Bernard Chapnick:     CYCLING THROUGH EUROPE – SISTERBIKE’S ENDURING BOND

WHEN: 27 April 2013
WHERE: Lankowski home, Chevy Chase DC
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
HOW: transcribed from recorder
TRANSCRIBER: Carl Lankowski

Q: Tell us how old you are, where you come from, and something about your early history.

BC: I will be 69 years old in a few weeks. I’m a first generation American. My parents were Eastern European immigrants. I sort of backed into Sister Cities. I had never heard of Sister Cities in 2001, didn’t know it existed here in Arlington.

I saw a very small clip in one of those throw-away newspapers that they put in your mailbox for a bike-ride in Europe. At that point, I had been doing really grueling rides in the United States. RAGBRAI, if you have ever heard of it, is the biggest, longest, oldest bike-ride in the U.S., which I had done for seven years straight. I saw this little article about this bike-ride in Europe. I called the name there, John Durham, who worked for Arlington County, and he was the U.S. contact person for a ride they were proposing to do, which was from Aachen to Reims. It was organized by a man who deserves a lot of credit for things he rarely gets credit for, Hubert Gronen, who was a French and English teacher at a high school in Aachen. He lived in one of the Belgian-side suburbs of Aachen and was an active member of both Aachen-Arlington and Aachen-Reims. It was his dream to form the triangle, to get Arlington to form a sister city with Reims. Neither side, neither Arlington nor Reims, were all that interested—Arlington because we didn’t really feel we needed another sister city (I shouldn’t say “we” as I wasn’t a part of it yet) —there wasn’t a feeling that we needed another European city.On the part of Reims, they thought it was beneath their dignity, what, being the capital of Champagne, to be associated with a mere suburb, like Arlington. They did not consider that to be sufficiently noble for their purposes. So, Hubert’s idea was to do something to get people from Arlington and Reims together. Even though it has been known for years as the Aachen-Arlington SISTERBIKE, the first one had nothing to do with Aachen. It was Hubert’s way to try to get some people from Arlington and some people from Reims who were interested in something together and we scraped up a handful of people. In some ways basic criteria were not met: some were not from Arlington and we had a couple of kids along who were really a pain. But we had a handful of people and we went from Aachen over the Ardennes—probably the most physically-demanding ride we have ever done—to Reims.

Q: And that was in 2001.

BC: Correct.

Q: Before we talk about SISTERBIKE, let’s talk about your background. Where were your parents from?

BC: My mother was born in a town in Belarus, at the time it was White Russia, a western province of imperial Russia. My father is from somewhere I can never find in the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Q: Were they German speakers? Ukrainian, Polish, Russian?

BC: My mother never read or wrote in any language. She was brought up during the first world war as a young female hiding in the woods. The various soldiers that came through from every possible direction would conscript the young boys and rape the young girls. So, she never went to school of any kind. My father went to school in New York. His mother was basically pregnant on the boat. He made it to about the fifth grade.

Q: Was his mother-tongue German?

BC: They both spoke bad Yiddish. My mother spoke such a conglomeration of languages, she did not know which words were from which languages. As a young boy I can remember being sent with a quarter to the grocery store, because she forgot something for the soup she was making. “Here’s a quarter—go get me a Posternak.” She said, just go tell the guy at the grocery. So I go with my quarter to the produce guy and say “I need a Posternak.” He said “what the hell’s that?” I went home crestfallen, because I had failed in my mission. And my mother, dragging me back to the store, picks up a parsnip and says “a Posternak!” She did not know that was the Russian word. She didn’t know which words she had from which language.

Q: Great story. Was this in one of the boroughs of New York?

BC: Brooklyn.

Q: What section of Brooklyn?

BC: Flatbush.

Q: Did you go to the public schools there?

BC: Yes.

Q: What was that like?

BC: We didn’t think anything about walking ten blocks as a tiny little kid to a public school through various neighborhoods. It’s just what you did. There were no buses. You walked. Now you wouldn’t send a five or six year old on a ten block morning and afternoon walk every day by himself. Then we thought nothing of it.

Q: When was this?

BC: I was born in 1944, so this was the early 1950s. When I was 15, my father moved us to Arizona. I finished high school, college and graduate school in Tucson. Then I joined the Foreign Service and spent 35 years in war zones with lots of dead bodies and starving babies—a very unusual Foreign Service career.

Q: When did you enter the Foreign Service?

BC: 1965. It started in the Biafran war. I was standing at the Enugu Station when the first boxcar load of chopped up pieces of bodies came back from the north. If you can imagine what a sealed boxcar in tropical heat smells like when they open it, which is jammed full not of bodies but of pieces of bodies…and the flies. It was my first introduction and I was the first official anybody from any government to document what at that point had been rumors. There was no CNN, there was nobody covering the story.

Q: So, what was your assignment?

