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Sat, 27 Dec 2008

Riding a Bike Across the USA

Now that I've announced my intention to pedal across the USA on a bicycle during the summer of 2009, I think it's my obligation to go on record with my reasons. Given the vast array of potential accomplishments and adventures I might choose to crowd into the diminishing remainder of my life, why did I choose to spend a precious summer on a bike trip? If for no other reason than self curiosity, this question demands an answer.

Maybe there is no answer. What is the origin of a dream? Vague, ephemeral thoughts swirl in our minds and gradually something coherent emerges. Where does that come from?

Some claim that dreams are a subconscious rehash of familiar elements. And it's not like I haven't been on a bike before. What's another 4000 more miles when a conservative estimate of the reading on my lifetime pedaling odometer is somewhere around 100K miles. I never rode across America, per se, but in my prime – roughly when I was 30 – I routinely pedaled 8000-9000 miles a year – half of it between December and May, the rest in the three months of June, July, and August, effectively equaling the distance to cross the country in those same three months. I had about 7 years of this serious "prime" where I easily racked up 50-60K miles total. In the remaining 20 years of semi-serious riding, I accumulated another 50K or so, incrementing the sixth odometer digit some time when my age reached the late 40's.

Some miles, not a lot, were in actual organized races. Despite the general perception of bike racing as a grueling, long distance event, a perception shared by most average, non-bike-racing people in the states, it's rare that a bike race in the USA extends more than 20 miles. The ultra-marathon nature of the Tour De France is an extreme exception. US races are short, ugly things – ten laps of a half mile loop around a city park. They have more akin to a pie eating contest in a local carnival than to the immense international pageantry and 150 mile days of Le Tour. Still, to be competitive in a 10 mile race around the park, you have to ride every day, and that inevitably piles on the distance.

Most non-race organized rides comprise more miles than true races. I participated in a considerable number of these as well, spanning the gamut from charity rides, club rides, and centuries, the last category naming a popular form of 100 mile (or kilometer) ride sponsored by a local club. These all tended to be single day things. Popular with some riders are the "MS 150" rides that involve an overnight camping stop. I never went on one of these. I tend to shy away from charity events in general, but that's another story.

I never crossed America in once shot. I did, however, ride RAGBRAI, a huge, 7 day, 450 mile ride across the state of Iowa. I rode RAGBRAI three times. And it's on RAGBRAI where one thread of my interest in a transamerica ride begins.

Riding across the continent necessarily involves stopping to sleep, typically camping, as Hyatt Regency locations are too widely spaced west of the Mississippi to fit with the daily range of a bicycle. Before RAGBRAI, I never camped, a fact that some people might find hard to believe given how familiar my regular camping has become. Sure, I'd slept on floors, porches, and one time even on a Jersey shore beach sand where I almost died of hypothermia from the cold wind blowing in off the Atlantic. But this hobo hotel stuff was during my itinerant hippie days, before I became a fitness nut. As a bike rider – excuse me: bike racer in training – getting proper food and rest was supremely important. On multi-day stage races, like the two week long "Super Week" series in Wisconsin I invariably entered, I would stay in hotels and feast at all-you-can-eat buffets, focusing on "approved foods": vegetables, beans, potatoes and pasta, mostly.

But one year, maybe two or three seasons after I had mostly stopped competing, a somewhat younger, still-into-racing, cycling acquaintance of mine, Gary (a.k.a. HammerHead), asked if I would be interested in joining him for this bike ride across Iowa. He did it every year with a team called the "Land Sharks" and I would be welcome. They wore fins, had shark names, rode fast, camped out at night, and drank lots of Guinness stout. The "card shark" name was available. Could I come?

I had heard of the ride as a fun time, but in previous years it had conflicted with racing. Now that I wasn't really racing – I thought, why not give it a try? I like riding. I like Guinness. How hard could the camping part be?

As things developed, this decision could later be identified as a turning point in my life. It was a crucial event in a number of ways that in their entirety are too complex and involved to discuss here. I'll restrict myself to the one aspect of this event that's relevant to the present context: my introduction to multi-day camping, and particularly camping along with Gary.

The idea of traveling through the countryside, whether by boat, bike, or on foot, without a clear notion on exactly where one will spend the next night, can be an off-putting prospect to those who have never done it. The closest many people ever dare to experience is a multi-day car trip, staying in random motels without prior reservation.

