Army Veteran Robert Calder Shares Joys of Wisconsin Cycling

Robert Calder at the geographic marker marking Wisconsin's centermost point

Calder Shares Experiences Biking in Wisconsin

PITTSVILLE, WI (OnFocus) – Those driving through Central Wisconsin early this month may have noticed a man in a yellow Army-themed bike jersey making his way through local communities. Robert “Bob” Calder, M.D., has biked tens of thousands of miles during his nearly 70 years of life, but this recent trip was extra special – combining family, personal history, and the joys of traveling the state on two wheels.

“My most recent bike tour was really a family affair,” said Calder, who typically vacations in Hayward every year for a week in early July with his brother. Logistically, a few opportunities fell into place to allow Calder to embark on a cycling trip echoing one he last made seven years ago.

On Tuesday, June 29, Calder officially kicked off his tour with a wet, hilly ride from his home in Madison to Mauston, Wisconsin. After a day traversing Wisconsin’s hilly “driftless region,” the next day he rode the “wonderful straight, flat roads to Neillsville,” visiting the High Ground before checking into a hotel.

The next couple of days, he pedaled to Ladysmith to visit his favorite childhood Boy Scout camp: Two Bear Scout Reservation.

“The last time I was there was the day before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon!” he said. “Visiting that former camp, which was sold many years ago and divided up into condos, was an exercise in re-discovering that ‘you can’t go home again.’ I didn’t recognize a thing, except the lake. All of the camp buildings were gone, not a trace of the old camp remained.”

Next, Calder rode to a resort on Long Lake in Washburn County where he vacationed with his parents while in high school, then onto Spooner.

“I recall my mother telling me 50 years ago that some year soon she predicted I’d ride my bike up there. She was right, but it took a few years!” he said.

On Saturday, July 3, he arrived for a week-long visit with his brother at a cabin near Hayward.

“It was a great feeling to ride to a place, hundreds of miles from home which I had driven to for several years in the past,” he said.

On Friday, July 9, Calder rode the final 102-mile stretch to his son’s cabin.

“Since my son bought his cabin five years ago, I have had the thought of riding up there,” he said. “His cabin is about 200 miles from his home in Sun Prairie. The route I took from his house to his cabin was just over 500 miles! Not the most direct route!”

Notably, this last trek was his first “Century Ride” in several years, and he completed it in 7 hours and 2 minutes, with a fully-loaded bike.

After attending a celebration of life in Boulder Junction for an aunt who died last year, Calder loaded up his bike and drove home in his minivan that his son had delivered for him.

“It was a real family affair and a wonderful bike tour,” said Calder, whose final mileage clocked in at 612 miles ridden for this trip.

For Calder, cycling has been a lifelong passion – one that began while he was in high school, using money from his paper route to buy the first “ten-speed” bike on his block.

“I loved riding it, especially in the country west of Beloit, where I grew up,” he said. “However, I joined the Army at 17 and left for basic training a few days after graduating from high school, and really didn’t ride again for 33 years.”

Calder on June 14, 1975 with his brother. The day he arrived back home after his first tour of active duty.

Calder joined the army on two separate occasions – first in December 1971 and again in 1984.

“I served in the active reserve for nearly a year and a half and then volunteered to go on active duty for 2 years,” he explained. “So, I had a total of 5 years of active duty, 3 as an ‘enlisted’ person and 2 as a preventive medicine officer (captain).”

While in the Army and while living in the south and the east, Calder said the roads were really busy, narrow and not at all conducive to cycling. Also, at the time he was busy attending college, medical school, and residency, and then building his career.

A physician with a specialty in Preventive Medicine, Calder has a long and varied career in medicine.

After finishing medical school at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Calder started a residency in neurology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He soon discovered that wasn’t a good fit, so he returned to the Medical College of Wisconsin and completed a preventive medicine residency.

Calder (center, in khakis) with Army buddies on Friday, June 13, 1975 – the day he got out of the Army after his first term of active duty (3 years). At Fort Bragg, age 21.

During this residency, he joined the Army Reserve for his second stint in the Army and ended up commanding a unit in his hometown of Beloit. After finishing the residency, he went on active duty for two years as a preventive medicine officer, during which he served as a public health advisor to the Salvadoran Army during their civil war, in 1986.