BC: I was a new Foreign Service Officer, 22 years old, serving on the State Department’s West Africa desk and was asked to go there and see what I could do. I had been sent to Ghana when Nkrumah was overthrown to help get an aid program started. When I was doing that, the fighting started in Biafra. So, I was shifted over to Biafra and spent a month in something you would never do today. Now we send contractors in. Then we sent direct-hires in and protected the contractors—the opposite of the current situation. I spent a month traipsing around war zones on my own. Out of touch for a month. From there I went on to work in 57 countries, 15 of them under hostile fire, with lots of dead bodies and starving babies…

Q: What were some of those countries?

BC: Angola, Mozambique, Uganda right after Nkrumah was overthrown,

Q: So, when Milton Obote was in charge?

BC: Yeah. The hotel I stayed in Kampala had been the torture chamber. There were still Buzzards circling over the hotel when I was there. There was also Eritrea, Southeast Asia where I led the first upcountry team to Laos after the war. Then I was in the first group that could drive all the way up from the Mekong to Hanoi, when everybody thought we were Russian and we didn’t tell them otherwise. Also, later, four winters in the mountains of Bosnia.

Q: When was that?

BC: Bosnia was in the 1990s. I remember in the mid-1990s being on a panel in the State Department, asked to crystal-ball what would be the big new problem areas of the next century. I was the only one who said radical Islam. People just dismissed it as just a local Middle East thing. When I was in Bosnia I saw the Muhajadeen who had come from Afghanistan. And when I was in northern Nigeria during the Biafran war, I dealt with what was the beginnings of radical Islam there.

Q: Your service was eventful.

BC: There were lots of close calls, lots of getting shot at, lots of horrible anecdotes.

Q: What was it like travelling from place to place like that?

BC: Well, we flew in chartered planes over rebel-held territory when only district capitals would be held by the government. You would fly directly over the city and then spiral down as quickly as possible, spending as little time as possible in small arms range in the periphery. Once down, we would get out and run around the plane plugging up holes with putty and duct tape. It was pretty exciting stuff.

Q: Did you have assignments where you were actually posted there for a time, or did they just drop you in and take you out after a short period?

BC: I did long-term assignments that were not war zones, but my war zone stuff was all very short term. I did regular development assignments in Brazil and in Panama in the 1970s, but I kept on getting pulled out for war zone stuff. I was a war zone specialist by default, because I started by accident in Biafra.

My favorite anecdote—best one-liner I have ever heard used—in Croatia during the Balkan war. This was a Croatian town with a Croatian sheriff and a number of his hunting buddies all holding their hunting rifles in front of the jail where they were protecting a Croatian war criminal who was wanted in the Hague [International Criminal Tribunal on Yugoslavia, located in The Hague]. Suddenly click, click, click, snap, snap, snap, a British Leftenant  moving smartly at right angles appeared, approaching the sheriff with a demand that the prisoner be turned over. The sheriff and his friends with their hunting rifles said “hell, no.” The Leftenant doesn’t say another thing, smartly turns about and disappears, click, click, click, around the corner. Then comes the sound of a very big diesel engine starting up. He comes driving around the corner with his head sticking out of the turret of a tank, and proceeds to drive onto the sidewalk and then lowers the cannon so that it is inside the door of the jail. He jumps down from the tank, stands nose to nose with the sheriff and says “mine is bigger than yours.”

Q: And the Brits got their man, I presume?

BC: They got him. I am very fortunate. I was able to do my job for 35 years. Most people have pictures in their heads. You close your eyes, or at night you see pictures. I don’t. I hear conversations. I can hear that leftenant saying that. I can hear Idi Amin’s minister of health telling me “I would deny this if you told anyone I said it, but, damn, we were not ready for independence.” Just the lines stay in my head. I was very fortunate. If you have pictures in your head, that means nightmares. Seeing hospitals that had no doctors, no nurses, no medicine, no running water, no electricity, no sewerage, with corpses lining the hallways and raw sewage running down the middle. You got to see things that drove most people off one end or the other of the spectrum. Some would get so wrapped up in one case—like one little three-year-old girl we had with her legs blown off, or a seven or eight year old boy who was going to have both his legs amputated because he had shrapnel in them from little ariel bomblets that we left in the rice paddies, because they didn’t have any way to deal with it—so some people got so wound up in one kid that they lost perspective. At the other end of the spectrum were people who couldn’t deal with individuals anymore. They dealt only in statistics. They had tunnel vision. They didn’t see people; they just saw the numbers. I was the only one who lasted for a million years doing this shit, and that was in large part because I don’t have pictures in my head.

Q: When did you muster out?

BC: Next February 14 (2014) it will have been 30 years ago—February 1984. But I stayed as a consultant and contractor until the early 2000s. Sudan was my last assignment.

Q: With that timing, you could have overlapped with bin Laden there.

BC: Could be. I saw a lot of Mujahadeen.

Q: What came next?

