When Frank P. Kolbe bicycled across America in 1923, he rode a 50-pound, one-speed Arrow with balloon tires and coaster brakes that would lock the wheels so he had to walk down the steep, gravel mountain roads in western Pennsylvania.
When his daughter and two of her grown children set out to retrace Kolbe's Atlantic-to-Pacific route this year, they were better equipped, and most roads were smoother.
But Marylou Conna of Westboro, son David Conna of Weston and daughter Sheri Conna of Amherst had many experiences similar to Kolbe's: friendly country fairs, brutal headwinds in Wyoming, searing desert heat and the kindness of strangers.
Sheri, 22, was felled by the heat near Las Vegas after biking 3,482 miles, but David, 32, biked the entire 3,650 miles from Weston to Los Angeles. Their mother, who is 61, rode 375 miles from Westboro to her father's home in Doylestown, Pa., but worried her pace was holding the others back and drove the rest of the way.
Kolbe's son had put together a 60-page booklet a few years ago based on Kolbe's dispatches to his hometown newspaper during his two-month trip, and the tale inspired the Connas' "re-enactment."
Kolbe was 20 when he set out with $8 in his pocket to cross the continent. He sold postcards at fairs and did odd jobs along the way, and he sent home $85 profit. He reached Chicago just in time to watch President Warren G. Harding's funeral train on its way to the capital.
Sick to his stomach and exhausted as he approached the Indiana border, he turned down a motorist's offer of a ride, writing in his journal about resisting "the lure of those pale tempsters who wear the false face of prudent counselors whispering in my ear to quit."
His grandson inherited that determination. When his mother got in the car, he wouldn't let her carry his panniers. "It bothered me to change it to a 'supported' trip," said Conna, an energy conservation consultant with Intelligen in Hopkinton. "If I gave her the bags, that's cheating."
Biking America east to west is the hard way, because the prevailing winds go in the other direction. Also, Conna said, "The Appalachians are a lot harder than the Rockies."
A few of the memorable people the Connas met were Tom Snyder, the bicycle comedian who pedals from gig to gig and has had no permanent home other than his bike since 1987; an unemployed coal miner in Ohio who let the travelers camp on his land and pick strawberries from his garden; and a cyclist they met at a fair in Utah who has no hands, just hooks.
Calls and letters from the Connas during their 64-day journey stirred up fond memories for Kolbe, 91, now blind from the effects of glaucoma and bedridden with arthritis. "He asked if we'd run into some of the same people he'd met on his trip," his daughter said. "I had to remind him, 'Dad, that old prospector in the desert was old when you met him, and that was 71 years ago.' "
Initially, Kolbe thought their trip was crazy, his daughter said, but wouldn't say the same of his own trip. "No, I wasn't crazy. I made money!"
In the end, he and his grandson reached the same conclusion. In
Kolbe's words, "I don't think I would ever make the trip again in the same
manner, but I would never regret the experiences and the sights I'd seen."
GOING THE DISTANCE -- The Adventure Cycling Association (406-721-1776) is the best resource for anyone who wants to bike America, alone or with a group.
Pedal for Power (800-288-BIKE), a fund-raising program of the League of American Bicyclists, runs a 48-day coast-to-coast bike tour, and Tim Kneeland & Associates (800-433-0528) also runs fund-raising cross-country tours. Cycle America (800-245-3263) divides its west-to-east tour into 12 one-week segments, allowing riders to do any or all of them. PAC Tour (414-736-2453), run by champion ultramarathon cyclists, has a 23-day transcontinental trip averaging 123 miles a day.
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