Cycling for Starlight

Swinhoe and his bike "Blossom" outside the Corner Grind Cafe in Terre Haute, Ind.
Like any other Millennial hack writer, I go to the coffeehouse to do a lot of my work.
I know it’s cliché, but what can I say? The aromas and sounds mix to create an atmosphere of inspiration.
Sometimes the ideas seem to form out of thin air. Other times, though, they literally walk through the door. That’s what happened when Alan Swinhoe strolled into the coffeehouse I frequent with “Blossom”, his beloved road bike that’s covered more ground than the Rolling Stones tour bus.
I tried to let Swinhoe eat in peace, but as soon as he was finished, I pounced with my questions: Where are you headed with this touring rig? Is your British accent real? Is it hard learning to bike on the other side of the road?

Riding with a Purpose


Swinhoe told me he was riding across not only the US, but also the UK, on a charity ride to benefit Starlight, a foundation that provides support to children with life-threatening medical conditions.
Why Starlight? “I really wanted it to be a charity that I would like to think nobody could argue with,” Swinhoe said. 
“I think that charity has a clear approach to what they’re doing … helping those kids and the family.” He added that Starlight was International, which was important. “It would’ve been awkward if I were raising money for a different charity in each country.”
Cycling across the US and the UK is no easy task. (Most Americans think driving across the US is a significant feat.) But Swinhoe’s a seasoned, “proper” cyclist. He’s taken Blossom (not just your average road bike, but a steel-framed touring bike) across France before, so he’s no stranger to long treks where you can’t guarantee the people you encounter will speak English well.

A Brit Thinks Our Cycling Infrastructure is … Great?


So what does a genuine European think of the US, both as a cyclist and as someone passing through? Swinhoe, who bikes anywhere between 60-80 miles on an average day, has certainly earned a right to weigh in on this question.
But I was a bit shocked at his description of the roads and trails he’s hit: “I found that the cycling infrastructure in the city is actually really good, even though I’ve not seen loads and loads of bikes.”
I thought Swinhoe would see American cycling infrastructure as abhorrent, since in Europe cycling seems to be so much more prevalent. But he said what he’s seen is solid and “massively” under-utilized. 
Swinhoe added he might see more bikes once the Adventure Cycling Association route that he was on at the time of the interview is officially released.
The chipper cyclist also seems to be repeatedly surprised at how friendly and “engaging” people are here in the States.
I think that’s due mostly to the fact that in many parts of the Midwest, at least, nothing interesting ever happens. A cow dying is frequently front-page news material.
That, combined with the fact that in the Midwest you rarely ever speak with someone from out of town. Oh, you’re from Portland, huh? How was your trip — did you make it through customs OK?
So while I’m not surprised at the interest in Swinhoe and his ride, I’m glad to hear my fellow Americans are being good hosts.
“I’ve met some fantastic people where I’m staying as well. One of the things I wanted to find out about the trip is what are Americans really like? The ones I’ve met so far have been honestly fantastic people.
“There was a guy I stayed with the other night, and I’d like him as a friend forever. He was just a lovely bloke.” 
On a more practical note, Swinhoe said American drivers, for the most part, have been equally courteous, giving him a lot of space on the road. 
“Most people are not rushing me,” Swinhoe said. “Big trucks, 30 yards back, just trumbling along.”
But before you strap on that American flag Speedo and parade around town chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” there’s one area in which Swinhoe sees America as lacking to Europe when it comes to cycling. We’ll discuss that next week in part two.
To find out more about Alan and his ride, and to donate to Starlight, visit rausauk.blogspot.co.uk
The above column was originally published May 31 in the Republic-Monitor.
Part 2, below: This column was originally published in June 7 in the Republic-Monitor.
Last week I introduced you to Alan Swinhoe, a British cyclist who’s riding cross country to benefit Starlight, a foundation that benefits children with life-threatening conditions and their families.

