Staples 2010 grad Alec Bernard founded his school’s cycling club. He also raced, and worked at bike shops in the area.
Allie Wills — his Cornell University girlfriend — had never ridden more than 10 miles. “And that was in a full day,” she clarifies.
It’s a good thing Alec didn’t know that, when she proposed a cross-country bike trip — and he accepted.
Alec and Allie found a non-profit to raise funds for. Citta, a small organization with Westport ties, works with schools, hospitals, women’s centers and clean water projects in India, Nepal and Mexico.
The pair contacted Cornell students who had already biked across America. They took some advice (“bring earplugs for the Kansas wind”), and ignored some. For example, they decided to bike from east to west — not the other way, as recommended — because they wanted to start near friends, save wide-open spaces for last, and end in unfamiliar territory.
They’re glad they made that decision — though the hills of Pennsylvania provided unexpected tough going early. They took the first few days to figure things out.
So, before the week was up they’d thrown out their planned itinerary, complete with campsites. Instead — wet and sore — they realized the trip was about the journey, not destinations along the way. “We wanted to be fully present, all the time,” Allie explains.
From the day they left Compo Beach on May 17, they were stunned by the kind, “shockingly generous” people they encountered. Strangers paid for campsites and meals. (And Alec and Allie ate at least 6 big meals a day. “We were always hungry,” she says.)
They also collected $800 for Citta, from people who were inspired by their project.
The WarmShowers website — linking cyclists with possible hosts — was a godsend. Through it they found beds, food, showers — and very interesting people, from every walk of life imaginable.
Alec and Allie rode for 25 straight days, before resting twice in Colorado. Despite the Rockies, they were thrilled to leave Kansas. “It’s very repetitive,” Alec says. “These tiny towns are 25 miles apart, and even there there’s just 80 people and a grain elevator.
“The wind rolls off the Rockies and cuts your speed in half. It’s soul-sucking.”
“Clouds of bugs stick everywhere. On your sweat and your sunscreen,” Allie adds.
“And you wouldn’t know it if you weren’t on a bike, but when you ride west across Kansas it’s slightly uphill all the way.”
Still, they say, they loved and appreciated Kansas. Just not as much as the other states.
The Rockies were invigorating. The rewards for long climbs were 30-mile downhills.
And Utah — though it included a 52-mile climb that took the entire day, hemmed in by trees so they could not even see the summit — provided them finally with an awe-inspiring red canyon. Allie calls it “the most beautiful sight of the entire trip.”
The riders lucked out with heat — the day they left Nevada, the temperature rose from “only” 110 to 115 — but they hit nearly every other natural disaster. It rained 18 of their 1st 22 days. There was heavy flooding in Pennsylvania; a close call with a Missouri tornado; diversions because of the Colorado wildfires, and a Nevada sandstorm that knocked them off their bikes.
It was the 2nd spill for Alec. In Colorado he’d crashed over his handlebars and cracked his helmet. Allie, trailing close behind, ran over him. It took 2 hours for an ambulance to arrive; the hospital was another hour away.
Alec’s shoulder got infected, and he ached all over for the next week. But he and Allie got back on their bikes, and rode on.
Their fundraising goal was $7096 — a dollar per mile for each of them. They ended up riding 251 fewer miles than expected — they traded tougher hills for a chance to see Yosemite — and raised closed to $9000. (They’re still accepting contributions: Click here to donate.)
After 46 days — averaging 75 miles a day, carrying 40 pounds of gear — Alec and Allie ended in San Francisco. They hadn’t crossed the Golden Gate Bridge — a cyclist’s dream — so they hopped onto it, then rode down to Baker Beach.
“The ending was great closure,” Allie says. “We had met so many great people but this was just the two of us, rolling our bikes to the ocean.”
Unfortunately, the sand was heavy and deep. A couple of folks saw them, and offered to help.
They took Alec and Allie’s pictures, and offered some wine. “It was such a cool ending,” he says.
They spent a couple of days in San Francisco, before flying home. The BART trains and buses were not running, due to a strike — but hey, they had their bikes.
For the past few days, back in Westport, they’ve savored their experience. The kind, open, giving people they met; the fantastic hospitality and generosity they encountered, even in humble, out-of-the-way places — all made them realize “how lucky we are to be able to do something like ride across the country,” Allie says.
“It’s less hard than you think,” Alec adds (though I’m exhausted just writing this).
“If anyone is interested in a trip like this — just do it. Start. Take things as they come. Plan little goals, and keep going.”
Alec and Allie will keep going — back to Ithaca (this time by car). They’re taking summer courses: organic chemistry (him) and sculpture (her).
“Mine is much more relaxing!” Allie laughs.
Though even orgo must be far easier than riding a bike from Connecticut to California.