Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Advice before Bicycling Across the USA

Stop and see Monticello along the way; 2007 journey.


I’ve been contacted by several interested cyclists who want advice about pedaling across the country. So this post is for anyone inclined to try. 

First, if you’re like me and know parts of only five tunes to hum, learn some songs before you set sail. Otherwise, you’re in for some long days repeating a few bars of “Old Susanna” over and over again.  

Trust me, I know.

My first trip across the United States came at age 58, in 2007, the year before I retired from teaching—and took me west, from New Jersey to Oregon in 4,088 miles. 

This summer, my second journey began at Acadia National Park in Maine and ended on the streets of San Francisco, fifty-eight days and 4,600 miles later. On the first trip rain was minimal. This summer I got wet on twenty-two occasions and dumped on for five or six long days. I also had times where I boiled my brains in Indiana, entering South Dakota (heat index 118°) and pedaling across the Sevier Desert in Utah. Near the end of my ride I had a day where I climbed a total of 7,000 feet, crossed three mountain ranges and went up and over Tioga Pass into Yosemite National Park.

If this sounds like complaining, I don’t mean to scare anyone. A ride across America is a phenomenal adventure and a wonderful challenge. Check out some of the scenery in Yosemite, below, and you have some idea why it can be so enjoyable.

Vernal Falls, Yosemite, with rainbow: 2011.
To ride out of the valley in this direction you have to gain a couple of thousand feet in elevation.
The views are well worth the sweat you expend: older photo.

So what’s the toughest mile? Probably the first—realizing that you CAN pedal across America, even if it means working yourself into shape as you go. 

It’s not false modesty for me to say there are hundreds of thousands of men and women (young or old) who could do what I did. I’m not even an avid cyclist. I don’t do century rides back home in Ohio and ride about once a week during spring, summer and fall. I never ride in winter. I’m a wimp in the cold. 

You don’t have to be a two-wheeled kamikaze to consider this trip.

I work out once or twice at the gym every week; and for an older guy, I’m in decent shape; but I’m no physical specimen and my eating habits are abominable. When I set my mind to it, however, I know I can go. I believe I can. And so I can. Belief is the first step. More than anything, it’s a question of mentality. You have to be determined. As Eleanor Roosevelt once put it, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” 

Both my trips involved pedaling alone (most of my friends are lounge-chair riders, or perhaps wiser with age), and unsupported, which scares most riders.  I have found it to be liberating to go at my own pace and have flexibility to camp almost anywhere I desire. I also find that when locals see a bike loaded with gear they want to ask questions. It’s a great way to start a conversation, whether you’re passing through Geneva, N.Y. during a deluge or pondering a blown tire over breakfast in Gabbs, Nevada (population 349).

In fact, it might be wise to carry an extra tire. I did have one tire (an expensive one too) develop a hernia in Gabbs, when the nearest place to buy a new one was in Reno, nearly a hundred miles away.

I should note that my experience with people on both trips was ridiculously positive. Almost everyone wants to help. Bicycle shops (once you make it through their door) treat you like royalty. In the Gabbs case, Ray and Hazel Dummar, owners of the only operating cafe in town, and a geologist named Steven House who was passing through, conspired to get me to a sporting goods store that had everything a cross-country rider could desire.

Except slot machines, that is.

If you’re going to do this ride it helps to have a good machine and you should have yours checked thoroughly before setting out. (Not all riders do.) My bicycle is a Cannondale 700, with heavy-duty rims, which I purchased in 1999. I’ve never had to deal with broken spokes or a major mechanical failure while touring yet. Originally, the bike had 21 gears. A few years back my mechanic upgraded it to 27. 

Those extra six really help when you’re crossing the Middle Gap in Vermont, where grades are 15% and 18%.

I’ve seen plenty of riders, coming and going, during my trips and the question of what to carry and how to carry it always comes up. The only rule to follow for sure: Pack as lightly as possible. On my first ride I hauled six sets of clothes, t-shirts, socks and underwear, a pair of jeans, sweat pants, a fleece jacket and more. For my 2011 journey I decided to go with two bicycle jerseys, which could be alternated one day to the next, one black bathing suit, serving as shorts/underwear (washed out every night), one regular pair of black shorts, one regular t-shirt, three pairs of regulation underwear (I could have gotten by with one), and three pairs of socks. I skipped the jeans, which turned out to be a good call, and dispensed with sweat pants, as well, which turned out not to be wise. There were several times when camping in high altitudes at Yellowstone or Yosemite that a pair of sweats would have been welcome.

