The Voyageur
Bob Allen
Wisconsin, 2006

Until I rolled up alongside Jeff, I'd been feeling a bit adventurous. I'd taken a day off work and was spending all of it on a long solo ride with no destination known. I headed south into the wind so I could have a tailwind coming home. That was the extent of my planning.

About 25 miles south of town, I saw something on the road up ahead. From afar, it could have been a hiker with a huge backpack, or maybe a pack mule loaded for a mining expedition. As I got closer, I could see it was a backpack-burdened man pushing a bicycle up a slight hill.

Pulling up to him, I asked him if he was okay, while looking for a telltale flat tire or disengaged chain that could force a rider to become a walker. He assured me he was fine and needed no help.

Sometimes you just get tired of riding, he said.

Topping the hill, he climbed back on the bike and we rode along together down the quiet town road. He said his name was Jeff and that hed set out four days earlier from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, heading for Oklahoma and maybe then on to Arizona. Tired of riding? No fooling!

He said he was averaging about 100 miles a day, as far as he could tell. He wasn't sure because he had no onboard computer to count miles. He really didn't have any of the trappings of a long distance bicyclist.

He was riding a basic Trek hybrid, the kind with fat tires but not the knobbies found on mountain bikes. It was a sturdy enough set of wheels and tires, but far heavier than needed. Long distance riders, or, actually any rider looking for optimum efficiency, will choose rims and tires that are as light as can be reasonably expected to withstand anticipated conditions.

While serious riders strive to keep their entire machines as light as possible, nowhere is saving weight more important than in the wheels. A rider will feel a reduction in the rotational weight of rims and tires more than any other kind of weight savings. Jeff, obviously, had not worried about this before heading out on his adventure.

Jeffs bike had only one lightweight rack on the back, and he'd strapped to it the smallest bag he was carrying. He had two other monstrous packs slung over his back. I asked him why he was carrying the bags on his back.

Got to have clothes, food, a place to sleep, he answered, missing the point I hadn't really made.

Serious touring cyclists will debate the merits of different rack and bag systems to achieve the best distribution of weight. Some turn up their noses at racks and use trailers to get the cargo weight off the bike altogether. Not even the most contrarian cyclist would argue that piling all the weight on your back is a good idea. But Jeff apparently wasn't in on this discussion.

His bike was okay for such a ride. It was sturdy and offered a wide range of gearing that would allow him to shift way down for the steep hills of Wisconsin's driftless zone and eventually the Ozarks of Missouri. But its straight mountain bike style handlebars didn't offer the multiple hand positions provided by the drop bars favored by most touring cyclists. Being able to move around and change hand positions frequently is a welcome luxury after countless hours in the saddle.

Jeff's machine had no fenders to keep the rain spray from his tires from painting a stripe up his back, or all over his backpacks. He had no lights in case he got caught out in the dark. When I asked him about his planned route, he said he was figuring it out as he went through trial and error and asking people. He wasn't carrying any maps.

You might think that after I have catalogued all these apparent deficiencies in Jeff's equipment and approach that I wasnt very impressed with him. The opposite is true.

He was the most impressive bicycle rider I have met for quite awhile, and I've met some pretty formidable riders along the way.

In fact, I found him so inspiring that I ended up riding a lot farther that day than I'd planned and got back to town later than expected.

Here I was, imagining myself adventurous, on my custom-built bicycle with painstakingly chosen components calibrated exactly to the type of riding I'd planned for the day, an excellent Wisconsin bicycling map tucked in my back pocket to prevent me from ever getting lost or having to subject myself to an uncomfortably inappropriate road, four decades of riding history guiding even my smallest decisions.

And here was Jeff. He didn't need perfect equipment. He didn't need to consult any self-appointed experts. He just needed the will to ride, and he appeared to have no shortage of that.

I know plenty of seasoned riders with no end of expensive and exotic equipment that gathers more dust than miles. And I know a lot of fairly fit folks who say they'd like to take some longer rides or start riding to work but never talk themselves into it.

I'm not sure what got Jeff out there on roads he didnt know. He said he was a construction worker who got tired of working in Michigan and was going to see what kind of work he could find down the road. He was probably somewhere in his mid 30s and obviously fit enough to shoulder huge packs and face big hills. He simply decided to go, and he was going no matter what.

As we parted, him turning west toward New Glarus and me south toward Albany, he admitted that most people he met didn't know what to make of his big ride. "Most people think I'm crazy," he said.

I would never say that. Whatever he lacked in equipment and trip planning expertise, he more than made up for by being oblivious to the obstacles that stop most of us cold.

May we all be a bit more oblivious.

Safe riding, Jeff. Have fun.

Bob Allen
Allen is a commuting and recreational rider from Middelton, Wisconsin