by Michael Bell
“And I am dedicating the ride to my wife, Valerie, in honor of her strength and humor in dealing with this challenge. I am riding to support:
… scholarships for families in Northern Virginia who need help to afford the high quality programs provided by Insight Memory Care Center, of Fairfax VA.
… the search for a cure for Alzheimer’s. I love the totally focused approach of the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. It funds research with the highest probability of preventing, slowing, or reversing Alzheimer’s disease.
… the ride symbolizes the huge challenge of tackling dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. I believe that, like the ride, it can be done. ” Mike’s Fundraising page
Seattle to Boston: 3,600 miles, 32 days including 1 (yes just one!) rest day, i.e. 115 miles per day on average. To the randonneurs and ultra-cyclists, these distances probably sound puny. For the rest of us…intimidating? Perhaps. Impossible? Not at all. One reason: the climbing , at 130,000 feet (4 ½ Everests!), sounds formidable. It averages out at just 37 feet per mile—that is a “flat” ride for the purposes of the @PotomacPedalers ride table!
For the average club cyclist, the biggest challenge in a transcontinental crossing—at least the way I did it—is finding the time to get from being in good condition to being in “great” shape, and then actually doing the ride. I was privileged in that eventually I was able to do so.
For many years I had planned that the day after I retired, I would hop on a bike and ride across North America. Until I retired, I was almost exclusively a year-round bike commuter, riding at most 125 miles per week from Arlington to downtown DC; rarely attaining 3,000 miles per year. I did have one goal: to ride my first century before I hit my (age) half-century. Did that in 2000. Then in 2005 there was the “Maine Event,” when I rode 1,000 miles from my Arlington home to Bar Harbor, ME, in 11 days, the route informed by the maps of the Adventure Cycling Association, and the support provided by my wonderful wife.
Apart from that, I did not virtually no recreational cycling until I retired in 2009. That year, I did a self-designed “Great Rivers Rout” (sic); another 1000-mile ride, criss-crossing mighty mid-Western rivers as I rode from St Louis, MO to Baton Rouge, LA (including the Natchez Trace and Kentucky’s legendary dogs!)
But, surprise! The “Transcon” didn’t happen.
Seven years of retirement passed. Life happened. I became a primary caregiver for the very person who could have been my SAG driver. I began to fear that I might be running out of years. Finally in mid-July 2016, I joined a group of about 40 riders, most of whom were committed to doing the whole ride—a few rode for sections of the trip.
This was a “fast” ride across the continent, done by an “older demographic” with the resources of time and money to make it possible. At least one-third of us were over 60, and I guess the median age to have been about 55. All very different from my stereotypical image of the typical trans-America ride: 20-something fresh out of college, self-supported, gear-laden bike, stopping as interested to “get to know” the country. Riding maybe 50-70 miles to day, that would take 2-3 months. We had one month (well, 5 weeks all told).
At 60-something, even that amount of time seemed grossly self-indulgent, guilt-inducing, etc. It also needed a considerable network of support (a live-in caregiver, family, friends, etc). But that is a whole different story. I also decided to make it a fund-raiser for two Alzheimer’s related organizations that meant a great deal to me. That is another whole different story (https://www.crowdrise.com/mylongestride ).
What actually made the trip possible was the Lon and Susan team, a.k.a. Pacific Atlantic Cycle Tours (PACTOUR). Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo are a husband-wife team who were co-founders, winners and long-time record-holders of the Race Across America (RAAM). When they quit racing, they set up PACTOUR to provide challenging distance riding opportunities.
A few months ahead of the trip, Lon sent out some training tips, which boil down to:
(a) start from a good level of fitness for a typical club rider, with considerable experience of riding centuries and longer:
(b) at a minimum, ride 20 hours or 300 miles per week for two months ahead of the start, with increasingly long rides each week so that during the training period…..;
(c) you ride at least one double century (miles, not kilometers) and do “several” back to back centuries.
I fell short of these minimum standards, significantly; never did the double; only managed 300 miles in two weeks, and did a couple of back-to-back century rides in the first half of 2016. Nevertheless, I found that I was in good enough shape, perhaps significantly because I regularly appear in the Cast Iron Crotch list (5,000 miles plus per year). Also most of the riding we @PotomacPedalers do is in some pretty hilly terrain. And much of the USA is FLAT, at least according to our ride table!
We got “dessert” first. Like the large majority of transcon rides we rode west-to-east, to benefit from wind direction. That means you get the western mountains and high plains first, by far the most beautiful parts of the ride. Day 1 we rode up Whidbey and Camano Islands on the Puget Sound with some stunningly beautiful scenes. Day 2 saw us climbing the Cascades, through Washington Pass, up to an elevation of 5,300 feet, with several major ups and downs on the way. At the top of the pass, we experienced the worst weather event of the whole expedition. A 20% chance of rain, became a torrential thunderstorm. It was wet, and cold, particularly during the 25 mile descent! Shiver-inducing cold, translates very swiftly into severe wobble on the descent. We all made it down safely, ruing a wasted downhill!
That was by far the longest ride of the first week (129 miles). Most of the other days were under 100 miles, the idea being to get us into shape for the mind-blowing distances that awaited us in the mid-West. It took almost five days to cross Washington, through some amazing scenery, notably around the Coulee Dam, where we spent one night. Still, by the end of the first week we had ridden 700 miles.
