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SDSU econ prof rides the least mountainous route to Minnesota

Spokes across America

Two categories of drivers to worry about: young males in pickup trucks and the elderly.
  • Two categories of drivers to worry about: young males in pickup trucks and the elderly.
  • Image by Tom Voss

“You’re going to ride your bicycle all the way from San Diego to Minnesota?” My friend Mark was dubious. ‘‘You’re crazy.”

“That may be,” I replied. “In fact, it’s probably a prerequisite, but I’m going to try.” .

“But you can’t do that,” he insisted. “You’re middle-aged, you’ve got a family, you don’t have time.”

We sat in our faculty office at San Diego State University, where we both teach economics. My colleague continued to reel off reasons why I couldn’t and shouldn’t entertain such a thoroughly daffy idea. “Look,” I responded defensively, “I may be forty-five, but I’ve been getting in condition for this. As a teacher, I’ve certainly got the time. And sure I’ll miss my family, but I can call them every other night. Besides, it’s only for three weeks.”

“Three weeks? You can do this in three weeks?” He was becoming incredulous.

“That’s my goal. I hope to average a hundred miles a day and take a couple of days off along the way.”

“A hundred miles? Have you ever ridden a hundred miles in one day?”

I was hoping he’d ask that question. “Yes,” I replied confidently. “Once I rode 120 miles to Calexico from San Diego.”

This rejoinder quickly subdued Mark, and he was silent. I didn’t elaborate about the Calexico ride. If I had, I would have admitted that it occurred fourteen years ago and had so exhausted me that I returned by bus the next day.

Despite my outward show of confidence, I was tom by doubts. The trip would cover an incredibly long distance — over mountains, across low deserts, through prairie winds. It was to be done alone, far from bicycle shops, with the only possible support vehicle in an emergency a flagged-down car.

“Why Minnesota?” said Mark, a native-born Californian.

“My wife and I grew up there. Every summer we spend a month or so in Brewster, and whenever we drive that route, we see long-distance bicyclists. I’ve often wondered if I could bike the whole way by myself. The idea won’t leave me alone, so now I’ve got to try it.”

I continued to explain why bicycle touring was growing so rapidly in popularity. He gradually came to understand why bicycling had become a near-obsession with me. But it was harder to explain my goal of averaging a hundred miles per day.

In any gathering of bicyclists, riding one hundred miles — a “century” — is a benchmark of achievement. Yes, there are a few who can do two centuries in a twenty-four-hour period, and some triathlete-types can exceed even that. But doing a century ride clearly differentiates the casual, recreational hacker from the serious athlete.

At forty-five, I’ve felt all the familiar omens of physical decay visited upon the middle-aged. Despite being an exercise buff all my life, certain portents of decline were all too clear. Once an avid jogger, I long ago gave it up due to sore knees. I continue to lift weights, but it hurts due to minor arthritis. While I once played basketball daily against the ruffians of Ocean Beach, I now retain only a semblance of dexterity by playing against the middle-aged suburbanites of Scripps Ranch. I brooded about these losses and would not accept them gracefully.

Now, call it bravado, call it an errant sense of machismo, but here was a chance to prove to myself and others that I could still pass a formidable physical test. I would do more than bicycle across two-thirds of America. Each day of riding would have to be a century. That should provide a conversation-stopper in any gathering of bicyclists. It should also put my legs into terrific condition. My course was set.

Several months before trip, I began to train. Not fanatically, but with the seriousness demanded by an approaching departure date and an arduous itinerary. I rode fifty to 150 miles a week at first, then up to 150 miles each week. More conscious of my diet now, I began to eat healthier foods, and I shed a few pounds.

Two months before “D-day,” I decided to ride a century. It would be a good test of myself and my equipment and would tell me what to expect mentally. And the comparison with my long-ago Calexico trip should be instructive.

My twin brother lives in Riverside, ninety-three miles away. With mountains between us, the effort for this trip would exceed that for the typical century ride. I made it, but just barely. As I collapsed on my brother’s living-room floor that night, every muscle groaned. I reflected about how evenly the pain coursed throughout my body — back and neck stiff from being hunched over, hands and arms numb, legs rubbery and weak. Perhaps only my toe muscles were unaffected.

The first century ride proved a blow to my aspirations. How could I possibly do the same trip many days in a row, and with a thirty-pound pack? But as training continued, I felt genuine progress. I could soon go farther, faster, and with less time needed to recover. The preachments of past coaches and drill sergeants returned to me now, and I invoked them for inspiration: ’’“Mind over matter,” ”“No pain — no gain,” ’’“When the going gets tough....” Trite homilies all, but they worked. Mentally and physically, I was reliving my youth, and it felt good.

Two weeks before D-day, I rode again to my brother’s. It seemed noticeably easier, and I felt somewhat better afterward. I believed I had a good chance of meeting my goal.

