4,920 miles in 93 days, all on two wheels


WHEN SEAN Sweeney dipped his front wheel in the coastal waters of Bar Harbor, Maine, on Aug. 27, the odometer on his bicycle read 4,920 miles. The Annapolis resident and 12 others celebrated the completion of a three-month bicycle trip across the United States with the wheel-in-the-water ceremony.

The ride began May 27 in Anacortes, Wash., with 15 riders wetting their rear wheels in the waters of the Pacific coast in anticipation of an adventure.

The trip would take 93 days and cross the northern tier of the United States. The riders logged 50 to 70 miles every day, taking only about one day off for every 10 in the saddle. They pedaled through 14 states, each with its own scenery and culture.

The first of many challenges was crossing four mountain passes in Washington's North Cascade Mountains. Sweeney counts this area as one of the most challenging for its 20- to 30-mile ascents. "Nothing really gets you ready for the mountains out West," said Sweeney, the oldest of the group at 66. "You just had to pump uphill for five or six hours."

Sweeney and most of his traveling companions were prepared for the trip. His training included riding 50 to 70 miles three or four times a week for three or four months before starting the trip. He pulled a trailer to practice carrying the extra 50 pounds that his gear would weigh. Even with planning for all possibilities and packing conservatively, Sweeney took too much gear. At the first post office, he mailed home extras.

Sweeney recalls the North Cascades as one of the most picturesque places along the route, and the downhill rides being well worth the uphill work.

Sandpoint, Idaho, a town on a lake surrounded by snowcapped mountains, was another favorite location. Besides the incredible scenery, the town offered all the amenities one would need -- laundry facilities, good sources of food and a friendly bike shop.

With a daily budget per person of $15 for food and $6 for accommodations, every free amenity a town had was helpful. Most of the time, the group camped. Only one night did they stay in a motel and once in a hostel. Many towns opened their community centers and swimming pools for them. Some even prepared meals. Libraries were important for e-mail correspondence with those back home.

"People were so friendly across the country," Sweeney said.

In the beginning, they cooked most of their meals on two camp burners they carried. That practice gave way to eating at restaurants as the trip wore on. The bicyclers became adept negotiators, getting food and accommodations at reduced prices. In the West, they got huge breakfasts for $3 to $4 and dinners for about $6. Regardless of the budget, they rarely skipped a daily dose of ice cream.

The group passed through Montana's Glacier National Park and continued east through the rolling farmland of North Dakota and on to the fishing lakes of Minnesota and Wisconsin, where the countryside was pretty but the mosquitoes were unbearable.

They dipped down from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan across Mackinac Straits to the Lower Peninsula and Indiana.

In Ohio, Arnold resident Bill Law joined the group for a couple of days. Law, an experienced bicycler (he is on a 10-day ride in Canada now), rode into Pennsylvania with the group before heading home.

Next came the Finger Lakes of New York, where Sweeney's wife, Sandy, met them for a day. Sweeney enjoyed the luxury of a real bed that night at his wife's family farm.

Sweeney needed more than just a good night of rest before facing the Adirondacks and the mountains of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. "From the eastern side of Glacier [National Park] to New York, there are no real big hills," Sweeney said. "When you got to Vermont, it was kind of a shock. The hardest riding was in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine because of the very steep grades."

Sweeney had ridden those mountains before on a trip with the Montana-based Adventure Cycling Association, the same group that organized the cross-country tour. Its goal is to promote fitness, fun and adventure by inspiring people of all ages to travel by bicycle and explore the landscape and history of America.

Association members have created a nationwide system of bicycle routes, and the group sponsors a number of bicycle tours each year and offers courses for tour leaders. Sweeney had taken two of the organization's courses before starting the cross-country tour.

Would Sweeney do it again? "Oh, yeah," he said. In fact, he is planning next summer's trip -- the Lewis and Clark trail, to coincide with the bicentennial of the pair's expedition. That is, if he can negotiate the deal with his wife.

Information: www.adv- cycling.org.

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