Americans: Good  Hosts, Bad Dog Trainers

Swinhoe has made his appreciation for American courtesy on the road and hospitality off the road clear. He also expressed surprise at a solid cycling infrastructure in a lot of the cities he’s toured. But there’s one thing he sees as an issue for cyclists in the US: uncontrolled dogs.
“I can’t remember the last time a dog came at me in Europe. It just doesn’t happen. Whereas (in the U.S.), I’ve had at least two a day.”
Swinhoe said American dogs are ill-behaved and aggressive regardless of their owner’s income bracket (which would probably make the dogs’ ancestors, the Founding Fathers’ Best Friends, proud). He’s therefore learned to look out for dogs whether he’s riding past a spacious five bedroom home or a run-down dump.
But, “I’m not letting it detract from the experience.” Swinhoe’s learned to dismount and put the bike between him and the dog, which almost always works. He admitted that “some crafty ones get around back, and you have to say ‘Well done’ to the dog.” Which seems to me a very British thing to say, as well as perhaps an indicator of a balanced approach to life.
My favorite observation from Swinhoe, though, was his fascination with Americans abandoning cars in their yards.
“You know a car is being disregarded when they don’t move the car to cut the grass. I went past a farm today — eight cars, in various stages of disrepair,” he said.
But, to be fair to neglectful American auto owners, Swinhoe says he once saw a Rolls Royce in a French village “just topped under some bales of hay. What story has that got?”

‘Blossom’, an Example of ‘Real’ (Plus-Sized) Beauty

Obviously, Americans don’t care for all their cars the way Swinhoe cares for his bike, “Blossom”. He told me he named his bike after the dazzling effect of the paint glistening in the light. (Thank God Swinhoe is not an American teenage girl, because then he might have named his bike “Edward Cullen”.)
Though the story behind Blossom’s name is a bit romantic, Swinhoe has a very practical approach to bikes. He says cycling is “the most marketed-at sport” and sees elitist cyclists paying thousands of extra dollars to trim a negligible amount of weight as, in a more family-friendly British paraphrase, bull-rubbish.
“Blossom” may be a pretty girl, but she’s no lightweight. “An average road bike you can pick up with one hand,” Swinhoe said. “With my bike, you need three hands.”
Swinhoe estimates the bike weighs in around 5 stone, which in Freedom Units, is approximately 60 to 70 pounds. That’s a tremendous amount to be moving about 60-80 miles every day.
But Swinhoe’s earned his stripes as a “proper” cyclist, and crossing America by pedal power is something he’s wanted to accomplish for years. He’s doing it now, and it seems from my conversation and his blog that it’s been a very rewarding experience.

One and Done

So will he do it again?
Umm, no. “I’m mad to do this once,” he said. “I’m not that mad to do it twice. I’m really enjoying it, but it’s three months out of my life, three months away from my family. I don’t want to do that again.”
Swinhoe says instead he’ll focus on shorter trips, maybe three weeks in length. He mentioned Spain, Germany and New Zealand as new places he’d like to cycle, as well as seeing more of Great Britain and France on his bike.
He mentioned repeating a form of spontaneous travelling his mother employed that he’d like to modify for a cycling trip in France. “When I was a kid, my mom used to go out for a day by herself or with a friend, and they’d go to the bus station and get the first bus that turned up. I’d probably go to Paris, and then just go in any direction.”
But first, he has to finish his ride across the U.S. and the U.K. His last stop in the U.S. is San Francisco. Since he’s riding a bike named “Blossom”, I hope someone can follow Swinhoe as he enters the city and blare “San Francisco” by Scott McKenzie through the car speakers.
More importantly, I hope that by the time the Pacific Ocean is in sight for Swinhoe, he’s been able to raise some more funds for Starlight, and that his health and fondness for Americans are still intact.
To follow Swinhoe’s progress and to donate to Starlight, visit rausauk.blogspot.co.uk.

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