About This Book
This is the story of my six-week odyssey riding across North America on a recumbent bicycle: a bicycle you ride in a recumbent (seated) position. Recumbent bicycles are sometimes called "bents", which is where the phrase "get bent" comes from.
Mr. Elert. Now that you have your second masters degree, when are you going to get a real job? — A former student
I don't know how you can stand teaching those city kids with their backwards hats and baggy pants. I'd like to slap them. — An acquaintance in Upstate New York
I am a teacher at a public high school in Brooklyn: a job with very little respect from all levels of society, especially our elected officials. The City forced us to take a cost of living freeze a few years ago because they couldn't afford it. This year the City has a two billion dollar surplus. Somebody miscalculated or lied. So why teach? Two reasons: July and August. I work 180 days a year. Most Americans work fifty, five-day weeks and have maybe ten paid holidays, which comes out to 240 days in the average work year. As a teacher, I get an additional 60 days each year added to my life.
What would you do with 60 more days at your discretion? I ride on many of them. After a lifetime of occasional riding (never exceeding 500 miles a year) I suddenly found myself taking longer and longer trips. It was a gradual thing. Once 30 miles seemed far, then 60, then a century. The more you cycle the easier it gets. Two years ago I found myself thinking, "I bet I could stick a bunch of these rides together and have a pretty nice vacation."
With a minimal amount of preparation I did just that. My other bike is a 1979 Schwinn Varsity. The bike that everyone my age bought when they were a teenager only mine still runs! It's a great old bike, but it's not the right kind of bike for touring. A month or so before my first trip, I went to the local bike shop and picked up a rack, a set of panniers (saddlebags), and some spare parts. Two days after school closed I rode across New York, into Ontario, and then across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was a great ride until I hit the Erie Canal towpath. Rough road,"Boink," a broken spoke. Into Ontario, "Boink," another broken spoke. Two days riding west into the prevailing headwinds, "Boink". Into Michigan, "Boink". One day later, "Boink". The day after that, "Boink, Boink, Boink." End of fun.
I've since replaced both wheels on the Varsity with something more substantial. The wheel in the rear is designed for a tandem bicycle. I love it. It's more solid than granite. It took two years of daily city riding before it needed to be trued-up. It was an important $250 lesson:
1. Don't be cheap with a bike your going to ride for thousands of miles
That's why I decided to buy a good bike with quality components. For reasons of safety and comfort, I also decided it should be a recumbent. (More on that later.)
On that first trip I also learned that touring is a fun, reasonably challenging, and pretty cheap way to take a vacation (outside of buying the bike, but you'll be using that long after the trip is over). Which brings me to my next point. I want to offer to the world of cross-country cycling the most important piece of advice that anyone can give:
2. Don't listen to advice from non-cyclists
Basically, people will tell you that you're insane to take a long cycling trip. They think that it can't be done. That it's too dangerous. That you will be killed. Death awaits us all, but touring is not the death sentence that most people perceive it to be. I ride about eight thousand miles a year and I'm not dead.
I was told to watch out for bears and I never saw one bear. "You know I heard about this woman who was attacked by a puma. You better be aware of that when you're out in the middle of nowhere." I would have loved to see a puma given their rarity. The biggest, baddest animal I saw was a coyote and it looked pretty timid to me. Like a really, really big dog. If it came down to a fight I'm sure the coyote would have won, but both of us were more interested in getting to where we were going than in a confrontation.
I was told to beware of truck drivers by several people. This is idiotic. Truckers are professional drivers. If you make your living on the highway, why would you do anything to put your livelihood at risk? Truck drivers are your allies on the road. They actually pay attention when they drive and they know how to operate their vehicles responsibly.
I was told I would need an air horn or people wouldn't see me. You'd think that being so low to the ground would put you off the radar of most drivers, but the reverse is true. Recumbents are so unusual that they attract lots of attention from motorists. I've heard from a few recumbent owners that this is true even in Manhattan where it's easy to dissappear behind double-parked cars. Drivers basically can't take their eyes off of you. On an oridnary bike, you disappear into the background (get some idiot on a cell phone behind the wheel and you're liable to become Spandex-covered roadkill) but not on a 'bent.
I was told to carry mace or I would be mauled by vicious dogs. Where are all these crazed animals people keep talking about? Most dogs are house pets. Americans treat their pets like little babies and lavish pleny of attention on them. Every dog that ever chased me (with one important exception) was playing a game. The minute I stopped pedalling they gave up. I was more concerned that these dogs would be hit by a car than that they might attack me. The only vicious dogs I ever met were feral animals in a derelict industrial part of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. They did not live with people and so did not have a kind opinion of me riding through their territory.