BC: I ran a hotel and four-star restaurant on the coast of Maine for ten years during the summers and during the winters when we were not very busy I was overseas—in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and all the shitholes of the world.

Q: Where in Maine?

BC: Belfast. We had five and a half acres right on Penobscot Bay. Looking east from our deck, you could look across a couple of peninsulas and that was Bar Harbor.

Q: What was that like?

BC: I started it from a private house. It had never been a business before. A decade later we were featured in Gourmet magazine; the New York Times said we had the best lobster dinner anywhere. Better Homes and Gardens gave us best home-made ice-cream in the United States. It was doing very well.

Q: That was for the ten years between 1984 and 1994?

BC: Yep. Then I moved back here.

Q: To Arlington?

BC: Yes, to Arlington.

Q: What happened after the restaurant closed down?

BC: Well, it didn’t close down. My then wife got disgusted with it. I came back from chopped off limbs in Liberia, arriving in Washington to receive a note that made three points: * I’ve sold the inn; * the divorce papers are waiting for you at the sheriff’s office; and * and I will not be here when you get back. So it ended rather abruptly.

Q: So, that is when you returned to the Washington metropolitan area. Those must have been the years that you began to ride a lot.

BC: I rode RAGBRAI seven years in a row. It is sponsored by the DeMoines Register newspaper, so RAGBRAI stands for Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. It is the biggest, oldest organized bike ride in the United States—almost 100 miles a day, every day, across blazing hot Iowa the last week of July. There is no shade. When you are approaching a pig farm and you are downwind, you can smell it for miles before you get there.

Q: It sounds challenging.

BC: People have the mistaken notion that Iowa is flat. That’s because they have never bicycled across it. There is practically no flat spot in the entire state. It’s continuous rolling hills. One year I think we had 12,000 feet of vertical climb over the week. You’re never on flat.

Q: Well, that brings us to the Arlington Sister City Association (ASCA) and Reims.

BC: I backed into ASCA. I joined the bike ride; I didn’t join ASCA. When I got back from the trip organized by Hubert Gronen between Aachen and Reims in 2001, I was invited to attend some meetings. But I’d made a real connection with many of the people in Aachen, and spent a great deal of time there during the first few years of my involvement with ASCA.

Q: When did that start?

BC: In 2001 on the first ride. For the following three or four years, I spent many months in Aachen and went to all the Aachen sister city board meetings. So, I got into it from the Aachen side, not the Arlington side. Back in Arlington, since I knew more of what was going on in Aachen than anybody else, I was asked if I would take over as president of the Aachen committee.

Q: Who had been president?

BC: It had been Jim Rowland.

Q: John McCracken was associated with ASCA then, right?

BC: John McCracken was the chairman of the ASCA board at that time. John was a great old guy, one of the true old southern gentlemen, of a breed that is long gone, a very big civic activist in Arlington. He was involved in absolutely everything civic in Arlington.

Q: Jack Melnick?

BC: Jack was our lawyer. I knew Jack from the beginning as well. So I took over Aachen by default, not by design.

Q: Who led the counterpart association in Aachen?

BC: Heinrich Friedhoff was the founding president of the Aachen-Arlington Partnerschaftskomitee [the Arlington committee in Aachen].

Q: I have of course met Heinrich and we are in correspondence now.

BC: I can tell you a great Heinrich Friedhoff anecdote he related to me. He spent a junior high school year in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a fancy suburb of Cleveland, in a well-to-do family. A few years later, when he was back in Germany, his American brother was getting married to a bride from a socially prominent family. His host family was friends with U.S. Senator John Warner, who was engaged to Elizabeth Taylor at the time. A double wedding was arranged and Heinrich was invited to this event. Heinrich showed up at a manor house somewhere in Middelburg, Virginia. Beat to hell from a long trip, looking forward to getting a drink so that he could relax. He was ushered to the library of the great house and given a drink. The instant he got that drink and placed it on the mantelpiece, in walks his American mother, who whisks Heinrich off to meet the guests. Thinking this would be a five minute excursion, he left his drink on the mantel. Forty-five minutes later, finally freed from the round of introductions, he goes back for his drink. When he entered the library originally, the doors had been open; now they were closed. It hadn’t dawned on him that this could be an issue, so he opens the door and walks in—only to find Elizabeth Taylor changing into her wedding gown. The naked Elizabeth Taylor shrieked; Heinrich said “I am only here to get my drink,” a maneuver he duly executes and withdraws. He claimed he had no idea at the time who the lady was.

Q: When did that happen?

BC: A long time ago. It would have had to have been in the 1970s. Heinrich now, this year, is following up his Santiago de Compostela trek with a trek from Aachen to Rome. He will finish it this summer.

Q: I am envious. I wish I could do it with him.

BC: I did a few days of the Santiago trek with him through Luxembourg. The man can walk. He is obsessive about not missing one footstep.