The solid predictibility of civilized life makes us recoil from the idea of just driving till we are tired, then looking for a motel. We want more of a plan. Off-putting though this may be to our civilized sensibilities, multi-day treks are exactly of this formless form. Even when the trek is organized by others – as is the case with RAGBRAI and other similar events – often one doesn't completely know the sleeping arrangements at the end of the day's excursion. The swarm of 10,000 riders that is RAGBRAI quickly exhausts any possible planned campsites. Basically, when the day's riding is done, drunk or sober, by daylight or by flashlight, one still needs to find a place to sleep. To those of us that have come to love it, the uncertainty is the very charm of this multi-day trekking thing.

Thus, I found myself riding across Iowa on a bike, and camping at night in a small tent, campsite locations being generally ad hoc. The first year I did this trip, I experienced a severe case of 'trail lag'. For experienced trekkers the shock takes little more than a couple days to pass, but on my first ride across Iowa I was still disoriented well into the fourth day. Trail lag is an adaptation process. Slowly you lose touch with the rhythms of civilization and become attuned to the rhythms of your trip. Gear migrates to the places where it's needed. Extraneous gear is discarded. One's motions and efforts tune into pure efficiency. The cares of home and office fade into absudity. Foremost in your mind are the essentials of moving on, getting food, and finding shelter for the night.

At the end of the trip there's a similar process returning to normal life. One feels like Crocodile Dundee in New York City. It can be exhilarating, horrifying, soul expanding.

To this day Gary jokes about my glazed look on day 3 of my first RAGBRAI. The way he describes it, I was circling some parking lot endlessly on my bike – exactly like a shark that found it impossible to stop swimming – mumbling something about finally "getting it".

I found this first trail adaptation painful and unsettling, but there was something remarkable about it too. When I finally got to the end of that difficult transformation I was introduced to a wonderful new world that I hadn't suspected could exist.

After RAGBRAI I became interested in other sorts of treks. I completed some river sojourns and backpacking trips. I started to develop and refine my camping and trekking skills beyond the beginner stage. One year, looking back through my calendar I saw that for over 31 days that year – a total of one solid month – I had slept on the dirt (or snow) rather than on a civilized bed.

Rewind back to my teen years, way before any of this transformation had taken place. I suspect that in the 1970's a transamerica bike ride would have been a lot harder for me to accomplish. Or maybe not. It would have been harder and easier. Harder technically; easier philosophically; roughly the same, physically. I remember two of my high school classmates that did a trans-am ride back in the mid seventies. No special gear, no experience, no training, no planning, no sponsor, no agenda. Spontaneously, with little more than the clothes on their backs, they simply set off one day riding their Schwinns to see how far they could go. They were young. Youth makes things easier. Or maybe not.

Me, now, 33 years later, my trip will be planned to the nines and comprehensively geared with high-tech doo-dads. I'll have maps and GPS receivers that meticulously guide me from one Kodak perfect location to the next. My body will be encased in a CAD designed, wind tunnel tested, and ergonomically reconfigurable array of waterproof breathable fabric structures and garments; I'll be sitting on a fancy, custom bike with components more akin to jewelry than machinery; brought along to tether me to my "real world" life will be a collection of personal electronic devices that each individually boasts a raw computing power that exceeds that of all the Earth's computers combined in the year 1975.

Physically, I should be good. Within my legs will be the scars and strengths left by 28 years of serious cycling. I'm part of a substantial minority of people that can say they are in better physical shape in middle age than they ever were in their youth. Not better shape than I could have been, just better shape than I actually was.

And within my brain will be the scars and strengths left by 50 years of life, for what that's worth.

My transamerica bike riding friends from the 1970's spun off with hardly a care. Their trip brought them true notoriety amongst those of us that knew the details of their adventure, and general approbation from those that merely heard mention.

Me, now, I'll be tied into an array of responsibilities. Multiple jobs, multiple kids, a spouse, aging parents, a homestead to maintain. It's not an unusual scenario for a middle aged man to find himself. At this stage in my life I can hardly wriggle I'm so entwined with the complex details of life. A suitable metaphor for my situation might be a bicycle wheel – spokes radiating out from me, the hub, tensioned to the max. Should just one of those spokes snap from strain, or be borrowed for service elsewhere, the whole thing would still spin, but there'd be a pronounced wobble.

