Biking the country

Biking the country

Bonnie McElwee can cross another athletic adventure off her to-do list.

The Urbana woman spent much of the summer bicycling across the United States.

It’s something she’s wanted to do for 30 years, ever since she saw a group of cross-country riders come through Champaign-Urbana. She told herself, “I want to do that when I retire.”

She retired in January 2001 and tried for years to find people to join her on a ride across the country, without success. She’d given up when last winter a friend forwarded an email from an Oregon woman looking for people to join her on a cross-country bicycle trip.

McElwee emailed her, as did several others, and a group of seven bicyclists started their trip from Anacortes, Washington, on June 12 — McElwee’s 71st birthday.

The woman who organized the trip, Karen Scrabeck of Bend, Ore., used maps and a route established by the Adventure Cycling Association.

Scrabeck intended to ride between 16 and 20 mph. The speed was McElwee’s biggest concern, and she told Scrabeck right away she wouldn’t ride that fast.

McElwee is a veteran marathon runner and an experienced cyclist as well. She’s bicycled from Seattle to Florence, Ore.; from Amsterdam to Frankfurt, Germany; from Maine to Montreal and Maine to Quebec; in Belgium; and RAGBRAI, the weeklong ride across Iowa that takes place every
July.

Her bike training for the cross-country trip was minimal though. Her longest ride was 67 miles.

McElwee was training for the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon last spring, and she didn’t start biking until May.

The group rode about 75 miles per day, and McElwee had no aches or pains during the trip. She averaged 13 to 14 mph, getting faster later in the trip as she got stronger.

She biked the first 2,000 miles mostly by herself, as all but one rider were going faster. Then she and another woman on the trip rode together for about 1,500 miles.

The route took the riders through the mountains in Washington. McElwee doesn’t like riding fast downhill, so she walked her bike down a couple of mountain passes. But, she said, another rider “was just amazed that I could do this and could get up those mountains, coming from the flatlands.”

The route went across the northern part of the country, through Idaho; Glacier National Park and northern Montana; Minot, North Dakota, portions of which were still flooded; Minnesota; Wisconsin; and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The group rode into Canada at Marine City, northeast of Detroit, then back into the U.S. at Niagara Falls. They rode through New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, ending their ride on Aug. 16 at Bar Harbor.

Total distance: About 4,300 miles.

Scrabeck’s husband drove an RV along with the riders. The Scrabecks slept in the RV and the rest of the group camped in tents. But McElwee and another rider occasionally treated themselves to a motel room.

“Having that RV, we would fix a good meal at night. That made such a difference,” McElwee said.

The hardest part of the trip for her was riding through a portion of North Dakota with a lot of truck traffic and a very narrow shoulder for the bikes. And the Maine roads were the worst, she said. She enjoyed the scenery most in New York.

The most rewarding part of the trip was “the fact that I could do it and feel good the whole time. I didn’t have one lousy day when I felt bad.

“The beer and potato chips at the end of the day were pretty nice,” she added.

The weather cooperated, with only a few days of rain. And McElwee’s only two flat tires happened in camp.

If she hadn’t been trying to stay with a group of riders, she would have liked to take more time to explore some of the small towns along the route.

McElwee said she enjoyed meeting the people she rode with, including a 22-year-old man from Guatemala.

“He was a hoot,” McElwee said.

She and another rider took him under their wings, showing him how to set up his tent and helping to get his ill-fitting bike better adjusted for his height.

“He got lots of advice from us,” McElwee said.

She would do the trip again, although she would like to try another route.

But McElwee already has another adventure in mind — riding the length of the Mississippi River.

Photos: Top, Bonnie McElwee riding along the Erie Canal; Bottom, Karen Scrabeck of Bend, Oregon, Bonnie McElwee of Urbana, and Roy Alony of Israel in Bar Harbor, Maine, after finishing their cross-country bike ride.

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