A Mistake, Not An Excuse

Published Categorized as Blog

In case I did not mention this before, this Road to the White House No-Excuses Tour is not fundamentally about me making a bike trip. It is about galvanizing the public to urge the White House to take real action on climate without further delay.

Having said that: I write at 5am from Boise, Capital of the Great State of Idaho – and from my own state of embarrassment. Mortification really. Why so? Because of a fundamental mistake, one that is solely of my own making, and thus one that I here need to own.

The essential background follows, but it builds on my rat-a-tat-tat fifth paragraph of the September 15 blog.

This is the 40th anniversary of my first bike trip across these United States. Back then I rode an old French road bike (with no electric assist, of course). I began that trip from San Francisco, on Tuesday, October 6, 1981. (The date lives in infamy for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, extremist retribution for his signing two years earlier of the Sinai accord. I learned of that horror that first day as I cycled near a small, rural park, so I wheeled in, dropped to my knee, and trembled at the implications of things to come. But, I digress.)

My 1981 trip spanned 3200 miles over 40 days. Because I needed to hunker-down for three days in South Lake Tahoe (to ride out an early winter snowstorm – remember those?) and lost a day due to extreme dysentery (sipped some bad water from a Louisiana bayou) I rode for 36 days. Thus, an average of nearly 89 miles per day.  Not too bad. Each day, as I recall, I actually cycled for no more than ~ 6.5 hours per day due to (ahem) saddle soreness.

Thus, my average riding speed during that 1981 crossing was just 14 mph. I recall, in particular, straining to climb hills while fully loaded with camping gear. And because my old road bike, as thus loaded, was a bit unstable, I needed to brake frequently on steep descents, and so lost a bit of the anticipated speed benefit from the prior climb.

However, for my present crossing I planned to use a very stable recumbent trike with a powerful electric assist – one that would enable me to more than double my prior average speed with moderate effort. Thus, my present schedule called for 4705 miles over 27 riding days (I’d built in three full rest days). While that is still a considerable 175 miles a day, at an assumed average speed of 28 mph that would require just a bit more than 6 riding hours per day. Assuming a mid-day re-charge of the electric assist of ~ 2 hours, that meant being on the road for no more than 8 hours per day. Quite manageable, I thought.

But for those damnable rat-a-tat-tat rumble strips. It is serious for cyclists, so much that even the auto-oriented Federal Highway Administration has observed that they “have the potential to cause a bicyclist to lose control.” And once in place, rumble strips tend to remain. Wikipedia reports that in one Michigan community it took a lobbying campaign by local Amish residents to get a small $20,000 rumble strip installation removed — at a cost to the state of $275,000.  The Michigan Department of Transportation apparently claimed that it removed the strips not just to appease the Amish but for safety reasons, since “it is far more dangerous to have horses jumping out into the road that [sic] it is to not have the rumble strips on the road.”

Rat-a-tat-tat rumble strips. Graphic from U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration.

In order to efficiently undertake the present Road to the White House No-Excuses Tour, I’d planned to use state and federal highways. But these, as I have re-discovered these last few days, are heavily rumble-stripped.

Why had I not remembered the rumble strip problem from my 1981 experience, when I’d also used public highways? Probably because, back then, there were fewer rumble strips and because I was going slow enough and retained sufficient skill to steer my single-track bike to the right of the strips, to the left of the drop-offs, and around the rocks, branches, dead animals, and other debris that accumulate in the highway shoulders.

But that just can’t reasonably be done on a trike. The front end of my Outrider Alpha is 33 inches wide – narrow enough to squeeze through a standard door frame, but wide enough to occupy 69% of a 4-foot-wide highway shoulder. That leaves just 7.5 inches to the right or left of each front wheel – far shorter than your average ripped apart tire or dead possum. You get the picture. To barrel down a highway shoulder at 25-30 mph, with a cliff to your right and a rumble strip to your left, is just asking for it.

So you really have no choice but to take the lane, or at least a piece of it. And so, that’s what I did the last few riding days. But the risk there also is palpable, and mounts with each passing mile. Yesterday, on a very windy stretch east of Burns, Oregon, the shoulder was wide – about 6 feet or more. But often the rightmost 2 feet was covered by dirt or sand, rendering the usable part of it no better than 4 feet wide. Virtually impossible to maintain even at 25 mph on my trike.

Taking the lane, however, generated close call after close call. Drivers of pickups appear readily inflamed – and there is no real opportunity to calmly explain to the driver of an 18-wheeler who is bearing down on you at 80 mph that I too pay taxes and thus have the right to use our public highways. I counted the incidents over an hour, and six times during that span I was either forced to the side of the road (over a rumble strip) or given the finger. Or both. Perhaps it was from plain stubbornness, or stupidity, but it took me four days to realize that a serious incident loomed – and that it was not worth it.

Questions abound.

First, and let’s just get this out of the way: Is such a trike even usable for a long-distance or even cross-country tour?

The answer must be yes. There are likely many less traveled, rumble-strip-free roads that are speed-limited to 25-40 mph. They could be strung together and riding them on my Outrider or another electric-assist recumbent trike would be pure joy. Of course, that would add substantial miles and time that I do not presently have, so it is not an option for me on this trip – but someday.

As well, such an electric-assist trike is well-suited for much intercity transport and rural transport, where use of a lower speed limited roadway is viable. Indeed, in 2017 the average  vehicle trip distance was less than 10 miles, which implies that the median trip is even shorter. But ten miles can be done by the average cyclist on an average electric-assist bike or trike in 35 minutes or less, at least in good weather.

Second, and most important, what now becomes of our Road to the White House No-Excuses Tour?

In my view, as I sought to imply in this post’s first sentence, it must go on. The delivery of the CPR Initiative Petition to President Biden, with your signature evincing your demand for real climate action without delay – that is what drives me now, as before. The pressing point, and the guiding purpose, of this tour is the climate — what we must do to arrest the growing crisis. For our children and their posterity. For the natural world. For our home.

There really is no legitimate excuse for the essentially continuing inaction on climate by the United States government. Indeed, the fossil fuel industry continues to laugh it up all the way to the bank even in the face of the “unequivocal” scientific understanding that “human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land [leading to] widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere.”

And far worse is still to come, unless we act.

The budget reconciliation bill, now under Congressional review, is one such opportunity. But, as we have stressed, if too little of fundamental import comes out of that, the President and EPA are still able to act under existing authority to phase out greenhouse gas emissions. And act they must.

Certainly, it matters critically that I make it to each event. Under present circumstances, I’ll now do it by van (with my trike ensconced inside). All else is just pride, vanity really.

Events now are lining up, at my last count, in Boulder, Kansas City, Ann Arbor, Ottawa, Burlington, Middlebury, South Royalton, New London (N.H.), Boston, New Haven, Voorhees NJ, and Washington D.C. Come out. Bring your friends and colleagues. Let’s get this done.

See you soon in Boulder, Colorado, and, for those not there in-person, see you on our simultaneously broadcast zoom webinar.