Still, this was just one incident out of countless dog encounters. Most accident-related deaths occur in the home, but no one ever uses this as an excuse to sleep in the backyard. Millions of American's die of heart attacks but no one is scared of butter. People can not put danger in perspective. Cycling is dangerous, but certainly not any more dangerous than taking a shower or driving to work every day.
Which brings me to my next piece of advice: The best training is to ride as often as possible, on a variety of different terrains, and in a variety of different weather conditions. In other words…
3. Don't own a car
So you want to develop the muscle mass and stamina needed to ride 50 to 100 miles a day for several weeks in a row. Well you're not going to get in shape resting your foot lightly on the accelerator, pressing slightly harder on the brakes, or letting the engine help you steer a one ton metal box. You've got to be out on your bike.
My basic training strategy was to ride to work on every one of the days that school was in session. In an incredible stroke of luck, New York had one of the mildest winters ever and I was able to ride 173 of the 180 days. I missed seven days due to illness, one major repair, and some extreme weather including a day when the streets were covered with black ice. That seemed like a good day to take the subway.
In addition to gaining strength and endurance, I developed a better feel for riding in bad weather, riding on bad roads (New York has plenty of them), and riding in general. Did you know that the thermoplastic paint used to draw dividing lines and crosswalks on the road is extremely slippery when wet? I would never have considered this or other details before I decided to use a bike as my primary mode of transportation. I don't feel so miserable riding in the rain anymore. One of the dumb questions I get asked a lot it, "What do you do when it rains?" The answer, it seems, should be obvious, "I get wet." This is something you have to be prepared for out on the open road. Try riding in the rain before you find yourself a thousand miles from home. I also handle the heat much better. Air conditioning makes me uncomfortable now. The only thing I'll never get used to is a headwind. I just can't take riding at 6 to 9 mph for eight hours. It's the worst form of torure.
rant → New York is not a bicycle-friendly place (in fact, it seems as if people fear and hate bicycles), but New York is not a car-firendly place either. Yet spending a hour or three, twice a day in a metal box, five days a week is considered normal. Paying the exceptionally high insurance rates, parking fees, and parking tickets is a lifestyle choice. Athsma and allergies are endemic and no one considers this unusual. The air has a toxic orange cast to it, but no one complains. Dust and soot coat everything outdoors and blow in through open windows in the summer, but this is seen as a reason to buy an air conditioner. Why isn't cycling more popular? It seems obvious that automobile access to Manhattan should be restricted to essential services only. No more auto commuting. The quality of life would improve markedly. It's so obvious to me, but it's like arguing with a heroine addict. New York will never be a place with a sane transportation policy despite the obvious advantages of its compact layout and well-developed public transportation system.
"The greatest human madness is the personal automobile, a plague which makes the nuclear threat pale into insignificance." I wish I could remember who said this.
I decided to buy my next bicycle from Wheel & Sprocket, a major recumbent retailer in Milwaukee. I am now the proud owner of a Ryan Vanguard: a long wheelbase (LWB), under seat steering (USS) recumbent with a hammock-style seat designed for an ultralight aircraft. The seat is quite comfortable — unlike the soft tissue dammaging saddles on stand up bikes. Because it's difficult to lift yourself out of the seat while riding, I've added an air cushion to absorb some of the more serious bumps. Your hands support none of your weight but instead rest lightly on the handlebars. I thought this would eliminate nerve dammage, but I suffered occasional numbness in my right pinky finger for some unknown reason (atrophy, perhaps?). The Ryan is assembled from very high quality components: thumbshifters connect to a Shimano Deore XT deraileur with twenty-four speeds, three in the front and eight in the rear (a seven-speed casette and an extra hill-climbing gear designed for a mountain bike) and long lever armed V-brakes that need only a feather touch to engage. The long wheelbase gives a commanding road presence. With the trailer it's about ten feet long, longer than many cars. Oh yeah, and it looks really cool, too.
I highly recommend a recumbent for touring as it provides the best posture for looking around at the scenery while riding. Last year I spend most of my time looking at the ground ahead of me as I rode. The first day I had my Ryan I did a test run around Central Park. I never noticed how attractive the park was before. I really appreciated being able to look around while riding through the vast open spaces of Montana and North Dakota. It was like a ten hour IMAX movie.
