Riding Across America
A Daily Diary for Our Daily Bread
From May 17 to June 3, 2015, I rode a bicycle across the country to raise money for Our Daily Bread, Maryland’s largest soup kitchen, which I help found 35 years earlier.
This is a daily account of that ride.
“Do You Think You’ll You Make It?” Before the Ride: May 11, 2015
“Are you nervous?” “How can you do that?” “Have you even done it before?” “Are you going alone?”
You can see the doubt in their eyes as they scan my wrinkled, gray-haired, 66- year-old body. They’re thinking: “people who have Medicare cards in their wallets have no business riding a bicycle across the country, much less averaging 150 miles a day.”
Not only that, but is also the risk: rain, heat, traffic, accidents, the embarrassment of failure. They’re right, of course.
“Good luck,” some say, with that wonderful tone that implies a healthy skepticism about what crazy people want to do.
As I leave today for San Diego to get ready for the ride start Sunday, I’d like to share a recent column by marketing guru Seth Godin, “But How Can You Be Sure? Seth wrote:
100% certainty is not a variation of 96% or even 99%. It's a totally different category. Certainty is binary, yes or no. The question, "are you sure it will work" is not about the work, it's about the sure. If you need to know that it's going to work, then you've committed to a very clear path. Some people go to work or school and do nothing except the things that they are sure about.
The other path is to do things that might not work. Work, projects designed to land on the spectrum of not sure. When someone asks, "Do you have any case studies and rules of thumb from my industry about how someone in precisely the same circumstances did x and got y," it's pretty clear that they seek reassurance and a promise of certainty.
But all the good stuff comes from leaping. From doing the things that might not work.
Day One: Over the Mountains and Into the Desert
San Diego to El Centro, CA -- 120 Miles
“I’d rather be lucky than good,” Baseball Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez said. He could have described today perfectly.
Luckily for this no-so-good rider, the Ride Across America for Our Daily Bread Employment Center was blessed with exceptional weather for its first day. It stayed in the 60’s as we rolled out of San Diego this morning and pretty much hung in, cool and sunny, all the way through the mountains. Even the desert, when we got there, was only in the mid-80’s -- and it could easily have been 20 degrees hotter.
Although at 8,000 feet of climbing this is one of the hillier days, the mountains were kind to my rickety knees. We did most of that climbing in the first 80 miles in long, gradual grades.
The most challenging part was a patch of about 15 miles of absolutely awful road in the desert outside of El Centro. A number of riders blew tires on this stretch. The road was so bad that at times the only part that wasn’t cracked and pot-holed was the yellow line down the middle. Since there was no traffic, we resorted to rolling down the road between the yellow lines.
Day Two: Rolling Across the Desert
El Centro, CA to Quartzite, AZ -- 127 Miles
If you forget for a moment the central role that weather plays in our lives, just climb on a bike and ride across the desert. The 127 miles from El Centro to Quartzite can be heaven -- or they can be hell.
Searing heat, blast furnace headwinds and choking sandstorms are all possible. It’s also possible that Mother Nature will moderate the temperatures and provide the soft kiss of a nice tailwind. Today, it was all kisses.
Under brilliant blue skies, we flew across the desert at about 18 miles per hour, barely breaking a sweat in the warm, but pleasantly-dry mid-90s temperatures. The trip is mostly flat to rolling -- my favorite terrain.
Thanks to the physics of momentum, gentle rollers are sometimes even faster than flat road because the speed you effortlessly build on the downhill can often power you up most of the next uphill.
We also were treated to great scenery, including the Imperial Sand Dunes.
Day Three: What Goes UP...
Quartzite to Prescott, AZ - 139 Miles
If you look at a topo map of the road between Quartzite and Prescott, AZ, one word comes to mind: “UP.” The ride is pretty much uphill -- especially at the end.
Today’s journey began benignly enough: brilliant sun, moderate temperatures and following winds. We rolled uneventfully for 100 miles and then confronted the first of two major climbs between us and Prescott.
