Cross USA 2001 Bicycle Tour – Reflections

A family member is writing a paper about my Cross USA 2001 bicycle tour.  I have a web page on the tour with daily updates (before the term “blog” was coined) and a one page summary.  She asked a bunch of questions – much more interesting than “how many flat tires did you get?”  The questions and my answers (hastily written to meet a deadline) are below:

What made you want to do this?

As I say on my summary page, “last, but not least, is the age old question, ‘so why did you do this tour?’  If you have to ask that question, then no amount of explaining will convince you of the answer…”  But seriously, for some there is a calling for challenge/adventure that cannot be explained to those who do not have those feelings.  For me this was sort of a fun adventure, while still being within somewhat of a comfort zone due to previous biking experience.

When?

Summer 2001

Where?

Seattle to Boston, about 4000 miles, the route I took is here:  http://bikingbrian.com/bicycling/touring/usa2001/updates.htm

With who?

By myself carrying my own gear, except for a couple of guys I met in upstate New York – we rode together until New Hampshire, after which I had broken off to go to Boston while they continued on to Maine.
http://bikingbrian.com/bicycling/touring/usa2001/day66.htm

How long were you gone?

70 days

What was your favorite part?

The first 10 days and the last 10 days, with some days in the middle.

Did you ever want to quit?

Heading east from Seattle, there’s a lot of hilly riding through mountainous areas.  The first part is the most demanding part of the trip physically, but since it’s at the beginning, you’re really pumped up so you do OK.  But what surprised me was that the trip was more of a challenge mentally than physically.  Days and days of riding through cornfields can get to you – and some days you ask “why am I doing this” and you feel like throwing in the towel – but you learn to deal with it.  Then when you get to New York, it’s lots of short steep uphills, followed by a downhill that doesn’t quite give you enough momentum to go up the next short steep downhill – then repeat.  Finally, as you get closer to Boston, the terrain levels out – but that doesn’t matter because you get that renewed sense of energy from being almost done with the trip.

What was your favorite place you traveled through?

Scenery – Highway 20 through Washington; Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming (due to its wide open spaces), New York
Hospitality – the Midwest

How was it rewarding?

A great sense of accomplishment due to setting a high but attainable goal that was both physically and mentally challenging.

What were the disadvantages?

The worst has got to be when there’s something potentially interesting about 4-5 miles off your route, which would be easy to take a detour in a car, but the out and back is such a penalty on the bike.
Also, if the weather’s bad you’re still best off riding, otherwise it would be even worse staying in a tent all day.
Traveling solo had both advantages and disadvantages.  The disadvantage was that it could get lonely, and sometimes it’s harder to get motivated when you’re alone, compared to being with others.  But I had decided long ago that for me, the advantages of going solo (mainly flexibility) outweighed the disadvantages, and I still feel that way today.

Did you face any major problems through your trip?

The major problem was breaking spokes in my rear wheel due to the added weight of the gear.  (Actually, a properly built rear wheel shouldn’t break spokes, but wheel building is a skill that takes lots of practice, and I made the unwise choice of building my own wheels that would be used for the trip.)  I was able to do fixes along the way to keep me going, but when I stopped in the Chicago area for a few days, I had my wheel rebuilt.

What motivated you?

The goal itself motivated me – but I had an unexpected motivational boost in that I had started to build up a fan base of people of work who were interested in the trip.  There were so many people that looked forward to reading my morning email update – for some people it was just as addictive (if not more) than their morning coffee.  Near the end of my trip, there was even an article about me in the company newsletter!  Even years later, when we’ve had visitors from other company offices around the world, they’d say “oh, you’re the guy who rode his bike across the US!”

What did your family and friends think about you doing this?

The whole range – some where “yeah, awesome”, others were neutral, others thought I was going away for two months to clear my mind, and others thought “why are you wasting your time?”

How did you train for something like this?

I started riding to/from work a few days a week, that gave experience with different weather conditions, carrying my gear, etc.  I also did many 3-5 day bike trips – some solo, some with friends – in order to get in practice with other aspects of bike touring – fixing the bike, setting up the tent, etc.

Where did you stay?

In campgrounds most of the time in the beginning, but then as I got closer to the end I started staying in motels more often.
A few times I got offers to stay in people’s houses.  Those were the most interesting stays.
The first one was from a lady working for the city (a small city):  http://bikingbrian.com/bicycling/touring/usa2001/day43.htm
The second was from someone I’ve chatted with on the bicycle touring email list:  http://briandesousa.com/bicycling/touring/usa2001/day44.htm
The third was also someone from the bike touring list:  http://bikingbrian.com/bicycling/touring/usa2001/day46.htm
The fourth was a couple on bikes that I meet in Yellowstone – they said I could call them when I passed through Cleveland:  http://bikingbrian.com/bicycling/touring/usa2001/day58.htm
Finally, on the second to last day, the last home stay was someone who had followed my journey on the bike touring list, guessed where I going next, and flagged me down from the side of the road!  http://bikingbrian.com/bicycling/touring/usa2001/day69.htm

How long were your breaks?

I took a day off every 10-20 days or so.  Other than a lunch break, the breaks through the day depended on whether there was something interesting to see, whether I just finished going up a hill, etc.  When I hit the 100 degree heat wave in Iowa, I’d take a short break everywhere that had A/C and had a cold drink.

What was your longest ride without stopping?

The longest day was 94 miles in Nebraska.  http://bikingbrian.com/bicycling/touring/usa2001/day35.htm  Actually, I’m surprised I didn’t have a longer day than that, because I’ve done 100 mile “century” day rides in the past, and with places far apart in the west, I expected to have a day around 110-120 miles, but that never happened.

Did you ever have any injuries throughout the trip and if so what did you do?