After the briefest of transits through the Idaho panhandle, we were under the Big Sky of Montana. As we very gradually descended to the cattle rearing and grain-growing plains, the roads opened out, the scenery became more uniform…and the winds blew, several days of fairly stiff cross-winds as we headed south-east. We confirmed the value of the echelon; to those who don’t know, that’s a kind of diagonal paceline, to get as much drafting effect as possible. Practically it can only be done with 4-5 riders, very low traffic density, and long sight-lines front and rear. It was not uncommon for us to ride for 10 minutes, perhaps 20 minutes, without seeing a motor vehicle. Fine for out west with experienced riders; not recommended for your average club ride.
Five days across Montana, and still we seemed only to have ridden across the south-west corner of this massive state. Next up, Wyoming. More of the same: ranches, distant hills, semi-arid countryside Many found it monotonous, sad or desolate, but to my eyes, unfamiliar with the terrain, it was strangely beautiful.
Then came Day 12, a ride deemed tough enough to warrant its own T-shirt!
The ride from Powell to Sheridan in Wyoming is 121 miles, with about 8,000 feet of climbing as it crosses the Big Horn Mountains. The main climb was a 12-mile, 5,000 foot slog that starts with a long 1-2 percent grade, then gradually got steeper with sustained sections at 10 percent and up to 14 percent for short distances. In retrospect that was my favorite day of the whole tour—the challenge of the climb (with time trial thrown in for good measure), stunning scenery, the ascent to the highest point I have ever been on a bike at almost 10,000 feet, and an amazing descent.
South Dakota was far more interesting than I expected. The Badlands: fascinating rock formations. Custer State Park with close encounters of the bison (and gentle, wild burro) kind. Mount Rushmore of course. Cross-winds persisted.
In that second week, in Wyoming and South Dakota, daily mileage increased, with a couple of 120-130 mile days; a weekly total of about 800. We realized that we probably were getting fitter, but the effects were offset by fatigue.
By the third week, it became quite routine to contemplate one 140-mile day after another without blanching. This was the highest mileage week, 950 miles, as we rolled across South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of corn fields; and very, very few people!
Wisconsin was a pleasant surprise: varied landscape, varied agriculture, and varied cycling terrain—from massive grain fields through traditional family farms to Amish communities. A state for future bike exploration.
Then came our one rest day, as we crossed Lake Michigan by ferry, 60 miles from Manitowoc, WI to Ludington, MI. It was a welcome break, mentally at least, but I could also understand why I have heard that many pros don’t like the rest days in the Grand Tours (Tour de France, etc.). It took much longer than usual to get fired up and into the rhythm of the ride.
Ah the rhythm. The typical day started with breakfast in the motel carpark at dawn, sometime between 5:00 and 6:30. Oatmeal, cereals, fruits, pastries etc prepared by the staff. Then it was on to the bikes within half-an-hour for the day’s century plus. It became clear to me quite quickly that the ride was not staged from one town at dawn to another at the end of the day’s ride. It was from one rest stop to the next!
The three support vehicles leap-frogged each other during the day to provide us with well stocked rest stops every 25-30 miles. One of those stops was a lunch with something cooked, and plenty of creative salads. It convinces me that real food and good hydration beats powders and supplements. I didn’t touch the latter during the ride, and did not have any of the cramps that afflict me often on or after local or club rides.
There was a little “carrot-and-stick” incentive involved. The whole rolling show operated around a window of average speeds of 13-17 mph, including time spent at rest stops. Faster, and you would beat the van; slower and you would miss the van or be invited to be “sagged” to the next rest stop or day’s destination. Thanks to a series of flats one day, I did drop to the back of the pack, but did manage to catch up without a SAG.
Michigan left the impression of another rural state—not quite what one would expect. Then it was into Ontario, Canada for two long, flat days, ending at Niagara Falls. Thence onto the bumpy, busy, and (often still) beautiful roads of the eastern US. We crossed to the northern end of the Finger Lakes, and although we avoided the savage climbs that lie a bit to the south, there were a couple of demanding, enjoyable days in New York and Vermont.
Massachusetts was a state of mixed feelings. Because we were approaching the conurbation of Boston, our focus was on surviving the traffic on quite busy roads, keeping our minds off the fact that we were approaching journey’s end. But by the time we got to the obligatory celebration on Waikiki Beach near Salem, MA the mixed feelings were summed up in: “Thank goodness we’ve arrived; so sad it’s over.”
The ride had become a way of life. Was it only a month? A hypnotic rhythm of ride, eat, drink, sleep; day in, day out. It was possible only because of the full support and excellent planning, and that to an extent we had had to lose contact with our daily lives, no matter the Facebook posts, blogs, phone calls, text messages etc. Some even spoke of life-changing reactions. Only time will tell. But for the time being, it was possible to feel some satisfaction of having been one of the sub-set of the group who could claim to be members of the EFI club…Every Freaking Inch!
Pactour North America | Tour de France
Distance (miles) 3,600 | 2,200
Riding days 31 | 21
Rest days 1 | 2
Miles per day (average) 115 | 105
Total elevation gain (feet) 131,000 | 158,000
Longest day (miles) 148 | 148
Average speed (mph) 16.6 | 25-26
Mike’s Facebook page of his epic ride:
Mike’s Fundraiser page:
Mike’s Strava Page: