One of the reasons for retiring at 66, and there are many, is that I have always wanted to do a bicycle camping trip across the USA. It goes back to my childhood growing up in Crestwood, a suburb or NYC. I lived on the north end of the neighborhood and all the action, the street baseball, the ice hockey on the Bronx River, Crestwood Station on the Harlem line of the New York Central and the station area businesses including the favorite ice cream parlor, all were on the south end. Once I got my first real bike, a 3 speed from some discount store, my world opened up. I could get to where I wanted to go. As I got older and graduated to paper routes the bicycle became an income producer, and I got a 10 speed.
I don’t recall where I first heard about bicycle camping, it didn’t have a catchy name like backpacking back then, but in high school I tried to start a bicycle camping club. It got no where but the seed had been planted. My family vacations were all camping trips, in a family sized canvas tent and a tight budget approach that had allowed me to see the Great Smoky mountains, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Acadia National Park , and to hike the trail under the watchful eyes of the Old Man on the Mountain in New Hampshire (may he rest in peace). I was very much a loner and the idea of striking out on my blue Kabuki bike fit me well.
At 16 I started working at McDonald’s in Mamaroneck NY, a town 7 miles away from home on twisty roads that go back to the American Revolutionary days. Not cycling country, but that didn’t matter because I was able to take the bus from Fordham Road in the Bronx to get to work after school and my parents or my sister would pick me up. I even got to drive my fathers sad, 1965 Falcon to work on Saturdays, but that is another story in itself. Had our family not stopped at McDonald’s on a random April morning in 1972 my life would be totally different. The shy, loner Bobby came out of his shell at McDonald’s. My work ethic and competitive spirit made me a valuable employee and I met people that appreciated me. It changed my direction in life. I also met a couple of guys that also like bicycles. I remember riding north on Boston Post Road, with a fellow from Pelham that also worked at McDonalds. I had upgraded my Kabuki to center pull brake levers and one of them fell off, caught the spokes and I went straight over the handlebars onto my hands. Jim Vier helped me off the road.
In my late teens I had heard that a couple of intrepid fellows I knew from McDonald’s were going to ride cross country. I was paying my own way through college so I didn’t have the time or money for such a trip and as it turned out Marty Kebschul and Gus Usada didn’t make it very far anyway. Marty could have made it but Gus wasn’t a cyclist and I can only imagine how much pain he was in after a couple of days. Another seed had been planted however and I when the school year ended I talked a couple of other McDonald’s friends into a bike camping trip. Bob Thomas and Danny Dragani joined me on a week long trip covering the length of Long Island and ferrying over to Block Island and on to Newport, eventually getting to Cape Cod. We only had one crash, and one bike failure, when the Kabuki spewed all its ball bearings out of the rear hub. Lucky for me we were close to a bike store in Bourne MA. When it was all said and done we proudly got a ride back home. For them the bicycle camping story was over.
For me it was a little different. When the next school year ended the following May I convinced my friend Tommy Gerardi and his girlfriend Joanne, to join me and my girlfriend Barbara, on a similar trip. Thankfully the girls parents trusted us in a time when unmarried couples didn’t often travel together. I’d say it all worked out, as would the Gerardi’s five and our three kid’s would agree. Tommy and Joanne, and Barbara were troopers. This was new stuff for them and none of them were cyclists. It helped that a couple of the crew from McDonald’s in New Rochelle, where Tommy and I worked at that time, drove up to meet us at the campground under the Bourne Bridge, the road that takes us to Cape Cod. We had also met another couple that was camping. They had a car fort a beer run and we stayed up late around the campfire. The following year I could not talk anyone but Barbara into the ride so we did it again as a couple. We made it to Provincetown a little faster and had more time to spend their, camping on the coast. It wasn’t long after that ride that we got married and along the way the Kabuki disappeared, probably at a garage sale.
Fast forward past marriage, past children and all that “unimportant” stuff and on to how I got back on a bicycle again after some 30 years. Barbara had injured her left knee in middle school basketball, and suffered through a couple of misguided surgeries that left her with a severely damaged knee. She had decided to join the YMCA and go to exercise classes to improve the situation and through the “Y” she found out about the Danskin “Sprint” triathlon, held annually in Austin. She trained for the swim at the “Y”, jogged in Volente, and bought a bicycle in preparation of taking on the challenge. Her completion of the Danskin is a story she should tell, but her kids and husband were amazed that she could do it. We cheered her on the whole way. It was a one and done thing for her. The swim and run were almost impossible for her with her torn up knee, but she realized that the cycling was the only part she could realistically continue. One of the ladies from the “Y” encouraged her to join the The Tough Cookies Women Tri and Cycling club. They were beginning to train for the next MS150 and Barbara signed up. The training for the MS150, which is actually a 180 mile ride, was serious business. The club would do increasing distance rides each weekend and encouraged the riders to ride on their own on the other weekend day. When the ride weekend came so did bad weather. The Tough Cookies packed up on Friday for the bus ride to Houston for the Saturday start only to have Saturday washed out by rain. When we saw Barbara cross the finish line in downtown Austin on Sunday we were elated for her. She had a different view. The first word’s out of her mouth were something along the lines of I didn’t really do the MS150, so I have to do it again next year to do both days.
