Five weeks ago, I finished the most difficult journey of my life.
When I agreed to ride my bike across the country, as with probably too many of my commitments, I didn't spend that much time weighing the pros and cons of such an undertaking. I just knew that I adore the American landscape, the people of this country, and I always love my limits being pushed. So, I didn't hesitate.
The Trek Travel folks and my friends all asked if I was physically prepared for such a task. After all, the other participants on the ride had been training for months, riding thousands of miles. The truth was, I was fat and definitely not in riding shape. I didn't even own a legitimate road bike when I sent in the release forms for the trip. Yet, I knew, and those who are close to me knew, one of my defining traits, is an extremely high, often irresponsible, tolerance for pain. Ultimately, I was confident I could hang in there long enough to get fit along the way.
However, in the days leading up to the trip, I completely failed to assess how mentally and emotionally draining this ride would prove to be. Unlike my body, which grew increasingly strong and resilient as the days went by, my mind was weary. Each morning, I would wake up before dawn, and venture out into temperatures below freezing, knowing that I would be on my bike for another eight hours. Chilled to the bone, I would look down at my odometer and realize I had only traveled 3.6 miles so far and be slapped with the realization I had a negligible 119 miles more to go.
I had certainly ridden long distances before this trip. While training for Ironmans, we would ride 100+ mile days. But, I had never done such big rides on back-to-back days, let alone a handful in a row. Ugh. Getting up and motivating became the biggest challenge. Some of the folks on our trip would take days off, or get in the van during inclement weather. I can respect that. But, I had promised myself I would ride every single mile. So, when I'd look out my motel window and I'd see snow, or howling wind and rain, my heart sank.
All told, I rode my bike for 34 days, covering 3,286 miles. The rest of the group rode for 35 days, but you'll recall that I had to give a speech in NYC and thus came back to the desert and doubled up two days' worth of riding to stay on course for pedaling every mile. I don't think I have done anything in my life consistently over 34 days. Well, other than Twittering.
I had the greatest aspirations of blogging each route and sharing this experience with you. But, as the days went on, I actually found myself increasingly spent, in body as well as in spirit and mind. To keep engaged, I dialed up the intensity of my pace day after day, often turning mornings or afternoons into one-man time trials. I'd peg my heart rate in the red and bike like I was being chased. As my strength and conditioning improved, I would just push myself harder. Racing across the rolling hills of Missouri, through the forests of Tennessee, and over the snowy roads of the Smokies was a thrill. Fueled by endorphins, my bike and I sliced quietly through enchanting scenes in tandem with the verse of America's topography.
This new approach came with some cost. Mainly, I had never been so exhausted. A day of riding at full tilt, put me into the evening's lodging a hollow shell of a man, double-fistedly conveying carbs to my gullet without pausing for the inconvenience of chewing. After displaying my calorically slutty tendencies to the innocent bystanders of the lobby in said Holiday Inn Express, I would shower and climb into bed. By 7:30, I was zonked.
With that, I want to apologize for my dwindling narrative on these pages. Your countless messages of encouragement and support were essential to my completion of this epic ride. The Tweets and emails you sent may have seemed token to you, but to me they were fuel that kept me turning the cranks. My sincere thanks for your care and your help.
Since returning home, I've been asked if there were days that I wanted to quit. Yes. Every day. The rides were daunting. My body hurt. The conditions were harrowing. Danger was everpresent. One of our guides broke his pelvis in a fall, and I both crashed twice and bounced off cars twice. (When your worried mom reads your Tweets, these aren't the kind of things you are eager to include in your daily reports.)
At the same time, every day was a gift. A bounty of sights, of personal challenge and introspection, a recurring introduction to the vibrant and gritty people of our nation. Despite the often comically harrowing circumstances, I cherished each day out there. While the curmudgeon in me would ask my mates, "Are we really doing this again today?" the explorer in me was electric. At some points, I would ride my bike up onto the sidewalks and bunny hop the railroad tracks like I was on the BMX rigs of my youth. At other times, I felt like a wide-eyed student, with each quiet revolution of the wheels teaching me a humbling awareness and presence and a steady wind past my ears echoing a reminder of peace within activity.