As the departure approached, detailed planning for the trip jelled. I expected to stay in motels at night and eat mostly in restaurants. This would vastly simplify matters and allow me to travel lighter. I pored over maps to plot the least mountainous route between San Diego and Minnesota. Mountainous Colorado was out. Craggy peaks that tourists see as scenic spell only drudgery to bicyclists bent on logging miles. By heading northeast through Las Vegas and diagonally up Utah, I could make it to the high, rolling prairies of southern Wyoming with a minimum of hillclimbing. (Wagon trains and the Pony Express chose much the same route as mine, and for the same reason. Roadside historical markers throughout my trip would remind me of their passage.)

My D-day was June 8, two days and forty-four years after the real D-day. Weather charts showed that summer temperatures peaked in late July in the area that most worried me — the California and Nevada deserts. Early June should be considerably cooler, though still plenty hot.

Packing the appropriate items was an exacting and drawn-out matter. Bicyclists learn to shun anything that would add unneeded weight. One rider told me of how he cut the weight of his maps by scissoring off the two-inch-wide slivers showing only his planned route and nothing more. For reading material, he took along an old paperback. As he finished each chapter, he ripped it out and discarded it. I thought such extremism was silly, but two days before departure, I cut an unnecessary eight inches off each of my shoelaces.

At last the appointed time arrived. I rode off with a long farewell to my family, wondering what in the world I had talked myself into.

Twenty days later, I entered Minnesota with a self-satisfied smile on my face, weary but on schedule. Along the way I stored up a wealth of experiences, wildly varying in pain and pleasure. By keeping a detailed journal along the way, each day’s happenings could easily be recalled. The journal also aided mileage calculations. With the help of my bike odometer, I arrived at an average daily ride of 99.3 miles, close enough to my goal to be acceptable. Not counted in the average were three widely spaced days of rest and bicycle repair.

One learns so much about bicycle touring on a first trip such as this. I learned, for example, how most small towns (except, that is, those in California and Nevada) have grassy city parks with shade trees and picnic benches that are ideal for afternoon rests.

I learned to begin pedaling at dawn to beat the heat and the afternoon winds.

I learned how to keep an eye on my rear-view mirror in order to observe overtaking vehicles. It so happens that there are only two categories of drivers to worry about: young males in pickup trucks and the elderly.

I learned how exhilarating it is to coast down a hill at forty-six miles per hour.

I learned that I should have taken a touring bike instead of a racing bike.

I learned how heretical the idea of bicycle touring seems to people outside Southern California. Rural people react with wonder and disbelief at why someone would do such a thing. My eventual answer to end such discussions was similar to Colonel Oliver North’s: “I thought it was a neat idea.”

I learned how much I could eat at one sitting and still be hungry three hours later. My caloric intake doubled, and I still lost eight pounds.

I learned to fear and despise the wind — or welcome it, depending upon its direction. Which brings me to an account of the worst part of the whole trip, three days in South Dakota, battling fierce headwinds and daily high temperatures of a hundred degrees. The only way to beat these two devils was to begin riding early — very early. On one occasion, I started pedaling at 3:30 a.m., guided by starlight in the moonless, predawn gloom. That day’s ride ended at 1:30 p.m., 104 miles later, in time for a long nap in a motel. Fortunately, this streak of bad days came toward the end of the trip, when my legs were in their best shape.

The trip had many more good times than bad, however. Clearly, the rewards of bicycle touring come from seeing the countryside up close, as no motorist can experience it. One stretch of road in the mountains of Utah was particularly memorable for its natural richness and variety. So breathtaking was the scenery as I rode along that I tried to fix it in my mind.

I had been pedaling east, uphill and against a persistent southeast wind. But at a crossroads my route turned to the north, so the wind would be largely behind me for the rest of the day. A mountain river would parallel the highway for many miles, so a gradual elevation descent guaranteed a mostly downhill ride. As I alternately pedaled and coasted, the colorful panorama that unfolded before me resembled a travelogue. On my right, cattle grazed near the river. Beyond the green fields, high blue mountains loomed, streaked by white patches of the remaining winter snow.

On my left clustered hundreds of sheep, tended by scurrying sheepdogs and sheepherders on horses. Red rock outcroppings appeared and disappeared as the miles rolled by, seemingly put there to give even more variety to the landscape. With the smells of the earth, the songs of the birds, and the ever-changing panorama passing by, it was an intoxicating sensory experience. I drank it all in and wanted it to go on forever.

It is at times like these that one feels sympathy for motorists. Hurtling through nature enclosed in a metal capsule, their air manufactured by a machine, their legs atrophying from disuse and boredom, their vacation is as stimulating as thumbing through a stack of picture post cards. They remain distant and aloof from the land they travel through.

I am not sure my friend Mark would agree with that comparison. Nor would he or most travelers prefer to spend many days pedaling a bicycle across several states. I only know that the Pacific Northwest is especially beautiful and that a prevailing westerly wind blows across Washington and Montana toward the Midwest and that the spring semester is over in late May of next year.

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