Q: What was your impression about the Aachen committee when you took it over? At that time, Arlington already had other sister cities, right?

BC: A relationship had been established with Coyoacan, Mexico, but it became dormant. Reims had not yet become a sister city. We return now to Hubert Gronen’s big dream to get Aachen and Reims together. To recap, the first ride over the Ardennes in 2001 was extremely arduous. The second ride, in 2002, again organized by Hubert, was from Reims to Aachen by way of the Maas river valley. The route was not all that beautiful, but at least it was flat along the river bank. At that point, Hubert decided that the bike strategy was not working, so he gave it up. Meanwhile, John Durham, who had been coordinating on the U.S. side also stopped. That was when I said “well, if you guys don’t want to do it, would you mind if I did it?” Nobody cared, so I started with a barge-bike and for the first time got Germans into it, who had not been in it at all. It was a struggle to get them involved. Once they did get involved, the program has been growing by word of mouth. I don’t advertise it at all. And now we have twice as many people as we can accommodate.

Q: That was in 2003?

BC: Yes, 2003 was the one I took over. It was a big risk. To get the barge rented, I had to cover a $25,000 deposit on my credit card without having collected any money. But it worked.

In 2004 what I consider to be the real rides began with Germans and Americans. I don’t consider barge-bikes to be real sister-bikes. Mostly the American women like them. And the largest single reason, which drives me nuts: “you don’t have to pack and unpack every day!” As if that were the controlling issue. I have only done one barge-bike since and that was by popular demand and against my will.

This is our thirteenth year. Everybody is getting older. We now have battery-assisted, e-bikes available. Hardly anyone actually uses them, but they are available. Looking forward, we may see more e-bikes and barge-bikes. That is because on any given day, if you don’t feel like riding, you just stay on the barge. There is no need to ride on any particular day.

Q: I can see how that would be attractive to some.

SISTERBIKE

I – AACHEN/REIMS via Ardennes

II – REIMS/AACHEN via Maas River

III – BARGE-BIKE AMSTERDAM/MAASTRICHT

IV – REIMS/STRASBOURG

V – BALTIC (USEDOM, HIDDENSEE, RUEGEN)

VI – BORDEAUX AND THE FRENCH ATLANTIC COAST

VII – FLENSBURG/COPENHAGEN

VIII – MAGDEBURG/DRESDEN/PRAGUE

IX – LOIRE VALLEY

X – RHINE/RHONE

XI – BARGE-BIKE SEINE

XII – VIENNA/BRATISLAVA/BUDAPEST

XIII – PO VALLEY

XIV – ANNIVERSARY RIDE

GERMANY, FRANCE, NETHERLANDS, BELGIUM, DENMARK, CZECH REPUBLIC, POLAND, AUSTRIA, SWITZERLAND, LIECHTENSTEIN, SLOVAKIA, HUNGARY, ITALY, LUXEMBOURG (plus SISTERBIKE XIIF – FLORIDA)

Q: Let’s talk metrics: logistics, cost, participation rates and the like.

BC:  Barge-bikes are generally limited to 20, because that’s how many beds there are on a barge. This year we will have 33 riders, which is about the maximum. The limit is imposed by the number of bikes that will fit in the truck

Hubert started with basic places to stay and eat. That has gone much, much more upscale over the years. This year we will be eating in the #1-rated restaurant in Italy. Its world ranking is #3. We will also dine in what the Guiness Book of World Records cites as the world’s oldest pub. Copernicus was among its clientele. It dates from the year 1100 or thereabouts, but Guiness could only certify to 1435. Even with 1435 as the benchmark, it is the oldest continuously operating pub. We will be staying in a four-star hotel on the grounds of a castle. It’s not Spartan. RAGBRAI was intense and in the mud and you ate volunteer fire department auxiliary beans. This is some of the best food and wine in the world.

Q: I can see how your experience as a restaurateur served SISTERBIKE in good stead.

BC: Well, I did own a four-start restaurant for ten years. And we have eaten in some fantastic restaurants. The Loire Valley was great.

Q: Tell us a little about how you set the SISTERBIKEs up.

BC: Each year I do a scouting tour for the following year’s ride. Either just before or just after the ride, I go with a friend or two by car. By then, I have already researched the route on-line. Selections are made after on-site visits of each restaurant and each hotel. This takes a lot of work. You must check out three or four restaurants in each town, eheck out several hotels—it takes a tremendous amount of effort. Indeed, many have told me that when you stop doing this it will die, because no one will put in this much effort as a volunteer. When I hear that, I tell people I do it for very selfish reasons: if I didn’t set up the rides, I wouldn’t get to go on them.

Q: How much deskwork is required before the scouting trip?

BC: I spend a lot of time on-line before anything else. Then comes the scouting trip. Then comes months afterwards of correspondence with individual restaurants and hotels, getting menus lined up and working out the right room combinations. Who gets one bed? Who gets two beds? The logistics are intense.