Although I can't verify it, I feel a recumbent is safer on the open road, especially on long downhill runs and at high speeds. Crash on a stand up and you'll fly head-first over the handlebars, landing on your head, neck, and shoulders. Crash on a bent and you'll fall on your ass. Granted that will hurt, but the likelihood of joining the Christopher Reeves Club seems greatly reduced. Still, I wear a helmet at nearly all times just in case.
On the whole, the Ryan is a bit slower than a typical bike. When you ride a recumbent (especially one with under seat steering) you project a larger surface area than on a standup. This results in more drag and there's no position you can adopt to reduce it. In a headwind it's like driving with a parachute. Tailwinds blow you along like a sailboat, but not enough to balance out the time lost to headwinds. Zzipper makes a fairing (aerodynamic shield), but it seems like I'd be giving up on the view if I installed one. The Ryan is also slower starting and climbing hills. You can't cheat and stand up in the seat for a gravity assist. You're riding on pure leg power. Still, many of the speed records for bicycles are held by recumbent riders. Go figure.
I decided against panniers and went with a trailer instead. I think part of the reason I lost so many spokes on the Schwinn Varsity was that the panniers put a lot of stress on the rear axle. Granted, I didn't have the most appropriate wheels for touring, but I never broke any spokes on my old Schwinn riding it around unloaded. Panniers also do not hold much gear despite their bulk and few of them are waterproof. These seem like unnatural constraints on a touring cyclist. My trailer of choice was the Coz Bob — a solid RubberMaid box that locks shut with a nice solid clunk. It's a cousin to the more popular Yak Bob — a flat metal platform with a big dufflebag on it. The Coz is less roomy that the Yak, but the RubberMaid box keeps your gear dry and clean whereas the dufflebag is basically a thirty pound sponge. It comes with it's own reflector and a safety flag. People aren't expecting to see a bike towing a trailer so the flag is a pretty good idea. Thankfully no one read it and thought my name was Bob.
A loaded trailer is heavier than panniers, but half of that weight rests on the trailer's single wheel, effectively doubling your carrying capacity. (The Coz is rated to 50 pounds.) Still, I packed rather lightly: cycling attire for seven days (I couldn't see doing laundry all the time), one pair of non-cycling shorts, a windbreaker, spare parts, tools, a pump, hand soap, maps and guides, a Sports Walkman radio (but no battery consuming tape player), a quart of water and 1-4 quarts of juice at all times (lost my taste for Gatorade after a few days), lots of snacks but never a proper lunch (crackers, cookies, Raspberry Newtons, donuts, penut butter and jelly sandwiches), a medkit I never really needed (bandages, antiseptic cream, Pepto-Bismol, tweezers, aspirin), spare contact lenses, sunscreen, insect repellant, eyeglasses, and a five-pound laptop computer.
Here's my last piece of advice. One that doesn't start with the word don't. I read it in a fortune cookie in North Dakota.
I saw three seperate cyclists riding solo across Canada on the Tran Canada Highway last year. I consider the Trans Canada one of the worst highways for cycling and yet here these guys were wrestling with double-bottom trucks for their sliver of a heavily-trafficked, dangerously-narrow highway. Many of the highways in Canada are like this, so either these guys didn't know any better or didn't care. I thought, "If they can do it in Canada on the only crappy road for three-hundred miles in either direction then I can do it in the United States where there are more and better roads to chose from." There are a lot of people out on the roads with this attitude. I met about a dozen people riding cross-country this year and heard stories of a group of twenty not far away from me. If I knew a bit more about sampling techniques we could get an idea of how many coast-to-coast riders there were in the United States in 1998. My guess is there must be close to a thousand. That's not a large percent of the population, but it's not as rare as climbing Mount Everest. The biggest obstacle to overcome seems to be lack of free time. You can't go cost-to-coast during a two-week vacation.
I thought I should start on the West Coast to take advantage of the prevailing winds. Once again, I learned this during the trip last year when I found myself riding into the wind for several days in a row. I've been meaning to visit my old Peace Corps friend Phil in Portland for some time now. This could be the perfect opportunity. Flipping through a map of Oregon I spotted a town called Rockaway Beach on the Oregon coast not far from Portland. How crazy is that? There's also a Rockaway Beach in New York City (in the Borough of Queens, inspiration for the Ramones song of the same name). It seems so obvious: Rockaway Beach, Oregon to Rockaway Beach, New York. That's the ride I'm going to do.
