On the go with Rich: Coast to Coast on a Tandem
BY RICH PALZEWIC
When I bicycled across the country in the summer of 2000, I had it made. Granted, it was still the most physically and mentally demanding thing I’ve ever done, but I had quite a bit of help.
I took an Amtrak train out to Everett, Washington (near Seattle), for the start and ended 4,300 miles, and nine weeks later in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Gloucester is maybe best-known for being the backdrop of the movie, “The Perfect Storm.”
For some reason I still remember the train ticket cost me $159. I also remember seeing some amazing scenery on the way out and reading the first Harry Potter book during the 36-hour trip.
For the most part all I had to worry about was riding my bike because I went through a touring company. I didn’t have to think about food, carrying my own gear or a mechanical breakdown. Obviously there was a pretty hefty fee that accompanied such an adventure, but it was well-worth it in my mind. It included daily luggage transportation, route maps, a marked course, mechanical support (for a fee), non-luxurious-sleeping arrangements, the chance to see the country from the seat of a bicycle and most importantly, almost all the food you could eat! That in itself would cost you thousands of dollars.
I’d wake up (usually in a school, church or in my own tent), pack up my gear and head to a predetermined spot for breakfast. After a hearty meal, I’d load my stuff on a Penske moving truck by about 7:00 and take off for my next destination – about 80 miles away – with the bare minimum: a bike pump, spare tube and a few snacks.
About halfway through the day, I’d stop for lunch before being on my way to the end. I stopped when I wanted to, rode with others and enjoyed the scenery. Later at night we’d get supper at a local restaurant and then I’d often relax, or investigate the area I was staying in.
When I finally ended the trip near Boston, it was one of the best days of my life. I packed up my bike, took a one-way flight back to Wisconsin and was teaching naughty little sixth graders again a week later.
I’ve always been fascinated by unsupported bike trips. I have a cross bike, which sometime soon I’d like to get fitted for panniers and make my own adventures; but I often worry about the things I didn’t have to on my supported cross-country trip: Where will I sleep? Where will I get my food? What happens when I have a mechanical breakdown?
Tracy and Peter Flucke from Green Bay went through a much different trip than I did in 2014 across the northern tier of the USA. They recently released a book called, “Coast to Coast on a Tandem,” which highlights that unsupported trip. I recently sat down with the pair to discuss their adventure and the writing of the book.
“People look at us like we are elite, but on the first day of our cross-country trip, we met some guy who had just cycled Africa,” said a laughing Peter Flucke. “Tracy and I both looked at each other and said, ‘we are not that special.’ To most people we are the extreme, so what we tried to do with the book was tie it into every day, normal life. We’ve done three unsupported trips on our tandem now. If people can read our book and then ride their bike to the grocery store to get a gallon of milk, I’d be happy about that. There’s more to cycling than just doing cross-country trips… there’s the every-day aspect of how they can be used as well.
“Another reason for doing this is because I don’t care if you live my lifestyle or not, but if you can beg, borrow or steal something from me that makes you a healthier, happier person, isn’t that a part of what silent sports should be?”
The Flucke’s route started in Bellingham, Washington, and ended in Bar Harbor, Maine, a total distance of 4,362 miles in 72 days. To give you an idea of the magnitude of such a quest, that’s the equivalent of making over 18 round-trips from Green Bay to Milwaukee.
Although 90 percent of the trip was totally unsupported, Peter’s mom and partner rented an RV for the first week and traveled with them to Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho.
“That was kind of nice – it got us into the trip a little bit,” said Peter. “We still carried most of our gear because if it rained or something, we needed to have that, but it kind of felt like we were in the Tour de France: We’d get to the top of the mountain and we’d have hot coffee waiting for us. They were with us through the Cascades, which was pretty cool. It was a great bonding experience. Once we hit Coeur d’ Alene we were pretty much on our own.”
The Flucke’s – and myself – would say that such a trip is more mental than physical. Once you begin riding mega distances every day, the physical portion becomes easier as you get in better shape. Yes, there are exhausting days, but what’s going on inside your head is much more difficult to deal with.
“Once you are further in the trip, you are getting stressed physically – you’re not eating as well – and you’re on the edge that way,” said Tracy Flucke. “Combine that with something stupid happening and you just ‘go off.’ You get lost or the weather is bad for the sixth day in a row.”
There were a lot of difficult portions of the trip for the Flucke’s, but Peter points out that the openness of Montana and some of the road conditions in Michigan were difficult for him.
