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Bike Ride Across America
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By Jonathan B. Mirsky

This summer, I rode across the United States as part of the American Lung Association Big Ride Across America, a 3,260-mile trek from Seattle, Washington to Washington, D.C. Our trip lasted 48 days, with 40 riding days and 8 rest days, as we cycled through thirteen states (Washington, Idaho, Montana,Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the District of Columbia) and four time zones. We averaged 81 miles of riding per day and clocked eight centuries during our journey. Days were spent in the saddle of my Cannondale CAD3 frame outfitted with a mix of RSX, 105, and Ultegra components; nights were spent camping in schoolyards and fairgrounds (which, especially in the West, were inevitably next to rail freight lines operating around-the-clock), though we occasionally stayed in college dormitories. The Big Ride was fully supported, with a luggage truck to carry our gear, a shower truck and a toilet truck, and even a meal truck which provided hot breakfasts and dinners (though sometimes we would receive a real treat: community groups would cook for us). The United States is a breathtakingly beautiful country, with all types of people, all manner of views and, as I've sketched out in this article, plenty of great cycling opportunities.

Seattle to Spokane, Washington (327 miles, 4 days).

Cold and damp is how Seattle is typically depicted in popular culture, and we were not to be disappointed as we began our cross-country trek from near the campus of the University of Washington at 6:30 a.m. (perhaps the only group of riders to start earlier than Potomac Pedalers!). But the raw weather receded as we climbed into the foothills of the Cascades. Our second day broke clear and chilly, perfect weather for the long uphill climb through Steven's Pass and over the Cascades. On the way up to the 4400 pass, as I alternated between standing and sitting in the saddle (thankfully, I had replaced my 11x24 cassette with a 13x26 prior to the trip), we passed countless waterfalls and mountain streams flowing through thick evergreen forests, and on the way down we were greeted by more arid forest and hot sunny weather. Over the next couple days we worked our way towards Spokane, across the high desert, steep canyons, and rolling wheatlands of central Washington, nourished by fresh cherries from roadside stands and enthusiasm for the ride ahead. Along the way, we notched the Big Ride's first century and visited the Grand Coulee dam (where, true to my I-know-better-than-you inside-the-Beltway liberalism, I lectured the superintendent of the visitor's center about the center's failure to describe the pernicious effects of the dam on the environment and Native American culture).

Spokane, Washington to Missoula, Montana (269 miles, 3 days).

As we set out from Spokane on a run to Sandpoint, Idaho, just south of the Canadian border, I learned a valuable lesson about cross-country touring: Never attempt to shave a few ounces from your weight by forgoing rain gear. Or at least don't do it when you are in the mountains, where weather can be unpredictable. The clear skies of Spokane transformed into cold and rain as we neared the Idaho border, and I was forced to become a fashion victim, stopping at a guns and ammo store (don't ask which one, there were too many to remember) to buy a clear plastic PVC wrap to cover myself as I hammered to camp.

The rain gave way to sunshine in Sandpoint, Idaho, about as soon as I rolled into camp. I had expected northern Idaho to be skinhead country, but I discovered that Sandpoint is an arts community though I was still glad that our campsite was located some distance from the Sandpoint Federal building. From Sandpoint we headed off into strong headwinds through lush pine forests and alpine meadows and into Montana, where the terrain became more arid but the huckleberry shakes and huckleberry pies more plentiful. Montana is the interior West, with cold mornings in the 30s warming to sunny afternoons in the 80s, perfect weather for us to notch another century from Thompson Falls to Missoula. Unfortunately, Montana's roads have skimpy shoulders, and northwestern Montana in the summer is filled with RVs and logging trucks. Riding with the Pedalers has trained me well for both hills and motorists and I used that training on our century ride into Missoula, where one RV driver seemed determined to demonstrate his view that bicyclists should not be on even the shoulder of any road.

As we crossed through Idaho and began our long march through Montana, riders started to really get to know each other. Our group of about 200 riders was drawn from around the United States and four foreign countries, with riders from vastly different backgrounds and ages. Our oldest rider was 79-years old, and we had several riders still in high school. The high-schoolers impressed me the most, because I would not have had the discipline to raise the money for a cross-country charity ride when I was that age, and I would not have had the courage to spend several months travelling with a group of people all older than me. But the high-school kids had one advantage96 youth. The stretch from Spokane to Missoula took us through the Bitterroot Range, and overuse injuries among riders became common. The rest stops resembled triage wards, with the camp doctor icing and taping up riders and putting them back on their bikes.

Missoula to Billings, Montana (355 miles, 4 days).

