From sea to shining sea…
Cycling Plus reader Dr David Ashton and his wife Chrissie set their sights on the Ride Across America in 2012 – it was a journey that would test them to the limit and give them memories that they would never forget…
The dictionary definition of “audacious” is “bold, daring, unrestrained by convention, disposed to venture or take risks”. When my wife and I informed friends that we had decided to cycle across America, many thought the better description was “foolhardy, irresponsible”. I had long dreamt of such a journey – actually for more than 30-years – but medicine is a demanding career and until recently it just wasn’t possible to get away for the almost 6-weeks needed to fulfil this ambition. Finally, at 62 years of age (my wife, Chrissie, is 53) it was time for us to make this happen.
As experienced riders, we had done several supported tours previously, though these were relatively short and all in European destinations. Self-evidently, riding through Sicily for 10-days is not the same as crossing an entire continent over 40. After much research, we decided on Trek Travel, a subsidiary of Trek bikes, who advertise their various tours as “Cycling Adventures of a Lifetime”.
Before flying out we made two important commitments. First, we were going to ride the entire distance – every inch. The only reason we were ever going to be in the rider-support vehicles (RSVs) was either because we were on our way to hospital, or on the way home. Second, if one or other of us couldn’t continue for any reason, the other would carry on. Both of us had invested a lot of time and effort in preparing for this and we felt it was fair that each should have the chance to complete the ride, if necessary without the other.
Our cross country route started in Santa Barbara, California, headed east through the Mohave desert, Arizona, Oklahoma, Utah, New Mexico, Missouri and Tennessee, ending in Charleston, South Carolina. The total distance was around 3,300 miles to be covered in 35 cycling days and 4-rest days. This meant a daily average of some 94 miles, though it’s worth noting that 16 of the 35 riding days were over 100 miles and the longest was 142 miles. The journey was divided into five sections, with four rest days in between.
On the evening before the first day, there was a welcome dinner at the hotel which gave us a chance to meet our fellow cycling nutters and the Trek guides who were to take us across this vast country. Most of the riders were American or Canadian, but there was also one Aussie (Rob), a German couple (Christian and Jacqueline) and then Chrissie and I (the only Brits). There were about 30 people in all, though about half were leaving at Taos (1500 miles). The Trek support team was led by Dave Edwards and his wife Marquette, with Rustin (great name for a mechanic), Rebecca and Tara. Dave and Marquette became a bit like a mum and dad to everyone, even though they were decades younger than some of us!
Section 1 – Santa Barbara CA, to Grand Canyon, AZ (8 days – 695 miles)
The morning of the first day dawned, with a clear blue sky and warm sun, even at 7am. We collected our bikes and headed for the beach for some photographs and the ceremonial dipping of wheels in the Pacific Ocean. There was a lot of excitement and everyone was keen to get on the road. Finally, at just after 8am on September 15th, 2012 we took our first pedal strokes and headed out of Santa Barbara.
Soon we were bowling along the Pacific Coast Highway with its cooling ocean breezes and sparkling surf, before turning east and heading inland. This day was around 80 miles and initially it was just a great feeling to be finally on our way after so many months of planning and preparation. As the day wore on, however, the first major obstacle on our journey gradually revealed itself: the extreme heat. Having previously cycled in southern Spain, France and Italy this wasn’t unexpected, but I was surprised by how much of a struggle this first day proved to be. By the time we arrived at the hotel, the other riders had already showered and headed off for dinner.
The next day, Chrissie and I started on the road at around 6.50 am as part of our strategy to beat the heat. At 7.00 am it was already 80 degrees with a bright sun. Just a couple of miles after leaving the hotel, I lifted a hand to adjust my sunglasses and suddenly – bang – I was bouncing along the tarmac. Cities in America make liberal use of reflective road studs. It seems my front wheel had clipped the edge of one of these and it was enough to take me down. I lost chunks of skin off my ankle, knee, elbow and hip, but fortunately nothing more serious. After some patching up and straightening the bike handlebars, we were soon on our way again. I’m sure that by this time a few of the other riders were beginning to wonder whether this guy was going to make it to the end of the first week, let alone to the other side of the country.
