A remarkable man’s remarkable story is now once again available for proclamation, thanks to the University of Georgia Press.
Earlier this summer, the UGA Press re-released “Around the World on a Bicycle,” a combination travelogue and memoir written in the mid-1930s by Athens icon Fred Birchmore, who could probably safely say that riding his bike across the globe might not have been the most interesting thing he’d ever done in his life.
Over an 18-month period in 1935 and 1936, Birchmore pedaled a 42-pound, one-speed bicycle he called Bucephalus (named after Alexander the Great’s horse and now residing in the Smithsonian) on a 25,000-mile sojourn that crossed Eurasia and created endless tales of adventure.
Those tales included being pursued by a tiger in Burma (now known as Myanmar) for three days, meeting movie idol Sonja Henie, visiting some 40 countries, and seeing Adolf Hitler in the days before the onset of World War II.
“Different people are going to get different things out of the book, but it’s just a great adventure story,” said David Des Jardins, who worked on this and many other books in a 30-year career with the UGA Press. “He rode a very basic, very heavy one-speed bike, and he rode this around the world. It was just crazy, and I say that in an admiring way. He was very bold and daring.”
Des Jardins, who retired from the press earlier this summer, said Birchmore – who hiked the Appalachian Trail at age 63 and the Inca Trail in Peru at age 66 – was always eager to travel, explore and learn.
“I never met him, but you’d almost have to be careful what you said to him,” Des Jardins said of Birchmore, who died in Athens in 2012 at age 100 after long and colorful careers in commerce and community service. “If you said something like, ‘I’ve never been to Wyoming; I bet it would be cool to go.’ He’d say, ‘Let’s go!’ And you’d be on the spot because he was always ready to go. His family members and children said he was always up for an adventure. He wanted to see what was over the next hill.”
The return of “Around the World on a Bicycle” also has a strong historical tone as the UGA Press originally published Birchmore’s manuscript in 1939 and it was – as Des Jardins said – the second book released by the press and the first where the printing, typesetting and binding were all executed on campus.
The first edition, and a second release by the Birchmore family’s own publishing company in the mid-1990s, have long since gone out of print, and Des Jardins said the time was right to bring a slightly updated version of the book out again.
“We’ve always known about this book, if for no other reason than it was one of the first books the press published, but in the 30 years I’ve been here people have said this is a really good book and it’s a shame it’s not back in print,” he said.
“I picked it up and started reading it. At around the same time, our publicist, who is a serious cyclist, knew about the book and he thought it would be a good idea to bring it back to print. Of course, lots of people at UGA and some people at the press knew Fred Birchmore and he was a one-of-a-kind person.”
Des Jardins said he wound up reading the book five times during a three-month period. The photos in the original publication were digitized and new photos were contributed by the Birchmore family.
“We got in touch with the Birchmore family and they were really pleased that we were going to come out with a new edition,” said Des Jardins. “So we completely redesigned this new edition and gathered as many photos as we could. We rescanned all the photos that appeared in previous editions and the family actually found some new ones. It took some time to identify some of them, which was kind of fun for me, and I had a lot of help from the family. Through the whole process the family was just wonderful.”
While engaging, the project — which also yielded an ebook edition — was also rewarding to Des Jardins, an Albany native who wore a variety of hats during his three decades at the UGA Press. It was one of his final assignments prior to his retirement.
“I didn’t sponsor a lot of books we published,” he said. “In my whole 30 years there, (I sponsored) maybe 10 books because that wasn’t really my job; I was more in marketing. But it was one of my last big projects and absolutely one of my favorite in all my 30 years.”
For more information on “Around the World on a Bicycle,” visit www.ugapress.org.