Q: And it has always been a one-person operation?

BC: I have always done it myself, yes. It’s my hobby. But I can see why nobody else would want to do this.

Q: I am guessing that the effort must average out to about 20 hours per week.

BC: It is a lot of work. And something screws up every year: a hotel will suddenly be unavailable two weeks before the ride because some pipe broke and flooding made renovations necessary. But that’s the ball game—that’s how it’s played. That was part of my experience leading teams in war zones: you never knew whether, say, that bridge would be intact, that sort of thing. You have to be able to regroup and re-plan at the last minute. This is easier—no one is shooting at you.

Q: Except maybe rhetorically, I imagine.

BC: Rhetorically, yes.

Q: How do you deal with success, in the sense of having more people who want to participate than the ride can accommodate?

BC: There is no way to do it that avoids disappointing somebody. What I have done over the last few years is put the name of everyone interested in my bike helmet and pull them out. Actually the operation runs in two stages, one drawing for the Germans; one for the Americans.

Q: So, you are trying by design to get an equal number of German and American participants.

BC: I try to get an equal number, but it almost never works out that way. A lot of my old German friends are not able to go this year, so we will have more Americans than Germans. Some of my favorite guys are not going, like Heinrich Friedhoff and Walter Huber. Do you know Walter?

Q: I have met him.

BC: He was also on the Aachen board. And two of my favorite cycling guys are not going. On the other hand, we have some new Germans this year, so we will see how that works out. The groups have been pretty compatible. I try to discourage people from clumping together exclusively and encourage them to meet and socialize with new people on the rides. After all, the whole point of this is to meet the other side and not hang out with the same people you know already. And we now have German and American friends who have been together for years.

Q: I notice that Arlington County Board member, Jay Fisette, a SISTERBIKEr who will be in Aachen representing Arlington at the Charlemagne Prize ceremonies in May, has connected with another SISTERBIKEr to plan some biking when he is there.

BC: That’s Helmuth Feuerriegel, who has visited us on a number of occasions, as have other participants in the program.

Q: This is one way to measure the lasting impact of SISTERBIKE.

BC: Yes. One point of view is that you should try to get as many new people as possible as a way of expanding the universe of transatlantic connections. The problem I encounter with that is that SISTERBIKE recidivists have developed a sense of entitlement to be included. No matter which way I go, someone is unhappy.

Q: How much does it cost?

BC: It is different every year. This year is comparatively expensive because we are going to such great places. The hotels are mostly four-star and there are super restaurants on the itinerary. So, this year, the cost to each participant is €1,175.

Q: Is that 11 or 12 days?

BC: No, this one is only a week—it’s expensive. Some have been much cheaper. This one is about the most expensive, although the ride through Switzerland was very expensive, too.

Q: But €1,175 for a full week does not strike me as very expensive at all.

BC: Right. Commercially, it would be $4,000-5,000—triple what I need to charge. The reason is that no one is making a profit. I do all the preparatory work and don’t get paid, so that makes a huge difference. As I said, if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t get to go on it.

Q: Again, with a view to metrics, how many people would you say have been involved since the inception of the program?

BC: Two or three dozen from each side. Not huge numbers, but remember, we’re only talking about cyclists from the two towns. And I worked very hard at getting Reims to join us—no way! I paid them several visits. They just don’t have weekend cyclists, which is what we have in Aachen and in Arlington. These are not gung-ho Lycra people; they are just weekend cyclists. They don’t seem to exist in Reims. Either they don’t cycle at all, or they are the sports club, heads down, let’s do 500 kilometers types. There is no middle. I could not get any interest. On two separate trips I talked to the bicycle club and the sister city organization. Nobody was interested.

By the way, the only reason we ever became a sister city with Reims—which you may not hear from anybody else: there had been a nascent group of Arlingtonians that wanted it to happen, but Reims wasn’t interested. Hubert Gronen and I, along with Mayor Linden of Aachen, cornered the deputy mayor of Reims at a Charlemagne Prize reception. It was basically Mayor Linden who convinced the deputy mayor of Reims that this was something they should do.

Q: That was in late 2002?

BC: It was late 2003. We signed the sister city agreement in 2004. Mayor Jean-Louis Schneiter of Reims is an unforgettable character. Here’s a story: he is quite tall, about 6’4” or so. He couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds. He was skin and bones, slightly stooped, unsteady, an older man. We were afraid he was going to topple over every time we saw him. We went to Reims for the signing. Barbara Favola was the Chairwoman of the Arlington County Council then. Council member Jay Fisette was there; Mayor Linden was there. We all left Reims for a ride over the French countryside to Strasbourg. Subsequently, there was a ceremony in Arlington attended by Mayor Schneiter. Jay Fisette spoke a few words of French and we had an interpreter for the occasion, ready to do his job as Jay handed the microphone to the French mayor. When he started, we thought there was a ventriloquist speaking through him. You would not believe the sound that was coming through this tall, frail man. In a high pitch and a heavy southwestern American accent came the words: “About fifty years ago, ahhh worked on a ranch in Texas.” (laughter) We all marveled – where had that come from? No one had known that he spoke English. What a precious moment, and with a Texan accent.

