On the 15th of June, I finished my latest endurance adventure – solo cycling 7000km across the USA. This ride was never going to be a straight line from NYC to San Francisco. The intention of this ride was to see as much of the USA as my time would allow and gain a greater appreciation of the real America that lay between what we are used to seeing from east and west coast television shows. I had planned a rough route but wanted to have the freedom to alter my direction depending on how I felt and whether I got recommendations. I have always believed that over planning takes away from the essence of adventure. I don’t ever want to know what is coming around the next corner. As long as I have the right gear and am in good mental and physical form, I would be free to go anywhere and see everything.
Although it felt counter intuitive, I set off north from NYC and headed for upstate New York and the Hudson Valley taking in long stretches of the newly created Empire State Trail. On day two, I started to veer west and made my way to Pennsylvania. It was here that I met up with my first of only two riding partners. One this occasion, it was the hugely inspiring Scarlet, a 12 year old bikepacker and her Rockstar father, Flint Zeigler.
This connection had been made via Restrap, and I am so glad we made it work. I had no idea when, where or if we were going to meet up until one evening when I was coasting down a hill and found two cyclists heading towards me. What was meant to be a quick meet up turned into 2 days of awesome gravel riding and nights camping under the stars. I am a solo adventurer but riding with these two brought me huge amounts of joy and I am hoping that our paths will cross again, maybe on one of the routes we chatted about while sipping tea.
Full of positive energy from my awesome riding companions, my journey started to head south through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and then to my most southern state, Mississippi. All through this section the landscape and culture changed dramatically from the Amish communities in Ohio, through Bourbon country in Kentucky and then to the delicious deep south. My original plan had been to continue south into Louisiana but due to mounting costs I made the decision to alter my route to be slightly more direct.
The next section can only be described as the flat section and cut across Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas and into Colorado (where the fun started). My original plan had been to tackle as much gravel riding as possible, but this had led to puncture problems. I had started out on Panaracer Gravelking tyres which, while amazing off road, couldn’t cope with a heavily laden bike on long stretches of asphalt and punctures became an annoyingly common occurrence. After 23 days of riding, 3500km covered and over 10 punctures, in Wichita (Kansas) I finally made the decision to switch back to my normal go to tyre, the Schwalbe Marathon (700x37c). I am happy to report, I didn’t have another puncture for the whole trip!
After a couple of days riding with a young French rider who made me feel old and slow, I arrived at Canon City, Colorado, and this is where the ride came to life. Temple Canyon Road remains one of my favourite stretches of this whole journey. Beautiful gravel roads cutting through gnarly desert mountain countryside awoke something in me that kept burning for the rest of this adventure. For the next 2500km I was in bikepacking heaven.
Death Valley had always been a section that people had tried to warn me off. June isn’t the recommended time to be riding across the hottest place on earth and when an extreme heat warning came into effect, I knew I was going to have to dig deep. The emptiness was intoxicating, and the scenery became more and more unworldly. But the real challenge of Death Valley was felt when I arrived in Furnace Creek after 191km to find the official thermometer read 48 degrees Celsius. While riding in the heat was challenging, camping was harder. On the bike you have a self-created breeze, in a tent there is nothing but sweat especially as the temperature never dipped below 35 degrees. Day two in Death Valley was also the day with the most vertical ascent with nearly 3000m of climbing. Of all the passes I have tackled, Towne Pass remains one of the hardest. Starting at -71m and continuing for nearly 60km, you finally reach the 1500m pass, exhausted and dehydrated and while all you want to do is rest, the heat doesn’t allow that. But with every climb there is a descent and the ride down to Panamint is incredible. I spent nearly 3 hours sitting in a pub delaying the pain of the next 1200m climb that took me out of Death Valley.
I didn’t think that much could compete with Death Valley, but I had one treat remaining, Yosemite National Park. This was to be my final detour and what a detour it was. After sitting out a extreme winds that were so dangerous I couldn’t physically stay on my bike, I finally conquered the Tioga Pass to arrive at the National Park Entrance and the start of over 130km of the most incredible riding. I would definitely recommend going from east to west as I was rewarded with over 3200m of descent while trying to take in everything that whizzed by. As with all the other national parks I visited (Zion, Mammoth Caves, Black Canyon, Death Valley), I felt that my rides through were just tasters of what was really on offer, and I realise that I will need to return with a backpack and hiking boots to really appreciate the vastness of these special places.
Finally, after 49 days and over 7000km, I rolled into San Francisco on the 15th of June, happy to have completed the adventure that tipped my total human powered adventuring over the 50,000km mark. A lot of people ask if I celebrate the end of adventure and typically I don’t. The end is when the journey stops, and I must return to normality. I thrive on motion and always feel that being static leads to stagnation. When I finish an adventure, my mind immediately flips to the next one and all my energy goes to getting there.
I have always strived to push myself as far and hard as I can and on this ride, I managed to stretch my longest continuous days adventuring to 41. When I arrived in Las Vegas, temperatures topping 42 (C) forced me to stop and rest for a day. This record beat my previous record of 28 days running and average of 58km a day while on my 17,000km Vancouver to Buenos Aires adventure. What makes these records harder is that most evenings I am camping and therefore have less time to recover properly. I am just glad that as I get older, I am still able to push these boundaries.
Would I do anything different if I did it again? I would be less constrained to the notion of cycling across a country and would have planned a 7000km ride from Seattle to San Diego, via Denver. It is nice to say you have crossed a country, but I think this route would have been visually more stimulating. I am not regretting my route as the intention of this adventure was to familiarise myself with real America and it certainly delivered.
CYCLE USA STATS UPDATE:
Total Days: 49
Days on bike: 48
Rest Days: 1 (day 42)
Total Distance: 7034km
Total Time on Bike: 376 hours
Total Vertical Ascent: 65,273m (more than 7 time Everest)
Average KM per day: 151km
Average Time on Bike per day : 7hr 40mins
Average Vertical Climb per day: 1360m
Words and photos by Jamie Ramsay