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Final Thoughts on Pedaling Across the USA

I made it to Washington D.C. after 43 days, or about six weeks, on the road.  I pedaled approximately 3,000 miles in 38 days of biking and took 5 days off.  In the typical day of pedaling I covered about 80 miles.  I over-estimated my own abilities.  Before starting I expected the trip would take five weeks and when pedaling I would cover 100 miles a day on average.

During the six weeks I ate a lot of hamburgers.  My guess is that a burger was dinner about 20 times not counting the meals I had steak for variety. I drank gallons of Gatorade, but almost no beer or wine.  I stopped drinking alcohol a few days into the trip.  I found you cannot push your body to the limit each day and then toss down beers at night.  I did lose a bit of weight.  However, it was only six pounds.  At the end of an exhausting day the last thing I wanted to do was count calories.

What were the lessons I took away from the trip?  For those of you contemplating a long bike ride, pedal with someone.  Don’t pedal alone.  I had much more fun pedaling with my son from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, pedaling with Beau in Wisconsin and pedaling with Greg from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. than the days I spent by myself.  If you do decide to pedal alone, make sure you have amazing support.  My wife was phenomenal from cheering me up to getting me on a ferry boat that had already sold out all their tickets.

What other lessons did I learn?  I don’t want to sound trite but if you ask for help people across the USA in general will go out of their way for you.  After slashing and warping my rear wheel in Spokane, I was rescued by Roger and his pickup truck.  Then my bike was fixed only a few hours later by Randy.  When my son’s hydraulic bike brakes locked shut, bike shop Brad took care of us instantly and even told us where to get lunch.  When I was stranded and needed to travel down a few exits on the Interstate to get back on local roads there almost always was someone willing to give me a lift.

I also came away with a deep appreciation for the amazing productive capacity of the USA.  I spent weeks staring at giant fields of wheat, corn, soy beans and even kale.  I was passed by freight trains loaded with coal, oil, natural gas and other products that stretched almost forever.  While forever is an exaggeration, some of the trains were so long they needed four giant locomotive engines to pull all the cars.  I passed factories in the Midwest that were mind-boggling large.

Grain silos in Toldeo

Not all was good.  I also came away with a realization that most of this country is empty of people.  In numerous places you could see that many people once lived there, but not anymore.  The eastern sides of the Cascades and the Rockies were both depressing to pedal through.  Towns are slowly dying as fewer people are needed in rural areas to run the farms and ranches.  The slow death spiral is disheartening as I pedaled through countless places that were once thriving, but today only have a post office that politicians are loath to shut down.

It was also clear that unemployment today is low, but income is definitely not high.  I pedaled past countless homes that were being lived in that needed repairs.  I was passed by numerous cars and trucks that were falling apart.  Low income and little choice in food seemed highly related.  I ate a lot of hamburgers, not because I love burgers but because many towns had little to no other choices for food.

I also noticed a huge concern over safety, security and personal property.  The most common sign I saw while pedaling was not “Stop” or even “Yield.”  Instead, it was “No Trespassing.”  Most of the signs were similar and looked like they were mass produced on only a couple of different assembly lines.  However, more than a few were unique, and every unique sign said roughly the same thing; “Trespassers will be shot.”

Stay off my land

More than half the people I talked to on the trip warned me there were lots of “crazy people out there” and I needed to be careful.  I did meet a few crazies, but everyone was harmless and more eccentric than dangerous.  For example, in Ohio it took a while to extricate myself from a man who wanted to tell me every detail about the electric trains that used to run on the path I was about to pedal.

While many of you accept that TSA will scan your body at the airport and check your luggage, I was amazed that a large TSA team showed up to paw through my and all the other passengers’ luggage before taking a 4-hour ferry ride across Lake Michigan.

In closing I want to thank everyone who helped me out.  Many of you did small things that helped a great deal.  For example, Caleb in Montana suggested a hotel about 60 miles down the road.  This suggestion probably didn’t seem like much, but it prevented me from attempting an exceptionally long bike ride in blistering heat that might have ended badly.  I also want to thank those of you who sent public and private encouragements.  The messages of support meant a lot and helped keep me going.

Where and when is the next trip?  I don’t know yet since I have only been off the bike for a few hours and it will take some time to heal my saddle sores.  Wherever and whenever it is, I am sure it will be interesting since there are so many fascinating places, people and pursuits to see and try in the world.

End of this trail but the beginning of the next adventure

How safe are summer activities like bicycling?

It is summer, a time when many people who were sedentary all winter get outside and start being active again.  While being active is great, many people become injured when they start playing new sports or ones they haven’t done in years.  So, how safe are the various activities done by the typical weekend warrior?

I am personally interested in this question because this summer I am bicycling across the U.S.  When people hear a middle aged man is pedaling alone 3,000 miles the first question they ask is, “Is it safe?”  Given the near misses and one crash on loose gravel I have had so far this trip my inclination is to say no.  Nevertheless, personal experience is no substitute for looking at actual data.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is the government agency that gathers data and makes rules to help reduce the risk of injury or death when using equipment like a bike, golf club or even treadmill.  They estimate that total damage, death and injuries from using faulty consumer products costs the U.S. more than $1 trillion a year.

