Photo: Courtesy Brendan Leonard

Somewhere around mile 2,500, I glanced over into someone’s rural Louisiana front yard and saw, among a couple dozen other half-forgotten items, a child’s bike tipped over on the lawn. It was tiny, pink, with training wheels and streamers, white tires and a white seat. I wanted to take a photo of it so I’d remember it later, but it turns out I didn’t need to.

In America, you learn to ride a bike when you’re a kid. Everyone does, from boys who live down the street from the Valmont Bike Park in Boulder to little girls who live on potholed blacktop roads in middle-of-nowhere Louisiana. It’s a rite of passage, lodged somewhere between learning to tie your shoes and going to prom (or skipping prom). But somewhere around the age of 16, most of us ditch bicycles. They’re kids’ toys. Most Americans get a driver’s license, and, for the rest of their lives, the only experience they have with bicycles is when someone riding one gets in their way. Maybe they honk the horn, maybe they swerve, maybe they yell obscenities, maybe they do nothing when that cyclist is holding them up from wherever they’re trying to get. I’ve experienced all those moments—from the cyclist’s perspective—in five years of riding central Denver’s streets.

I pedaled by that little girl’s bike in Louisiana, through the clammy, early March air, and I pictured someone teaching her to ride it. They didn’t say, “You have to learn to ride a bike so that when you’re older, people driving cars can be mean to you.” Whoever it was—Mom, Dad, an aunt or uncle—pushed that little girl on her pink bike until they could muster up the hope to let go, and when she finally got it, they said, “See, isn’t it fun?”

In the middle of my cross-country bike ride, that’s what I spent a couple minutes imagining. When you ride a bike eight hours a day for a month and a half, you have time to think about a lot of things, I guess.

My old pal Tony asked me on Facebook if I wanted to ride across the country. I said yes, because he didn’t ask questions like “can you get the time off work?” or “can you afford it?” He just asked if I wanted to. Well shit, who wouldn’t?

Turns out, since Tony and I had become friends back in high school (when we were washing dishes in the back of the Pinicon Restaurant in New Hampton, Iowa), he’d become an entrepreneur, a triathlete and a successful chiropractor, and could afford to take along a starving non-profit employee like me. I knew there would be stories. With Tony, there always are. He’s that guy things just happen to, partly because he makes them happen.

We used to drink our way across Iowa during RAGBRAI, the annual cross-state bike ride that 10,000 cyclists (loose use of that term) sign up for every year (20,000 show up). One year, Tony grabbed one of those giant pickle jars that sits at the end of every dive bar in America, paid for all the pickles in it and handed them out until they were gone. Then he had the bartender fill the rest of the jar with ice and vodka, and he drank out of it until the end of the night, walking around chatting people up with a two-foot-tall glass of green liquid. Did I mention he’s seven feet tall? Actually 6’ 11 ¾” if you press him, but it’s a lot easier to say “seven feet” to the half dozen people who ask you every time you get off your bicycle when you’re riding across the country.

I bought a 1988 Raleigh Team USA from a guy in Broomfield for the ride. I’d been riding tough steel bikes around Denver for years, and I figured the same kind could make it from San Diego to Florida just fine. The seller put it on Craigslist the weekend after I smashed my Surly into the back of a Honda Accord and crumpled the downtube, and I thought it would be funny to ride a $100 bike across America. I got five 20s out of an ATM, drove to his place, saw that it was basically rideable, gave him the money and took the bike home where I stripped it. I swapped all the parts off my Surly for the original Team USA components and bought clear nail polish to cover the dings in the red, white and blue paint job. Of which there were many. I had a $400 Easton wheelset on a $100 bike.

I wanted it to be a good story, a story about consumption, recycling, about not needing expensive gear to have an adventure. I wanted it to be about something meaningful. In the end, Tony and I pedaled 3,000 miles in 49 days, and there were 1,000 stories, all of which have come out multiple times in conversations in the three years since we finished. I hear the words “when I did this bike tour a couple years ago…” come out of my mouth so often, I can’t believe the ride only lasted a few weeks. When I run my finger along the map, I see a line punctuated with stories about bicycles.