Q: More on logistics, please. Tell us about the truck you used on the SISTERBIKEs.

BC: We have used the same driver every year with the same truck. It’s from a company in Amsterdam called CycleTours. Normally, the company does complete package tours. We don’t do that with them. We just get bikes from them, so the Americans don’t have to ship bikes, a driver who is also a bike mechanic and who, over the years has become a friend of many regular SISTERBIKErs and is also the world’s greatest picnic-Meister. Fantastic picnics in the woods in mid-day. Dick Engel is his name. He comes from Amsterdam with the rental bikes, proceeds to Aachen and picks up the Germans’ bikes and their big baggage, and then drives the route with us, drops the Aacheners off on the return, and goes back to Amsterdam. I suppose there are other ways to do it, but this works perfectly. Dick is always there; he speaks German; he speaks English; he’s a bike mechanic; makes great picnics; what more could you ask for?

Q: There is always a picnic en route?

BC: Not every day. Some days are short days and we don’t do a lunch. For example, the first day on SISTERBIKE XIII is a short day, but we are not going to start until 1:00 p.m., so we will already have had lunch. Nevertheless, there are many picnics along the route. Dick is famous for finding perfect shaded spots along some river and for finding great local food. He has been our picnic-Meister every year. That is logistically very important. Dick’s getting older, but so are we all.

Q: Each ride is different, a gem unto itself, but give us an idea of the range of experiences.

BC: First, as to milage: everybody asks “how many miles do you do per day?” Despite my best efforts, no governments have yielded to my requests to move their cities so that they are equidistant. They refuse to do it. (laughter) So, we always have some short days—30-40 Km days—and some long days—70-80 Km days—because the cities are not equidistant. You can’t just stop at “x” kilometers because you have decided in advance that is how many you want to do. You’ve gotta go to where the facilities are.

Q: Overall length of rides?

BC: We have gone as little as 300 km and as far as 800 km. Some people sometimes take trains between the stages. Trains are almost always available. Dick is always there with the truck and a cell-phone if anybody is in trouble. He is our emergency pick-up person.

Q: How about break-downs?

BC: Several of the Germans in particular are very good at fixing bikes. Dick, if you call him, will come and fix anything.

Q: Have you had things go wrong?

BC: Of course. Aside from mechanical problems, we have had accidents, too. One woman broke her elbow. And Karin – you know Karin?

Q: Jawohl! Karin Schmitt-Promny.

BC: Yes. She came off her bike, hit her head, and had to be air-medivaced by helicopter. That was in Denmark. However, we also always by chance have a doctor or two along.

Q: Hildegard?

BC: Yes, she has been on four or five rides.

Q: So, she would be one of the doctors.

BC: And Kiko [Kősters] is also frequently with us. And lawyers—Heinrich [Friedhoff] is a lawyer. As it turns out, both Hildegard and Kiko are both OB/GYNs, so if anyone wants to have a baby along the route, we can handle that, too.

Q: Highlights from some of the rides?

BC: Each ride has its own highlights. Take SISTERBIKE-V, the Baltics. We started in Poland in Świnoujście on the German border. Most of the Germans had never been to that part of eastern Germany. It was really emotional for them. We started in Poland and came across Usedom and Rügen and Hiddensee which had been built as vacation resorts for the Apparatchiks. One night there was absolutely no way to find accommodation at the right distance for the number of people we had. So, we stayed—and I was very nervous about this—in an old East German youth hostel. Talk about Spartan! There was one room for all the men and one room for all the women. All bunk beds. Apparently, the women had a wonderful slumber party. The men were less than pleased. There was one bathroom for all the men; one for all the women. We couldn’t eat the food. But fortunately I had informed Dick that there would be an outdoor fireplace. Stop in a supermarket: buy steaks, buy pork chops, by sausages, buy whatever you can cook on a grill. So, we just did our own grill. When Dick showed up he said to me: “I think I spent too much on wine.” I burst out laughing and said: “that will never happen, Dick!” (laughter) “You will never buy too much wine.” And we drank it all, of course. That was an emotional trip for the Germans. It ended in Lübeck, the first town in the west. We had gone all the way across the Baltic, through the Hansastädte. We went through Rostock. It was really nice. I particularly loved that trip.

The bikers complained: “Why are we going from east to west? The wind blows the other way.”  I responded “you’re missing the history and the sociology. You start in Poland and go across Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, one of the poorest states in Germany and you come across and see some of the highlights of where the Apparatchiks stayed. Beautiful Rügen and Hiddensee and then rather crumby Wismar and Rostock, which are both rather skinhead towns, and you end up in the West in Lübeck.” That was really a memorable one for me.

