True Story: I’m biking across America

Want to bike across America? One woman shares her story and adventures with tips about how she prepared, her biggest challenges, and what she's learned! >> yesandyes.org
I don’t know about you guys, but I’m preeeeetty impressed with myself any time I ride a bike anywhere. In the rare event I even ride my bike to the grocery store, I become convinced I’m essentially a tri-athlete (my events being cycling, buying produce, and small talk with the cashier). Imagine biking across the country! Like, THOUSANDS OF MILES. Today, Sarah is telling us how she’s doing just that!


Tell us a bit about yourself! 

My name is Sarah O’Leary and I am 23 years old. For the past five years I lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, where I went to college. I finished school last December and up until this trip I had two part time jobs as a product photographer/blogger and at REI. I love hiking and being outside, traveling, baking, speaking Spanish, and photography.

You’re riding across America. Why?

Doing some sort of long-term journey has been on my mind for awhile. I am drawn to traveling slowly because it is a more intimate experience. When I found out about Bike & Build, a non-profit that raises funds and awareness for affordable housing via cross country cycling trips for young adults, it seemed like the perfect combination of adventure and giving back.

Along the way we work with affordable housing affiliates and converse with others about the issue, as well as fundraising $4,500 prior to the trip.

Prior to this trip, had you done a lot of long distance cycling?

Before training for this trip, the longest I had biked was 26 miles. In college, I worked for my university’s outdoor program and led a outdoor adventure trips. My experiences with back-country trips and the confidence I gained made me believe I was capable of biking across the country.

How does one prepare – mentally, physically, financially, logistically – to bike across America?

Mentally: I am a planner at heart, so I prepared and learned as much as I could to ready myself mentally for this challenge. I have several cyclist friends and I asked them so many questions, in addition to doing a lot of my own research.

Physically: I was active before the trip, but I trained specifically for this by biking 500 miles in the months before I left. Most of my rides were between 20 and 30 miles long, but I also did two long rides: one that was 50 miles and one that was 65 miles. I also trained on hills. Looking back, I wish I had done long rides back to back, but my body adjusted regardless.

Financially: Fundraising for affordable housing was a big part of my financial preparation. I wrote letters to everyone I knew, designed and sold t-shirts, got the word out via newspaper and TV and so much more. About half of the money goes to affordable housing affiliates; the other to trip costs.

Most of our lodging and food is donated along the way, which keeps costs down. Bike & Build works with Bookoo Bikes to supply bikes at a 50% discount, and that came out of fundraising money as well. All of my other gear I had to pay for myself, as well as on the road bike expenses. I was working at REI while I was purchasing my gear, so I was got really great discounts.

Logistically: I am biking across the northern US from New Hampshire to Washington. Bike & Build has been doing this route for 14 years. There are 4 trip leaders on our route, and they do all the work before the trip to plan the daily bike routes and where we stay, but many of it stays the same from year to year. For me, the logistics happened before the trip. I sublet my room in Knoxville, left my jobs, sold a lot of my furniture, and moved out of my house before biking across the country.

bike across America

How did the people in your life react when you told them you were going to do this?

My mom was initially nervous for me, but when she realized I was doing it with a legitimate organization she felt better. Most of my friends and co-workers were really excited for me. I have a great community of adventurous friends who have done everything from thru hike the AT to hitchhike around Europe to kayak the Grand Canyon, so they understand my drive to do this.

Of course, I’ve also been told that I’m crazy multiple times and gotten the “I could never do that!” reaction.

Can you walk us through an average day on the road?

Our average wake-up time is 5am. We wake up, pack up our bags, and start getting ready to bike. We have chore groups that rotate weekly, so Trailer Crew loads the trailer with our bags and supplies, Overnight Crew cleans, Breakfast Crew sets up breakfast, and Cooler Crew packs the cooler and water jugs. We eat, have a route meeting to discuss the day, and begin biking. In addition to our support van and trailer, we have two chase cars.

The riders divide into three groups and each is followed by a chase car or the van, but we spread out within our groups of ten. The purpose of the chase cars is to alert cars behind us that cyclists are ahead so that they can pass us more safely. Our average ride day is 70 miles, but we sometimes have days that are shorter or longer.