“Sitting in the front I’d have a different view than Tracy,” he said. “A place like Montana was so beautiful, but with how wide open it was, it was also a little disturbing. I’d look and try to find something off in the distance and guess how far away it was – sometimes it was 20 miles or more. It was all about embracing where we were at the time. Sometimes all I could do was watch the wind move the wheat because there was nothing else around.
“One time in Michigan east of Ludington, we got to a spot and a bridge was out. Here we were on a fully-loaded tandem with 700 x 28, 115-pound PSI tires – it doesn’t like gravel too much. It was a 20-mile detour for us and we couldn’t get our cellphones to work. We eventually found a route where ATV’s would ride through the woods, with like four inches of sand and got eaten alive by mosquitos. We ended up pushing the bike for a while. We popped out of the woods and we were on the other side of the bridge. Things like that happened all the time. When things got bad, I’d take out my camera and take some pictures, because I knew someday we’d look back and laugh. We found that it we could just ‘suck it up and pedal the bike’ it was way easier than walking with it.”
The duo got stuck in East Glacier for three days as well, unable to leave because of the weather.
“We got into a good rhythm after we left Glacier, putting on some miles,” Tracy said. “The hardest state for me was probably North Dakota. Another really hard day was the very first day of the trip. We had to travel from sea level up to 6,600 feet over Steven Pass and I had the flu. Looking back on our blog posts and seeing what we wrote, we’d often say, ‘holy man, how did we make it through that day?’ Five or six things would happen to try and derail us, but at the time you couldn’t do much about it – you just kept going.”
Besides the difficulty of the trip from a physical and mental standpoint, the pair had to deal with one another – something that even the most perfectly-matched couples would have a hard time with over 4,362 miles.
“We really struggled hard with our relationship and team once we got to about mile 3,000, which was in New York,” said Peter. “Looking back we said, ‘well, of course!’ Tracy was getting lonely and I had gone into ‘suck it up, storm-the-hill-emergency mode.’ I discovered emotionally that Tracy and I get along really well as a team in normal every-day life – we have great kids and have a great life – but I don’t do well in that middle ground… I just jump straight into emergency mode, which basically means that I didn’t really care about her needs at the time, because I was trying to ‘save us’ in what we were dealing with on the road. Now I ask myself more often if this is really an emergency. I needed to listen to my partner better, because she might have been seeing something that I couldn’t. We had a few ‘come to Jesus days’ where we didn’t talk to one another, but then we’d snap out of it. I didn’t go on the trip to test my marriage, so that was a really difficult time for us.”
The furthest the Flucke’s went in one day on their 72-day adventure was 157 miles. They caught a 35-mph tailwind coming out of Bismarck, North Dakota, on a the long, flattest-stretch of road in the United States.
“We were literally going 40 mph on that stretch of road,” said Tracy. “We stopped at a rest stop and some guy asked us if we were even allowed on the freeway. Montana and North Dakota are two states that allow bicycles on the freeway, but he also couldn’t believe how fast we were going – he could barely keep up with us. We averaged over 20 mph that day on a fully-loaded tandem weighing probably close to 400 pounds. We usually average about 13-15 mph.”
Of course the scenery, seeing the country from the seat of a bicycle and spending time together were awesome for the Flucke’s, but it may not have been the best part of their 10-week trip.
“We probably made a dozen life-long friends from that trip alone,” said Peter. “Even one of the people we stayed with for a few nights recently came to Green Bay to watch a Packers’ game. Sometimes you have problems in life just so others have the opportunity to do good things for you.”
Tracy echoed some very similar thoughts to her husband about the trip.
“It restored my faith in human kind,” she said. “Everyone we met was so kind and nice – people are genuinely good. You really find that on a trip. So many people just did simple, nice things for us and it was huge at the time. Maybe it was just a hot meal or helping us with a mechanical issue.”
The Flucke’s wrote the book with two voices so readers could understand what each was thinking at different times.
“When we were deciding how to write the book, we knew we had to do it with both of us telling our stories,” Peter added. “We realized that we may have had a different perspective on things, or if I had gone into a restroom or something, I might have missed what she saw or wanted to write about.”
Editor’s note: Peter and Tracy Flucke are also president and vice-president of WE BIKE, etc., LLC, a Green Bay, Wisconsin, consulting firm that specializes in the areas of engineering, education, enforcement and encouragement for walking, bicycling and healthy communities.
You can get your copy of the book at webike.org or wherever books are sold.