Monthly Archives: January 2010

Soothing the sores


One of the more memorable remarks during our transcontinental bicycle journey last fall was made by Cathy Blondeau, a rider from Victoria, British Columbia. It went something like this: “I’ve learned that on a cross-country bike trip you can apply Chamois Butt’r at a busy intersection, in broad daylight, with absolutely no shame.”
For those not familiar with the product, Chamois Butt’r is a cream that prevents saddle sores, resulting from the rubbing and chafing caused by sitting astride a bicycle for hours on end.
A similar product is more colorfully named Boudreaux’s Butt Paste, marketed to heal infants’ diaper rash but widely used by cyclists for saddle sores.
On Sunday, The Associated Press carried a story about another lubricant that I had never heard of — perhaps because I’ve never lived on a dairy farm.
It’s called Bag Balm, made in Lyndonville, Vt., since 1899, and originally intended to soothe the irritated udders of milk cows.
Today, the yellow-green ointment seems to have a variety of uses far removed from cows, ranging from silencing squeaky bed springs to preventing corrosion on military weapons. It was even used, the AP reported, to soothe “the paws of cadaver-sniffing dogs searching the World Trade Center rubble.”

Barbara Norris Allen poses with Bag Balm products in Lyndonville, Vt. (AP Photo by Toby Talbot)

So I guess it wasn’t a giant leap for cyclists to figure that it might work well on saddle sores.
“Long-distance bicyclist Andy Claflin says he started using Bag Balm on a cross-country race last June, when a teammate turned him on to it for saddle sores,” the AP story said.
“Claflin, 37, from Dayton, Minn., was suffering from saddle sores as he competed in the Race Across America. A teammate told him it was good for the sores, a bane of long-distance biking. So he slathered some on, down below.”
The AP quoted this testimonial from Claflin: “I was sitting there in Arizona, it’s 110 degrees, the air conditioning wasn’t working, the crapper in the RV wasn’t working, I gotta’ bike 100 miles in this heat and great, I’ve got to deal with this. It was nasty and filthy and it felt weird … But I didn’t have saddle sores from then on, riding 130 miles a day. When you’re on the bike, you’re like ‘Oh, this stuff is great.'”
I was fortunate not to suffer from saddle sores on our cross-country trek from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla. My rear end was occasionally tender from long days on the bike, but I never developed saddle sores. I attribute that to my saddle: a British-made leather Brooks B17, favored by many long-distance cyclists. After it’s broken in, it molds itself to your posterior like a comfortable old boot.
So, I’m glad to say, I can’t vouch for any of the above-mentioned ointments.

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Instructive reading for transcons


“One travels more usefully when alone, because he reflects more.”
Thomas Jefferson, third U.S. president, 1743-1826

During these dreary days of mid-winter, I’ve been reading the blogs of other “transcons,” as cross-country cyclists are sometimes called.
This is partly to relive vicariously my own transcontinental journey last fall, but also to learn how to deal with problems on the road that other cyclists had, just in case I ever undertake another such adventure.
One of the most interesting journals, in part because of all the troubles he had at the outset, is that of Steve Garufi, who rode solo 2,465 miles from San Diego to Jekyll Island, Ga., Feb. 1-March 16, 2008.
In addition to the usual problems — flat tires and snarling dogs — Garufi encountered a series of difficulties in the first 10 days of his trip that would have tried the patience of Job.
On Day 3, during a long desert stretch of 82 miles between Brawley and Blythe, Calif., Garufi’s rear derailleur snapped off, leaving him stranded and forced to hitchhike. On Day 8 in Phoenix, his bike was stolen, requiring the purchase of a new bike to continue the trip. On Day 10, between Phoenix and Florence Junction, Ariz., he created a kink in his chain while removing the rear wheel to fix a flat, making the bike unridable. That problem required a phone call to a friend in Phoenix to drive Garufi back to a bike shop in the Arizona capital to have the chain untangled.

The lonely road. U.S. 60 in Arizona. Photo by Steve Garufi

Garufi also wrote of the loneliness of the long-distance bicycle traveler. Even though I rode with an organized group, I frequently was alone during long stretches of the journey because participants rode at their own pace. The only time one could be sure of the comaraderie of the company was in camp at the end of the day.
But Garufi rode alone, because, as he put it on his Web site, “I am long past the strategy of waiting for someone to accompany me on an adventure.”
“Seriously, who would actually go with me?” he asked. “Some friend? In my entire lifetime, I know just one person who has talked about bicycling across America with earnestness, and this man is in his upper 40’s with a wife, three kids and a demanding job that will keep him years away from attempting to achieve his dream. … Sitting around and twiddling my thumbs as I wait for someone else to muster the courage to make things happen is rarely my style.”

