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'Pedaling Prof' Has Best Look at the World

March 12, 1988|Rick VanderKnyff | Times staff writer

He's been dubbed the "pedaling professor" and for good reason. Allen Zeltzer, theater professor emeritus at Cal State Fullerton, has been leading bicycle tours throughout Europe every summer since 1972.

A teacher at Cal State Fullerton since 1963, he recently cut down his teaching load to one semester each year. But the Yorba Linda resident continues to go full steam with his bike tours: This year it is off to France for two two-week tours.

His comments are taken from an interview with Times staff writer Rick VanderKnyff.

It actually all began, I suppose, in 1971. I was at that time president of the Orange County Wheelmen, and Jim Cooper, who at that time was with KNXT television, called and asked if he could do a little human interest story about cycling in Orange County, what was happening to it and so forth. To make a long story short, he interviewed me, and about three months later it appeared on television.

About a couple of weeks after that I got a call from a travel agency in North Hollywood, and they said, "You know, we saw you on television, and we think you would be a good candidate for leading our bike tours. We're just starting them up in Europe. Would you be interested?"

I tried to hold back some of my joy and said, "Oh yes, why don't you come out and talk to me." And so the result was that in 1972, I started leading bike tours.

In those days, basically, I would say the majority of people who went on the tours were young people. As inflation set in, I think it began to knock off more and more of the younger people, and the result is that most of my tour members are now professional people, married people, engineers, judges, lawyers, doctors.

The tour members mostly are people who love bicycling and would now like to venture out into new realms of cycling and yet don't want to just hop on a plane and carry their bike, or rent a bike, and go out on their own. This way they have "an umbrella of safety," I call it. They know where they're going to stay; they've got accommodations; they've got breakfast and dinner; they've got a support vehicle that carries their luggage.

It's this way of travel that to me seems so satisfying from the standpoint that it's exciting, it's adventuresome and you feel that you have actually gone from point A to point B under your own locomotion. You were able to stop; you could smell the flowers; you could talk to people; you could do all of those things, and yet it's a step above walking because you are moving along. So that's part, I think, of the mystique of bicycling.

It's become extremely popular. This is my 16th year that I am leading the tours, and you pick up some of the bicycling magazines and they're just loaded with trips and travels everywhere--China, the Soviet Union, New Zealand, Australia, every country in Europe.

It kind of puts a notch in your travel belt to say, "Yes, I was in France in the Bordeaux region. I bicycled through there." It's kind of a step above the guy who's been traveling on an American Express tour encased in steel and glass, you know. He stopped somewhere and they say, "All right, you have three hours to explore the town, and you can go buy your wooden shoes over here, and so forth." Always someone telling you what to do.

It's amazing the reaction you get from Europeans when they see Americans cycling. I guess they've seen too many movies, and they think we're all extremely wealthy, and we wouldn't demean ourselves to be seen on a bike--we travel in big Rolls-Royces, or something. Then they see older people and younger people riding together, and they like it.

We try as much as possible to become part of the experience, to become part of the mosaic of the country wherever we are. Europe is given, especially on the Continent, to having a great number of summer festivals.

It's exciting to share part of that kind of living wherever you are--6,000, 10,000 miles away from home, to be sitting there, listening to "Hamlet" being acted out in German. Or it might be like at Stein-Am-Rhein in Switzerland. Every evening the people come down to the waterfront there and they serve beer and they serve bratwurst and all of that sort of thing. And there's an orchestra made up of the local people--the banker, the butcher, the gas station attendant. And they play American music mostly. So we dance and sing. People can recognize that we're foreigners there, but we join in and become part of it and enjoy it very much. That's how you sample the culture.

I like when people get lost. I really do. Because that means they're going to have to find how to get back on the road or how to get back to the right place, which means they have to talk to someone. Somehow or another, they're going to have to communicate. They make a contact and that's an accomplishment in itself.

It seems to me, as Americans, we like to stick together when we're traveling because we know the language and it's safe, we're secure. We don't want to venture out. I think that's the wrong thing. OK, so you stumble, so you don't know the language. So you make a mistake. That's part of learning about traveling rather than just having someone tell you: This is the building you should see, this is the factory you should go in and visit, this is where they have Baccarat.

It's much more, I think, if you can take home experiences that you initiated and that you happened upon. Bicycling really supports that kind of travel; where you are the initiator, you are the one who decides.

Reflections showcases people from the county who have an interesting life story and gives them an opportunity to tell it in their own words.

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