Each day a new journey for outdoor travel pioneer Leo Le Bon

Leo Le Bon sliced through Berkeley’s Tilden Regional Park, his silvery gray hair streaming out the back of his bike helmet as he pedaled past a cyclist.

A short time later the other rider, who was 52, caught up with Le Bon and realized with some astonishment that the man who had overtaken him was a lot older than he was.

“There’s no shame in beating an 80-year-old,” Le Bon said with a smile as he rode on.

Every day is a new adventure for the man who pioneered adventure in outdoor travel when he and his partners opened Mountain Travel in Oakland’s Montclair district in 1969. The company became the first in the nation to offer commercial mountain treks from the United States to destinations abroad.

More than four decades later, the adventure travel industry is exploding, growing at 65 percent a year and worth more than $260 billion, according to a 2013 report by George Washington University and the Adventure Travel Trade Association.

“Leo was a visionary who saw opportunity,” said Kevin Callaghan, CEO of Mountain Travel Sobek in Emeryville. “All the companies that came after his exist because of Leo.”

Passion for mountains

Le Bon has traveled to every continent, with treks to the Himalayas and to peaks in South America. He wrote three books, “Where Mountains Live,” “Majestic Mountains” and “The Adventurous Traveler’s Guide,” which are illustrated with his photos.

Among his favorite mountain places are base camp on Mount Everest, at 19,000 feet, and the expansive Tibetan plateau, at 14,000 feet.

Le Bon was born in Belgium, where there are few mountains. He was raised to get around on a bike.

“I was biking when Eddy Merckx was in diapers,” he said, referring to the five-time winner of the Tour de France, who is 69 and from Belgium.

In 1959, at 25, Le Bon traveled to New York with a friend. They wanted to see the country and drove to San Francisco, stopping for a hike at the Grand Canyon along the way. He fell in love with the mountains when he visited the High Sierra. In 1960, travel firm Thomas Cook & Son hired him to work in San Francisco. He planned the Sierra Club’s first overseas outings to South America and Europe. In 1967, he put together the first commercial trek to Nepal.

When Le Bon opened Mountain Travel, his partners included Allen Steck, a well-known Yosemite climber who lives in Berkeley, and Barry Bishop, a climber and National Geographic photographer who was on the first U.S. expedition to reach the top of Mount Everest in 1963. (Bishop was killed in an automobile accident in 1994.)

“We were the only ones out there,” Steck, 88, said of the company at its inception. “Leo was important because he knew how to write tickets for travelers. Without him, we probably wouldn’t have made it.”

Le Bon met his future wife, Nadia Billia, in 1982, when Mountain Travel was planning a trip to the Alps and hired a company in Italy where she worked as a trekking guide. Born in Italy, she moved to Berkeley a year later. They have a grown son, and Le Bon has a son and daughter from a previous marriage.

As Le Bon enters his 80s, he is focusing less on climbing and more on cycling – which takes him back to his childhood days on a bike in Belgium. He began riding in earnest four years ago as a comeback after surviving prostate cancer. Plus, he says, it’s easier on his joints than climbing mountains.

He loves riding the back roads of Death Valley, but this summer he’s aiming for peaks closer to home. His goal in the coming weeks: riding to the top of the Bay Area’s three tallest peaks that are accessible by road – all on the same day.

3 peaks in 1 day

Last month he made it to the summits of Mount Diablo (elevation 3,850 feet) and Mount Tamalpais (elevation 2,500 feet) on one day, aided by Billia, 59, who ferried him by car to the base of each mountain and drove alongside him as he climbed to the top of each peak.

“This was just a test,” he said of the two-peak ride. He took short breaks along the way and paid attention to his heart-rate monitor to make sure he didn’t exceed a safe level of 115 to 120 beats per minute.

After Le Bon rides up Mount Hamilton (elevation 4,200 feet) and Mount Diablo on the same day, he says he will be ready to do all three peaks on one day. In the process, he has become a role model for staying fit and living longer.

“I tell my friends, ‘Get on the bike,’ ” he said. When he’s not biking, he runs a travel consulting firm from an office at his home in Berkeley; he sold Mountain Travel in 1991. But he’s not one to sit at a desk for very long, and the Le Bons have no shortage of ideas for new adventures.

Their next trip may be to Glacier National Park in northern Montana, to hike and bike. After that they might take a bike trip around the French island of Corsica -he on his Eddy Merckx bike and she on her De Rosa Italian bike.

“Leo has always been a great example of someone who loves what he does every day,” said Tom Hale, 61, of Kentfield, who founded now-giant Backroads travel in 1979. “I hope I am as strong as he is in another 19 years.”

Sense of well-being

Le Bon, who received a lifetime achievement award in 2005 from the Adventure Travel Trade Association, believes that the aim of all outdoor physical activities should be to achieve a sense of well-being in the moment.

“You reach a point when the goal no longer is to reach the summit but to enjoy the process,” he said. “Too many people are focused only on winning.”

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