The socks got a little stiff too, since I rinsed them out at night by hand, using a little shampoo from those hotel bottles; but you can quickly toughen up your feet and don’t need socks every day.

Fewer and fewer people do self-supported rides but I never found it a problem, even at my ripe age. I’ve had great luck with a Therm-A-Rest sleeping pad and even discovered this summer that it’s possible to close a leak caused by a thorn with a bicycle patch (at least with the pad I had). I also got by with a cheap ($19.95) kid’s tent from Bass Pro Shops. It fit perfectly atop the back deck on my bike, along with the sleeping pad and a lightweight sleeping bag, all held down with bungee cords. 

The virtue of carrying your own gear is that you may stop anywhere you like and that often means camping for free. In parts of the east I was finding campgrounds, like one nice mom and pop place in Maine, and every KOA across the land, charging $28 or $31 to put up a tent. So I started looking for “free” accommodations along the edges of cornfields (perfect in late July when crops are high), behind lines of bushes, even behind rises in hills alongside the roads. 

When I hit Eureka, Nevada, for example, I found myself running out of daylight after suffering a tricky flat. I checked with the only motel that had a vacancy sign lighted: a Best Western that offered one of four suites remaining for $120. A quick bit of adding and subtracting convinced me to keep pedaling, and two miles past town, just off the main road, I found a perfect stand of juniper trees to screen my presence and settled in for a free night.

I slept soundly and used part of my savings to pedal back to Eureka the next morning and enjoy a huge breakfast.

Speaking of flats, I don’t know what the average rider knows. I didn’t know, myself, until Gene Meyers, another rider I met in Idaho in 2007, told me, that tire debris—the wires in radial tire fragments—cause about half of all flats. I also found that day near Eureka that a pair of tweezers would have been handy.  A tiny bit of wire had punctured my tire and tube but I couldn’t seem to grip it with fingers or regular pliers. Eventually, a nice older woman (older than me?) I met on the street lent me a pair of tweezers she carried in her purse.

In Iowa a tiny fragment of glass caused three flats, three days in succession. I’d get the flat, disassemble the tire, feel for any offending wire, tack or staple, and find nothing. The tiny shard would eventually be pushed through the tire again the next day and Id’ end up riding on my rim. Only when I stopped at a bicycle shop, was a mechanic able to find the problem by running his hand along the outside of the tire and he found the shard at once. It was a valuable lesson and from then on I checked inside and out on my tire if there was any doubt about the source of a flat.

It’s worth a word of warning to say that in 2007, I started off with three extra tubes but no patching kit. I figured three tubes would be plenty. In the middle of Kansas I ran into a cross-country rider heading east who told me he’d experienced five flats in one day. I bought a patching kit at Emporia, the next town, and highly recommend carrying plenty of patches at all times. My worst day ever was four flats, riding in Idaho during that trip; and this summer I ran over a large staple as I was crossing the Missouri River. That mishap left me with three separate holes in my rear tube.
Heading west across Kansas in 2007.

I made up my own routes for both rides and found this to be a pleasure. I often ended up riding through small towns where most people had never seen a distance cyclist and so loved to talk and this made my trips more interesting. You do get off the beaten track—and this past summer I went two weeks at one stretch without seeing a McDonalds. That meant eating at mom and pop joints where owners still cared if the food they served tasted like food and arrived warm on the plate. I had excellent breakfasts almost every morning, simply by following this rule: Look for the place where the locals go. 

Google Maps on my phone proved helpful, especially a version that highlighted the best routes for bicyclers in green. And if you’ve never pedaled out West, I assure you that most roads have wide breakdown lanes and traffic is sparse.

Wyoming has five people per square mile—so you can imagine why.

In fact, you can legally ride the interstate there and feel perfectly safe, and the same is true in South Dakota, Montana and parts of Oregon.

Just don’t assume this is true in Utah. Luckily, I checked with the Utah Highway Patrol before pedaling up the ramp and onto I-80, because when I hit Salt Lake City I was ready to head due west, across the Great Salt Desert. Can’t ride the interstate in Mormon country, it turns out.

It’s also very important to carry extra food. Some of my favorites include Nature Valley energy bars, raisins, dried cranberries and even cheese and crackers. When you like you can eat your lunch beside the road. I had four water bottles filled at all times in the morning. On hot days or crossing dry, empty stretches, like the day I pedaled out of Delta, Utah headed for Nevada (92 miles without services) I had as many as eight. That included two liters of bottled water and two 32-oz. Gatoraide containers. Even that was barely enough and when I finally rolled into the Border Motel (where the owner takes care of riders and lets you tent for $5.00 a night) my throat was so dry I could barely talk.