Steve Garufi in Winona, Miss.

But riding alone brought its own set of frustrations. “Out here, it was just myself and the road, my bike and my body,” Garufi wrote. “I simply did not encounter many people. Imagine spending 5-7 hours every day on a bike on [the] side of the highway without speaking to another person. I saw hardly any bicyclists for much of my 45-day journey … My social interaction was limited to when I sought some kind of service, mainly eating at a restaurant, buying supplies in a store or paying for a motel room. Lastly, being exhausted after a day’s ride did not provide much ambition to seek meaningful connections either.”
Garufi was stranded for two days in the tiny town of Reserve, N.M., because of snow in the mountains ahead, and he wrote poignantly of the loneliness of the solo long-distance cyclist:
“I definitely went a little crazy in this small town with not much to do besides eat, sit in my motel room and surf the Internet at the town library. I visited the nearly empty Reserve Library three times over the two-day period and after the second visit, I introduced myself out of self-consciousness.”
He told the woman at the front desk: “Just to let you know, I’m a visitor here. I’m one of those people riding my bike across America and I’m stuck here today because of the bad weather. I just wanted you to know this so you don’t think I’m a vagrant or anything.”
Such online journals are valuable for anyone contemplating a cross-country bicycle trip.
Garufi’s is one of the most insightful and instructive that I’ve come across, and it’s rich with photos taken along the way. Check it out.

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So now what?


“Why, what’s the matter,
That you have such a February face,
So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?”

William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

February: French Medieval Book of Hours, 1412

I dislike February, only three days away. It’s my least favorite month. The grass is brown, the trees naked and the skies dark and threatening. The warm glow of the holidays has long since dissipated, and spring is weeks away.
But it’s also a time to contemplate warm-weather adventure.
Last year at this time I was signed up for and committed to a cross-country bicycle trip, and much of my attention was devoted to preparing for that journey. But that adventure was completed last fall.
So now what?
How to top a 3,130-mile ride across the United States, from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla.?
Will any ride this year pale by comparison?
So far I have no plan for a bike trip this year. The Illinois Great Rivers Ride, a weeklong ride in my native state that I did three times, is no more — a victim of state budget cuts.
The Bicycle Tour of Colorado, which I’ve done five times, is still going strong after 16 years. But this year’s route covers much of the same ground I’ve ridden in previous tours, and the 106-mile first day — from Gunnison to Creede over 11,361-foot Slumgullion Pass and the Continental Divide at 10,901-foot Spring Creek Pass — is a might challenging. I’ve done that ride in both directions on previous tours and know that it would tax my aging body to the max — even with the residual fitness from a cross-country ride.
So I’m open to suggestions.
I visit my hometown, Alton, Ill., a couple times each year and will probably head that way in March. So, weather permitting, I’ll probably do a day ride that I’ve done numerous times — from Alton, up the Great River Road along the Mississippi to Pere Marquette State Park and back. It’s a round trip of nearly 50 miles along one of the most beautiful stretches of the Mississippi.
Another possible day ride is downriver from Alton to St. Louis along a network of trails, levee service roads and designated city bicycle paths to the Gateway Arch on the downtown waterfront. I’ve been wanting to do that ride, a round trip of about 60 miles, for years but could never work it in during my visits to Alton.

Cruiser bike at Santa Monica beach

As I was writing this with a cold rain pelting outside, Kami Kitchen, a fellow rider in our cross-country trek, posted on Facebook a photo of a bicycle beside the beach in Santa Monica, where she stopped en route to Australia for a new adventure. That prompted a bit of California dreamin’ and unleashed a spate of memories of the start of our trip last September at Ocean Beach in San Diego.
So it’s time to put away that “February face” and start training in earnest for a long bicycle trip later this year, even if I don’t yet know where it will be. I don’t think I’m ready to spend retirement in a Barcalounger.

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Fellow travelers


Among the dozens of fellow cyclists we met during our transcontinental bicycle journey last fall were three young men on a mission – literally.
Ryan James, Caleb Price and Jonathan Engelhardt, best friends from college, were traveling from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla. – following roughly the same Southern Tier route that we used – to raise money for a medical clinic in Durban, South Africa, and for a mission trip to that country.
We crossed paths with the trio on Oct. 18 in Brackettville, on the southwestern approaches to the Texas Hill Country, where they and some of our riders had stopped for lunch at a local church, Templo Elienai. The church was raising money that Sunday by serving up plate lunches of carne guisado – Mexican beef stew – with rice, beans, bread, a cupcake and a soft drink – for $6. What a deal!
As we dined while sitting on a stone wall in front of the church yard, we talked with Ryan, Caleb and Jonathan. They were traveling much lighter than we were, carrying only about 20 pounds of gear and — instead of camping — staying overnight at churches along the route. They had left San Diego on Sept. 28, eight days after we did, but were riding 80 or more miles per day and had caught up with us.
Later in the day, one of our group, John Vandevelde, encountered the trio on Texas Ranch Road 334 as they bore down on him from behind.
“They rode a pace-line and welcomed me into it, even let me lead for a short while,” John wrote in his blog. “I hung in for almost 20 miles until the ‘guisado power’ wore down and my legs began to fail on me. Maybe in truth they slowed some for me, but it was great!”
That night, John found that Ryan, Caleb and Jonathan had posted on their Web site some comments about meeting members of our group, including a reference to riding with “John the Speedster.”
“That posting by my road friends made me feel so good, it may make my week, not just my day,” John wrote.
Kami Kitchen, another member of our group, learned that Ryan, Caleb and Jonathan had created a video montage of their trip. She posted a Facebook note with the link to the video on YouTube.
Kami and Reg Prentice, another member of our group, make a cameo appearance at 2 minutes and 14 seconds into the video montage. Check it out.

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Border thoughts


“Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Jack Paar

Highway sign near San Diego

The Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier route is never far from the border with Mexico as it passes through the desert Southwest. At some points in California and West Texas, the route passes right along the border, and Mexico can be seen stretching off to the south beyond the Rio Grande or across an ugly border fence.
Near Jacumba, Calif., and at El Paso and Fort Hancock in Texas, we were right on the border.
As we attended an outdoor parish festival at Santa Teresa Catholic Church in Fort Hancock, we could see the lights of the Mexican towns of Francisco Sarabia and Rinconada de Gallegos just across the Rio Grande.

Border fence near Jacumba, Calif. Photo by Mike Ullner

Because of the proximity to the border, bicyclists traveling the Southern Tier route have frequent encounters with U.S. Border Patrol agents. Dressed in olive drab and with sidearms at their hips, they man the checkpoints on roads out of Mexico. Their helicopters flit through the border airspace, and their white and green vehicles race along the highways and creep through cotton fields in their search for “illegals.” Huge truck tires with chains attached are towed through the sand and dirt between roads and fields to smooth the ground so that fresh tracks can be spotted easily.

Border Patrol vehicle at Fort Hancock

As cross-country cyclists, our interactions with Border Patrol officers, usually young men, were generally pleasant. They first asked whether we were U.S. citizens and then where we were headed. When we said, “Florida,” the reaction was something along the lines of: “No shit?! You got to be kiddin’ me! Man, there’s no way I could do that.”
Only once, on a long desert stretch of California 78 between Brawley and Palo Verde, did I see any people detained. At a Border Patrol checkpoint, where we refilled our water bottles from gallon jugs of water brought by a local cyclist from Brawley, two downcast young men stood beside the checkpoint building. A short time later, a California Highway Patrol trooper, apparently summoned by the Border Patrol, pulled over and began questioning the men. They were apparently illegal border crossers, but I had to move on and I never learned their fate.

An 1891 anti-immigration cartoon

Texas author Larry McMurtry frequently travels the border roads. In a 2000 book Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways, he wrote of a similar experience near Ajo, Ariz., where two exhausted teenagers had been run to ground by a Border Patrol chopper.
“Against such technology, the kids and their families who make their way north would seem to have little chance — but thousands keep coming, and some get through,” McMurtry wrote. “Even the Border Patrol can’t be everywhere. All along two thousand miles of border, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, such scenes occur every day; in California and Arizona the Border Patrol seems mainly to be trying to turn back immigration, whereas in Texas the same force is bent on turning back drugs as well. Driving up to a Border Patrol kiosk at night in west Texas usually produces a small tic of anxiety, even in legal citizens. The drug dogs, loosely restrained, are almost always German shepherds; however, the image that registers in the mind, as you drive slowly toward the uniformed policeman with the big dog, is an image from the iconography of Nazism. The association might be unfair, but it’s unavoidable. The struggle of the poor brown people of the south and the more affluent northerners who seek to retard their entry is unrelenting and, as I said earlier, corrosive. It poisons the whole border, makes it not a pleasant place to be.”

