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Bicycling America

The best way to start a cross-country bicycle trip is to pretend you're not doing it.
Associated Press writer Calvin Woodward poses next to his bicycle in Newport Beach, Calif. Monday, Aug. 22, 2005, after completing his nearly three month cross county trip. Woodward's trek took him along some of America's less traveled roads.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The best way to start a cross-country bicycle trip is to pretend you're not doing it.

Convince yourself you are embarking on a series of day trips. It will do no good to anticipate the Rockies while still smelling the salt air of the Atlantic, or to think about the East if leaving from the West.

One rest stop to another, one day at a time, one state before the next. That's the essential mind game. It will all add up to a journey exposing you to staggering landscapes, the kindness of strangers and abilities you didn't know you had.

Many who bicycle recreationally dream of going the distance. Few do it, largely because of the time commitment. You need close to three months - more if you want to smell the roses. That's why cross-country cyclists usually fall into two categories - those taking time off before college, and those whose kids have just gone off to college. Getting that much time in prime working and family-raising years is tough for others.

Once you set aside the time, you must overcome the myths and make a plan. Here are some tips.

COST: A few thousand dollars will do if you rough it. Plan on $4,000 to $5,000 if you hope to spend most nights in a (cheap) motel. Don't skimp on the bicycle; count on $1,200 at least, on top of trip costs, for a genuine touring model.

FITNESS: You don't need to be Lance Armstrong. Although I commute regularly on a bicycle, 40 minutes or more a day, I hadn't ridden more than 50 miles in a single day before I crossed the country last summer. Nor had I ever done two long rides back to back.

So I hurt more than fitter bicyclists at first. But I felt stronger by the day and found my rhythm within two weeks. Ideally, though, train beforehand and do some rides loaded down with everything you'll take.

FEAR: A third hurdle is the fear that it's too dangerous out there. Most of my route was on amazingly quiet roads, but shoulders were often skimpy or nonexistent. Excessive caution is the best survival skill; if you are new to bicycling, hone traffic and safety skills.

One harrowing stretch in northern Virginia took me hours to go five miles on a twisty, busy road with no shoulder and fast traffic. I darted from one driveway to the next. But much of my journey was on the TransAmerica Trail, where most drivers are accustomed to seeing bikers. Overall, I had remarkably few close calls with cars.

As for my interactions with people, their generosity, encouragement, openness and just plain friendliness was the most astonishing aspect of the trip. Everyone who crosses the country comes back brimming with stories of these encounters.

Even so, bad apples can show up in the most splendid orchards. You're forced to make snap judgments of strangers. I met many wild-looking characters with big hearts. But one dude who started taking drugs after I'd put my tent up in his yard prompted me to leave in a hurry in the dark as he grew more paranoid.

For many reasons - weather warnings among them - a cell phone is essential safety equipment. Keep it charged and be aware when you are out of cell range.

A bright, lightweight rear flashing light is also a major safety boost. Some riders also want a full-power headlight, but that was not worth the weight for me; instead I brought a small flashing front light to help drivers to see me at dusk. That wouldn't be sufficient for night-riding.

Theft was rarely a concern on my route, but a route through cities might require a heavy-duty lock. I brought a lightweight, easily busted cable lock and rarely used it. Most grocery stores will let you park inside while shopping.

Beware of thunderstorms; take note of shelter as you pass, in case you need to turn back. And stock up on food and water if you're not sure what's down the road. Towns with one store that closes early are common.

EMOTIONS: Another hurdle is the emotional challenge. How far out of your comfort zone can you go? Can you get by with lousy coffee for days? If the only motel ahead is full, can you sleep under the stars? Can you stomach cold canned beans? If riding solo, can you keep your own company? How lonely can you stand to be?

Whether alone or with someone you love or like, you are guaranteed to have a meltdown or two along the way, unless you are an as-yet undiscovered human life form. This means irrational blowups, cursing the ground you are rolling on, wanting nothing so much as to jump in a car, or feeling grotesquely sorry for yourself. I was lucky - at such moments, I met people who believed in what I was doing more than I did.