Bought a one-way ticket from New York to Portland. Packed the bent and trailer in a set of three boxes. Shipped them via UPS second day air. Flew to Portland. Tossed the return ticket in the trash. Dipped the rear wheel in the Pacific Ocean at Rockaway Beach, Oregon. Rode for 41 days with a one week break in Milwaukee to visit my parents. Dipped the front wheel in the Atlantic Ocean at Rockaway Beach, New York. The best summer vacation in ten years of teaching.
You can keep your real jobs.
Facts at a Glance
- Distance: 3682 miles.
- Cost: US$ 3549 (not including the cost of the bicycle or trailer).
- States/Provinces: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario, and New York (with brief excursions into Pennsylvania and New Jersey).
- Terrain: an ocean and a sandy beach, mountains, several waterfalls, a semi-desert, a plateau, valleys, bigger mountains, bluffs, badlands, plains, prarie, woods, many small lakes, coulees, a few great big lakes, two great big waterfalls, hills, some long lakes, bigger hills (or smaller mountains), a fjord, a megacity, another sandy beach and another ocean.
- Passages: Interstates 84 and 15, US and state highways, county highways and rural roads, city streets, one urban freeway, rail trails (asphalt and gravel), urban greenways, sidewalks, a power utility right-of-way, a boardwalk, two suspension bridges, unlit rail tunnels, mountain passes, causeways, and the last ferry still crossing Lake Michigan.
- Traffic: commuters, tourists, campers towing cars, pickup trucks towing campers, prefabricated housing units, shipping containers, a liquid nitrogen tanker, cattle trucks, horse trailers, cattle, horses, a crop duster, farm equipment, construction equipment, buses, street sweepers, taxis, an intercontinental ballistic missle, Harley-Davidson convoys, pedestrians, in-line skaters, kids on bikes, and other coast-to-coast cyclists.
- Animals: songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, turkeys, chipmunks, woodchucks, squirrels, deer, a coyote, loose dogs, cattle, horses, domesticated buffalo (or bison, if you prefer), and not much else.
Get Bent Awards
- Best States
- Worst State
- Michigan. Ugly, over-developed, comparatively heavy traffic, mediocre roads, sometimes unfriendly to cyclists.
- Best Day
- Glasgow, Montana to Williston, North Dakota. 150 miles at 15 mph. A strong tailwind all day. Like riding on a conveyor belt.
- Worst Day
- Ludington, Michigan to Big Rapids, Michigan. Inadequate sleep, heavy rains in the morning, no sun, ugly landscape, moderate to heavy traffic.
- Hottest Place
- Montana East of The Rockies. High temperatures approaching 100 °F for several days. Few and often no clouds in the sky. Hot winds.
- Coldest Place
- Pacific Coast of Oregon. Painfully cold water. Colder than Lake Superior in the summer. Permanently damp and overcast (or so it seems).
- Windiest Place
- Highest Place
- Flattest Place
- Eastern North Dakota, especially around Devils Lake. So flat The only hill was a 100-foot-tall cone-shaped glacial depost called a kame. The only steep grade was on either side of the Sheyenne River Valley. Recumbent country. [On a later trip I discovered the joys of Central Illinois. Gloriously flat. One of the few places where you can see your next destination by just standing up.]
- Greatest Danger
- Montana Highway 200. Close encounter with an oversize load.
- Longest Trail
- Worst Road
- North Dakota Highway 19. A twenty mile long pile of dirt that will someday be a road. The old road is underwater.
- Worst Road Kill
- A one mile segment of Minnesota Highway 34 east of Detroit Lakes was coated with pulverized frogs spaced six to ten feet apart.
- Best Radio
- CBC Saskatchewan. An interesting variety of magazine-style programming and news.
- Worst Radio
- Some gospel station near Wallula, Washington. One of their selections was a song about how heaven is full of simple country folk. Sounds more like hell to me (see Most Irritating Yokel).
- Most Unusual Radio
- Dumbest Question
- "How do you steer that thing?" It's obvious if you'd just look at the bike.
- "What do you do when it rains?" Think about it people.
- Most Irritating Yokel
- A guy from Nebraska who peppered me with irritating questions for what seemed like hours while we waited in the cold rain for the ferry across Lake Michigan.
- Rush Limbaugh. The guy can be heard in every radio market in the United States. (What's up with that, America?) I found myself listening to him just for "irritainment". The show has minimal content value at best.
- Best People (22-Way Tie)