Disconnecting from my usual society for a minimum of two months is more than snapping a single spoke – it's completely re-lacing the wheel. As I've explained, I'm not unfamiliar with trekking, and my friends and family expect it from me. But a week away at RAGBRAI, a section hike, or a sojourn is one thing – two or three months away on a transamerica ride is something quite different.

Consequently, I anticipate I'll be criticized as on several fronts. Some (myself?) will dismiss my trip as frivolous self indulgence – a childish fantasy reflecting my inherent immaturity; others will lampoon it as a disgraceful mid-life male farce. Of course, to my face I'll mostly get feigned admiration. Many will say: "A ride across America. I always wanted to do that. How nice."

How nice, indeed. My wife will shake her head, put on the disapproving look look of an Amish grandmother considering the factory installed buttons on her grandson's new store-bought work shirt, and say: "How can I stop him?", as if she implicitly agreed that the whole thing was lunacy and she would stop me if she could. Husbands, fathers, shouldn't just spin off on 4000 mile bike rides. But men aren't quite civilized and my husband is no exception. I trust he will be back, like a hound dog that's had his amusement.

My Mom concurs. As a woman who lived almost her whole life in one town, never lived alone, and never traveled alone, she has no way to grasp something like a transcontinental bike ride by her son. Frightened by her own shadow, and never having developed an adult relationship with me, she'll live in denial of my whereabouts. Every time I mention it she acts like she thought the trip had been canceled – I had changed my mind. She still sees me as the 5 year old riding a tricycle down a flight of concrete steps. One of my earliest memories is my mom fainting from the shock of seeing me bloody from a particularly bad tumble off my bike.

My Dad? He's someone I feel great love for, but cannot ever understand the reason he spend most of his life deferring to the limitations imposed by my Mom. I'm embarrassed for him when I talk about my plans – all the more so because of his shameless devotion to her. It's something I can't quite parse.

Some of this criticism would be deserved if I was, in fact, crazy to do something like this. But, if I say so myself, I'm objectively not crazy. I'm an experienced bike rider and trekker, my kids are teenagers happily focused on their own lives and might not even notice if I was gone for a couple months – texting my daughter from a cornfield in Iowa is little different than texting her from my study. Ditto my wife. Job wise, I'm a teacher and consultant. My summer is my own time. This thing is too planned-out and sensibly orchestrated to be irresponsible.

Not that I don't dream of crazy things. For example, as part of my trekking I've done some serious hiking. Last summer I spent two weeks in New Mexico hiking with my son at Philmont scout ranch, where we climbed the 12,000 foot Mt Baldy. I've been up peaks in the Catskills and the Whites. And, yes, I'm interested enough in mountains to think about the seven summits. Think, I said. To actually set off on conquering the highest peak in each continent would really be lunacy at my age. That silliness, in my opinion, would constitute a male, mid-life thing. A crazy dream.

Similarly, I've thought about hiking the AT. That's a six month adventure. Unfortunately, my job schedule doesn't currently permit such an excursion, and barring a major change in my world, I'll not see an opportunity to hike the AT for at least 9 years. But then, maybe. Maybe when I'm 60, hike the AT. Hmmmm...

Cycling across the USA, on the other hand, is quite a different thing. While I came to enjoy mountaineering late in life, I've been riding bikes continuously and seriously from my early twenties. I raced for ten years, and coached racing for several more. The physical act of riding a bicycle across the USA wouldn't be that big of a deal for a guy like me. Not to say that at 50 I'm in the same shape I was at 30. Certainly not. But I am in better shape than I was when I was 20 – or at least I can get more from my body today than I ever attempted to get when I was 20. Thus, I can say without hubris that after all those miles on the bike I know my capabilities pretty well. Riding 100 miles a day for a month or two shouldn't be a problem.

I say "shouldn't" because my experience has also shown me that anything can happen on a long bike ride, or any other kind of trek, and it's in this uncertainty that the lunacy of this endeavor might lie. No doubt problems will occur. I could crash, breaking bones, or something more serious.

But something more serious can happen to anyone at any time. I'm a cancer survivor, 5 years now. There's no reason to put off things in my bucket list that I can reasonably accomplish today. Fear of injury plays no role.

