Spotlight: Yale curator recommends ways to make scenery a part of the ride

There are those for whom a long-distance bicycle ride is often a high-speed workout; the scenery just a whizzing peripheral blur.

Frederick Lamp
Frederick Lamp (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Frederick Lamp isn’t one of them.

He prefers pedaling at a moderate pace, while still allowing time to appreciate the historic churches, rural farms, dense forests, ocean inlets, and other Connecticut scenery as he rides.

Lamp — the Frances & Benjamin Benenson Foundation Curator of African Art at the Yale University Art Gallery — has traversed the entire state by bicycle. His book highlighting his travels, “Connecticut by Bicycle: Fifty Great Scenic Routes,” was published last fall.

Lamp recently took the time to talk with YaleNews about his bicycle journeys and his book. Here is what we learned.

Looking both ways: Lamp took up long-distance bicycle riding when he was in his early 50s. When he moved to Connecticut from Maryland in 2004, he discovered that the area cycling clubs he joined often undertook long rides, but taking the time to enjoy the scenery wasn’t usually on the agenda.

“I like to stop to see things,” says Lamp. “Not many cycling groups do that kind of riding; competitive riders never look to the left or to the right.”

For a while, Lamp led his own casual cycling group, which took 30- to 50-mile rides that started at the New Haven Green. More often than not, however, he found himself riding alone, on tours that often took up most of the day. He made frequent stops to explore natural and man-made scenery and to capture what he saw with his Nikon Coolpix camera.

Sometimes lost. For his own travels, Lamp used a couple of Connecticut bicycling guidebooks, but found them lacking for a couple of reasons.

“The guidebooks I saw either had no images or had 10 pictures of the same thing: someone riding a bike,” says Lamp. “You don’t get a view of the state. Not to mention that when I used them, I often got lost.”

Nevertheless, the Yale curator enjoyed his rides around Connecticut, which, he says, “is a great state for bicycle riding.”

“Connecticut has such varied terrain and landscapes,” he says. “Lakes, rivers, a wonderful coastline, charming villages, and rural areas where one can ride with little traffic. There’s also a lot of history. There’s a wealth of houses that date back to the 1600s and 1700s, old cemeteries and tobacco barns, and former factory towns. It’s wonderful to see by bicycle.”

Color and history: Realizing that a new guidebook would be a boon for both cyclists and the state, Lamp began photographing the scenery when he cycled, and he jotted down the highlights of his journeys. After his rides, many of which took up much of the day, he spent hours mapping the route he followed.

Each of the 50 rides in Lamp’s book — described by his publisher (Schiffer) as “the first full-color guide to the state of Connecticut by road bike for the moderate-level rider” — is represented by a four-page spread with color photographs of the sights, a narrative description, a hand-drawn map, and a cue sheet with directions and mileage. Lamp weaves historical facts about homes, churches, cemeteries, parks, and other landmarks into his narrative, as well as suggestions for interesting stopping places.

Describing the significance of the giant frog sculptures on Willimantic’s Thread City Crossing Bridge, for example, he writes: “These bizarre and wonderful sculptures are meant to commemorate the town’s historic thread mills and, at the same time, the mind-freaking night in 1754 when the villagers huddled in their homes thinking they heard the local Native Americans at battle, only to learn the next morning that it was the bull frogs fighting over water in a dried-up pond.”

Taking pause: Lamp — who traveled each of the routes in his book twice to ensure the accuracy of his descriptions and maps — says he hopes his suggested rides will inspire other cyclists “to not be in a rush, to make a day of a ride so that they can tour a bit of the state and see things.” While the book is meant for those who have some experience riding and are willing to go beyond a leisurely few miles, he says that even “speed demons” can combine some of the routes for more vigorous rides.

He’s also quick to point out that the rides in his book do not require any special equipment.

“A lot of people have the idea that you need to have clip-on shoes, Power Bars, and all sorts of fancy gear,” says Lamp. “It’s not the case at all. In the old days, bicyclists would tour wearing top hats and dress shoes.”

The eyes of an art historian: Lamp says that while writing a book about bicycling took him out of his usual realm of expertise as a specialist on African art, his experience as an art historian came in handy. Often, he did research about the historic sites he discovered on his travels.

“In almost every village in the state, there are these historic Congregational churches,” he says. “I learned a bit about them because I found them very beautiful in their simplicity, and I would photograph every single one.”

The curator, who grew up in a Mennonite family near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, first lived in Connecticut while a Ph.D. student in art history at Yale, where he studied with Professor Robert Farris Thompson. As a teenager, he begged his parents for a radio, a device then forbidden in Mennonite homes. When his parents acquiesced, Lamp spent his evenings listening to a station that featured black gospel music.

“As a child, I became fascinated with black culture, perhaps because I saw it as a breath of fresh air or as an antidote to my own more repressive background,” says the Yale curator, who also relished the stories that Mennonite missionaries told upon their return from Africa. In the late 1960s, he taught in Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps volunteer. Also a trained dancer, he has written essays on African art and performance and edited a book titled “See the Music, Hear the Dance: Rethinking Africa at The Baltimore Museum of Art,” where he formerly served as a curator.

Freedom without speeding: Cycling, says Lamp, inspires the same sense of freedom that he encountered listening to the gospel music that took him worlds away from home, but it also brings the opportunity to experience great beauty and calm.

“There is nothing like a bike ride to see the sights that you would often miss speeding, or even just cruising, in a motor vehicle,” Lamp writes in “Fifty Scenic Rides.” “These routes go through picturesque villages, farmland, and forest, and by expansive lakes, rivers, ponds, harbors, and the Long Island Sound that forms the entire southern coast of the state. Sometimes there are cafes and restaurants along the way, sometimes not, but there are glorious sites for sitting down and enjoying a lunch — at the peak of a mountain, by a bubbling brook, or dangling your legs off a wooden wharf. …”

For the novice bicycle tourist, Lamp suggests starting with a 35-mile from New Haven to Stony Creek. He also offers this advice: “Make a day of it, and bring a camera.”

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,