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German biker's U.S. trip starts amid L.A. riots


Michael Leske's long-planned vacation -- bicycling across the United States during two months off from his job as a German police captain -- started ominously.

He'd been pedaling only a short time, he recalled several days ago during a stopover in Baltimore, when he realized that the Los Angeles community through which he was riding had erupted in violence.

Gunshots rattled in the distance, smoke plumes spiraled skyward and a grocer with a rifle stood on the roof of his store, ready to shoot at any threat to his property. It was only hours after four white police officers had been acquitted of criminal charges in the much publicized beating of black motorist Rodney King.

Mr. Leske recalled that he leaned forward and pedaled his lightweight bike faster, and he got through safely.

His experiences would improve as he worked his way east from Los Angeles, mainly on back roads.

"I was surprised that there was such an echo [from the jury verdicts] in this whole country. I feel very good in America. I had impression that tolerance is very good in your country," Mr. Leske said in fluent though imperfect English.

"That's why I was so astonished while I was in Los Angeles. The dark part [of the trip] is Los Angeles. It was something for me that is unbelievable. I was afraid. Something bad has happened, and I don't understand that.

"I saw the video. I ask myself why they [the police officers] are doing that? Why is that necessary? In Germany, we would have picked him [Mr. King] up by his hands and feet and taken him to prison," he said. "But I don't know the whole story."

The 43-year-old bachelor experienced rain, cold and fog crossing the Rocky Mountains, 110-degree temperatures in the Mojave Desert and a tornado watch in Kansas. He said he averaged 100 miles a day -- riding six days out of seven on his 16-speed racing bike, carrying about 25 pounds of clothing and gear.

"It is a great country . . . very big," he said. "You have such nice regions. One part is not comparable to the other. You have deserts, mountains and lakes."

Memorable experiences included receiving a fraternity patch from a Navajo Indian in Kayenta, Ariz., and assisting park rangers in caring for two auto accident victims at the Grand Canyon.

"I helped with the transfusion," he said. "I was very astonished by the first aid the paramedics gave. It was very good, very quick and very helpful. And there was no doctor."

Other impressions:

"You don't have very old towns like ours in Europe. We have houses from the 16th and 17th century. You have history, but you are more recent -- about the 18th century. If America would be a more elder democracy, perhaps, you would not have these social problems," was his assessment.

Germany does have some of the same law enforcement problems that America has, he said, especially illegal drugs and drunken driving. But stringent gun regulations result in less violence in Germany, he said.

The adventurer had planned his first visit to the United States about 18 months ago with a group of about 1,000 police officers from around the world, intending to cycle from New York to Miami. But the trip's organizer failed, and Mr. Leske's $1,000 deposit was not returned.

"So, I said to me, 'I will see this country, anyway,' " Mr. Leske said.

He dug a little deeper to cover expenses, added his vacation time from last year to this year's, and headed in late April to Los Angeles, where he stayed with a friend briefly before starting his journey.

During the trip east, Mr. Leske found overnight lodging through police departments as a member of the International Police Association, a worldwide fraternal group that assists traveling officers.

"I had an advantage," he said. "Every day I could address a police department that were friends of mine. That was very, very important."

Mr. Leske arrived in Baltimore en route to New York City and a plane trip home to Dusseldorf.

Capt. Charles M. Dickens, an IPA member in Baltimore's Police Department, assisted Mr. Leske here and arranged for him to stay with Robert N. Purvis, a crime laboratory technician who has visited Germany.

The thin bicyclist with mostly gray hair jokingly remarked that he believes all the hospitality afforded him during his travels has left him a couple of pounds heavier.

Along the way he gathered postcards but never took pictures.

"All the impressions are in my head," he said. "I made the ride to see the people in this country for me.

"Now when I go home, my girlfriend [Martha Peters] will ask me what I see. I will tell her five things: baseball, mom and dad, apple pie and Chevrolet."

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