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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Riding Home - The Plan

Three years ago I came up with this idea that it would be fun to ride my bike from my home to my parent’s home in Skaneateles, New York. Later I wrote a story about that adventure which I hoped to have published. I haven’t been able to find a publisher for the story so I decided to share it with the world through my blog. So over the next two weeks I will post the story of this arduous journey across America.

The Plan

I’m fifty-five years old. I hate writing those words. Sounds old. And hearing stuff like “fifty is the new forty” doesn’t help because forty sounds old too. I swear it was only a few years ago I celebrated my thirtieth birthday.

I can still remember Suzanne bringing out a big chocolate cake with thirty candles on it. We’d just moved in to our first house in northwest Evanston, about four blocks from where we live now. She was an associate with a Loop law firm and I was a financial manager with a big construction products company. As the old sportscaster Curt Gowdy once said, most of our future was ahead of us. I was running every day back then - thirty miles a week – six minute miles. When it came time to blow out the candles I only needed one blow.

That was like the starting gun for adulthood. I blew out those candles and everything went crazy. We had three kids in five years - I bought a business in Arizona - Suzanne left her law firm joined a big oil company - my business grew, collapsed, got rebuilt, failed again and finally we closed it and I started a consulting practice out of our home.

And then the kids went off to college and I wasn’t thirty anymore.

But I still thought I was.


Last August I was at my parents’ home in Skaneateles, New York for the wedding of my niece. On the day before the wedding I borrowed my brother-in-law’s bike and cycled around Skaneateles Lake. A perfect late summer day and I made the fifty-five mile ride in five hours. Highway 41A had been recently resurfaced and there was a generous path designated for bicycles. I rolled effortlessly through vineyards and fragrant fields of hay and clover. Gentle winds off the lake, which shimmered like a blue diamond, kept me cool.

At least that’s how I remembered it when I decided it would be great training for my new career as an aspiring triathlete, to ride from my home in Illinois to my folk’s house in upstate New York. My wife was dubious.

“You’re making this trip on your own?” she asked, her eyes all scrunched up as if I had just told her I was going to row the Atlantic.

“I’ve made bike trips before. Remember that trip from LA to San Diego?”

“That was thirty years ago. And you had Tom along to do repairs. Who’s going to fix your bike?”

She thinks she’s so smart.

With all of the kid activities my bike had remained in our garage for most of the nineties. But then last year the Evanston Y offered a training program for wannabee triathletes. I’d been thinking about entering a triathlon for years. I figured my all-round averageness would serve me well in a three-sport competition. After all, some of the really good runners are so skinny they can’t even float, and those guys that spend all their time in the pool are so waterlogged they can’t function on dry land. With some training I figured I’d be competitive, especially racing against guys in their fifties.

The Y program was designed to get us ready for the local triathlon, which called for a three hundred yard swim, a 5k run and a twelve mile bike ride. There was no technology that was going to help me run or swim faster, but I figured replacing my thirty-year old bike with a new lightweight racing machine would do wonders for my cycling time.

I discovered you still have to pedal, but it did make a difference. I managed to finish fourth in my 50-54 year age group. I entered three more triathlons that summer. I didn’t make it into the top three, but I liked my chances next year when I’d be the young guy in the 55-59 year cohort.

My average bike speed in the triathlons had been about sixteen mph. The top finishers in my group had speeds over twenty. If I was going to reach that level I needed to do some serious bike training. What better way to train than to take a cross-country bike trip?

In the winter I started taking spinning classes at the Y three mornings a week. I figured that spinning all winter and spring would build up my stamina so I’d be ready to take the bike trip when the weather got nice. Certain people questioned my logic. They didn’t see how spending forty-five minutes a day, three days a week, on a stationary bike was adequate training for eight hour days on a real bike in the hot summer sun. My explanation was that it’s hard to explain and besides what do you want me to do, spin six hours a day?

Despite some minor concerns about my less than intensive training preparation and the fact that I was born without the “handyman” gene, I was excited about the prospects of making this bike trip on my own. I was going to be in charge. There wouldn’t be any employees to deal with, no kids to convince we were having fun, and no wife to drag out of the gift shop so we could get back on the road.


In April I told my spinning instructor, Marisa, about my plan. Marisa has to be the world’s greatest spinning coach. Her class was at 5:45 in the morning. It’s difficult to get out of bed at five, scrape off a frozen windshield and drive to the Y on a pitch-dark winter morning when the temperature outside is five degrees, but Marisa was such a beacon of bubbly optimism and good cheer I actually looked forward to the workout. Her classes were more than just exercise. She would read us tales of survival and give us tips on how to set goals for our fitness and our lives. I knew Marisa would be supportive of my bike adventure.