I relaxed, babying my knees and saving energy for the almost 2,400 miles ahead over the next two weeks. I climbed slowly, enjoying the view and the fresh mountain breezes.
What goes up, must come down. Even though Prescott’s elevation is a mile, there still were some exciting descents through the mountains.
Day Four: Italy? Naw... Arizona!
Prescott to Winslow, AZ -- 155 miles
It’s what experienced cyclists call a “10” -- 10,000 feet of climbing in 100 miles. Other than in Italy or Colorado, I haven’t ridden too many “10’s.” They “ten-d” to hurt.
Today, the fourth day of Elite PACTour and my ride for the Our Daily Bread, we rode a 10 -- and then kept going for another 55 miles. It was another day of near- perfect weather; that took some of the sting out of the mountains.
Like Colorado, the climbs were long and gradual and, like Italy, they also came with plenty of heart-stopping, hairpin-filled descents.
Two highlights of today, one of the toughest days of the ride, were the Town of Jerome, AZ and the final 50-mile dash into Winslow.
Jerome, etched into a mountainside, looks like villages you see in Italy. The quaint copper-mining town is both historic and trendy. Unfortunately, we blew through it in minutes.
We also blew through the last 50 miles of the ride -- a pleasant surprise. Fifty miles in the mountains can easily take five hours, but when those 50 are mostly downhill with a favorable wind, they can get you home in less than 100 minutes!
Day Five: Mother Nature Evens the Score
Winslow to Springerville, AZ -- 119 Miles
This was supposed to be an easy day. Not a lot of climbing, not a lot of distance. And that’s exactly the way it worked out...for the first 80 miles.
We rolled along at a leisurely pace photographing Route 66 antiques like the WigWam Motel. And then, Mother Nature decided that she had been a bit too good to us so far on Elite PACTour and the Ride for Our Daily Bread Employment Center.
We ran smack into a brutal headwind. I had done the first 80 miles in a respectable five hours; the last 40 miles took four. It was a stark contrast to the speed yesterday, when the last 50 took less than two.
The winds were not quite enough to blow me off the road, but they did a good job of blowing me around. My average speed dived. Facing the winds alone, I popped the iPod into my right ear and turned up the volume so I could hear over the roar of the wind.
Mick Jagger is wonderful company, as are many of the old favorites on the playlist. I can’t say I rode faster on the pot-holed, chip-sealed highway, but it was way more fun.
Day Six: Over the Continental Divide!
Springerville to Socorro, NM -- 156 Miles
I’m a sea-level kinda guy, so rolling over the Western Continental Divide at 8,000 feet should have presented a problem. It wasn’t exactly easy, but it was far from the biggest challenge on this bright blue New Mexico day.
This is Day Six of Elite PACTour and the Ride for Our Daily Bread -- 12 days to go. We’ve got most of the mountain climbing and the desert behind us, but almost 2,000 miles lay ahead. Lots of long days coming, including 170 miles to Roswell, NM tomorrow.
Some of the riders were a bit slower starting this morning, so I found myself near the head of the group -- pretty unusual for an old guy among very elite riders. That soon changed, though, as the same brutal winds that plagued us yesterday once again took their toll.
On the down hill sections, the wind buffeted us, making bike control a struggle. At the end of the day, my arms were more sore than my legs from fighting the handlebars in cross winds. On sections when the wind was in our faces, I was scraping to get 8 miles per hour on roads that could have been ten miles per hour faster.
The wind was so bad that even drafting other riders was difficult. I resorted to riding alone with Motown playing on the iPod.
Day Seven: Hyde, Then Jekyll
Socorro to Roswell, NM -- 170 Miles
Tired from a long bout with the wind yesterday, the pack started out conservatively today, two steady pace lines snaking their way up into the mountains. It wasn’t long, though, before the group fragmented.
I took up my usual position, well back from the others. The same annoying cross winds that plagued us yesterday continued to buffet.
But this was a Hyde and Jekyll kind of a ride. After 90 miles of varying uphills and wind, we crossed Indian Divide at 6,900 feet. And then, in an experience rarely found in the East, the ride rocketed downhill for almost all of 80 miles. Even the pesky winds aligned to push us home.
I found myself pushing 40 mph on some down hill stretches and often cruising effortlessly at more than 30. After a long, tiring beginning, it ended an invigorating day.
Day Eight: A Day for Old Fat Guys
Rosewell to Hereford, TX -- 163 Miles
As the oldest guy on PACTour, I live for days like this. Who cares if there is a Medicare card in my wallet? The road is flat to gently rolling, the wind is at my back, and the sun is bright (but not too hot).
Like the big old diesel locomotives that roar along the tracks that parallel us on US Route 60, I can spin fast and easy. The speedometer says I’m riding in the 20s and the heart rate says I’m in the 60s and 70s. More than 160 miles averaging 19 mph. Even the enormous Texas feed lots -- that you can smell miles away -- can’t slow us down.
It just doesn’t get any better than this.
It’s day Eight of the Ride for Our Daily Bread and I’ve burned through more than 1100 miles of the West; tomorrow, I’ll be halfway home.
Day Nine: Getting Kicked on Route 66
Hereford to Sayre, OK -- 180 Miles
As students of such things know, Old Route 66 is the “Mother Road” of America -- one of the original highways in the U.S. Highway system. So, when I learned that Day with the family packed happily in our trusty DeSoto. While we never drove 66, we would ply the old two-lane highways like it on many a vacation.
Route 66 is “historic.” For a bicycle rider, that means, loosely translated, “bad road.” Although some stretches have been lovingly preserved, most of it is in horrible shape, studded with potholes, broken pavement, frost heaves, loose gravel and monster tar and chip. In other words, not exactly the surface that riders with 1,200 miles in the saddle would love.
The good news? We get more of it tomorrow! There is one consolation: very few people drive it since Interstate 40 runs parallel to it. We pretty much had the road to ourselves.
Actually, I was very fortunate today. Despite the bad weather patterns in Texas and Oklahoma, not a drop of rain fell on me, although the skies threatened all day. The 100-mile slab of 66 came after a very fast 80 miles and so I still managed to get all the riding done in about 11.5 hours, with about 10.5 hours on the bike.
Day Ten: A Hilly Halfway Home
Sayre to Chickasha, OK -- 144 Miles
A kinder, gentler Route 66 hosted us today, complete with resplendent rainbows, improved road surfaces and interesting sights. At “only” 144 miles, I was expecting a relatively easy day with plenty of time to visit places like the Route 66 Museum with its beautifully restored Highway Patrol car.
Everything was going just fine until we reached the half-way point of the ride which, coincidentally, was also about halfway across the country. So it was at Weatherford, OK we learned that, well, we were behind schedule.
We soon found out why. A few miles down the road, we left the venerable 66... and the route, road surface and the wind all headed south. Although the temperatures were balmy and the sun shining, we got to experience first hand the devastation that the recent storms wreaked on the area.
Potholes, washouts, crumbling pavement and loose gravel made worse roads that were already pretty poor. A stiff headwind and an unending saw tooth of hills added to the challenge. So the 10th day of The Ride for Our Daily Bread Employment Center ended like all the others: tired riders heading for a quick dinner and an early bedtime.
Day 11: Riding with the Big Guns
Chickasha to McAlester, OK -- 153 Miles
Today began bright and clear -- and fast. Inspired by the sunshine, even the “slow group” (of which I am a charter member) caught the faster riders and we all went roller- coastering along the undulating countryside.
Riding rolling hills is a skill, an art and a science. I’m good for science part: I try to build up enough momentum going down one hill to carry me as far as possible up the next before rigor mortis sets in. This means that those who are skilled and strong enough to power up the hills watch me buzz by on the way down, roll their eyes, exchange knowing glances, and blow by me like I am standing still (which I almost am) on the next uphill.
Obviously, if the ups are longer than the downs, they drop me, which they did. I spent a fairly pleasant 100 miles or so riding alone, which delivered me in McAlester in 11 hours, about an hour slower than the fast guys.
