Gosh! This is a big country!

Tom LaFleur
Posted July 1st, 2002

One man discovers just how big, when he rides his bike across it

When was the last time you did something for the first time?”
Perhaps it was this challenge, fired at other airline magazine readers and me by the Guatemalan Tourism Office, that had dogged me since 1998. Perhaps it was the nearness of retirement and wanting something better for myself than being designated TV remote flicker. Perhaps it was the dream, several years in duration, of pedaling my bicycle from sea to shining sea and being in the saddle for EFI, every fantastic inch. Maybe my reason was a combination of all these things. In any case, in September 2000, I signed up for a supported group ride from San Francisco, California to Portsmouth, Maine, scheduled to begin on June 10, 2001.
When the ride began I would be 66. I was convinced that I could complete this adventure, a conviction that issued from a generally positive attitude, knowledge of the accomplishments of other seniors, and some degree of naivete. After all, I calculated, I was in good health, got regular exercise, and ate sensibly. My training plan involved getting onto Vermont’s roads as soon as they were clear of ice and snow. Once I retired on April 4, I would be pedaling those same roads every day and rapidly approaching the training goal, proposed by the company I had registered with, of being able to do back-to-back centuries.
I shared my plan with a close friend who gently expressed skepticism that I would be adequately trained by day one of the ride. She suggested that I take up Spinning. I had heard about Spinning, including stories about sylphs who had kicked the butts of men with twice their size and cycling experience. It couldn’t hurt. My friend introduced me to The Workout Studio in White River Junction, a fitness enterprise dedicated to providing the Spinning experience. I went twice a week while I was still working and five times a week after retirement. I credit The Workout Studio’s Director, Keely Punger, with making it possible for me not only to complete my ride, but also to enjoy it thoroughly.
Whether you’re riding around the world, across our country, or through Smugglers’ Notch, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of adequate preparation. Finishing your ride and avoiding injury are laudable goals but having fun is what makes it a truly memorable experience, one that you would consider doing again. Of my 35 transcontinental riding companions, two were older than I, both 69, but many were young enough to be my grandchildren. The pleasure that individuals took from their ride seemed to have little to do with age. One of the riders who struggled most was a 21-year-old college student who typically spent up to 10 hours a day in the saddle and contended with bone-grinding fatigue. He had prepared scarcely at all for this ride as he was convinced his youth and vitality would carry him along.
“Will you be camping out?” This was a question often asked by friends and acquaintances when they heard about my plans. My stock answer was, “No, this will be a gentleman’s ride.”
There are, of course, many ways of doing a multi-day ride. You can elect to carry all your gear, camp out, and do your own cooking. You can ride solo, or with your best friend, or with a group. You can contract with a company that will arrange first-class accommodations and fine dining. On our journey we met several riders who were self-supported and had wonderful stories to tell, but their progress was slow, took up to five months, and their “workday” was up to 15 or 16 hours long. I chose to deal with a company—in my case America By Bicycle of Atkinson, NH—that had good experience and would provide me with support, a comfortable bed each night, and plentiful, nourishing food. I was not disappointed. I am particularly grateful to the support crew for sparing me the experience of riding in the sag wagon. After a minor accident in Kansas that temporarily disabled my bike, they had me on another bike within 30 minutes, and in two days I was back on my own bike, thanks to the efforts of a superb mechanic.
Riding with a group was an especially memorable part of this cross-country experience. One of its gifts to me was a new fond love for my bicycle. Prior to this ride, I would typically pedal 1500 to 2000 miles in a season but, even with that mileage I remained a casual, recreational rider with a somewhat less than profound respect of my vehicle. Several of my companions had names for their bikes, washed them regularly on the trip and spoke eloquently of the emptiness of days back home when they were kept from pedaling. Through their eyes I began to see both the elegance and the heart of this most elemental of conveyances. Beyond that, it is the most humble of all the mechanized forms of transport as it subordinates itself to the rider it carries. Indeed, at its best, as many have often observed, the rider and the vehicle become one. It is a fragile, delicate and beautiful relationship. My bicycles get decidedly more caring from me now.
But the group also had other gifts to share. One was its strength. There were several mornings when my bed purred an invitation to stay. This was usually after back-to-back centuries. But the excited chatter in the hallway had a stronger pull and I was soon off to another day of discovery.
And there was the camaraderie. We had a joking question: How many riders does it take to change a flat? One morning two companions and I rode by a group of seven that had converged around the victim of a flat. One companion asked the question; the other answered: “Today it takes seven.” And there was a marvelous sense of democracy. At 50 yards one bike looks pretty much like another even though one may have cost $500 and the other $5000. When you add to that the fact that each of us was allowed no more than 50 pounds of gear in the baggage truck, you have a recipe for a remarkable leveling influence. Our formal attire at dinner was shorts and a T-shirt. When the man sitting next to you is wearing a T that says: “Two stiffs pumping gas in Winnemucca,” it’s easy to be oblivious to the fact that he pilots his own airplane. We related to each other mostly in the simplicity of our humanity and as riders and that was a very good thing.
One of the advantages that I had over all but two of my companions was that each day on the road brought me closer to home. I kissed the ground as we crossed our boundary with New York. Fifty-two days, 3807 miles, 13 states and 19 flats later I was back in this breathtakingly beautiful place of ours. Its splendor was not lost on the other riders, most of whom had never been to Vermont. We had climbed the Sierra and the Rockies together, but I can assure you that Vermont’s hills got their attention.
It’s true that we don’t have canyons with 18-mile wide chasms or waterfalls with 1600-foot cascades. But just beyond every curve in the road there is a new vista that engages your focus: the historic village; the velvet greens of summer; fall’s riot of colors; the challenging hill; the screaming descent. This paean to our state issues not just from the love I hold for it; it comes, as well, from the realization that not every avid cyclist, no matter how deep his desire, is going to be able to do a ride across America, and that will be true for a variety of reasons. But having an adventure doesn’t have to be synonymous with an expedition requiring months of planning and preparation. If you live in Vermont and have a bicycle, the adventure can begin at the end of your block.