The Route: How to optimize

I teach a lot of courses.  One of my favorites is Managerial Economics.  In this course I teach MBA’s how to make the most profits for their business, without breaking laws or societal rules.  A key point in the course is that once you have a clear objective, like making profits, it is easy to optimize and achieve your goal.

My goal when biking across the USA this time is to expend as little energy as possible.  Now it is easy to do this by breaking the rules, like getting an electric motor to help power through the mountains.  However, I want to see if I can do the ride under my own power.  To reduce the effort of biking over 3,000 miles I decided on three objectives, which helped me pick an optimal route .

  • Travel from west to east: This is so that I have as much chance of a tail wind as possible.  Did you every notice airplane flights from the west coast to the east are faster than the other way?  A quick online query shows in 2018, New York (east coast) to Los Angeles (west coast) flights are scheduled to take six hours and fifteen minutes.  Flights going the opposite direction from Los Angeles to New York take on average five hours and thirty five minutes.  Because of the way the earth spins, winds go from west to east, at least high up in the sky.  If I am lucky and the same winds happen lower down I will be pushed along by the breeze some days, rather that fighting it.
  • Minimize climbing hills and mountains:  The fewer mountains I go over the better.  Thirty plus years ago I went up the backbone of the Rocky Mountains.  While doing that route I crossed the continental divide eleven times.  All water on the east of the divide flows into the Atlantic, while water on the west flows into the Pacific.  Riding constantly from one side of the Rockies to the other is great for bragging rights, but pedaling up the sides of giant mountains hurts. At this point in my life pain is not my friend.  To minimize climbing I am pedaling through instead of over as many mountains as possible.  There are a number of old railroad tunnels that are now open for bicycles and using these tunnels cuts a path inside the mountain.  I have ridden inside a couple of re-purposed tunnels on the east coast.  They are dark and very spooky but they make the ride so much easier.  There are tunnels that cut through parts of the Cascades, Rockies and Appalachian mountains.
  • Avoid large cities:  I love visiting places like Chicago.  However, large cities are tough places to cycle when you don’t know where you are going and there are a lots of things demanding your attention.  Back country roads and towns are a lot simpler to navigate and safer.

The route as seen from space

I picked Seattle as my starting point.  This violates my third rule since Seattle is a large city, but I need a city with a good airport to start off the trip.  Seattle has two other advantages.  First, maps show I can get on a protected bike path and get out of town within 30 minutes.  Second, and more importantly, I can get through the Cascade Mountain range by pedaling through the two-mile-long Snoqualmie railroad tunnel.  I still have to pedal uphill 2,600 feet from sea level to get to the tunnel but I am expecting this to be a lot easier than the other ways of crossing the West Coast’s mountains.

Where exactly am I going?

Google Maps currently allows people to enter up to ten places.  Here are my top ten picks for generating the route.  Some places, like Manitowoc, you might not know, but they are quite important. Some places along the route

I start in Seattle and then have to cross the Cascade Mountain Range and eastern Washington desert.  If all goes well I end up in Spokane.

From Spokane the goal is to cross the Rocky Mountains.  Missoula, Montana is nestled in the heart of the Rockies.  By the time I hit Dickinson, North Dakota most of the hard climbing should done and I am in the plains.

The next major stop is Manitowoc, Wisconsin.  Manitowoc is where a ferry leaves to cross Lake Michigan and docks in Ludington, Michigan.  Taking the ferry across the lake means I don’t have to bike through Chicago and its suburbs.  I then cut across the upper peninsula of Michigan and dip into Canada.  Doing this means I avoid biking through Detroit.  There is another ferry from Leamington, Canada to Sandusky Ohio, which gets me across Lake Erie.

From Sandusky I pedal to Pittsburgh.  Yes, going to Pittsburgh violates the third rule again but there is a great bike trail from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. that has a number of old railroad tunnels that cut through the Appalachian Mountains.  I have to go to Pittsburgh because the trail starts downtown.

In Washington it will be time for a glass of champagne and a celebration.  Then after a few days of resting it will be time to think about the next big project or adventure.

Economist Biking Across America