The only crimp in the day was about 20 miles of rainy weather, our first since leaving San Diego 11 days ago. On the plus side, we also saw some of the most varied road kill of the trip: turtles, huge snakes, armadillos and tanker truck. And, if I hadn’t been shelled enough by my “big gun” riding partners, one of our food breaks featured an 8-inch Howitzer.
Day 12: Boy, Did It RAIN!
McAlester, OK to Mena, AR -- 106 Miles
The clouds looked a little threatening as I scooped oatmeal into my breakfast bowl and then...BOOM! Day 12 of the Ride for Our Daily Bread began with thunder, lightning, rain and high winds that sent me and other riders scrambling back to their hotel rooms.
We waited patiently a few moments for the deluge to subside and then mounted up...completely forgetting that we would have to ride through the downpour on the road ahead.
For the first 30 or 40 miles, the ride was chaos, with riders struggling to navigate around bottomless puddles, steer clear of truck tsunamis, and repair frequent flats. Then, the weather settled down to miserable for another 40 miles or so.
Word was out that there might be tornado warnings later in the day, so everyone rushed to finish this super wet century. But the last 15 miles of the ride, as we rolled into Arkansas, was dry, green, and almost sunny. A welcome relief!
Day 13: A Loooong Ride in the Woods
Mena to Monticello, AR - 184 Miles
Mother Nature rained on our breakfast again today -- just to prove that she could, regardless of weather reports and radar. But more than 180 miles of Arkansas country roads beckoned, so we saddled up and rode into the rain.
Seeing us undeterred, she turned off the tap and we enjoyed a lovely rolling spin in woods as green as St. Patrick’s Day. This stretch of Arkansas boasts a healthy lumber industry, so we got to dodge log-laden trucks all day.
Besides lumber mills, about the only sight of real interest was the modest, deserted and dilapidated birthplace of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, one of college football’s immortals.
It reminded me that greatness can spring from modest beginnings, which is one reason I am such a fan of Our Daily Bread Employment Center. I’ve heard many inspiring first-hand stories of how it helped the homeless find their way to happier, more productive lives.
Day 14: Across the Mighty, Muddy Mississippi!
Monticello to Kosciusko, MS -- 180 Miles
“Water, water all around” was today’s theme. We not only crossed the Mississippi River and saw miles and miles of well-watered agriculture, we also enjoyed a thorough dousing in the last 40 miles.
At first, the rain was welcome; it cut into the muggy afternoon, but it grew cold and steady and reduced me to plowing through the gloom later than I had hoped.
The recent rainy weather has left both Arkansas and Mississippi green agriculturally. And it has also filled the swamps and bayous. A quick stop next to the woods leaves a haunting impression of dank, dark and unexplored areas...just off the highway.
Day 15: Masterpiece Sunday
Kosciusko to Camden, AL -- 196 Miles
Two week’s of hard riding, some 2,100 miles in our legs, and then there was today, the longest day of the tour, almost 200 hilly miles. It could have been a disaster, but it turned out to be a masterpiece of great ride design.
Day 15 of PACTour and the Ride for Our Daily Bread weaved its way through the back roads of Eastern Mississippi and Western Alabama, offering shady by-ways,quaint little towns, and little traffic. The undulating hills were reminiscent of Central Maryland’s best riding. Mother Nature even held back on the wind and rain.
Of course, that didn’t keep riders from fretting about the distance, the terrain and the weather. My strategy was a simple one: ride with Dru Dixson, my PACTour Energy Buddy, and enjoy the day.
Dru is an amazing athlete. As a marathoner, his best time was an incredible 2:40; he has 11 Iron Men Triathlon finishes to his credit; his other endurance credits are too numerous to mention. What’s more, he’s a family doctor who’s delivered more than 2,000 babies. Not surprisingly, he’s got lots of great stories.
We’ve ridden hundreds of miles together over the past two weeks and we instantly lapsed into our trademark style. We rolled almost effortlessly up and down the hills, chatting away and focusing on not working too hard too early.
