Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Bicycle Mecca

On the TransAmerica Trail, the exceptional is ordinary.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 21, 2011 at 12:05 PM

MISSOULA, Montana — The Shelby Farms Greenline is seven miles long. Imagine riding it 607 times and adding mountains, storms, headwinds, sunburns, butt-sores, and passing trucks. That's what it is like to bike across the country on the 4,246-mile TransAmerica Trail.

Thousands of people do it every year, and many of them stop here at the Adventure Cycling Association, which is sort of the unofficial Hall of Fame, library, and national museum of cycling.

The greats are immortalized in black-and-white pictures on the walls. They include:

Frank Lenz, 25, who in 1892 rode 4,587 miles cross-country in 107 days on a single-speed bike. The combined weight of his bike and gear was 110 pounds. His trip around the world was cut short two years later when he is believed to have been killed by bandits in Turkey.

Ole Hartwick, a probate court judge in Minnesota, who rode 135,000 miles between 1895 to 1934, wearing a suit and tie on his way to work for much of that mileage. His sturdy Iver Johnson bike hangs above his portrait.

Richard Joseph Redman of Memphis, who rode from Memphis to Portland, Oregon, in 1994 although he had never been on a bicycle until he was 17 years old. "I've wrecked a great number of times," he says in his account.

Billy Montigny, who completed his 13th solo cross-country trip this summer. And Benjamin Horne, who did it last year on a unicycle "to dispel the belief that unicyclists are only performers." And Fred and Barbara Seymour, both 77, who did it last year on a tandem bike. And Lukas Held, who delayed the last leg of his trek to the West Coast Monday to have his portrait made here and said the Blue Ridge Mountains were harder to climb than the Rockies. He rode east to west to save the best for last.

"It's like one highlight after another," he said.

There are three main bike routes across the country. The TransAmerica from Oregon to Virginia, the Southern Tier from California to Florida (a mere 3,085 miles), and the Northern Tier from Washington to Maine (the longest, at 4,286 miles).

Teenagers, including Memphians Philip Pomeroy and Anthony Siracusa, have done it. They completed their trip in 2003 in six weeks when they were 16 years old, assisted by a support vehicle.

"I would do it again in a heartbeat," said Pomeroy, now a graduate student in Knoxville.

Several couples with children have done it, riding either tandems or bikes attached to covered trailers like you see on the Greenline. They have also done it on triple seaters and recumbents.

And then there are the people so extreme they deserve a whole new category, like Greg Siple, who co-founded Adventure Cycling and takes the portrait photos of the parade of visitors. From 1972 to 1975, he and his wife June rode their bikes 18,272 miles from Alaska to Argentina.

"Two years, eights months, and five days with five months off," he said.

Some long riders are "dirtbaggers" who camp and spend as little money as possible; others are "credit-card tourists" who stay in motels and spend $100 a day. They bring dogs, a cat, a mother's ashes, a glass eye for luck, scientific papers, lucky underwear, a violin, a mule deer skull, an inflatable parrot, and adult diapers. They travel solo, in pairs, in small groups, and in guided tours. The granddaddy of tours was in 1976 when 4,000 people biked across America to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial.

I asked Siple what towns like Memphis should do to get on the biking map.

"Build a network of functional bike paths," he said, adding that a signature project like the Harahan Bridge bike trail over the Mississippi River would definitely help attract national interest. The U.S. Bike Route system, designated by state transportation departments, links rural, suburban, and urban areas.

He believes that the number of people riding cross-country is increasing every year, although nobody is counting. The association's membership is increasing, but the average age is 56 and the younger set seems reluctant to join.

Any TransAmerica rider who shows up here gets a portrait, but be warned that Siple has seen and heard it all. If you want to set yourself apart, try using a unicycle or biking backward or maybe naked.

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