Tricks of the Trade: Adventure Ridin’ Across America
By: Sean Meissner
On May 9 this year, I dipped the tires of my Salsa Vaya gravel bike into the Pacific Ocean in Pacific City, OR. On June 9, after 3,267.9 miles of pedaling, I dipped those same tires into the Atlantic Ocean in Lewes, DE, thus, completing a 35-years-in-the-making adventure goal of bicycling across the United States. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
It all started in 1987 when I was a freshman in high school. I had just finished my first cross country season when my Uncle Rog became the leader of the local Explorer Scout Cycling Troop; he invited me to join, we went on a few group rides, and I was hooked. We started by riding 15-mi loops on hilly rural roads, which quickly increased to 30 and 50-mi weekend rides.
I remember the first time we rode to Nana’s lake cabin – a 70-miler that I never would have even thought of riding before Scouts; it was always just “let’s drive to the lake for the day”.
Uncle Rog eventually got us in shape to ride TOSRV, a two-day, 230-mi organized ride near Missoula, MT. At 14 years old, I was the youngest rider that year and I remember getting in a pace line with riders who were talking about their upcoming cross country ride. WHAT!? No way! I had to hear more, and what I heard hooked me. I knew right then that I would someday ride across the USA.
Fast forward to 2017 and after largely ignoring my bike for a decade and a half because I was having fun running 10-15 ultras per year, I decided to dust it off and I quickly remembered how much I used to love riding. I started thinking about my cross country riding goal and after a couple years, I loosely gave myself a timeline of completing my goal before turning 50 (Summer 2023).
In October, 2020, I bought a gravel bike specifically for the ride and got more intentional with my training and beginning stages of planning. I started baiting friends to see if anyone was interested. And I rode a bit more regularly over the next 18 months, but nothing crazy.
Eventually, May 2022 came around, I had found a riding companion (random college student through AdventureCycling.org), I had made logistical plans for the first 10 days of the ride, and I made my way to Pacific City.
Much of the first two weeks involved cold weather, headwinds, and cows. We got fit riding through Oregon, which included an overnight at the best cyclist-friendly hostel ever in tiny Mitchell. In Idaho we got a small taste of the Rockies, I met-up with my brother on a random highway as he was going to work, I had a fairly hard crash (cracked some ribs), and celebrated riding over Teton Pass with a 53 mph descent into Wyoming. The much anticipated Teton Day didn’t disappoint, with a gorgeous day, slight tailwind, beautiful Teton views, nachos & blackberry margs at Signal Mtn Lodge, a mother grizzly and two cubs sighting, and me winning my only KOM sprint of the trip at our high point on the Continental Divide at Togwotee Pass.
Then surprisingly, Nebraska was another trip highlight! It started with the Sandhills sand dunes that were amazing, took us on 200 miles of a rail trail gem on the Cowboy Trail, treated me with the world’s best cinnamon rolls in Tekamah, and finished with gigantic Omaha Steaks in, well, Omaha. Despite getting my only coal-rolling of the trip (which I think was unintentional), I enjoyed Nebraska.
The next three states, the Is, took us through the heart of the country and were filled with lots of soybeans, corn, cows, curiosity with us at random convenience stores, windmills, and headwinds. Oh the headwinds. Eight to ten hours a day of in-yo-face 20-30 mph winds. Almost every stop, the locals would say “Yeah, this is a crazy spring as the wind usually blows from the west…”. Thanks.
In the second I, Illinois, a ride on the Hennepin Canal Trail yielded a not-particularly-hard crash, but hard enough to break my handlebar (likely cracked on my first crash back in ID). Thankfully we were in flat Illinois when this happened, as my right shift lever/brake was useless and it would be 130 miles before I found a bike shop that could replace it.
After unfun rides around and through some big cities in Indiana and Ohio, we eventually made our way through the heartland and into eastern Ohio, where the steep hills and random pig encounters made it feel more like West Virginia. I enjoyed getting out of the headwind and rollers and back into the mountains, as it was nice to actually be able to see when even the steepest hill was ending (well, usually), even those creeping up to near 20% (of which I proudly cleared them all).
Those hills were just a warmup, however, to the Quaker State, as that’s where our biggest vert days of the trip came; long ups and long downs, pretty much all day, every day, for our 3 days of riding across it. Fun highlights came when crossing the Tuscarora Trail and Laurel Highlands Trail, both of which have significant meaning for me in my ultrarunning history, and the best lunch of the trip at an Amish dairy, where I feasted on a fresh strawberry-banana milkshake and a quart of fresh strawberries - oh-so-good!
Although not much riding was done in Maryland, we did get a few miles on the historic C&O Canal Path, another trail where I’ve logged a few ultra miles. As we entered Delaware, our final state line sprint was won by my much younger and faster riding partner, but it was a fun heart rate spike on our penultimate day that ended with good beers and relaxing in the sun.
Our final day was a mere 54 miles (typical days were 110-115 miles) and we were excited to get on the road. We enjoyed a scenic tour through old town Dover, then while cruising toward Milton, I felt my rear tire getting squishy. Crap. I’d gotten flat #1 on a poor road choice outside of Boise, and now, just 20 miles from the Atlantic, I got flat #2. I was on fire, though, and had the tube changed and we were back riding in under 5 minutes. A few miles later, however, my heart sank when that same squishy-tire feeling returned. This time I actually found and removed the tiny piece of glass from my tire before putting in a new tube. Back on the bikes and we pushed quickly to Dogfish Head Brewery so I could book-end my trip with a Sea Quench Ale (as I’d also drank one on day one way back in Oregon). As it was a warm day, I was pleasantly surprised that they were serving Sea Quench Ale slushies! I could’ve enjoyed a few more, but still had a dozen more miles to the ocean. Back on the bikes, “lights on” one last time, a little rebellion of riding 23 mph in a 20 zone, and then after 3267.9 miles in 30 days, 23 hours, and 20 minutes (under a month), we found ourselves in the Atlantic Ocean in Lewes.
We were done. And it was awesome. My favorite wife and her parents were there to greet us, and after a celebratory swim, we enjoyed good food, drinks, and heckling from my wife for my ghost-white t-shirt, er, chest.
A bike adventure of a lifetime, indeed.
Now as I write this four months later, I’m about to ride the Erie Canal Trail with my buddy Rob. At 4 days and 380 miles, it will be much shorter than the cross country ride, and I’m very much looking forward to shorter days in the saddle, more trail miles, fall foliage, and a great end to my cycling season.
I somehow believe that this mostly cycling-focused year has made me a little less of a runner and a little more of a cyclist again. And as someone who’s been a runner for 40 years, I think my body might like that shift. It’s almost like cross training and mixing things up are good things. Good things, indeed.