The next few days saw us traverse the Mohave desert in temperatures close to 45 degrees. The sun was pitiless. There is a terrible beauty in a landscape so harsh, desolate and unforgiving and it was easy to see how some of the early pioneers would have perished. Unlike southern Spain where you have olive trees to give shade, in the Mohave there is no hiding place; just 100 miles of scrub. In these circumstances, survival is entirely dependent on the two RSVs and the experience of the Trek guides.
A highlight (and a lowlight because the road surface was so appalling) was our journey along the historic Route 66. At a town called Seligman we bumped into a guy who claimed to be Bernard Hinault’s nephew and, sceptical though I am, I believed him!
We continued south on Route 66, gradually climbing up some steep gradients to the historic town of Oatman , then over the summit of Sitgreaves pass (3,550ft) before a long, long descent to Kingman. Once again, the heat was tremendous, so before starting down, we stopped in the shade to take a drink and enjoy some amazing views of the surrounding country in four states; California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona.
The final day of this first section, took us through the Hualapai Indian reservation and up onto the Colorado Plateau. Having survived the relentless heat, it was great to ride through the cooler, high desert landscapes, with fragrant pines, sage and juniper and then to arrive at the Grand Canyon, truly one of the wonders of the world. The following day was the first rest day and we certainly needed it. We were both starting to have problems with saddle sores and I was also experiencing some nerve problems in both hands. Sadly, several riders were forced to abandon the tour at this point, victims of food poisoning and, in one case, very bad saddle sores.
We spent part of the rest day walking along the rim of the Grand Canyon. If you haven’t seen it, there is no point whatever in my trying to describe it and no picture can do it justice. It’s awesome. The rest of the time was spent washing, catching up with e-mails and trying to rest.
Section 2 – Grand Canyon to Taos, NM (6 days – 556 miles)
Leaving early the next day (we always left early) we rode around the south rim of the canyon, deliciously cool and fragrant in the early morning sun. Then it was a fantastic, long descent before a ride through the stupendous Monument Valley, with its stunning iconic siltstone rock formations. This is the real deal – the American Wild West in all its majesty! A day never to be forgotten.
On leaving Arizona we crossed the state line into Utah (oh, the joy of smooth tarmac) and on into Colorado and over the Rocky Mountains. We rode through rugged Aspen-cloaked mountain passes and sunflower-fringed valleys, alongside rivers and streams.
Apart from the breathtaking scenery, this section of the ride was notable for the longest day of the tour, from Pagosa Springs Colorado, to Taos New Mexico, a distance of 142 miles with 8,123ft of climbing. It wasn’t just the distance that made it so demanding, but the terrain and the weather. The guides warned us that there was a high probability that some of us would end up in the RSVs simply because we would run out of time. So we were up at 5.30am and on the road at the first glimmer of daylight. It was freezing cold – minus 2 degrees – and although I was struggling to stay with the lead group, Chrissie was riding very strongly.
The day gradually warmed up and I began to feel better, though as we approached the big climb of the day I could see menacing black clouds and flashes of lightning. As we pushed our way up the 9-mile ascent, the rain started and soon we were soaked through and bitterly cold. Then it started to hail, small stinging balls of ice that cut into the face and pinged of the helmet like bullets. At the top we saw one of the vans with Trek Dave and stopped to get some rainwear. Unfortunately, this was the wrong vehicle – our clothes were in the other one! Having borrowed some items from the riders who had abandoned, we headed down the mountain as fast as we dare, with freezing fingers, rain bouncing off the road and water pouring from our shoes. As we went down, we saw one of the other riders at the roadside looking distressed and obviously very cold. It seems he had become hypothermic and was waiting to be picked up by one of the RSVs. We continued on down and eventually rode into some sunshine and warmer air, but still with 60 miles to go.
On the approach to Taos, we crossed the mighty Rio Grande and then turned into a relentless headwind. After 126 miles, the last 16 miles were a gruelling test of strength (Chrissie was really struggling now). Then finally, after another epic day, we arrived at our hotel, a paradise called El Monte Sagrado. That evening we said farewell to about half of our colleagues; the remainder of the trip would be with a much smaller “family” of 14 riders.
