On July 17, Margaret Goodman will begin her ninth long-distance bicycle trip, pedaling 1,100 miles over 30 days. She will start in Quebec City, ride around the Gaspe Peninsula, then down the coast to New Brunswick, across a bit of Maine and finally back to Quebec City.
Before she leaves Washington for the drive to Canada, her bicycle (a 27-gear Specialized Sequoia she bought herself as a retirement gift nine years ago) will receive a thorough tuneup so it’s ready for the trip. She’ll be ready, too.
“Riding makes me feel good physically and mentally,” says Goodman, 69, a retired international affairs expert who has worked for the Peace Corps and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “I know many people who enjoy riding the same routes frequently. But I get my greatest joy being on new routes, setting out each day, not knowing what sights and adventures are to be found.”
In previous summers, Goodman has made five week-long bike trips, two one-month trips and one two-month trip, the most recent a 3,100-mile ride last year from Seattle to Pittsburgh. With each excursion, she becomes more passionate about riding.
“I was never ready for the one-week trips to end, so I figured that a month-long trip would be long enough,” she says. “Wrong — but two months was great.”
If you’re thinking about taking a lengthy trip by bicycle, her experiences are a valuable template for both novice riders and skilled ones.
Long-distance biking isn’t for everyone. The weather can be unpredictable, the hills steep. It’s possible to break down or to take a tumble. Nightly accommodations are not five-star. But you’ll see beautiful country and breathe fresh air. You’ll bond with your riding companions, meet new people and have memorable adventures.
“Generally, the people we meet are friendly and helpful,” Goodman says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, ‘I can’t wait to tell my family about this — you’ve made my day,’ when I’m thinking that they have made my day.”
One of her favorite sights during last summer’s ride was that of an old kitchen stove sitting in the middle of a South Dakota field with the oven door open. A sign above the stove read: “THE OPEN RANGE.”
“I loved the humor and effort and most of all the fact that if I had been driving by, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it, and — even if I had — wouldn’t have stopped,” she says.
Just outside Armada, Mich., in 2013, her group ran into road construction. Cars were moving single file, and there weren’t any shoulders.
“We were laboriously pushing our bikes through gravel at the side of the lane when a truck driver motioned us onto the road,” she recalls. “We were able to get back on our bikes and ride the mile or so to our turn, with him guarding us from the back, to the consternation of some of the cars behind him. When we turned, we gave him a huge wave and hoped he knew how grateful we were.”
In one northern Wisconsin town in 2012, she and her companions stopped for a beer and spent some time in the bar chatting with the locals. “We said we were bikers, and they asked where we had ridden from that day,” she says. “When we told them — I think it was about a 60-mile ride — the response was muted. Then someone hooted and said, ‘Oh, you guys are pedal bikers!’”
This year, as in the two previous summers, she will join the same group of 18 cyclists, who range in age from the mid-50s to nearly 80. Goodman sometimes lies about her age when biking, telling people she’s older because “70 sounds much more impressive as I come panting up a hill.”
The team rides with “cue sheets” that lay out the route. If it includes lots of turns, it can be “a kind of puzzle, which I love solving,” she says. “You have to stay alert, checking your mileage against the cue sheet, hoping the roads are well marked, the directions are clear — as when a road just changes its name — and that you don’t miss a turn,” which happened last summer, adding 10 miles to her route.
“I could invest in fancy GPS [equipment] and download the routes, but I prefer the challenge,” she says. When cell service is available, “I do use the GPS on my phone to figure out where I am in relation to where I want to be,” she says.
She rides with a group organized by Nancy and Ken Wright of Sharon, Vt., who lead adult bike tours “for love and fun,” Goodman says. “They are not a formal organization, as their rides grew out of their experiences leading youth rides across the country. They find riders primarily by word of mouth.” Goodman learned of them from several friends she rides with locally.
Last summer, before she flew to Seattle, a mechanic took her bike apart. She then boxed it up and sent it west using Bike Flights, where Ken Wright picked it up and reassembled it.
Numerous groups organize cross-country bicycle trips. Information is available at the nonprofit Adventure Cycling Association. Prices vary, but last summer’s trip cost Goodman about $125 per day, plus the expenses of airfare, about 20 meals that she ate on her own, and alcohol and desserts. “That is definitely on the inexpensive side for a non-camping trip,” Goodman says.
Once on the road, the riders have nonstop support.
“Ken drove his truck, hauling a camper across country carrying bikes from the Vermont contingent,” Goodman says. “We had four different support teams . . . who drove the truck, which contained our luggage, bought food for most of our lunches and met us at a prearranged spot for lunch, took care of checking us in to our various accommodations, and occasionally ferried in weary bikers.”
They sleep in local churches, or retreat centers. Each rider takes a turn cooking dinner and provides the support team with a shopping list.
They suffered no accidents last summer, although they had to cope with an emergency root canal. Bike problems were minor. Because Goodman took a bike maintenance course five years ago, she can perform basic tasks herself.
“We can all change a bike tire or make sure we are riding with someone who can do it for us,” Goodman says. “I had only one flat tire the whole trip, and that was a slow leak which I discovered one morning before we rode out. That’s luck: On a previous trip, I had four flats in one day!”
Ken Wright is a bike mechanic who takes along his tools in the truck, “and we’ve also called ahead to bike stores for parts when necessary,” Goodman says.
Team members usually ride in groups of two to five. “If we do ride alone, we are aware of who is ahead and behind us,” Goodman says. Riders must call in if they are out beyond a designated time. “If the last riders hadn’t been heard from, someone goes looking for them,” Goodman says. “But happily, we’ve never had to do this.”
As for training, Goodman typically rides 25 to 30 miles a week during the year, sometimes just in one ride. If that mileage seems low, considering the arduous trips ahead, it is. But it works for her. “I go out more than that if possible, but I don’t worry if that’s all I get in,” she says. “I ride with Vermonters, and they put their bikes away all winter.” Several months before a trip, she begins doing longer rides, building up to 60 miles, including hills.
“Nancy always says that if you can do a 50-mile ride easily, you are ready to start the trip, and she keeps the first couple of days as gentle as possible,” Goodman says. “I like to think of the first week of a trip as part of the training. That said, we climbed up Stevens Pass over the Cascades on the third day of the trip last year. When we got down the other side, we were trained!”
What advice does she have for first-timers considering this?
“Know yourself and figure out what you like, as there are lots of riding alternatives,” she says. “Don’t forget your sunscreen. Eat before you’re hungry, brake before the stop sign, and shift gears before the hill.”
Most important, she adds: “If you set out on a long trip, make sure your bike seat, both the one on the bike and the one on you, are well broken in.”