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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  5/1/2006

10 States, 55 Days, 3,345 Miles

In May 1992 Cal State Chico senior Mike Foley's only summer plans were to work in a local bike shop and ride a lot. Then, almost overnight, he found himself on the ride of a lifetime -- 3,345 miles across the U.S. to Santee, SC.

Today Mike's journal from that transcontinental tour has become a self-published book, Bicycling Beyond City Limits. Subtitled "A Journal of Endurance, Friendship and Discovery," it chronicles the milestones he accomplished with five cycling buddies.

It all started when Jeff Cantarutti wanted to visit his grandparents in South Carolina, as he did every summer. He was going to drive there, but didn't want to drive back. Ken Husband suggested riding their bikes out and shipping them back while the guys flew. Sensing an epic adventure, Jeff and Ken recruited Jon Wynacht, Dario Frederick, Gary Thompson and Mike, who joined up mere days before departure.

All six of these guys were about 23 years old at the time. All were seniors at Chico State, avid road and mountain cyclists, and members of Chico Velo.

(Chico is one heck of a two-wheel community, singled out by Bicycling Magazine as #1 Best Bike Town in 1997, with some nine thriving bike shops. "and I've worked at about six of them," Mike told me. "It's amazing how each one of them fills its own niche.")

So the ride east was kind of like a rolling frat house, but without the toga parties. "We were young, highly competitive and adventurous," Mike admits. "Testosterone ran high. To ride across the country together was the opportunity to test our abilities as athletes and friends."

They sought no sponsors. Today we're bombarded with promotions of riders crossing the continent for some "awareness" or publicity campaign, with sponsorships in gear and/or funding. These guys just did it on their own shoestring.

It was a tough ride. "You have to accept that the day will be long and there is nowhere to bail out, no van or 'sag wagon' to jump into," Mike wrote. The La Sal Mountains from Moab into Colorado proved daunting but also infinitely rewarding, with spectacular views.

Just as challenging were the headwinds in Oklahoma. "Some days you don't even want to get out of bed, or ride fifty yards let alone fifty miles to the next town," Mike wrote. "If you want to quit there's nowhere to go. . . .your legs are sore, your butt is numb, your skin is burnt but you keep going. . . ."

The personal dynamics were sometimes less than optimal as well. "The heat and hard physical strain reveal who we really are and sometimes the sugar frosting comes off."

Mike and his cohorts didn't use the maps produced by BikeCentennial (now Adventure Cycling Association). If they had, they may have avoided the grubby campsites, poor roads and heavy semi traffic.

Their gear may also have been something of a liability. A photo of Mike's ride at the back of the book reveals a hard-tail mountain bike with a rather short wheelbase. It must have been pretty hard to handle with those heavily loaded panniers. The front low-riders are almost scraping pavement.

No hydration packs, either, just two water bottles apiece. Since water is always a problem in the desert, they had to carry huge collapsible containers.

They lucked out with the weather, though. "Of 55 days, only five to seven were rainy," Mike told me. And those showers were mostly at night, not when they were riding. "We quickly learned to dig run-off trenches around the tents and pack everything in plastic," he added.

The highlights

Of "The Loneliest Road in America," aka U.S. Highway 50 across Nevada, Mike wrote, "Though we are pedaling, it seems as if we are standing still. Like an old Hollywood film where the actors sit in a stationary car, someone turns a crank, and the scenery moves slowly past."

They relished the outdoor lifestyle of Moab, Telluride and Durango. Leaving Durango they had one of their closest calls: "The sudden air pressure tightens around my head like a bandana, Whack! Lightning sears the silence like a chainsaw. . . . A small tree smolders just off the roadway."

Then there was Harvey, "the Sixth Wheel": "We ran into him on the highway looking lost, with a map draped over his handlebars. . . .traveling solo from New Mexico to North Carolina on a tight budget and has lost his wallet." Mike wasn't impressed and didn't want him to tag along. But later he admitted, "He's actually turned out to be a very good rider."

In Mountain View, AR, "the folk music capital of the world," they met Lou Jones, "The Dulcimer Lady." who put them up and gave them a private concert.

"East of California it's a whole new world out there," said Mike. "The further we move east, the more out of place we seem to appear in the rural towns." The South in particular is "a different country, the language, the people and in places the poverty," confederate flags and gun racks. "We had to dig a lot deeper once we got close to our destination."

As the trek winds down, Mike's journal entries become terse and almost whiny. You can feel his frustration with the miles left to cover and his eagerness to get beyond the constant moving forward. But ride's end in Santee was an upper. "A great welcome," Mike recalled. "The road was lined with American flags; it was truly patriotic."

Twelve years later

Mike remembered Ken asking at ride's end: "Do we yet know the significance of this trip?" Now, Mike believes, "I do. I've reached a maturity level perhaps where I can say it was one of the most significant experiences of my life."

"Looking back over these years, . . . the best thing that evolved out of this trip was our friendship. We are still a tight group, held together by memories and ongoing cycling challenges."

Keeping a journal was a "natural thing to do on the ride," he told me, mostly due to the influence of his mother, a creative writer and editor. "I wanted to capture the experience for myself and maybe someday write something for the guys -- even if it was only a couple of words . . to rekindle the memory."

Mike sees a lot of the country through a poet's eyes, packing simile and metaphor into his observations. For example, in Milford, UT, he wrote: "Thick clouds create a black shadow perfectly eclipsing the round, rich valley like a mint cookie dipped in chocolate." Or was he just hungry for Girl Scout Cookies?

Where are they now?

Mike went back to earn a Master's in Communication from Chico State. Then he spent several years working outdoors, as a ski patrol professional in winters and a Forest Service firefighter during the summers. Now he works in construction with his brother-in-law. But he's still writing, including freelancing occasionally for the Chico Orion.

He's toured solo to Oregon and Montana, riding from Palo Alto to Bozeman, 1600 miles in 19 days! He's also devoted much time to road racing, rising to USCF Category II. But these days he's more into centuries and looking forward to doing the Death Ride through the region where he served on ski patrol.

Dario runs Whole Athlete, a personal training center in San Anselmo. Ken and Jeff worked for Backroads for a while. Gary works for Sinclair Imports in Nevada. And Jon, who was a programmer at Cisco, designed Mike's web site. Now they are spread around the country, yet all six return annually to ride the Wildflower Century. "All roads lead back to Chico," says Mike.

The Adventure Cycling Association calls Bicycling Beyond City Limits, ". . .a 'fast ride' [that] allowed them to strengthen personal bonds while discovering their own inner strength. . . . we are pleased to celebrate the spirit which propelled these young men in their cross-country ride." Indeed you can buy the book at AdventureCycling.org. To take a peek before you buy, read the excerpts Mike has posted on BicyclingBeyondCityLimits.com.

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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