Auburn retiree embarks on bicycle adventure of a lifetime | Guest column

By Rick O’Neill, Special to the Auburn Reporter

Bar Harbor, Maine, to Anacortes, Washington … by bicycle.

4,200 miles, nine states and three mountain ranges in about 80 days. That is the challenge that awaits my 63-year-old body. If the internet is to be believed, the average power output of a recreational cyclist is about one quarter of a horsepower. That’s one-twentieth of the output of my lawn mower. No wonder it is going to take 80 days!

I am a longtime Auburn resident. I retired from my position at the City of Kent engineering department on March 1, 2020, thinking I’d begin my big retirement adventure on June 1 in Anacortes. The adventure was scheduled to end in Maine around September 1. A solo, self-supported cross country bicycle trip. Three months on the road with hour after hour to consider the next phase of my life.

Then, the dreaded COVID shut down the country, making my 2020 plans impossible. One year later, I’m on to Plan B.

Plan B starts the ride in Bar Harbor, Maine. I will have received both of my COVID-19 vaccinations before I leave. The logistics are a bit easier starting in the east and riding home. And I don’t have to wait for the North Cascades Highway to be cleared and opened before I can start.

Who, what, when, where and why? I guess we are down to the why? Why in the world would anyone want to spend that amount of time on a bicycle? First of all, I enjoy riding a bike. Gosh, remember that feeling of learning how to ride a bike? The freedom, the joy of having the wind in your hair, and the speed. So much quicker and better than walking.

I grew up in the 1960s when it was still appropriate to allow a 10-year-old to ride his bike, unaccompanied by an adult, all over town. At 16, I got my driver’s license and swore off bicycles for the next 20 or 25 years. Around the age of 40, I found myself overweight and out of shape. I took up biking again and haven’t quit. I’m back to being overweight again, but I’m in good enough shape to attempt a cross county ride. Hopefully it is appropriate, in 2021, for a 60-something retiree to ride his bike all over America … with no adult supervision.

As a child I reveled in the stories of all the intrepid explorers who just had to see what was over the next hill. Ulysses, Marco Polo, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, the Forty Niners, Ernest Shackleton, Neil Armstrong … the human spirit!

Last fall I was in Bryce Canyon taking pictures of unbelievable natural beauty. I thought to myself, I’ll bet hundreds of thousands of people have taken this very same picture. I had to remind myself that, just because it had been photographed a thousand times before, it didn’t make the scene any less beautiful. Me riding my bike across the country won’t change the world. It means nothing to no one. But it answers the genetic call to do something epic. I want to pay homage to the human spirit.

To assure my ancestors, many of whom must have left the familiar for the unknown, that the spirit of adventure, written in our genetics, survives even in our modern mechanical, sedentary times. And again, just because I’m not the first or only one to do this, it doesn’t make the 4,200 miles any shorter.

I will be following the “Northern Tier” a route laid out and mapped by the Adventure Cycling Association (you can check out the routes on their website). The route follows lower volume roadways across the northern states of the USA (they have mapped dozens of other routes throughout America). It is certainly not the most direct route, but it should be scenic and hopefully safer than riding a bicycle on the interstate system. I plan to tent camp most nights with the occasional motel stay reserved for bad weather and/or sore body days. I’ll need a few electric outlets to plug in and recharge all the batteries and electrical devices needed in our modern age. And there might be a night or two when a hot tub will feel like heaven.

A quick paragraph about the equipment needed. First there is the bicycle, a Surly Disk Trucker (purchased at Cycle Therapy in Kent). This is a model made specifically for touring. It’s known in the bicycle community as being fairly bulletproof. I’ll be riding with four panniers — two on the front and two on the rear — filled with all the clothes, tools, food and supplies. In addition, on the back rack, I’ll be carrying a tent and sleeping bag. For navigation, I’ll have a Garmin etrex and my smartphone. All together the bike, me and the gear will be around 270 pounds plus or minus (that should give my “one quarter horsepower” legs a challenge). The bike will need to be boxed for the plane trip (most airlines charge $75 for bicycles). I will have one additional checked bag for the rest of my equipment.

How does one train for a ride like this? I’m not sure what you are supposed to do. But I can tell you what I’ve done. Last year the plan was to get on the bike and over the first couple of weeks ride my way into shape. I’m not as crazy as that sounds. Over the last 10 years, or so, I’ve averaged 3,000 to 4,000 miles per year on my road bike. But most all of those rides were 25 miles or less. With the extra year, I have done some additional riding. I’ve added 30 pounds of weight to the bike to simulate a full load, and have been riding hills with the extra weight. I still haven’t done any rides over 30 miles. I think my legs and bottom are in pretty good shape. We’ll see what happens when I try to condense a year’s worth of riding into three months. What could go wrong? Or as a famous icon would say, “What, me worry?”

The next time you hear from me, I should be a week into my ride. I’ll know more about Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. I hope I’m up to this! Wish me well.

Rick O’Neill is an Auburn resident.

Auburn resident Rick O’Neill’s bike. Courtesy photo

Auburn resident Rick O’Neill’s bike. Courtesy photo