I wasn’t all that excited about Barbara disappearing for months on end. We barely saw each other weekdays, with me leaving at 6 something for work and getting home after 6 at night. The discussion that followed ended with Barbara making a strong, irrefutable pointy, “you can train with me”. We had a Triumph Club friend that was always boasting about his bicycle racing exploits, and he worked at Bicycle Sport’s Shop, in Austin. We never knew if Mike Jankowski was telling it as it was or if he was exaggerating for effect but he certainly had some stories to tell. He also had a bunch of bicycles and he loaned me a metal framed cyclocross bicycle to try out and see if I really wanted to do this training thing with Barbara, In true Mike form he told me a story that the bike was made from some rare alloy that was salvaged from Russian MIG’s, or something like that. It was a light bike and served it purpose very well. My first ride was with the Tough Cookies and Wheels of Love combined teams. We left from a school parking lot near the Five Mile Dam Park in Kyle-San Marcos and completed what they call the Seven Sisters ride; that is seven significant hills. Barbara waited for me me on the hills or I wouldn’t have succeeded. As the ride progressed I became numb to the pain of it all. The ride leaders were very good at stopping and keeping the group together, even stragglers like me. About 40 miles in we came to a cross roads. Turn right and do a 68 mile ride or go straight and finish at 50 miles. I assured Barbara I could make it back with the shorter mileage group, composed mostly of Tough Cookies and I joked that it had been a long time since I had been chasing women around. In significant agony I pulled into the parking lot and looked at my Cat Eye bike computer. It read 4,500 calories burned. That wasn’t the only thing that burned. I did a lot of recovery while I waited for the 68 mile group, and could easily justify TV time later that weekend. I did a bunch more rides with the combined teams on the borrowed bike. When Barbara crossed the MS150 finish line, happy to have met her goal, she said something about me having helped with the training and I spouted off that I felt that I was in good enough shape to do an MS150, and now I wanted to do one.
The Bicycle Sports Shop had a big annual Blowout sale each spring and Mike wasn’t working that weekend. He hooked me up with his friend Art Garcia to sell me a bike. I rode some Trek and Specialized bikes and with Art’s help and parts swapping, I settled on an $1,800.00 Specialized Roubaix, regularly $2,200.00. That was a jolt to the system but you can’t put a price on better health. How else could I burn that many calories! I gradually became a cyclist and learned the how and why of being a ride leader. Number one we are helping guide the less experienced, and yes we stop and wait for the stragglers. It is good leadership and allows us to rest our legs and continue to ride at the front!
It’s been a dozen years since my first MS150. I am on my second Roubaix, having handed down the old one to my son. The Wheels Of Love team is not what it once was, when we could send 30-35 riders to the MS150. The Mamma Jamma training rides I volunteered with stopped with the onset of Covid. Bycycle Sports Shop is no more having been sold into the Trek Bicycle Research enterprise. So much has changed. Austin isn’t Austin anymore, it is a big city, so unlike what it thinks it still is. In preparation for retiring we moved from the 17% grade slopes on the hills around Lake Travis to the flatter but much safer Georgetown. I began to plan my retirement. The thought of a cross country bike camping trip became a plan for the same. I would start at home and visit folks and places across the country and head back to /Crestwood and ride the streets I rode as a kid. I might even make to to Cape Cod.
I bought a used Touring bike, a Specialized Sequoia, from my local bike shop. The LBS put me in touch with the prior owner, who had planned a similar trip, albeit on the Southern Tier route, and had purchased as lot of the gear necessary. In one swoop I did most of my shopping for my gear. Now I am deep into planning my route. I will head north from Georgetown to Mansfield to see my grandkids. Most are old enough that they will remember this visit. I then will proceed north until I get to Route 66 and start making my way east. There are a couple of Rails to Trails routes along the way and I will try and use them. One stop will be in Pittsburgh to visit Barbara’s brother and his wife. It is a happy coincidence that the Allegany Gap Rails to Trail route begins in downtown Pittsburgh, and I will use this path to start my final leg to get to the New York metro.
If you want to have some idea of what, or maybe why I am doing this watch this video, “The Great Ride”. https://youtu.be/bIMmrOVIPDk