An 1888 cartoon in The Wasp, a San Francisco magazine, reflecting anti-immigrant sentiment

I don’t believe that work as a Border Patrol agent would afford me much satisfaction. I’m aware of the arguments that it’s a job that must be done, that a nation has a right to secure its borders, that the southern border is an avenue for drug traffickers, killers and terrorists, that the “illegals” are a drain on our economy. But I’m also aware that much of that sentiment is fueled by a virulent strain of xenophobia that has greeted every wave of immigrants that has landed on these shores — Germans, Jews, Irish, Italians, Chinese. In the 1750s, for example, Benjamin Franklin railed against the influx of Germans to Pennsylvania, saying they were too stupid to learn English and would never assimilate.
As a descendant of immigrants — and most of us are — I can’t help but believe that the vast majority of the people who cross our borders, illegally or otherwise, come here for the same reason that my forebearers came here: the search for a better life for themselves and their families. And I believe that if I walked in their shoes I’d do the same thing.
A fellow rider on on transcontinental bike trip sent me an e-mail after reading my Jan. 8 blog post, “Highways and byways,” which touched on McMurtry’s border travels.

An 1854 ad in The New York Times

“There is something troubling about the unfriendliness of our borders, that ugly and stupid fence that doesn’t seem to be capable of working anyhow because it has big gaps in it,” my fellow rider wrote in his e-mail. “Maybe because I am an immigrant with my parents, it does not fit the image of America that I embrace. … The financial cost of ‘protecting’ our borders has to be enormous, but the cost to our values and image are even higher. Maybe post-9/11 anything like that can be easily justified, but not for me.”

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Just a few more photos


“A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.”
Mark Twain, 1835-1910

With your forbearance, here are a few more snapshots culled from the images posted by fellow riders since completion of our cross-country bike ride on Nov. 21.
They include one of myself with a “silly, foolish smile,” a curious lizard, Kami’s graceful finish to the ride in St. Augustine and son Matt with a bottle of medicinal champagne.
I’ve also included one of a meteorologist on the Weather Channel tracking Hurricane Ida.
We all became intensely interested in the Weather Channel as we passed through southern Mississippi and Alabama because of a late-season storm called Ida brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. We took shelter at a Days Inn in Mobile, Ala. Ida, at first a Category-2 hurricane, was downgraded to a tropical storm as she sloshed through Mobile Bay in the early hours of Nov. 10 as we lay asleep in the warm, dry motel.

Catching some zzzs after a long, hard ride in California

A curious lizard checks out my bike. Photo by Felix Greiner and Jenny Prasiswa

Jim with a self-satisfied grin in the final days of the ride. Photo by Felix Greiner and Jenny Prasiswa

Tracking Hurricane Ida. Photo by Felix Greiner and Jenny Prasiswa

Son Matt welcomes the riders in St. Augustine with a cowbell and a bottle of bubbly. Photo by Felix Greiner and Jenny Prasiswa

Kami was so excited to see her mother welcoming her in St. Augustine that she toppled from her bike. Mary Ellen skips out of the way as sons Thomas and Matt, with a medicinal bottle of champagne, rush to Kami's aid. Photo by Felix Greiner and Jennifer Prasiswa

Jim with trophy presented by Mary Ellen and sons Matt and Thomas. Photo by Felix Greiner and Jenny Prasiswa

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How lucky we were!


“Just tell yourself, Duckie, you’re really quite lucky!”
Dr. Seuss

I’ve frequently thought, since completing a transcontinental bicycle ride in the fall, how lucky we all were to finish the journey without a major mishap.
One careless driver, one piece of road debris, one aggressive dog could have resulted in the injury or death of any one of us in our initial group of 15. We encountered quite a few careless drivers, lots of road debris and a handful of very aggressive canines — particularly in Louisiana — during our journey from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla. But we all survived to ride again.
I’ve concluded that riding a bicycle more than 3,000 miles across a country whose highways cater almost exclusively to cars and trucks can be a very dangerous undertaking. To most drivers, a slow-moving bicyclist is simply a nuisance to be put into the rear-view mirror as quickly as possible.
Some roads have paved shoulders, designed primarily for motorists to pull off onto in case of emergency. But they are frequently littered with shards of glass, patches of loose gravel, large chunks of radial tires sloughed off by trucks and pieces of wood and sharp metal.
Highway planners in some states, particularly Arizona, are fond of rumble strips, rough ribbons of pavement between the outer edge of the highway and the shoulder. They’re intended to alert inattentive motorists if they start drifting off the road. But they’re a menace to cyclists.
On a steep descent from Signal Mountain Pass, east of Phoenix between Superior and Miami, we had to thread our fully loaded touring bicycles along a path about a foot and a half wide to stay between the rumble strip and the outer edge of the shoulder. At a downhill speed outside my comfort zone, there was no room for error.

