Recently the amazing 80-year old Bedford, MA resident, Jan van Steenwijk and his equally dazzling wife Barbara Hitchcock, showed up at our 9th Annual Ciclismo Classico Bike Travel Film Festival in Arlington.
At the event, we raffled off a trip to Italy and guess who won? That’s right! Jan van Steenwijk is on his way to Italy this September to join our Heart of Tuscany tour! Barbara, his lovely and very talented wife, will be joining him on the trip as well.
As luck would have it, Jan and Barbara had already booked a trip to Florence for mid-July (before they won the Tuscany trip). So I made a quick jaunt to Florence to meet this sparkling couple in person for drinks on the terrace of their hotel, just at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio.
Jan’s bicycle obsession was born
Born in the Netherlands, Jan led a life of movement from the beginning. As a small child his family moved from Amsterdam to Indonesia, then on to Greece, then France, and then eventually back to the Netherlands.
At the early age of 16, Jan’s parents bought him his first 5-speed road bike. ”Equipped with a few gears and bamboo tires,” he tells me. From there his interest and enthusiasm for la bicicletta (with a simultaneous passion for photography after receiving his first box camera that same year)–exploded.
Racing in the Tour de France
Jan went on to race bikes for a Dutch team and tells the impressive story of his participation as a cyclist in the Tour de France in 1958 and 1959 (at just 19 years of age). He humbly, yet excitedly tells the story of being a young gregorio in the days when “nobody wore helmets” and “we ate licorice to replace salts!” Jan adds smiling, “Things were so much different then. My father booked all my hotels, nobody looked after me, really.”
”My dad was my trainer. We would get up somewhere between
4:00 and 5:00 in the morning and I would cycle behind his
VeloSolex for hours before he had to go to work. Later,
I trained with professionals, like Garrit Voorting, for my
first Tour de France in 1958. I never won a medal
and I never intended to become a pro.”
Staying Forever Young
These days this impressive Dutch man rides his sturdy aluminum Cannondale bike about 60-70 miles, 2-3 times per week during the warm weather months. “A cup of coffee, a yogurt, and a banana, and off I go… It’s downhill from my house, but then it quickly begins to climb and that’s when I ask myself, why am I doing this?” Chuckling, he adds, “Then my adrenaline kicks in and off I go.”
Jan and Barbara cycle quite a bit together, but tend to do shorter and more cultural excursions like riding into Cambridge or Boston for an event and back out to their home (still a 15-20 mile ride each way). A very active board member of the Bedford Town Bike Committee, Van Steenwijk said that his keen interest to join this committee stems from his vast experience in the US and in Europe, seeing how transportation by bicycle is either encouraged or discouraged through infrastructure and policy decisions. He also cites safety as an utmost concern now that “more and more people are biking all the time."
Van Steenwijk himself bikes, by his reckoning, between 4,000 and 6,000 miles per year, and estimates that he has cycled a distance equivalent to the circumference of the world since he began riding as a youth.
Photo: Lucia Baldini
What are you looking forward to in Tuscany?
"Just doing it!" Jan says with a big smile.
Jan and Barbara on an MS ride. Photo: Jan van Steenwijk
Jan and his son Michel biked from Copenhagen to Paris twice in 1969 and then again 2013. They rode the 1,130 miles from Copenhagen-Paris in 10 days. Jan also recently cycled from Zurich to Oberalp Pass, and then followed the Rhine to Hoek van Holland. This September, before joining Barbara in Italy for the Heart of Tuscany tour, Jan will be biking from Bayeux, Normandy to the Netherlands as part of a team carrying a torch in remembrance of the WWII liberation of Eindhoven.
This man is unstoppable!
Jan estimates that he has cycled a distance
equivalent to the circumference of the world since he began
riding as a youth.
So how did Jan end up in the United States? In 1984, he came to the US for 3 months as a recipient of a government sponsored visitor program. Writing and taking photographs around America he met a lot of notable people including, Ansel Adams, which was a big spotlight moment for him. Why did he stay in America? He confesses, “I met another very important person, my wife Barbara.”
Jan and his wife Barbara on their recent trip in Florence. Photo: Lucia Baldini
What’s up next for Jan after Heart of Tuscany?
Jan’s dream bike ride? “Helsinki to Portugal, he says smiling, “when, and if, my wife gives me permission.”
Looking for additional suggestions of tours, see our Best of Forever Young post for more recommendations!