ROUTE: East to west, or west to east? Either is manageable. West to east seems more popular. If you leave in the spring, you avoid the extreme heat of the Western desert, but may encounter frigid nights and snow in the Rockies.

Then there's the wind. It was not a factor for me anywhere except Kansas. There, it was everything. It can sap your strength and spirit. Although many swear winds from the West are most common, the Adventure Cycling Association says it's a roll of the dice.

I chose to ride from the familiar East to the mysterious West, enhancing the sense of discovery. I wanted the magnificence of the Rockies to be a reward for a journey two-thirds done, not something to leave behind early on.

Then this decision: Which route? Some make their own. Many follow one of three laid out by Adventure Cycling: the 4,248-mile TransAmerica between Yorktown, Va., and Astoria, Ore.; the 4,295-mile Northern Tier between Bar Harbor, Me., and Anacortes, Wash.; or the 3,159-mile Southern Tier between St. Augustine, Fla., and San Diego.

Another popular option uses the 1,579-mile Western Express between San Francisco and Pueblo, Colo. In Pueblo, it hooks up with the TransAm, saving 460 miles, although subjecting the cyclist to extreme conditions in Utah and Nevada.

On my trip - I left Washington in May and arrived in Newport Beach, Calif., in August - I ended up doing major parts of the TransAm to the Mississippi River, then a great ride along the Katy Trail through Missouri and paths of my own the rest of the way. My conceit that I could find a better or more direct road occasionally paid off, but often put me in sticky spots. Adventure Cycling - or (800) 755-2453 - knows what it's doing.

The group's maps are indispensable. They lay out services, elevation, phone numbers for accommodations as well as directions on roads that are impossible to follow on a normal road atlas. Its TransAmerica Trail map set sells for $78 for members, $114 for nonmembers, less for maps of segments of the route. The TransAm celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

If making your own route, or planning to ride remote stretches, consider a GPS device.

GEAR: Be obsessive about leaving stuff home. You will feel every ounce. Expensive synthetic clothing pays off in light weight, quick cleaning and durability. Footwear is bulky; anything more than one good pair of biking shoes and a pair of sandals to stave off the campground-shower nasties is an indulgence.

I decided against campground cooking gear; many bring it. My heaviest items were a 4-pound laptop, a 3-pound tent and a 1-pound sleeping bag, along with jeans I mailed back and wish I hadn't.

Choose between panniers (saddlebags) and a trailer. I rode with rear panniers and a handlebar bag. Many bikers add front panniers for better weight distribution and capacity. A trailer might be better for a lot of camping gear.

A hydration pack that holds three liters of water is vital, especially in hot, dry and remote areas.

ACCOMMODATIONS: You can have a roof over your head every night with careful planning. But your flexibility will be reduced, because daily mileage will sometimes be dictated by distance between motels. Most nights, that won't be a problem. But you'll occasionally be stuck with an overpriced motel or truly awful digs. I found many hospitable mom-and-pop motels for $35 or less. If you commit to motels nightly, leave the camping gear home. If you are not sure, bring it and ship it home if you don't use it.

I stayed in motels more than I had planned, in part because campgrounds were not as easy to find and were sometimes nearly as expensive as a motel.

You can always camp for free in the middle of nowhere, and there's a whole lot of nowhere. Some of my best nights were under the stars, which shine with breathtaking brilliance in a heartland, mountain or desert sky.

On a half-dozen nights, the perfect solution for me was tenting for free in small-town parks, an unimaginable option in bigger places. Contact the police to see if that's OK.

TOURS: On organized tours, you ride with a group but carry your own gear. Tour leaders cycle with you, arrange accommodations - usually, camping - and coordinate logistics, while riders share duties like cooking. Available for under $4,000, including food and camping.

Fancier tours - $5,000 to $10,000 - will carry your gear for you and provide food, motels, roadside repairs and even a van for tired riders.

If you're riding alone or with a companion, however, you make the decisions yourself - some in advance, many every day on the road. These logistics can be more challenging than the pedaling. Consider them just one more mountain to climb. It's great fun coming down the other side.

ON THE NET: Directory of bike tours and resources for long trips: Online journals of long-distance cyclists: