As the bike industry continues its niche-ification of road bikes, I stumbled across an engaging book exemplifying that it’s the rider, not the machine, which defines an adventure.
Edward Abair’s Discovering the US on a Bicycle is a humble yet bold autobiography of one man’s journey across the North American continent from California to Florida and then up to New York. After returning from the Vietnam war where he served as a medic, Abair decides in 1972 to set out on a 10-speed, putting himself at the mercy of others for both room on the road and a place to sleep.
While any cyclist can relate to Abair’s ups and downs on the bike — the joy of a tailwind at the end of a long ride, the fear of trailer trucks on narrow roads, an enormous appetite while logging huge miles — I most enjoyed the perspective Abair gained of a diverse and changing country through his months-long solo adventure.
With only a sleeping bag and tarp for bedding, Abair sleeps in parks, in strangers’ front yards, behind high schools and even, on a few occasions, in jail cells.
The adventure road bike has now become a thing. Designed to take riders off their regular beaten paths, these machines have slightly wider tires, more relaxed front ends and lower bottom brackets than regular road bikes. Abair’s mechanical considerations were much more basic. The only thought he gave to fork rake, for instance, was noting that his steel fork still rode fine after being substantially bent. His upgrades, such as they were: a generator light to ride with at night, plus a rack to carry his bedroll, clothing, food and other supplies. He rode in Bermuda shorts and loafers, with a baseball cap and eyeglasses.
While the bike was certainly the mechanism for a summer-long adventure, there was nothing at all special or ‘optimized’ about his 10-speed steed.
What I enjoyed most about Abair’s tale was his intentionally vulnerable perspective. While those around him remain in the safety of their vehicles, their neighborhoods, habits and social circles, Abair slowly crosses the United States like a modern-day hobbit, protected only by his wits and the grace of others.
I suspect that his recent tour of duty in Vietnam made riding a bike across his native country seem tame.
Reading the book in 2016 underscored how insulated from each other we can become. Our self-selecting social media feeds, for instance, can deliver a fairly homogenous worldview. Contrast that to knocking on random front doors to ask for permission to sleep on the occupant’s porch or front lawn.
He’s often turned away, but equally he's often granted a patch of grass. Occasionally, he is invited in for a meal, a shower or a soft place to sleep.
Abair also gets to know the varying countryside in the same up-close-and-personal manner. Looking at a topographical map is one thing; riding up and down a 20% grade in the summer is quite another.
As an American who has lived and ridden in some of the places he visits, I enjoyed reading another’s perspective from 44 years ago. There are occasionally factual inaccuracies or typos, but the book is an easy read with its day-by-day format, each entry beginning with the beginning and ending location of the day, and concluding with the day’s total miles.
Abair covers 5,800 miles under his own steam before taking a flight from New York back to California. As luck would have it, in the Los Angeles airport he meets a Hungarian man who had also ridden across the country years before. At this, Abair notes that his accomplishment isn’t novel or singular, but invites others to dream of adventure on a bike. Part way through his journey, his focus shifts from logging as many miles as possible to soaking in his surroundings.
"Be thankful for all the adventure and those who helped," he reminds himself. "Relish the goodness of Americans. Take time. Truly enjoy America. Be still. You have been loved."
These words could just as easily apply to any of us, in any country.
I am not riding across the US or any other country this summer, but I will point my front wheel down a few new sets of roads in the coming months. I hope to be as present and grateful in my small adventures as Abair was in his.