The peak of my experience, came quite literally, in my push to the crest of the Newfound Gap, the 5048' pass through the Great Smoky Mountains that marks the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Though the day started with my hallmark morning lethargy, the raw energy of the national park, its autumnal coat, and its rushing waters flipped a switch in me and I pedaled with abandon. If you know this road, then you are quite familiar with its singular direction: up. The more I spun, the sooner I climbed into a bracing, snowy canopy. With each switchback, and the road's unrelenting grade, the road was wet, then slushy, and I weaved through hesitant cars driven by snow-stymied Floridians. As the inches accumulated on the ground, I accelerated. With each fishtail of my rear wheel, I laughed and hooted with a carefree exuberance. Oh, to be alive in the snow with a racing heart and heaving lungs.
I made it to the summit a half hour before folks started falling and our guides collected everyone in a van declaring the road unsafe. I felt so charged. The looks of disbelief on the faces of the tourists in their cars provoked cackles from me. Travelers would stop and ask about my ride and shake their heads when I explained the goal and admit to having pedaled to that summit in that storm. Ha! I felt crazy that day, and yet so authentically me.
I rested my bike against our group's support trailer while waiting for the others and looked out over one of Earth's most beautiful valleys. The snow swallowed errant utterances and wrapped me in its unmistakable hush. I reminded myself that somewhere past that horizon was a beach, and in that moment, legs still surging with adrenaline, I finally knew that I would be there soon. Nothing could keep me from it.
For the remaining days of my ride, I felt lifted. My bike lighter, my legs explosive. My focus was sharp, and the colors around me that much more vibrant. As we rolled across North Carolina and into South Carolina, my route was paved with gratitude.
One night, legendary cyclist George Hincapie invited me and all of my fellow riders to join him for a beer near his home. It was a privilege to share time with such an accomplished rider, and renown nice guy. But, beyond the traditional admiration any of us would show for such a successful athlete, it soon became clear that all of us at the table shared a bond: a transcendent and immeasurable love, respect, and appreciation for the simple yet vexing poetry of bikes.
I spent much of the last few days on the road in my head, riding alone. It was hard to process that this was all the same trip. Struggling to keep pace with the peloton across California and Arizona. Perched motionless on the lip of the Grand Canyon. Passing under the stoic gaze of Utah's stone monuments. Crawling up Colorado's peaks applauded by its Aspens, to soon temper the speed-wobble of New Mexico's unmitigated descents. Resisting the unfair demands of Oklahoman headwinds and rain, to be rewarded with the playful, if barking dog-strewn, rollercoasters of Missouri. Crossing the undulating Mississippi to flirt with Kentucky for just seven miles before venturing deep into the woods of Tennessee and the natural wealth of its mountains. Regarding the Appalachian majesty of North Carolina and ultimately coasting to the hospitably flat embrace of South Carolina. This was all one ride.
toes sunk into the foam of the Atlantic, what had been intermittent
sentimental moments punctuated by wet eyes from time to time, finally
yielded to steady tears. My Tweets
to you along the way tended to be lighthearted. I would pick out goofy
signs, or unintended puns and wait for your chuckling replies.
Sometimes, I would marvel at the wonder of what I was seeing and try
hard to transmit those moments through my phone's camera to you in
But, for the most part, I was guilty of hiding the gravity of
my emotions from all of you. I was elated and devastated. Invincible
and more vulnerable than ever. Wiser and teeming with ignorance. I knew
more of myself than ever before, but was buried under questions and
Drained, I flew back to California, caught up with friends and loved ones, ate a little sushi (not exactly the culinary specialty on my ride's route) and headed straight for my home in Truckee. I was sure that a few days among the mountains and trees from which I draw my energy would restore me to whatever qualifies as normal. I tried everything, hikes, mountain bike rides, runs, even yoga. Yet, I still felt off-balance.
A few weeks later, I catch myself staring out the window and losing my train of thought as I drift back out to those sacred miles. I pay a little too much attention to the condition of the road shoulder, and I still flinch at the sound of barking dogs and prepare to sprint beyond the reach of their chase. My eyes get wet and my heart feels heavy as I begin to digest this experience. I still owe you all some words as I wrap my head more genuinely around what I learned and felt. I've started an essay that both celebrates and laments the America I encountered, and my hope is that, now that this piece is published, the next will be easier to finish. Add to that, hundreds of pictures to be posted, and I still plan to feature some more non-profit jerseys I wore along the way.
For now though, thanks again to you who made my ride possible and who continue to share the journey with me even after I got off my bike. I couldn't feel luckier.