We usually arrive at our destination by 4 pm. In towns, we usually stay at churches that host us for a night, and they often donate us dinner and breakfast. Evenings vary, but may consist of a bike clinic for the local community, a meal with the church, a presentation about affordable housing, bike maintenance, exploring the local town, and lots of rest.

Can you tell us about a moment when you thought “Whyyyyyyy did I decide to do this?”

One day going through North Dakota we biked 60 miles into crazy headwinds, the highest of which were 30 mph. I don’t think I necessarily wished I weren’t on this trip, but it was the such a challenging day for me and I knew that there was no way I would ever do that ride if I were not on this trip.

For part of the day, I couldn’t go faster than 8 or 9 mph, my back ached from being so tense, and the winds actually blew me off the shoulder at one point. I’ve never been so glad to get off my bike in my life.

And a moment when it all seemed worth it?

I’ve had a lot of little moments that have made me feel this way. Sometimes I’ll be riding along a gorgeous flat stretch of land or descending and I feel so fully alive and free. The other thing that makes this all worth it is the way I am able to connect with others thanks to biking.

When you have miles and miles to bike, especially along one road, you have nothing to do but talk and you end up learning so much about people, knowing them inside and out. It’s beautiful. You learn how to love people through all their quirks and oddities, because you see it all when you spend 80 days together!

How are you taking care of yourself while you’re on the road? 

A good majority of our food is donated, so I’ve adjusted to eating differently than my normal life where I eat a mostly vegetarian diet. I eat a big breakfast with lots of carbs because it keeps me full longer. On the road, I tend to snack every hour to two hours on something that has fat and protein.

We stop for lunch halfway through the day too. It varies, but we eat a lot of tortillas and peanut butter. I eat right when I stop riding to replenish. And I make sure I eat a lot at dinner to fuel me for the next day. Staying hydrated is also extremely important, not only during the ride but all evening as well.

Injury wise, I had a wreck biking out of Madison, WI. I was going down a steep hill and skidded on gravel going between 30-35 mph. I got a concussion, some pretty bad bruises, road rash, and a stitch in my elbow. I took a week off from riding before I was ready to get back on my bike, but I’ve been great since! The timing of my injury was good because we were in St. Paul, MN, for three days. Members of the church that hosted us opened their homes to us, and I was able to sleep and rest in a bed which was wonderful.

What has surprised you about this experience?

I have been surprised by the countless example of kindness that strangers have shown me and my team along the way. In Madison, Wisconsin, a yoga teacher taught a class especially for our team. My host mom in St. Paul drove me to REI to buy a new helmet and chamois after my crash, in addition to cooking us several meals and letting me rest in her home.

These are just two examples of many. People like this show me how I want to live my life: giving to others for no reason other than to help them.

What have you learned that any of us could apply to our daily lives?

I’m starting the stage of life where I am beginning to feel pressure to start a career and while I am definitely motivated in this aspect of my life, I never want to let a job prevent me from getting out there and experiencing the world. Devoting 10 weeks of my life to this wasn’t easy, but I have no regrets. I hope others know that making sacrifices for adventure is definitely worth it, even when it’s scary.

Thanks so much for sharing your story, Sarah! Do you have any questions for her? Are any of you guys serious cyclists?

P.S. Interviews with an ultra-marathoner, a professional beach volleyball player, and a competitive lumberjack!

6 Comments

zoe

This is so cool! I sometimes vaguely think it would be good to do something like this, but I’ve never put it into action – feeling slightly more motivated after reading an account of what it’s really like. And it’s great that you kept going after your injury, I’d probably be freaking out at that point…

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Lesley S

Fellow Knoxvillian here! This is an awesome story! Love the part about what surprised you on this trip – it’s so wonderful to experience how kind people can be.

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Nikki

Wow! This is very cool! I have a couple of questions- did you need to have experience with building houses or construction? Also, what kinds of roads/paths do you bike on (like highways, etc.)? Thanks!

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Sarah

Hey Nikki! Everyone had to do a minimum of 10 hours with an affordable housing affiliate before the trip but the more experience the better. I worked with my local Habitat for Humanity chapter. We bike on all sorts of roads-back roads, bike paths whenever possible, state highways and through cities too.

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JD

We see such bike explorers in NW Iowa. The flat lands here are a bonus what with the beauty and quiet roads, long and straight. I know many who crash in a yard or on a couch here, the coffee is great and people very friendly.

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