an ambitious trip from Brownsville, Minn., in the far southeast to the Canadian border, and wrote columns along the way.
“A week after I got back, there was mail for me from people who read my columns who said they’d like to join me on my next bike ride.’’
So Klobuchar asked the newspaper managers if the paper would sponsor a yearly bike trek, open to the public, that Klobuchar would lead and write about. Yes, came the answer.
“We advertised the bike ride as 500 miles in five days. It was lunacy when I think about it now,’’ he said. “I did that distance for about five years, and then I was beginning to get riots in the groups,’’ he quipped. The daily distances were cut, and in 2013, the last trek Klobuchar led, bikers averaged 65 miles a day.
The long-distance trips with Amy brought dad and daughter closer. “You learn a lot about your children on a 10-day bike ride,’’ he said.
Deadlines part of challenge
Despite biking all day, Klobuchar found time to write his columns, long before the arrival of cellphones and laptop computers.
Said Amy Klobuchar: “On our solo trips, he would get up at 5 a.m. in the tent with a flashlight and hand-write his column on paper, then we would pack up and ride 20 miles, stop for breakfast and try to find a pay phone so he could dictate his story. He’d talk people into using their phones to call long distance for him.’’
Meeting deadlines was sometimes difficult.
“I was biking in Canada, and had to ride 30 miles to find a phone to dictate, and a police car pulled up behind me,’’ said Jim Klobuchar. “I wondered if I had done something wrong. But the guy just wanted to talk. I think he was lonesome.’’
The bike trips were tame in comparison with Klobuchar’s other adventures. For nearly 30 years he also organized trips through his travel club. He led a dozen hikes in the Himalayas and three to the Amazon rain forest, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro five times and led 11 African photo safaris.
Health issues forced him off his bike, but he still travels. He and his wife, Susan Wilkes, are heading to Italy this year.
He cherishes the memories of those jaunts down the highways, the wind in his face, leading a group of fellow vagabonds.
“We just had a lot of fun,’’ Klobuchar said.
Doug Smith • email@example.com