Fear of abandoning – that's a different question. Four thousand miles is a long way to ride. A lot of thinking will happen during the ride. There will be moments when I sincerely believe I won't make it. My winter hiking and mountaineering buddy, Doug, talks about a time going up Mt Cornell in the Catskills when he was "pwned" by the mountain on the first day. The climb was relentless, the conditions were difficult, and his body was reacting poorly to the stress. Somehow, he found a way to overcome this and keep walking. Meanwhile, I was feeling fine, oblivious to his struggle. A day later, going up Slide mountain, I began to lose my resolve and it was my turn to be pwned. Outwardly, we both were merely walking up a hill. Inwardly, we were fighting epic battles with our own will.

The fact that I know this mental weakness in advance may help me overcome it, but will I overcome it? That nagging doubt is irreducible. Long treks are far more about the mental aspect than anything else.

An interesting personal correlation is that Gary, the rider that introduced me to bike trekking across Iowa was the former winter hiking buddy of Doug – my current winter hiking buddy. I hear tell of a time on Liberty ridge in the White Mountains with Doug when Gary was pwned big time by a combination of intestinal trouble and bad circulation in his fingers. I don't think Gary ever quite recovered from that ego shattering experience and nowadays refuses to do any winter climbing.

Despite his aversion to winter hikes, Gary does still love to ride bikes in the summer and somehow retains a bike racer's psyche. Me, I lost my racing willpower almost two decades ago and haven't been able to steel myself sufficiently for cycling competition since. There was some forgotten and forgettable race in the early 1990s that was my last. I coached for some time afterward, and I can still tell you a lot about how one goes about racing bicycles, but doing it myself. No. That sort of mental toughness is lost to me.

But the toughness required for trekking is still within my grasp. With a clear travel goal in mind and the inspiration to care about it, given enough time I can usually get my ass from point A to point B, assuming the gods don't conspire against me.

As goals go, a transamerica bike ride always was a life goal for me. I think it first became a goal for me back in the 70s when I saw my two high school friends pedal off on their own ride across America. I thought it was a pretty cool thing to do. I thought I wouldn't mind doing it myself.

So, why did I wait so long? Why did it take me 33 years to get around to doing something about this supposedly important lifelong achievement?

It seems to me that as one ages, acting with true spontaneity becomes impossible. Instead, I seem to be developing a backlog of whims desired but not acted on. In some cases, the whims are bad things that I refuse to act on for moral reasons, an extramarital affair, for example. But in other cases, the whims are benign dreams, say, to ride a bike across America.

These good whims sit in my volitional queue waiting for a triggering event. There has to be a proximate cause. I simply can't wake up in the morning, pick some whim out of my queue and act on it. Maybe I could when I was 20, but no longer. Something or somebody has to prod one of these quirky scripts on stage into my life.

In the case of the transcontinental bike ride under discussion, the triggering event was a conversation I had with Gary during one of Doug's "Gin and Tonic Partys".

Some digression regarding this particular party is important as it somehow symbolizes an essential aspect of what this transamerica ride thing is all about. Many years ago, Doug began throwing a spontaneous party whenever the weather became warm enough to call an end to winter. With a contradictory synthesis of specificity and spontaneity, he decreed his party would be held the evening of the first day of the year when the temperature reached 80 degrees. Gin and Tonic would be the drink of choice. All were invited yet no invitations were issued. RSVP not required. Watch the thermometer and show up.

In the early years of this party, the "official" thermometer was a particular chart logger at the building in which he worked. These days, there's a specified weather underground web accessible station that is the canonic temperature indicator. Amusingly, the owner of this station doesn't know it's crucial role and he must be perplexed by the sudden spike in web traffic the first day of the year when the temperature hits the upper 70s.

Anyway, it was at last year's Gin and Tonic party when I mentioned to Gary that I would be turning 50 and would be cool to think about a transamerica bike ride in 2009. I wasn't really "seriously" thinking about it – it was just something one says to a friend as one rattles through the mental inventory of long deferred goals in conversation.

Well, in response to my rattling of this goal, Gary echos that he, too, could have the opportunity to ride across America in 2009.

It's one of those critical moments that arrives so quickly it's breathtaking. Despite both being a little drunk, Gary and I suddenly knew with full clarity that we were at a turning point. The next words would decide everything.

"Well, then, why not?" I said.

"Why not!" he replied.

We clinked glasses and the deal was sealed. We could have pulled out pocket knives, sliced our palms, and shook on it, but that would have been superfluous. The steel shackles fastening our trekker resolve had snapped shut. The trip was on.

Posted Dec 27, 2008 at 02:30 UTC, 3819 words,  [/danPermalink