Our second day of the ride, we unwittingly found ourselves riding alongside the Boulevard Road Race near Alpine, California. There we were—two guys with 50-pound trailers struggling up steep hills amongst packs of road racers on ultralight bikes. We got cheers, not from spectators, but from the racers, as they passed us, flying by.

While staying with my friends Angie and Jarrett in Phoenix, Jarrett, who hadn’t ridden a bike since college, showed me the new Trek road bike he’d bought to train for a century to raise money to help fight leukemia and lymphoma, a sort of recompense for the support he’d received when he fought Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2007. I remember him worrying about being in shape to ride 15 miles the next morning, let alone 100 miles in a single day in June, and asking, “Are these jerseys supposed to be this tight?” as he walked out into the living room. He was as uncomfortable in his new kit as if he were wearing a ballerina costume.

In Silver City, New Mexico, I asked the mechanic installing a new crank on Tony’s bike if he might know a guy named Maynard, who used to work the Tour de Gila, the annual bike race in Silver City that draws a few big names. He said, “Of course, Maynard is a good friend,” and asked, “How do you know him?” And I said, “Maynard lives five blocks from me in Denver and is a total rascal. I just had coffee with him three weeks ago.”

In Austin, I installed a new cassette and brake pads on the patio at Juan Pelota, the coffee shop adjoining Lance Armstrong’s bike shop, while I waited for my old pal Russell to come meet us for dinner. Russell told me stories of his career as a pedicab driver in Austin, and found an actual Team USA mechanic to work on my $100 bike, to address a creaking I thought was in the bottom bracket. It turned out to be nothing but a harmless noise coming from my saddle.

In Florida, my uncle Tim pedaled out 20 miles from Niceville on his new Raleigh road bike to meet us. He had bought the bike a few months before, when he returned from a weekend ride on his old clunker and listened to a podcast I’d made about my old steel road bike in Denver. He had gone out to ride a couple more hours, then promptly went to the cycle shop to get a better bike.

Tony and I encountered little trouble from people along the way beyond some isolated incidents. Someone threw a soda at me in Louisiana, a few aggressive drivers buzzed us in the South, and someone swerved at Tony as he stood on the shoulder waiting for me, forcing him to dive into the ditch. I spun the wheels of my Team USA, burning through tires and calories, and later in the trip, when I got a little tired of long days on the road and worrying about unpredictable motorists, I wondered what it is in us that loves the idea of a child on a bicycle, but is capable of such hate toward adults on bicycles?

As the days of a bike tour pile up, you start to understand that strangers love to come up and talk to you. They’d never just walk up to someone on a motorcycle or someone driving a pickup truck and start asking questions, but I think people figure anybody dumb enough to pedal a bicycle with 40 or 50 pounds of crap tied to it must be harmless. I loved it, first the small talk, then the big talk, some local chatter. These were folks who were interested in something I was doing. And a few people said some things we’d laugh about for miles down the road. Outside a convenience store in Uvalde, Texas, as I strapped a bottle of Gatorade to my BOB trailer, a man walked up to me and asked where we were headed. I said maybe San Antonio that day, but eventually Florida, and he said, “Man, that guy over there is so tall, I can’t believe he can even ride a bike. Look how big he is!”

I just laughed and said Tony usually dropped me a mile or two out of town. I wanted to explain that yes, Tony did, in fact, possess normal, even above-average motor coordination, and that being a foot taller than most men did not cause the same problems as inhaling ether. After the guy drove off in his pickup, I told Tony the story, and he said, “I wish I would have known he said that. I would have pedaled over here and crashed my bike in front of you guys.”

Tony and I talk, long distance, about another adventure in our future. He runs his business ventures in Chicago. I bounce around the West, living out of a van and writing. I wish we could line something up, because I know if I go on one or two more bike tours with him, I’ll probably have enough material for a book.

Now, I’m that guy walking up to the folks standing by fully loaded bikes at convenience stores, as they sit munching calories for their next 20 miles. I hope that they feel like talking, like sharing some stories from the road, and then maybe I can relate some of my own experiences, and maybe offer some encouragement. But I always start with the small talk: Where you guys headed?