I pedaled both times to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. My youngest daughter, Emily, has been a type-1 diabetic since age fourteen and trying to help the cause makes riding feel special. I constantly run into people who want to assist, some with words of encouragement, donations large and small, free cinnamon rolls at breakfast, or discount motel rooms at night.

You’ll quickly find you can eat like Porky Pig during this kind of ride and still lose weight. I shed twenty-five pounds this past summer, which shows again, you don’t have to be the picture of fitness to set sail across the United States. When I pedaled up to the only restaurant in Cold Springs, Nevada, in late July 2011, I was able to sit down at a table and figure I had burned a quarter million calories to reach that point. Cold Springs is marked as a “town” on the Nevada map, by the way, but it’s nothing more than a bar/restaurant/motel complex, standing alone, with nothing else in sight for miles. 

The food was excellent, however, and Laura, the waitress, was a beauty, petite, blonde and 23, already the mother of three.

What else can I say in the way of helpful advice? Um: don’t believe the ratings on sleeping bags. Mine was rated “good” down to temperatures of twenty degrees. That must have been the point at which the occupant froze to death. So I wished I’d packed a stocking cap and mittens. I met one long distance rider who carried his own pillow; but I tried to get by with a rolled up towel instead. Matches would be nice. I failed to bring them. Flashlight, for sure. A bit of duct tape, a few extra nuts and bolts (this actually helped me reattach a loose rack for my panniers), maybe a piece of twine.  

If you’re a bibliophile, like me, carry a book.

That’s pretty much all I can say. But I’d like to emphasize one point. You can do this if you think you can.  

I don't mean it’s easy every day. Still, it boils down in large degree to attitude. It’s a matter of perseverance.

You just get up every day, hop on your bicycle, and set off in the direction you have chosen to go.
I eat plenty of crap to get ready for my rides. 
You don't have to be some super hero to do this kind of ride.

Near the summit of Tioga Pass, which leads into Yosemite; 2011 ride.

That, folks, is the branch of a sequoia tree; older photo; 1978.

Ran into this young lady, Sarah Brigham, near Jeff City, Wyoming in 2007. 
She was out for a thousand-mile ride, heading in the opposite direction.
(She told me she made the tutu, herself.)

Yellowstone River, note people on observation deck, right; 2011.

My home for the 2011 trip. Here I am camping again near the road, for free; 2011.

You have to cross the Sevier Desert between Delta, Utah and the Nevada border.
It's a landscape that looks a little like the moon; 2011.

A huge bonus to any ride:  Here's a "before" picture
taken a few days before I headed to Maine to start my second trip; 2011

Bicycle across this great country and you can't help getting in better shape; 2011.

Pedaling up the Arkansas River Valley in Colorado; 2007.

A favorite stealth camping spot beside a mountain stream, Leadville, Colorado; 2007.

Oxbow Bend, Yellowstone National Park; 2007.

Barren stretch in Wyoming, camped on hill from which photo was taken; 2007.


  1. Great post. I like how you casually demystified touring. The "free" spot and a hearty bkfst vs a hotel room was a idea to include as well. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    1. Glad you found this helpful. I couldn't have enjoyed my rides more. I encourage others to set sail.

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  3. Excellent post! As one who is just taking up bicycle touring it is a great read. Lots of little tips to take on board, esp the amount of clothing.

    1. Glad I could be helpful. I also highly recommend carrying all your gear; it gives you great flexibility when it comes to finding places to stay. Probably all five of my favorite campsites were ones I "found" myself, not counting national parks.

  4. Loved reading this! And the tutu girl...nice :-)

  5. Great post, loved reading it. Hope to do the crossing myself too. Still not so sure about the "free camping", as I am a woman biking alone. Regards Margot (the Netherlands)

    1. Have a save trip; the "free camping" might be unwise for you, I agree. I did carry pepper spray, myself, partly for dogs. That made me feel safer with humans, too, although I had no trouble at all. Try to plan your route to go through Yellowstone National Park or Yosemite National Park. Both are spectacular. The Black Hills of South Dakota are also fantastic and there's a great bike trail up in the mountains, the Mikelson Trail.

  6. Done Two Cross Country Rides And Never A Flat Tire With Schwalbe Marathon Plus