Although strained knees and heels were abundant, our mileage kicked up as we traversed the lonely state of Montana: four days of riding 99, 61, 101, and 95 miles respectively (and on the 61-mile day we climbed up and over the Continental Divide). I stayed healthy through these long days of riding, in no small part because of the spring workouts provided by our club's B and BB riders (thought I would have been healthier still if my bicycle's aluminum frame, aluminum fork, and aluminum stem combination didn't kick the stuffing out of me every day ñ what was I thinking when I invested in all that aluminum?). I did sustain minor injuries off the bike96 two gashes to the foot from stepping on tent stakes when I stumbled out of my tent at 5:30 a.m. (or earlier) to prepare for the day of riding, and some cuts from a cactus I fell into while trying to set up a photo. I quickly learned both to use round-headed tent stakes for staking my tent fly vestibule and to identify cactus.

As we worked our way from the mountains to the prairie under days of endless Big Sky sunshine, we passed through rolling pastures full of cattle, all framed by bluffs and mountains. Truly Madison Avenue's image of the West (but without the Marlboro Man, since one of the purpose of this American Lung Association ride was to raise money and awareness to combat tobacco). Centuries and near-centuries became routine, and in pacelines the mileage flew by. In D.C., I start preparing for a century ride a day in advance, by hydrating and increasing my carb intake. On the Big Ride, I didn't even think about the day's distance until I was already into it.

The highlights of this leg of the Big Ride were climbing up McDonald Pass and over the Continental Divide at 6,325 feet and, on a different day, a climb through Deep Creek Canyon, with mountain streams and evergreen forests that, at the canyon summit, emptied into pastures and grasslands. But we battled tremendous headwinds; no, the winds at ground level are not more likely to blow west to east rather than east to west, although I understand that at35,000 feet the jet stream is more consistent ñ making our third century of the Big Ride (on Day 13, from Townsend to Harlowtown) a day when the SAG wagon claimed more than a few riders. We also learned that there are four seasons in Montana: winter, winter, winter, and road construction season.And we were cycling through Montana during road construction season; which means miles of road reduced to hard pack gravel and dirt. We were also cycling through Montana during thunderstorm season; I braved a very severe thunderstorm (even by the standards of this D.C. native) in Harlowtown in my tent,terrified by thunder and lightening, staying close to the ground to avoid being struck.

After two weeks together, personality quirks began to emerge: for example, one rider routinely stopped to put Mardi Gras beads on roadkill. Fortunately, he had storage space for beads on his recumbent, as roadkill is plentiful throughout the West.

Billings, Montana to Rapid City, South Dakota (411 miles, 5 days).

Perhaps the highlight of my rest day in Billings was sitting next to country-rock star Kenny Rogers at a steakhouse, where Gold Wing motorcycle rally attendees treated him as a returning hero. A surprisingly heavy Kenny Rogers looked like he'd eaten quite a few meals at Kenny Rogers Roasters (at least somebody has).

On this leg of the trip, I faced my most difficult (and longest) day of riding in my life. After completing an 87-mile ride across the empty landscape from Hardin, Montana to Sheridan, Wyoming in the suffocating heat which blanketed the interior West all summer, the next day we faced a 114-mile ride from Sheridan to Gillette, Wyoming. The 114-mile ride from Sheridan to Wyoming had it all: desolate, arid, and desert-like terrain; continuous long, steep hills up and down canyons (47 by one rider's count); headwinds gusting up to 50 miles per hour (as clocked by the Gillette airport); and triple-digit temperatures (though it was only 97 degrees by the time I passed by the Gillette airport). A woman in my paceline developed a tire or rim problem and kept flatting out. Each time she flatted, one of us would give her a tube until no spare tubes were left, and we were forced to leave her behind for the sag wagon to pick up.

But the leg from Billings to Rapid City had enjoyable moments too, including a visit to Little Bighorn Battlefield on Independence Day and cycling through the beautiful Black Hills of western South Dakota, where a herd of buffalo crossed my path.

Rapid City, South Dakota to New Ulm, Minnesota (522 miles, 6 days). Although we covered many miles between rest days in Rapid City and New Ulm including back-to-back days totaling 200 miles on the Great Plains are much flatter than what we experienced in the Cascades and the Rockies, and pacelines were easier to hold together across grasslands and wheat fields. This leg of the trip included stops at Mt. Rushmore and cycling through the Badlands, a Martian landscape of red and brown spires.

Crossing the Missouri River into Pierre, South Dakota (where our campsite was located right on the banks of the Missouri) marked not just a time zone change but an end to the gun culture of the interior West and the beginning of Midwestern hospitality. Through eastern South Dakota (and continuing into Minnesota and Wisconsin), we were greeted at our campsites and mid-day checkpoints by communities bearing goodies like home-baked pies or dairy products from the local creamery, or by musicians performing for us. In Desmet, South Dakota, the post office even stayed open late so riders could ship home winter gear (never actually needed, and sure to be unnecessary past the Rockies). But the highlight of this stretch occurred Big Ride Across America continued.

5 miles west of Miller, South Dakota, where the Big Ride reached the halfway point between Seattle and D.C.

