Bill Kiess wore a bicycle jersey printed with answers to frequently asked questions.
"Yes, I am cycling across the U.S."
"No, I am not crazy."
"Jacksonville Beach, Florida."
"Really, for fun."
"Anywhere there are trees."
Say what? Kiess, visiting Adventure Cycling and one of an estimated 1,000 bikers who will cruise through its Missoula offices in 2011, filled in the blank: "Where do you go to the bathroom?"
One question the jerseys don't answer is the age of the cyclists. Kiess is 80, a veteran rider and the oldest member of his group, but many of the cyclists rolling across the country this season are baby boomers. Some are riders forging new lives for themselves, and others are commemorating the 35th anniversary of Bikecentennial '76.
John Cross, who was doing a "double cross," or riding back and forth across the country, said he began cycling after his second divorce. A friend told him he needed to ride and learn to love himself again.
"I think for a lot of us baby boomers, it's a time of renewal, trying to get back to health," said Cross, 61. "A lot of us have been through divorce, job changes, lost pensions."
Cross and fellow rider Jeff Stoopes had stopped in the downtown Missoula office of Adventure Cycling, mecca for avid cyclists. There, executive director Jim Sayer said boomers are an economic force propelling the adventure market segment of the tourism industry. And it's a market poised for growth.
"Boomers are driving so many things," Sayer said. "The economy, consumption habits, but also the travel market. The impact is only going to grow in the next five, 10 years."
Sue Miller, 60, who wore a "No Wimps" button and rode in the same group as Bill Kiess, said if she can bicycle across the country, anyone can.
She worked as an administrator in the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, and she isn't a jock. A couple of years ago, she and her husband began riding a tandem bicycle.
Her husband's lifelong dream was to do a cross-country ride, so she told him she would join him as long as they could ride a double: "I don't think I can make it on a single, and I want to get there at the same time you do."
Miller's advice to couch potatoes contemplating a similar trip is to buy a nicer bike than they think they need and start riding with a club.
"You'll meet people who have done amazing things. And you'll learn you can do it, too," Miller said.
Vicki LaBella, on the same tour, said the longest ride she'd done before setting off across the country was a two-week trip. LaBella, 54, owns a small shop called News and Such in Ocean Grove, N.J.
She still has her very first bicycle, a chopper with orange and black lettering. LaBella had asked for a bike for Christmas back in the day when children didn't assume their parents could fulfill their wishes.
"When they wheeled it in, I'll just never forget," LaBella said.
She biked every day as a child, sometimes smoking cigarettes and definitely without a helmet. When she visits her father, who is 90 and still rides his bicycle, the duo pedal together.
"I try to send him a postcard every day," LaBella said of the cross-country excursion.
In Missoula, she picked out a postcard with a moose. LaBella is blogging about her adventure at myjourneyontwowheels.tumblr.com. Here's an excerpt from June 25:
"Today's ride was flat and only 43 miles. The route had us mainly on a quiet road with the only sounds being that of distant traffic and sweet, happy singing birds. I couldn't get over how those little creatures generated such tones and tunes.
"I felt like a character in a Disney animated film cycling through a dreamy landscape with the sweet sounds of birds wafting along beside me. At one point, this tiny white bird swooped down between us and started running along the road in front of us! His/her little wings were spread out but s/he didn't fly away! It was the most miraculous and curious thing I've seen. After a while, the bird swept off ... and flew around us and then away."
The adventure travel market is worth an estimated $89 million on three continents, according to Adventure Cycling, which has a mission to promote cycling. And executive director Sayer said places such as Montana compete fiercely for those travel dollars.
"To be able to emphasize that adventure travel part of Montana is potentially very lucrative," Sayer said.
People in the bike industry are focused on positioning bicycle travel higher on the menu of options. Touring is attracting a broad demographic, and boomers who don't have a lot of resources but do have time are taking to the road on bikes, Sayer said.
"They want to be involved. They want to stay engaged mentally and physically," he said.
The organization counts some 44,700 members. Adventure Cycling started as Bikecentennial, and this year is the 35th anniversary of the cross-country ride that celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Sayer said staff already are planning for the 40th anniversary of the event that launched the group and spurred bicycle riders. Some riders stopping at the downtown offices for photos and ice cream are celebrating the 35th anniversary this year.
Jeff Stoopes, 60, is one of those. Stoopes and John Cross are both semi-retired Lutheran pastors who rode together on a mission trip to South America in 1974 and remained friends ever since.
This time, Cross already had finished riding across the southern tier of the United States. On a portion of his trip across the northern tier, Stoopes joined him for part of the same route he did in 1976.
He carried with him his framed Bikecentennial certificate signed by then-director Dan Burden. Stoopes began his trip on June 5, the same day he kicked off his Bikecentennial ride.
"I think boomers are characterized as being all about money and superficial things," Stoopes said. "It may be true for some people. It certainly isn't true for us. The most important thing to us is family and friends and our relationship with God."
When people hear about their trip, many are inspired, and they have one common reaction.
"The one thing that hits people is the word ‘freedom,' " Cross said. "Man, what freedom."
They email him to "keep pedaling," and Cross said he knows they're often talking to themselves. The men hope to encourage their more sedate or even lost peers by example to start living again.
Said Cross: "What's your dream? What's something you want to do?" Refine the bucket list, and "get walking. Get moving. Get up."
Said Stoopes: "Get out of bed."
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, email@example.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.