Section 3 – Taos to Branson, MO (9 days – 884 miles)
It’s hard to leave a sumptuous, tranquil hotel when the guides tell you the next part of the trip across the grasslands of the Great Plains and into the infamous Oklahoma winds, is the “heartbreaker”. After the Rocky Mountains you can’t help thinking that whatever the winds are like, the fact that it’s flat will surely be a relief. Wrong again.
It took five days to ride across pan-flat Oklahoma and these were undoubtedly the hardest of the entire tour. The roads are arrow straight and featureless. The only thing that alleviates the monotony of the landscape is the occasional grain silo or oil pump. You look ahead as the white line disappears into the horizon and pedal consistently for an hour and when you look up again nothing appears to have changed. And then there is the wind; day after day and all day; a relentless, driving headwind that saps the energy and the will.
I woke on the morning of Day 21 feeling terrible. I had been in the bathroom for most of the night with stomach cramps, diarrhoea and nausea. I lay on the bed hardly daring to move, while Chrissie, oblivious to my awful state, prepared for the day’s ride of 114 miles to Enid. She headed off for breakfast while I lay on the bed wondering how on earth I could get through the day. Fortunately I had some powerful anti-sickness drugs with me and having taken a couple of these I managed to pull on my cycling kit and get down to the hotel reception area. As I hunched over the bike waiting to begin, the waves of nausea just kept on coming. I felt – and evidently looked – like death. Still, off we went.
After an eternity we stopped for a break. I managed to drink some water, but I couldn’t bear the thought of eating. Chrissie was very encouraging. “You’re doing really well” she said, “We’ve already done 12 miles”. My heart sank. I thought we had done at least 20 miles and we still had 102 miles to go. We carried on until lunchtime, about 52 miles in. The RSV was parked on the roadside and I slumped into one of the folding chairs put out for lunch and drank some more fluid. By now Chrissie and I were way behind the other riders who had long since had eaten and headed off towards Enid, through the 25 mph headwinds. This was the crunch moment of the trip; should I get in the van? Every part of me wanted to climb into the front seat, for it to be over. At the same time, it was the last thing I wanted to do. I told Chrissie and Trek Dave that I thought I could do it, but that it might take a long time and I was worried that by holding Chrissie back I may ruin her chances of finishing the day. Dave suggested I try a few more miles and said he would commit one of the RSVs just to Chrissie and I to get us through. So I climbed back on the bike. We stopped every 5-10 miles until we were within 10 miles of our destination. Rustin, who was driving the RSV, gave me a shot of whiskey and off we went for the last time. I don’t recall anything much about the arrival, but apparently I had a shower and went straight to bed. I had ridden 112 miles on water and just half a packet of Cliff blocks, but had survived without the help of the support vehicle and kept alive our ambition to ride every inch.
Our last day in Oklahoma was amazing; clear and crisp with warm sunshine and – miracle of miracles – a tailwind. We rode on quiet back roads past farms and rural homes celebrating harvest festival with bounteous produce – pumpkins, corn and miniature scarecrow figures artfully displayed on the front porches. And then tragedy.
One of the riders called Brett, had fallen from his bike and landed heavily. When I got to him it was obvious he had sustained a life-threatening head injury and needed urgent surgical intervention if he was to survive. Amazingly, given that we were in the middle of nowhere, an ambulance arrived within 30 minutes and 45 minutes later a helicopter landed and airlifted Brett to a specialist trauma centre in Joplin. He underwent major surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain and he remained unconscious for over 2-weeks. It’s not clear why he came down; no vehicles were involved and the riding conditions were perfect. It was just a freak accident. Fortunately he survived and at the time of writing, I’m pleased to say he is making good progress in his recovery. Understandably, however, this terrible accident left a deep mark on everyone.
We arrived in Branson Missouri, an odd town fully of tacky tourist attractions, restaurants, souvenir shops and mega-churches for 1000 people. It seems an incongruous juxtaposition, but America isn’t short of these. Still, our hotel was excellent and we enjoyed our rest day. We were 2000 miles in and with over 1000 to go. But we were thinking mainly about Brett.