A bad rumble strip is a menace to cyclists

Fellow rider John Vandevelde had similar thoughts on the dangers posed to cyclists in bicycle-unfriendly America. Three days from the end of of the trip — after we had logged 2,999 miles — he expressed those thoughts on Nov. 18 in his own blog, John Bikes America. He encapsulated very well some of my own thoughts, so I’ll quote his blog at length:
“One of the things I knew I wanted to do in one of these last few blog posts is to thank the thousands of anonymous drivers who have passed me coming over my left shoulder, or waited for me to pass before pulling out in front of me, or slowed and waited to crest a hill before passing, or move over a full lane when passing.

John Vandevelde

“Now feels like the right time, even though we have about 150 miles to ride in the next three days.
“I hope I don’t jinx us. Things could change.
“For example, today things changed dramatically with Florida dogs. Six times today dogs were loose and took chase. The first time was a 3-dog attack. It was the first time I used my ‘U.S. Coast Guard Approved’ air horn — which I have dubbed the ‘Dog Blaster.’ It worked. Two short blasts startled and stopped the dogs.
“The second time I used the Dog Blaster today was when two powerful looking big boxers or boxer/pit bull mix dogs had chased two of our group riding about 100 feet ahead of me. The dogs tired, turned, and saw me — fresh meat! But a short blast froze them in their tracks and I was by them.
“The third chase made it clear how much we cyclists depend on the drivers of cars and trucks to pay attention to us and keep us safe.
“A very large black dog very close to the road got a good jump on me and all I could do was start cranking. I was riding so desperately hard I was unable to reach for the Dog Blaster. As I picked up speed, the dog started to drop back. When I finally looked up, I realized I was on the wrong side of the road facing an oncoming pickup about three or four car lengths away, with a small car behind the pickup. The pickup must have seen it all and slowed. There was enough time for me to cross back to the right side, which I did as fast as I could. The cars passed me, honking at the dog, and it was over for me and the dog. We were both safe.
“There have been any number of incidents like that involving one or another of our group. Thankfully, nobody has been hurt. …

Rumble strip that provides a decent bike lane. Photo by Felix Greiner and Jenny Prasiswa

“I have tried to figure out for starters how many drivers have passed me going in my direction. It is almost impossible. Riding the small country roads there is generally light traffic. It may be only a dozen or so vehicles per hour. On the highways, it is probably 50 to 100 or more. And on the multi-lane highways and Interstates, it is hundreds per hour. We have ridden something in excess of 200 hours, maybe closer to 250. So the number of drivers going by our left shoulder must be in the tens of thousands.
“And there sometimes are concerns about oncoming cars. Picture a two-lane, shoulderless country road. You look up and there are two cars bearing down on you — the one to your right is trying to pass the one to your left. You find yourself rooting for the passer, and at the same time cursing him or her — meanwhile calculating how you will bail out if the pass takes too long.
“Thankfully, they never did.
“I made some mistakes and some misjudgments as a cyclist in the last 8 1/2 weeks, but whenever I did, fortunately the drivers involved covered for me.
“I thought about recounting the handful or two of drivers who were absolute jerks. I remember every driver, and their car, and their honking, gesturing, yelling, seemingly intentional near-missing, and so on. If I could have caught up with them, I would have done something stupid.
“But I don’t want to waste words on them.
“What I feel at mile 2,999 is tremendous appreciation for the thousands of considerate, courteous, careful drivers who were watchful and protective of us. The drivers in the country are the most patient. And the long-haul professional drivers are incredibly considerate.
“In the last couple of thousand miles, I have made a point of waving and saying, really mouthing, ‘Thank you’ to the driver who slows and waits and otherwise is doing his or her best to keep me safe on the road.
“I wish I could thank them all again and tell them it looks like we are all going to make it.”
Amen, John!

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