They track the specific types of injury from every kind of sport and make this available online via the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS).  This database not only tracks sports injuries, but also injuries from contact with any kind of consumer product from ATVs to workshop tools.

The NEISS system has tracked injuries since 1979.  It counts only injuries that resulted in a person ending up in a hospital emergency room.  Injuries that people take care of at home or leave untreated are not counted.

The NEISS releases data in aggregate form and also as individual case records without people’s name or geographic location.  For example, one of the first injuries reported in 2017 is a 21 year old white man who was boxing with a friend while drunk and went to the ER because he was punched in the face.

The overall NEISS data show that bicycling is indeed dangerous.  About 455,000 cyclists ended up in the emergency room in 2017.  However, other sports and exercise activities have even more injuries.  There were half a million ER visits because of injuries received while playing basketball.  Going to the gym is the most dangerous with 526,000 people injured using exercise equipment.  Maybe all the bike riders, basketball players and gym rats should try something safer like horseback riding since that group only had 49,000 ER visits.

The problem with using aggregate NEISS data to compare the dangers of various sports and activities is that participation rates vary.  One reason few people are injured horseback riding is that relatively few people do this compared to the large number shooting hoops in their driveway or at the neighborhood playground.

This problem can be overcome by using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey (ATUS), which provides information on how much of each day people spend exercising.  The data show only about one in five Americans got exercise in a typical day.  The ATUS list does not match perfectly with the injury data, but there is a large overlap.

ATUS shows the most common types of exercise are walking and using exercise equipment and weights, which I consider going to the gym.  Using the gym figures as a baseline it is possible to compute a participation adjustment figure for each sport.  For example, the data show 2.5 times more people go to the gym on a typical day than play basketball.  This means basketball injury figures need to be increased by 2.5 times to make a fair comparison of being hurt in the gym versus being hurt on the court.

What do the adjusted figures show?  The most dangerous activity is no longer going to the gym.  Instead, it is playing football.  The second most dangerous activity is playing hockey.  Unfortunately, for me bicycling stays in third place on the list.

Table: Dangerousness of Various Activities Based on ER Visits

Activity Original Rank Adjusted Rank
Football 4 1
Hockey 11 2
Cycling 3 3
Soccer 6 4
Basketball 2 5
Baseball, softball 7 6
Equestrian sports 10 7
Rollerblading 8 8
Volleyball 9 9
Gym 1 10
Swimming, surfing 5 11
Racquet sports 13 12
Running 12 13

The adjustment is not perfect because we should also adjust for the amount of time spent in the activity since the longer people spend doing an activity the more time they have to be injured.  Nevertheless, the message is clear for those of you thinking about taking your bike out for a spin on a lovely summer day.  Be careful out there.

Day 10: Missoula to Lincoln, Montana

I was itching to start pedaling again after yesterday’s rest day.  Sleeping is good, but  I could be sleeping at home in a bed that is far more comfortable than many of the motels where I am staying.

I woke up at 4 AM, but it was too dark to pedal.  I went back to bed and checked again at 5 AM.  It was still too dark.  I woke up at 6 AM.  The sun was up and the restaurant beside the Motel 6 was now open for breakfast.  I was the first customer of the day!  I had a cheese omelet and went back to my room to pack up.

I was on the road pedaling at 7 AM, which for me is shockingly early.  I tell people one of the reasons I like being a professor is that I can sleep in,  but not today.

Pedaling that early in the morning has some pluses.  There are few cars on the road.  It is peaceful.  It is cool.  The big minus is that the sun rises in the east and I am pedaling due east.  During the early morning hours it was hard for me to see.

I wasn’t worried about the cars seeing me.  First, because there were so few on the road Sunday morning.  Second, the road and the shoulder were separated by  a large rumble strip.  Any car veering into the shoulder would make a horrible noise warning both myself and the driver.

The plan for the day was simple.  Pedal abut 80 miles uphill to Lincoln, Montana.  The Rockies are like the letter “M.”   I went up the left side of the “M” from Idaho into Montana.  I then came down into the middle of the M going through towns like Alberton.  The middle part of the “M” was Missoula.  Today I am climbing the right half of the “M.”  If all goes according to plan tomorrow morning I will cross a mountain pass, which is the top of the “M”‘s right side.  Then it should be mainly downhill to Great Falls, which finishes the Rockies and the analogy.

I thought the road (Montana route 200) would have no services but was pleasantly surprised.  There were a couple of gas stations, with bathrooms and even one highway rest area.  The negative part of the route is that today there are many campers and recreational vehicles on the road.  These are large vehicles, often driven by inexperienced operators.  People with a regular car or truck license should not be able to drive an RV unless they pass a test showing they are qualified.

I arrived safe in Lincoln.  There are four motels in town.  One advertises that haunted rooms can be had for no extra charge.  I passed on that one.  One advertises it is the cheapest.  I passed on that one since it was a half-mile more to walk for dinner.  The third seemed very dumpy.  I decided on fourth called the “Three bears Motel.”

So far I have been in the motel for a couple of hours and it seems “just right.”  The only strange thing is that my room has four chairs.  I was expecting just 3; one for mamma bear,  one for papa bear and one for baby bear.  I guess the fourth is used by Goldilocks when she stays in my room, which is room #3.