Section 4 – Branson to Nashville, TN (5 days – 502 miles)
Apart from the Mississippi and cotton fields, Missouri is all about endless, rolling hills which are short and steep with gradients up to 16%. It’s up and down, up and down……all day long. “I love these rollers” said petite Trek guide Marquette, “This is my kind of riding”. Well it sure wasn’t ours. The trick was to get as much speed going down and then use the momentum to crest the next hill. It worked for a while, but after about 100 miles of this the quads felt like two blocks of lead. Still, the compensation was that the road took us through the glorious Mark Twain National Forest, which is spread across 1.5 million acres of southern and central Missouri.
Missouri was also about dogs. We had encountered dogs on almost every day of the journey, but as we headed east and travelled through more densely populated areas, they became a common problem. In the UK, because most houses have gardens with walls and gates, dogs don’t usually have free access to the road. But in America, the house fronts often open directly onto the land adjacent to the road and dogs can get a free run at anyone passing. If you are travelling at any kind of speed it’s disconcerting and dangerous to have dogs flying at you, often without warning and sometimes in a pack. In the end only one rider got bitten (and not badly), but the real danger is that a dog may cause you to swerve suddenly and into the path of a following vehicle. Oddly enough, it’s more worrying when the dog doesn’t bark; it probably means he’s saving all his energy for when he gets his teeth into you.
As we approached the great Mississippi river, we found ourselves on smooth, flat roads and we quickly buried 60 miles passing cotton fields to the left and soya bean fields to the right. A small ferry took us across “Old Man River” and even though it was muddy and grey, we savoured our crossing of this great river. We headed on to Nashville and the last of the 4 rest days.
Section 5 – Nashville to Charleston, SC (7 days – 656 miles)
Only in Nashville did we finally decide to book our flights home. We really felt that, saving any unforeseen disaster, we had a very good chance of getting to Charleston and the Atlantic Ocean. We could almost smell the ocean breeze!
Tennessee was unforgettable. We rolled along superb roads, lined with trees bathed in sunshine in all their Autumn glory – flame red, yellow, orange, ochre and brown. We passed pristine white clapperboard houses with painted shutters and gingham curtains, rocking chairs on the porch and 3-bar white fences around freshly mown lawns. We rode on towards Carolina through the Smokey Mountains, with some quite demanding climbs which now felt easy. Then a memorable afternoon’s riding through the French Broad River Valley, with the banks of trees in a glorious riot of colours and the wonderful – and yes broad – river, with sunlight dancing on water as it cascaded over the rocks.
We arrived in Summerville for our penultimate evening. Tomorrow, there would be a celebratory ride of just 40 miles into Charleston.
Our last day dawned clear and sunny, with bright blue skies and a gentle breeze. This was our victory lap, our Cross Country “Champs Élysées”. All 14 of us wore our Trek jerseys and rode together as we approached Charleston. On the outskirts we were met by a police officer called Steve, who was driving a very impressive Dodge Charger. He was to give us an escort through Charleston to the outskirts of the beach area. It was a wonderful experience to be able to ride as a peloton in a lane all to ourselves, with friendly drivers honking and waving as they went past.
As we approached the Atlantic, the familiarity of coastal breezes and swaying palms was reminiscent of 39 days earlier, when we had left Santa Barbara. Since then we had endured extreme head, torrential rain, relentless headwinds, dust storms, crashes, saddle sores, food poisoning, crazy dogs (and drivers). But we had also experienced first-hand, the vastness and the amazing contrasts of this wonderful country. Every single one of those 39 days had been lived with a moment-to-moment intensity and clarity that was as exhilarating as it was exhausting. We felt immensely proud that we were two of only six riders who had ridden every inch of the way and we were hugely grateful to the Trek support team for making it possible.
We rode through the colourful and historic downtown area, before crossing the magnificent Cooper River Bridge, rising more than 200 ft (60 m) above Charleston Harbour, before a brief stop at Poe’s Tavern for drinks and snacks. We then rode out all together for the last time, along the palm-lined boulevards of Sullivan’s Island to the Isle of Palms.
Some of the riders had family and friends awaiting them as we finally arrived at the beach and came to a stop. Chrissie and I walked our bikes towards the Atlantic Ocean and finally knelt down in the sparkling water. It was a deeply emotional moment for us both. Time will never erase the memory of that extraordinary, utterly incredible journey. Trek were right – it truly was the cycling vacation of a lifetime.
E-mail Dr David Ashton: firstname.lastname@example.org
Images: Tim Turner
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