Sometimes I have to pinch myself to remember that I have absolute privilege of kicking off the 2020’s by cycling across America. Not just because of all the amazing people I’ll meet and all the amazing places I’ll see, but because of the fact I’m still here and getting a chance to prove that I am worthy of my existence.
But at the same time there is a nagging voice in the back of my head that lists all the things that could go wrong. Not just because I’m away from home for 3 months and will be facing isolation, but because there is genuinely some risk in what I’m doing. And because I’m trying to share this journey with you all I thought I’d share all the things are worrying me. I’ll start with the smaller stuff.
America is famous as a nation that likes guns so much that the right to bear arms is enshrined in the constitution. In a country of 326 million people there are now approximately 400 million guns (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/06/19/there-are-more-guns-than-people-in-the-united-states-according-to-a-new-study-of-global-firearm-ownership/) – with Americans owning nearly half of all of the civilian firearms in the world. Now, I’m really hoping that I won’t get shot (although this is the main reason that I’m debating whether or not to wear my tutu) but the chances of it happening in America are probably higher than they are in the UK.
I have no doubt that if I get into fisticuffs with a bear the bear will win. One of the reasons I’m not taking a tent is because of stories like this one (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Treadwell). In preparation for my trip I’ve been reading lots about previous trans-America rides and many of them have ended up seeing bears. However, the general rule is that if you don’t disturb them they won’t disturb you (and the chances of seeing a bear on a road are fairly slim).
Let me say that again. Mountain. Lions. But like bears unless I kidnap their litter or interrupt their Sunday Lunch I’m unlikely to be eaten (or even see them). But I’d least I’d get to see a Mountain Lion!
Snakes. Spiders. Wolves. Moose. Bison. Each one has the potential to turn me from Antony Butcher to Antony Butchered. I’m mostly staying in peoples homes so hope to avoid most of the weird things but with three months to play with who knows what could happen! Probably the biggest worry is large animals grazing on the road and getting spooked as I cycle past them.
And now the things I’m more worried about
Surprising as it may seem this is the wildlife I am most worried about. Sure, it’s not a hulking great bear but lots of mid-Western ranches will have dogs to whom I will appear to be a threat. Dogs can run at about 15mph – about as fast as I’ll be able to spin on a fully laden touring bike. The internet has thousands and thousands of words about dogs attacking cyclists (see http://travellingtwo.com/resources/dealing-with-dogs. Almost everyone who has cycled across America has been chased by a dog. It’s all fun and games until the dog gets a hold of your calf and knocks you off your bike. I’m worried enough to have done the research and have a plan. If something goes wrong I’ll be stopping, jumping off, getting the bike between me and the dog, and commanding the dog to sit to demonstrate I’m not a weirdly shaped horse but a human being. If that doesn’t work I’ll be carrying pepper spray mounted on my handlebars to be used as a last resort – I love animals but if a dog is attacking me my own wellbeing comes first.
America is known as a land of extremes, and the weather definitely fits into this. In the UK we are used to relatively stable weather – but if the average temperature in America is 15 degrees it could snow or the tarmac could melt. During my ride I’ll be climbing three mountain ranges and there is a real possibility that these could still have several feet of snow at the summits. I’ll also be cycling through the midwest when temperatures could hit 40 degrees centrigrade in the shade. I’ll need to be careful about keeping hydrated and suncream (because I burn worse than a vampire). Oh, and there’s also a real risk of tornadoes.
Apart from falling off my bike there are all sorts of things that could go wrong. Any little snag or strain could have big repercussions – I’ll be spinning my pedals over a million times. My biggest concern right now is my knees. On my previous long distance bike ride (where I averaged 70-90 miles a day) I developed Tendonitis in my left knee that left me unable to cycle with that leg. Then last year whilst “running” the London Marathon my left knee went again, leaving me limping over 13 miles and collapsing over the finish line. Whilst this ride will involve shorter mileages I’ll be out for a much longer period of time.
I’m not on the world’s most expensive bike but I am trying to see a really wide swathe of America. This means some days in leafy suburbs but it also means that I’ll be visiting places like Detroit with a violent crime rate above 2,000 incidences per 100,000 people per year. In places that struggle with poverty and crime I’ll be an attractive if sweaty target. I’ll be taking some advice from local contacts in big cities and won’t be flashing my cash but if you’ve ever read Mark Beaumont’s book of his first round the world record breaking trip you’ll know that things can go wrong quickly (he was mugged in a motel).
I wasn’t sure whether to list this or not. On the one hand I’m working hard to get myself into a good place and this ride is part of my own recovery. On the other hand I’ll be physically isolating myself from my normal routine and from the people I love for three months – the trigger for my last breakdown. I’ll also be putting myself under extreme pressure and creating opportunities to feel undervalued. So please do stay in touch and help me keep positive!
The big one. And this is the one that I’m genuinely writing thinking “I hope that this doesn’t become a painfully ironic post”.
Ultimately the greatest risk to my life will be my fellow human beings. I reckon that in the UK I have one near miss every 10-20 miles of road cycling I do. At the start of this year a friend was knocked off their bike by a driver who refused to admit that they had hit them – they believed they had left a safe gap. Everything I’ve read suggests that in the vast majority of the country drivers can be actively hostile towards cyclists.
Since I started writing this blog I’ve come across two horror stories that I feel need sharing, because whilst I hope the chances of anything happening are slim this is worrying me. Firstly, Josh Quigly, who was also cycling across America to raise awareness of mental health, was struck by a car just before Christmas in Texas after cycling around the world. He suffered fractures to his pelvis, 10 ribs and his skull, as well as a pierced lung and a broken ankle and heel (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-50894202). He’s now back in the UK but it’s proof that a single mistake can be nearly fatal.
And then, whilst looking to get tips on video editing software from a bike touring group I came across this sobering post about a cycle tourist who was killed in Australia, told through the eyes of someone who was a day behind another rider and wondering if they would catch them. It’s worth a read. https://m.facebook.com/groups/484764288212276?view=permalink&id=2935438956478118
I already know that my wife isn’t going to read this post, so I think it is safe to say that I am worried about this. America is the land of the car and I know from the blogs and books I’ve read that in lots of places cars and lorries will just expect you to get out of the way. If something does go wrong the closest thing I’ve got to an air-bag is a well timed fart. My head says that the chances of something happening are slim, and that if I’m sensible and cautious I can avoid most situations. My heart says that I’ve got 80 days on the road and that’s a lot of opportunities for one bad mistake to happen.
So, I’m going to keep sharing all the bits I’m excited about. But if I’m going to encourage people to be open about how they are feeling I need to do the same, even when that means admitting that I get scared by worst case scenarios. I quite like being alive – and I’m hoping that this ride doesn’t do anything to change that.