Two take tandem tour across America

Aug. 24, 2014 @ 02:20 PM

Cycling across the country from coast-to-coast on a two-person bicycle, Bill Kier and Kathleen Smith encountered rain, sleet, and snow, temperatures above 100 degrees and forest-fire-caused road detours.

The cycling enthusiasts – and married couple -- have been riding a tandem bicycle together since 1990. Cycling about 4,300 miles across the country along the route they took is “sort of the Holy Grail” for touring cyclists, Smith said.

And for the two of them, it combined the things they enjoy: natural history and geology, camping and a challenge, Kier said. They didn’t’ encounter challenges they weren’t prepared to face, Smith said. The hardest part of the trip was ending it.

“A lot of it was just the freedom,” Smith said. “We were outdoors, we were healthy… getting a lot of sunshine, and we were seeing something new every minute of every day. None of the kind of normal, day-to-day things we worry about, we just weren’t worrying about. It was just a free, simple, pleasant life.”

Smith is a biology professor at Duke University, and Kier is a biology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They met at Duke when Smith started as a professor and Kier was finishing up his doctoral work.

After they married, Smith said they started doing more serious cycling, including 100-mile rides.

But Smith said they found that when they rode separate bicycles, they traveled at different speeds. So they bought a tandem in 1990. They bought the tandem bicycle that they rode across the country for their 20th wedding anniversary, and celebrated their 30th while on the trip.

It was only this summer when their schedules came together so they could do the trip, Smith said.

They planned to mostly follow Adventure Cycling’s Transamerica mapped route through North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon.

They packed about 60 pounds of non-consumable goods including clothing, camping gear, a stove and cooking pot, tools, maps, a first aid kit, medicine, their smart phones, a camera, an iPad mini and a Kindle, according to their trip blog,

“We had multiple spreadsheets and all sorts of organization,” Kier said. “The result of it was that it was an easier trip for us than for many people because we were careful about portions of the route where there weren’t any services, made sure stocked up on food and water … and we also are just very experienced cyclists.”

They expected to average riding about 60 miles a day. In addition to camping, they stayed at hotels, cabins and hostels. They mostly stopped at restaurants for food.

They started by driving to the Outer Banks and cycling through eastern North Carolina back to their home in Chapel Hill. After a week, they left May 3 to ride to Oregon.

They expected one of hardest parts of the trip would be riding through the Appalachians in Kentucky, Smith said. The mountains are steep, the area is known for aggressive dogs, and there would be longer distances between restaurants and other services. To avoid traffic from coal trucks, they targeted that part of the journey for a weekend.

 “I was very concerned,” Smith said. “Clearly, (we were) able to do it.”

Kier said a difficult part of the journey was in Colorado. He got a bout of food poisoning, so they had to extend their stay in a cabin that lacked running water and electricity.

They decided to move on, although Kier said he hadn’t fully recovered, and discovered a fracture in the rim of their rear wheel. The day ended with a “huge storm that came through and nearly blew us off the road,” he said. It was snowing by the time they reached their destination. They had to wait for a new wheel to reach them in the mail.

Then in eastern Oregon, he said they discovered from a waitress at lunch that part of their route was closed by wildfires. They had to do take a detour that involved more uphill pedaling.

In total, their trip was 85 days with 73 days of riding across 4,318 miles. They saw beautiful countryside, Smith said, found people to be friendly and helpful, and the drivers courteous.

“One of the things that has always struck us about those trips is how different the experience is in meeting people when you’re meeting people when you’re on the bike than when you’re roaring up in a car,” Kier said. “People are invariably friendly and open. I think there’s something about it that is less threatening.”

Smith also said they saw a lot of small towns struggling, with houses and schools closed.

“We were surprised by how many small towns along the route (were struggling) economically,” he said.

They both said the trip confirmed how much they enjoy cycling together.

“I would say – I think Kathleen’s statement of that was really elegant,” Kier said. “We had planned well, we knew what to expect, and we had just a fabulous time. But we’re not young; we weren’t trying to find ourselves. We had some sense of what it would be like and I would say it exceeded our expectations.”