Arthroscopic surgery in 1999 cured about 95% of the problems with my left knee, but it would still occasionally bug me from time to time.  Those days I’d back off on the mileage and/or use some Advil.  But other than that, no real problems with injuries.

What were some experiences that stick out to you?

Bumping into other cyclists during the trip.

The Korean couple from southern Illinois that were amazed that a guy could ride a bike up such a steep hill and took my photo:  http://bikingbrian.com/bicycling/touring/usa2001/day27.htm

Day 29: Heading east from Sheridan, Wyoming, with the next major town (Gillette) being too far away for a day’s ride (120 miles) and not knowing what I would find halfway between:  http://bikingbrian.com/bicycling/touring/usa2001/day29.htm

Hospitality of the locals in Iowa:  http://bikingbrian.com/bicycling/touring/usa2001/day41.htm

And many more that I can’t think of right now.

What kind of food did you eat in order to conserve energy?

Anything with carbs!  I could eat as much as I wanted and didn’t put on a pound.

On average how many miles did you ride a day?

About 55-60 miles, most of those miles in the morning when it’s cooler.

Is this something you would like to do again?

I would, but it’s so hard to take that much time off from work – I have a busy engineering job with 10 people working for me.  Furthermore, if I did as a “bike only” trip like last time, I would keep it down to a month or less – like the Pacific Coast from Seattle to San Diego.  If I biked across the US again, I would do it in three months instead of two, leaving some more days off for hiking, sightseeing, and other activities.  Maybe when my son is old enough, we can do it together if he’s interested!

Who inspired you to do this?

Not one person in particular, but reading various accounts of other people doing similar trips – and a spark that lit up inside me saying “if they can do it, then why can’t I?”

What kind of gear did you wear?

Padded bike shorts were a necessity for sitting on a bike seat for hours.  :-)  With the heat, the form fitting bike jerseys worked better than T-shirts.  I had a rain jacket and a windbreaker, both of which were needed in the mountainous areas in the west.

Did you have a special bike?

It’s a Fuji “touring” bike, designed to be able to put racks on it for carrying gear, and fenders to keep the water from spraying from the wheels when it rains.  A photo is here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/briandesousa/

Did you keep in contact with your family often?

I called my wife every couple of days.  Cell phone coverage back then wasn’t as good as it is now, so about half the time I would call from pay phones.  I made sure not to promise that I would call every day – simply because there are some nights where there’s no cell coverage and you’re not near a phone – and I didn’t want her to be afraid that something happened to me if she was expecting a call and heard nothing.

Throughout the trip did any of your friends or family visit you?

I stopped in the Chicago area for a few days to visit my wife’s family.  My wife flew out there and the timing worked out just right.  When I was passing through Ohio, some college friends from Detroit drove down to meet me for dinner.  Another college friend rode the last ten miles of the trip with me to the Atlantic Ocean.

What did you bring along on your trip?

Here is a list of stuff I brought:  http://www.bikingbrian.com/bicycling/info/packlist.htm
At my first rest day in Idaho, I shipped home 8 pounds of stuff that I didn’t need.  Then I shipped the cold weather gear home when I got to Wyoming, because by then I had already crossed all the major mountain ranges.

How long have you been riding bikes?

Since about 1993.  The first time I tried a bike trip like this was for a few weeks in Australia in 1996 – an utter failure due to unrealistically high expectations of how far I could go per day and otherwise poor planning.  I ended up shipping the bike and turning it into a backpack/bus trip on that trip.  http://www.bikingbrian.com/bicycling/touring/austtour.htm  Later those short 3-5 day bike trips once or twice a year helped to work myself up to the really big cross-USA trip.

Do you still often ride your bike?

I still did those multi-day bike trips (although not as long as the cross-USA) even until 2004.  It’s harder nowadays because I’ve got a 3 year old son that I spend a lot of time with.  I live about 10 miles from work, so most of my riding now is riding to work and back home a few days a week, along with a longer ride early Saturday mornings.

Were there any tragic experiences or accidents?

No crashes or anything like that.  I almost ran out of water when climbing Washington Pass in eastern Washington, then after cresting the pass and headed on the downhill it got real windy and I had to be careful not to get blown off the road.
There was a very uncomfortable moment in a campground in Montana, where there were a couple of families sharing a site not too far away from mine.  The husbands were obviously drunk and looked like they wanted to cause trouble,.  Then they drove off in their truck, apparently they were going to a local casino.  Luckily they were gone all night and didn’t come back.  The hardest part about that kind of situation is you can’t really pack up and go somewhere else, like you could in a car.  So I ended up staying in my tent all night.

Were you glad to be back home?

During the last few days, I was both excited and sad that it was coming to an end.  That feeling is hard to describe.  But overall I was glad to be back with friends and family.  The hardest thing about the transition back to “real life” is that the first week back at work was an adjustment – sort of like the first week back at school.

Did anyone try to tell you it was a bad idea?

No – but I could tell that there were some people who were nervous about it but just didn’t say anything.  My mom admitted after the trip (I finished the trip at my folks house in Boston) that she was nervous for me quite a few times during the trip.  I expected that reaction, so I didn’t tell her that I was going on the trip until about a couple of weeks before.

Was your trip expensive, or do you think it saved you money?

It definitely didn’t cost too much, but maybe that’s because I’m used to high prices where I live in Southern California, and everywhere else is cheaper.  The most expensive part was flying from LA to Seattle with the bike ($150) and then flying from Boston to LA with the bike ($150).  Campgrounds were cheap, most hotels were in the $30-$40 range, and my only expense other than that was food.

Did you lose a lot of weight from riding your bike so much?

I’m already fairly thin, so I didn’t lose weight – I just ended up eating a lot more than I usually do!