“You’re going to ride from Chicago to New York?” she asked, her eyes squinting like she wasn’t certain she had heard me correctly. It’s a familiar look. I think women are born with it.

“Upstate New York. It’s about a thousand miles.”

“And you’re going to do that in ten days? No days off? Have you ever ridden a hundred miles in a day?”

“No, not actually, but you know I’ve done all this spinning stuff,” I said, thinking maybe she’d forgotten how conscientious I’d been all winter.

“You’re crazy,” she said. But she said it in a very positive, optimistic way.

I decided that perhaps I was being too ambitious. I came up with a modified plan to fly to Columbus, Ohio where my friend John lived, and have him pick me up at the airport and drive me forty miles east of Columbus. From there it would only be a five hundred mile trip - seventy miles a day.

My sister Kendra, who lives in Skaneateles and whose husband I’d be calling to come and rescue me if I broke down, suggested I check out the bike clubs for help in planning the trip. I know that sounds like good advice, but I also knew that if I called one of those clubs some woman would probably ask me questions like had I ever taken a bike trip on my own, and how much training had I done and did I know how to do bike maintenance. And since I had already addressed all of those issues I decided I didn’t need any more help.

I used Mapquest to plan the trip, cleverly using their “advanced” feature for selecting routes that avoid major highways. My challenge was to divide the trip into seven segments each ending in a town that had a decent hotel or bed & breakfast. I had a ten page printout for each day, identifying every road and turn. It was foolproof.

Three weeks before the trip, I began getting up early in the morning and riding to Lake Forest. After two weeks I was able to make the twenty-five mile roundtrip in less than two hours. If I could sustain that 15 mph pace I’d be done by noon each day. I imagined myself lounging the pool each afternoon, working on my tan and reading a novel.

Two weeks before the launch I called Southwest Airlines to check on their procedures for bringing a bike. When we had taken our California bike trip back in 1980, we had simply put our bikes in heavy-duty plastic bags and rolled them up to the baggage check area. No extra charge and when got to LAX they rolled them out and we took off. That’s not how they do it anymore.

Southwest told me I’d have to have the bike boxed, and it would cost fifty dollars to bring it along as checked baggage. I checked with my bike shop and they agreed to provide the box and the packaging service for another fifty dollars.

One week before my planned departure I returned to the bike shop to buy a frame so I could utilize the saddlebag panniers that bikers attach to the back of the bike for road trips. That’s when I learned that my triathlon racing machine was not equipped for a frame and all I could attach to the bike was a lightweight metal bracket that would bolt to the seat post and hover over the rear tire. They had a container about the size of a shoebox I could Velcro to the top of the bracket. The shoebox cost another fifty dollars.

I hadn’t planned to travel that light. I needed a tool kit, spare tube, lock, sunblock, first aid kit, cellphone, sunglasses and a notebook to record the details of the historic expedition. Because I was wearing cleated bike shoes, I had to have another pair of shoes and at least one extra set of clothes. I decided to borrow my youngest daughter Christie’s backpack and use that for the clothes. I didn’t have an opportunity to try riding with a backpack because I had to return my bike to the shop so they could pack it for the trip. Being in charge, in addition to allowing me to make all the decisions, offered me the opportunity to postpone decisions and make stupid ones. But at least I didn’t have anyone to say “I told you so.”

When I emailed my friend Bob Russell about my plans (and our plan to attend a Cubs game when I returned) he emailed me back:

OK, that's it... you are now a certifiable whack job….You have GOT to stop watching all these TV adventure challenge shows… your further instability has been demonstrated by your investment in Cub tickets so we can root for their run for 100 losses… have you considered counseling?

I had known Bob since we worked together at United States Gypsum Company back in the eighties. We had probably gone to two hundred Cubs’ games in the last twenty years. I could always count on Bob to tell me what he thought. He had been out on his own working as an independent risk management consultant for two years when Gypsum fired me in 1987 while I was trying to buy one of their business units.

“Well what did you expect?” he had asked. “What kind of example would that be if they let some thirty year old buy one of their businesses?” He said thirty, like it had five syllables and he raised his stubby arms like he was holding back some calamity. “You don’t get to run those businesses until you’ve served your twenty year sentence in the gypsum farm system. You broke the rules, son. Get over it. You didn’t want to work there anyway.”

Bob wasn’t always right, but he was always certain. I looked forward to that next Cubs game when I could brag about my great bike ride adventure. I’d make him buy the beer.

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