My personal favorite was SISTERBIKE-X. We started in Schaffhausen on the falls of the Rhine, beautiful falls. That’s in Switzerland. Then you come to Konstanz, which is half German, half Swiss, on Lake Contance (Bodensee). We took a steamer across the lake to Lindau, which is again Germany. A walled-in harbor, so picturesque. Onward from Lindau through Austria for a little piece. And then you’re on the Rhine again, going up, with Switzerland on one side and Lichtenstein on the other side of the river. We spent the night in Lichtenstein, a postage-stamp-sized town-city-state-country – it’s hard to tell what Lichtenstein is. And then on to Chur, which is on the western side of the Alps. From there we took the Glacier Express – we put the bikes on the truck – up to Zermatt, an unbelievably gorgeous city. I’ve been there twice. Both times when I arrived you couldn’t see the mountain. It was totally socked in. And then it clears. It’s like a George Lukas film. Suddenly: “who put that mountain right there?!” The Matterhorn…”how did that happen?” Spending a day, we took cable cars up the Matterhorn to various levels and heights. Then back on the bikes to the Rhone, French side. That was through Montreux—if you have never been to Montreux you need to go. We ate on a deck hanging over the lake. Talk about a perfect setting! You could see the Alps we had just descended. In Montreux it was warm, but there was snow on the Alps.

Vienna-Bratislava-Budapest was great, too. That was just last year. Three fantastic cities. Do you know Budapest?

Q: A little.

BC: A fabulous place. I am thinking about a future ride – I am always thinking about future rides, although who knows if I will physically able to do this – Budapest to Belgrade on the Danube. That’s just a glimmer at this point. I haven’t even done the research. I’ve still got two more ahead of that.

Q: Inch Allah.

BC: Vienna-Bratislava-Budapest was an ideal combination of nature and culture. That’s one of the trade-offs I strive for. There are some people who want beautiful nature, without a lot of people and cars and things around. And there are people who want culture. They want to go to the opera that night. Vienna-Bratislava-Budapest was good that way.

So was Magdeburg-Dresden-Prague. I loved it. You go down the Elbe River valley through the canyons. And Prague is such a great city. My favorite from that ride was Dresden. We stayed in a hotel that was sort of an apartment complex. I worked a deal that got us a bunch of apartments one block away from the Frauenkirche [Dresden’s symbolic core, destroyed by a British bombing raid when the city was leveled in February, 1945, reopened after being rebuilt in 2000]. Spectacular. And we may have enjoyed one of the best non-French dinners ever in a placed called Sophienkeller–whole roast pigs. Wow!

Every ride had its highlights. Only a few places lacked something wonderful. Every ride was great in its own way.

I can tell you that Italy will be great. I have already done the advance scouting trip.

Q: What is the route?

SC: Picture Mantua-Ferrara-Bologna-Modena (all World Heritage sites). Basically, it’s a backwards “C”. We are not going to anywhere. We’re just going to a bunch of beautiful cities. In Bologna we’re staying in a refurbished medieval castle. We’re staying in a four-star hotel on the grounds of the castle in Ferrara. The world’s oldest pub is in Ferrara. The ride is a string of pearls.

Q: Let’s talk a little about people—vignettes about individuals.

BC: My two favorite Germans—my two favorite guys on the ride for that matter—Peter Sommerhäuser and Joseph Müller, are not able to go on the ride this year; I find this terribly annoying. They are older, both in their 70s. Both could ride circles around any of the younger riders. What sets them apart from anybody else is this: if anyone has a problem—a flat tire, anything—before anybody else, Peter and Joseph are there, fixing it. They don’t ask. They just pitch in. They are just into it. They are also my best drinking buddies.

Q: They are both Aachenites?

BC: Actually, they don’t live in Aachen; they live near Bonn, but they have always been involved with the Aachen bike group. There were several older guys from the Aachen bike group that stopped going who are Aacheners. Have you ever heard of AUDAX? It’s a European organization, not just for biking, it does long-distance endurance sports. They were all members of AUDAX-Germany and the president of that group lived in Aachen. Health concerns caused him to discontinue with us.

Q: Is there a rising generation of SISTERBIKErs?

BC: Yes. This year we have a whole bunch of new folks. We have also had mixed generations—people bringing daughters and/or sons. Last year we had two sons. This year we have a son and we had a daughter on Rhine-Rhône who are mostly in their twenties.

Q: That’s encouraging—one of them may take it over sometime.

BC: I hope so.

On the American side there was one guy who probably drove John Durham out of running these things, because he was just so impossible. He had a habit of disappearing. One night no one knew where he was. He didn’t show up for dinner. We were staying in a bizarre old castle in Belgium. There was an Elvis impersonator playing the piano. He knew not a word of English; he memorized all the lyrics. The castle had a wreck of an old swimming pool covered in green, slimy scum, indicating that it hadn’t been maintained in a long time. At dinner people began to wonder out loud about the missing man: “where’s Ernie?” One guy got up and said “In the morning we will reenact the Agatha Christie novel: the police will show up and announce that they had discovered Ernie’s body floating in the green slime. They will ask ‘who killed him?’ and everybody will shout “I did!”

There are some great people who have been on several rides. The Germans are by far the most enthusiastic and helpful. If it hadn’t been for my German girlfriend, Silke Bastian—you may know her…

Q: sure.

BC: without Silke, SISTERBIKE would have been much harder to launch. When in Aachen I stayed with her. And as a politician, Silke knows everybody, and so got a lot of contacts for the first rides. Silke was a really important factor in the success of the enterprise. She was on last year’s ride.

Q: Sounds like a very interesting group. They are people of means.

BC: Normally, Germans would not be easy-going about crossing socio-economic barriers with other Germans. “Du??” On the rides everybody was on a first-name basis. Heinrich, who is a millionaire and runs the biggest law firm in Aachen, Walter, who is Herr Doktor Professor and head of Neuro-linguistics at the university, a couple of physicians, and we had a guy who was the cook in an insurance company cafeteria. It was very nice—we were all on a first name basis. I really worked at that. Everyone wears the same SISTERBIKE jersey.

Q: I wanted to bring into this conversation the work you have done for ASCA parallel and beyond the SISTERBIKE. For a time, from 2004-2007, you served as president of the Arlington-Aachen committee. Could you please speak to that theme?

BC: It was during that time that I started and managed successfully technical exchanges for a couple of years. They were exchanges of working-level people from the Aachen and Arlington municipal administrations. You may know Dennis Leach, who is head of Arlington County’s transportation division. I arranged for an exchange between Dennis and his Aachen counterpart, Uwe Müller. They co-authored and presented some technical papers. I thought that was great. I then conceived of and facilitated and exchange between the municipalities’ chief environmental engineers. I thought that was important. Much more so than the cultural-level activities popular with others in Aachen and Arlington.

During those years I spent inordinate periods in Aachen, to the point where I attended more board meetings of the Partnerschaftskomitee in Aachen than our ASCA board meetings in Arlington. I was very much involved on their side and in fact that’s how I got in. For a year or two, the Partnerschaftskomitee, not ASCA, sponsored the SISTERBIKE. There had been a falling out over the terms of SISTERBIKE’s connection to ASCA, so I simply withdrew from ASCA at that point.

Q: It is clear that because of your efforts SISTERBIKE was and remains a key component of Arlington’s relationship with Aachen. You have made many friends and supporters in the organization. Many have benefitted from the SISTERBIKE experience.

BC: Karl van Newkirk, who succeeded Sandy MacDonald as ASCA board chair in  2010, had not been a bike rider. He started bike-riding a few years back so that he could participate in SISTERBIKE. He has been on several rides. That was good. I enjoyed some of the relationships that were fostered through SISTERBIKE.

Q: So, where do you see SISTERBIKE going?

BC: Oh, I see it dying as soon as I stop. I can continue, as long as I am physically able, by adapting the experience though the use, for example, of e-bikes (electric-assist bikes) and organizing more barge-bike rides. Barge-bikes are purchased as a package. You don’t need to scout them. The package can then be tweaked. So, I insist on a gourmet upgrade, which usually adds a thousand bucks to the tour (to the global cost, not to the per person cost). In SISTERBIKE XI, we spent two nights in Paris instead of one. You stay and eat on the barge, so there are no hotels and restaurants to deal with. By comparison with other SISTERBIKEs, the barge trip is a piece of cake.

Q: What is you sense of the overall impact of SISTERBIKE over the twelve years you have been associated with and directed it?

BC: SISTERBIKE is the only continuing Aachen-Arlington adult-to-adult program. We have elementary school programs and high school programs, but this is the only one that engages adults. The program addresses a critical gap in regular engagement. Through SISTERBIKE we have developed many close friendships. Walter and Heinrich are people I see every year. We have dinners; we visit wine clubs, probably drinking too much and telling stupid jokes. Walter is a master of social commentary and Heinrich knows more about European politics than anyone I know. It’s a great three-way conversation. Walter’s wife, Dagmar, has stayed with me when visiting in the area. I stay with them when I am in Germany. So you can see the friendships forged are not casual.

Do you know Paula?

Q: Paula Niemietz?

BC: Yes.

Q: I have met her and talked to her about the elementary exchange program.

BC: She is one of my closest friends and I stay with her and her husband Dieter when I am in Aachen. They have been on a couple SISTERBIKEs. Paula actually started the elementary exchange program and had been its driving force for years. Now she has a position at the university and doesn’t have time for it anymore. This American transplant started out as a freelance English teacher. Now she is routinely selected as teacher of the year at the university in Aachen.