As an extra bonus, his daughter Laura, who lives nearby, paid us a visit, bringing her homemade chocolate chip cookies, which may be the best legal thing a rider can take. The ride took us a little more than 13 hours with an average speed on the bikes of a bit more than 16 miles per hour. Not too shabby for a couple guys in their 60’s!
Day 16: A Smoooother Ride
Camden to Eufaula, AL -- 153 Miles
Unless there are potholes or major bumps, the surface of the road goes unnoticed to most drivers. No so for bike riders. A silky-smooth blacktop can dramatically increase comfort and performance compared to a rougher surface.
Of course, no less than 80% of The Ride for Our Daily Bread is on the “rougher surface,” usually some evil combination of tar and stone chip. The surface is widely used across the country because it is both cheap and effective. For a rider, though, it sends a vibration up through the bike that is akin to a dentist’s drill.
Today’s hilly, “easy” ride of 153 miles was blessedly smooth, a welcome relief for our sixteenth day on the road. But road surface isn’t particularly attractive and the woods we rode through today look like, well, woods.
So, I thought I’d take you on a quick tour of my rolling “office,” which has been my home for 10 to 13 hours a day for the past two weeks.
No office would be complete without a comfy leather chair. Although some would say that there is no such thing as a comfortable bike saddle after 200 miles, mine is not too bad, even though it is completely unpadded. Spare tubes, parts and tools dangle in the bag underneath.
Next comes the “desk,” which includes a computer (iPhone wrapped in plastic to ward off the rain), a complex speedometer and a heart rate monitor. The heart rate monitor is probably the most important instrument on the bike; it tells me just how hard the engine is working.
The speedometer gives the speed, of course, and its odometer, which shows distance traveled, is vital. To navigate, I match the odometer to the “cue sheet” (the directions) clipped below it. The speedometer also measures pedal revolutions per minute. If I can keep the pedal RPMs and the heartbeats per minute both in the 80s, I can ride all day.
The best part of my office, of course, is the view. It never stops changing and it’s 360 degrees. It’s even better than a corner office!
Day 17: Georgia On My Mind
Eufaula to Dublin, GA -- 160 Miles
Georgia has been on my mind since I left San Diego more than two weeks ago, but today we actually got here! We rolled out of Eufaula into the bright sunshine, glided over the Walter George Reservoir bridge and found ourselves in hilly, foggy Georgia...the last state. Tomorrow, we are done.
Because the ride began with a series of steep rolling hills, I soon found myself alone at the back of the ride...which is pretty much where I stayed all day. A sudden summer storm drove me into the shelter of a garage while winds raged and hail pelted the road.
Delayed, I had to work extra hard the last 40 miles.
The ride coincides with the 34th Anniversary of Our Daily Bread, which has served more than 7 million meals to the hungry and homeless of Baltimore -- and never missed a day. Now, that’s endurance!
Day 18: DONE!
Dublin to Savannah, GA -- 122 Miles
The last day of The Ride for Our Daily Bread promised to be an easy one: no major hills, not much wind, and puffy white clouds playing across the horizon. But after 100 miles, Mother Nature blessed us with her customary afternoon downpour and we all finished wet.
I became the oldest rider ever to complete the rigorous PACTour Elite Transcontinental -- almost 2,800 miles in just 18 days. It was a fitting way to celebrate the 34th Anniversary of Our Daily Bread: one long, difficult trip to support the tough journeys that the guests of ODB travel every day.
Riding across the country, averaging more than 150 miles a day, I often remembered the many stories of the struggles street people regularly face. I was cold, hot, tired, wet, sore and emotionally battered. The prospect was daunting, the pain immediate and the goal far, far away.
Even though I was often riding alone, I was never alone. I knew that my fellow 15 riders were experiencing the same challenges. And I knew that the staff of PACTour, like the ODB staff, would always be there.
The PACTour team is lead by Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo, who not only celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary, but the 32nd anniversary of their cross- country tandem bike record, which still stands today. The two former Race Across America Champions run a unique business: very ambitious bicycle expeditions across the United States. They’ve seen it all, both as competitors and organizers.