“I discovered that real war is nothing like the movies! It stinks, literally,” he said. “But I loved being a medic and one of the proudest accomplishments of my life was being promoted to non-commissioned officer (E-5) while I was still 19, still a teenager.”

Calder seriously considered making the Army his career, but that would have involved many moves.

“Had I stayed in, my children would have had to attend three different schools in the year I resigned my commission. It is easy to forget the sacrifices that military families make,” he said.

Calder with brother and neighborhood children, 6-14-1975

After a two-year period of active duty, Calder left the Army and got a job with the Florida Department of Health, becoming the State Epidemiologist a few years later. Then, in late 1990, he accepted a job with Merck & Co. near Philadelphia and stayed with Merck for 26 years.

“Given that my specialty is preventive medicine, my patient is really a whole community,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who has enjoyed (and still enjoys) their medical career more than I do!”

Though he “retired” in 2017, he then studied mathematical statistics at UW-Madison for a year as a senior auditor. During this same period, he began guest lecturing (in biostatistics) at the Medical College of Wisconsin and was later hired as a part-time adjunct assistant professor. He is also a consultant for Merck and has given biostatistics lectures for the company in Europe and North and South America.

Calder’s passion for cycling ties in nicely with his passion for medicine and health.

Calder in his home office

“Cycling is like a drug, I suppose, and I am ‘addicted,'” he said. “It is such an empowering feeling to ride hundreds of miles to a place, such as the cabin where I vacationed with my brother, earlier this month.”

Mental and physical health often improve with regular cycling, something Calder has experienced firsthand.

“In my early 50s, my 26-year marriage came to an abrupt end. During this very difficult and disorienting period, a friend suggested that I listen to Tim McGraw’s new song: ‘Live Like You Were Dying.’ I bought the CD that song was on and have listened to it hundreds of times over the years! I listened to that song many times during my recent bike tour. I came to realize that I had a chance to ‘begin again’ and I did,” he recalled.

It was at this time that he started cycling again, joined a local bike club, made a lot of new friends and started feeling good again.

“Then, I did several organized bike tours in the western U.S. and Canada, visiting many of our national parks,” he said. “Later, after marrying my ‘true companion’ four years later, I started doing self-supported tours in Wisconsin. My recent tour was my 10th to Vilas County. I am just a few miles away from having cycled 50,000 miles since I started cycling again in ’05.”

Along with the mental health benefits are the more obvious physical benefits.

“Bicycling is a great low-impact aerobic activity. As everyone knows, aerobic fitness is correlated with both long and healthy lives (two things I want very much!),” said Calder, noting that it is also important to be safe on the road.

Calder personally knows two people who were killed while cycling, so he’s also passionate about safety and recommends the following:

  1. Never ride at night, about half of cycling fatalities occur at night.
  2. Obey the law. Stop at stop signs and red lights.
  3. Be visible. Wear very visible clothing and have lights front and rear on your bike.
  4. Choose your route carefully. The Wisconsin Bike Federation has maps which color-code every road in the state for biking safety. Use them.

Though there is always a risk with any sport – cycling included – Calder said that biking through Wisconsin is typically a positive experience.

“On this most recent tour I was particularly impressed at how considerate 99.9% of drivers were,” he said. “At one point, just south of Pittsville, road construction was occurring such that only one lane of traffic was allowed for about 2 miles. The construction worker controlling traffic, told me to go last and he would have all traffic stopped from the other direction until I made it through. Well, by the time I finished the two miles, well behind all the cars and trucks, there was a line of perhaps a hundred cars waiting. So, I gave them a sharp salute and I didn’t see any obscene gestures or hear any horns honking. It might have helped that I was wearing my Army jersey, I am not sure!”

At 67 years old, Calder looks forward to many more miles on his bike and encourages everyone regardless of age to get out on two wheels.

“I think it’s important for older people to know that they don’t have to sit on the couch just because they are on social security!” he said.

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Breanna Butler
Author: Breanna Butler

Breanna Butler is an award-winning multimedia producer born and raised in Central Wisconsin. She enjoys exploring and writing about the community. She lives in Marshfield with her husband and furry family.