This stretch of our trip was marred, unfortunately, by the Big Ride's only motorist-bicyclist accident: three riders were hit by the passenger-side mirror of an RV as they rode single-file on the shoulder. All three were hospitalized; two were able to return to the Big Ride after several days' recuperation, but one broke her hip, ending her Big Ride. The circumstances are all too familiar to experienced riders: an elderly driver unfamiliar with driving an RV (and thus unaware of an RV's dimensions) failed to move into the opposite lane when overtaking our cyclists.

I likewise took a spill on this leg of the trip (because my attention lapsed, the cause common to most bike accidents), leaving me with severe road rash, torn shorts and a jersey, but only relatively minor damage to my bicycle (so I could ride away from the accident). Fortunately, I had time to heal on our rest day in New Ulm, a town that makes its living peddling German kitsch and celebrating the role of Germanic tribes in causing the fall of the Roman Empire.

New Ulm, Minnesota to Madison, Wisconsin (335 miles, 4 days).

The headwinds which had stymied us since Washington State turned to tailwinds for a day ñ so for one day the corn, wheat, and soybeans flew by at 25 miles per hour. (Though the day was not perfect96 my paceline was sprayed with liquefied hog manure while passing a field in the process of being irrigated.)

Then the wind changed directions, and we were back to one mile pulls in long pacelines battling the wind. The hot sunny weather (which had been with us every day except our departure day from Seattle and our day in the mountains of Idaho) disappeared, and we faced a brutal, exhausting 89-mile ride in raw, chilly, wet conditions from Owatonna to Winona, Minnesota. It was so cold that the next day, the newspaper headline was about how cold it was, and cold weather is not exactly a 91man bites dog' story in Minnesota.

The highlights of this leg included the 2000 Big Ride crossing the 2000 mile mark just beyond Rochester, Minnesota (Rochester is home to the Mayo Clinic, but I resisted the temptation to check myself in and have all the nerves on my sore rear-end surgically removed); crossing the Mississippi River; and a 109-mile run into Madison from Viroqua, Wisconsin, that passed by Taliesen, Frank Lloyd Wright's private residence.

Madison, Wisconsin to Sandusky, Ohio (493 miles, 6 days).

I made an important discovery on this leg: The only thing more boring than mile after mile of cornfields is mile after mile of suburban ticky-tack. Also, Midwestern hospitality stops at the Wisconsin border (but resumes at the Indiana border). The highlights of this leg included a visit to Chicago; a pig roast hosted by the residents of LaPorte, Indiana, at the end of a century ride from Naperville, Illinois; the thrill of overtaking Amish buggies (but always with a courteous 91on your left' as I passed); another pair of back-to-back days of 200 miles; and the Cedar Point amusement park. Unfortunately, the hot dry weather that was with us from Washington through Minnesota was replaced by hot sticky weather (at least I was reminded of home).

Sandusky, Ohio to Washington, D.C. (549 miles, 8 days).

As the BigRide neared its conclusion, there was time for sightseeing, and during this stretch we visited the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland (though once inside, it was difficult to drag the baby boomer Big Riders back out), attended a monster truck rally outside Youngstown (where I found the crowd watching the loud trucks jumping junked cars more interesting than the loud trucks jumping junked cars), and spent hours at the Gettysburg Battlefield.

As for the cycling, although it may come as no surprise to Potomac Pedalers, the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania are quite challenging ñ while not as high as the Cascades or the Rockies, the grades are steeper and there are fewer passes. We faced a 106-mile day of hilly cycling from Canfield, Ohio to Indiana, Pennsylvania that tested us on everything we had experienced up until that time: steep, unrelenting hills; long mileage; terrible road surfaces; heavy truck traffic; heat and humidity; and afternoon thunderstorms (which I dodged by getting to camp in front of the pack). That century ride was followed by two more long days of mountainous riding, including one hill so steep that our luggage truck began jackknifing coming around a turn, and had to be righted by a tow truck.

Finally, on Day 48, the Big Ride triumphantly rode on to the Mall in D.C.After an early start from Frederick, Maryland, we travelled through Dickerson and Seneca along roads quite familiar to club members, and then along River Road and down the Capital Crescent Trail. We decorated the roadway as we neared D.C. ("6.2 miles to finish line, 3254 miles to Seattle"). After all the Big Riders had arrived at a holding area in Georgetown, there was a mass ride in to the Mall. After hugs from friends and family and closing ceremonies, I bicycled home, sad to be a solo rider once again, but proud to have cycled all 3,260 miles without sagging, proud to have camped (or stayed in dorms) with the Big Ride every night (instead of getting hotel rooms),and eager to go back to riding with my friends in Potomac Pedalers.

more Ride Schedule

12/8/2016
C (MH) * 21-29 miles * MD *10:00 AM * Glen Echo Loops * Glen Echo (GLE)

12/8/2016
C/CC * 15-25 * VA * 1:00 PM * Neighborhood Midday Ride * Pinn Community Center * 32°/wind 20+mph

Featured Members
Linda B. KolkoLinda is the D/C Ride Coordinator for MD & DC
Matthew BirnbaumMatt is Chairman of Potomac Pedalers

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