They and their team of volunteers are always ready to help: from a spare tire (which they also change) to a recipe to prevent saddle sores. Literally, I could not have done it without them.
Wait! Wait! There’s More: June 6 Lynn’s Last Gift: One Beautiful, Tough 600K
The relief and feeling of accomplishment from finishing the Ride for Our Daily Bread was tempered by the news that Lynn Kristianson had died. Lynn, one of the stalwarts of my club, the DC Randonneurs, was a great rider and an even better designer of bike rides.
Her masterpiece is the Shenandoah 600K, a gorgeous, meandering 375-mile quad- burner that seems to climb every hill in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Logic, common sense and tired legs would have suggested that I skip the two-day event, which began at 4 AM Saturday in Middletown. However, since I didn’t seem to have any of those three, I decided to ride it anyway.
“What are you doing here?” asked my club mates, who figured that I didn’t need more miles just two days after finishing the Elite Transcontinental. Of course, I fell in with a bad crowd who rode 245 hard miles on Saturday to be first into the overnight stop. It was a longer, harder day with more climbing than any PACTour day. I was cooked.
But after a generous three hours of sleep, I found myself back on the bike at 4 AM Sunday, watching my fellow riders revving their engines (metaphorically speaking, of course). Then I went back to bed.
I had cup of tea, a short conversation with myself, said a prayer for Lynn, and rode the rest of the ride S L O W L Y and mostly alone. It was a lovely ride by a lovely lady; Lynn’s last gift.
“This is my friend Greg. He’s crazy.”
On a bike ride over the weekend, this is how a friend introduced me. It’s not an uncommon introduction these days since I returned from riding across America in a 2,700-mile-plus, 18-day-long flog.
Now, a couple months after completing it, I kind of agree with my friend’s assessment. But, hey, life is crazy. Like life, riding an average of 150 miles a day is an adventure:
- Each day brings its own challenges;
- The external obstacles are immovable a uncaring (mountains and headwinds are like traffic; getting upset does you no good);
- The internal obstacles are tougher: pain, boredom, anxiety, confusion,discouragement, irritation, distraction;
- Sometimes, you ride with friends; sometimes, you must you ride alone;
- You must decide how to spend your energy; how to save it; how to recover it.
- Tomorrow, you ride again.
The road taught me a few life lessons that I hope might work for you.
Lesson #1: It’s (Almost) All Mental
“Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical,” Yogi Berra said. Riding across country is 90% mental and 10% fuel economy.
Lesson #2: Find an “Energy Buddy”
I was very fortunate to ride frequently with a super-strong rider from Missouri, Dru Dixon. A physician who has delivered 5,000 babies, he helped melt away the miles with his stories.
Lesson #3: Ration Your Energy
You can go much further than you think you can, but you have to be careful not to burn too much energy on any one mountain or in any one day.
Lesson #4: Humility is Huge
Long fast tours are a wonderful source of humility. There are four things you can count on:
- You WILL do something really, really stupid (being tired does that...);
- Testosterone kills (racing to be the first rider to the top of a hill is like being the first kid to turn in his homework; it might feed the ego, but it means nothing);
- You must sweat the small stuff (not bringing enough water into the desert can have dire consequences);
- It’s all about your vulnerabilities.
Lesson #5: Value Your Vulnerabilities
In my case, the vulnerabilities are my knees. The last time I rode across the country, eleven years ago, my knees were killing me. Not this time: I added lower gears, shortened my cranks, lost 20 pounds, got a professional bike fit, wrapped the knees with KT tape, did hours of yoga to strengthen them, and took it easy on the climbs.
Lesson #6: Have a Purpose to the Pedaling
Part of the reason for my trip was raising thousands of dollars for Our Daily Bread Employment Center, a program I helped start more than three decades ago. When the going got a little tough, I just remembered that every mile I logged earned money to feed Baltimore’s hungry. Their challenges are a lot bigger than mine.
Lesson #7: It’s Never Too Late
If you’ve thought about a cross-country ride or something else equally crazy, keep thinking. Go for the experience that will change your life.