Andy Kossen had a big birthday this year: he turned 50. So he decided to celebrate it in a big way: he went on a 4,228-mile bike ride.
“I turned 50 and thought, ‘If you don’t start doing stuff, you’re going to run out of time’,” he says.
He said he’d been planning it for a few years but got serious about it this past year. “My reaction to the idea was ‘Yeah, right, like this will really happen,’” says Andy’s wife, Susan. “Then it got closer and I was, ‘Wow! This really is happening!’”
This summer, Andy, Susan, and friend Joe Hykle bicycled across America on the TransAmerica Trail, a trek that goes from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia. Most of the route is on rural, two-lane highways. It took the trio 42 days to ride ocean to ocean, pandemic and all.
“We were going one minute, we weren’t going the next minute,” Andy says. “About two weeks before it was time to go, I called the first six towns in Oregon where we’d be staying. They said they’d be open for business.”
But upon arrival in Oregon and in the early days of the trip, things were a bit bumpy, as they found Airbnbs and bed-and-breakfasts closed.
“By the fourth or fifth night, I thought we were done,” Andy says. “Campgrounds were open but no facilities. After that, I thought there’s no way we could continue. I called places for the next night and it looked like the same thing. I thought I’d be loading up the car. But then we went to another town and it all started working out. I’d always try to plot where we were going to be, to plan for a campground or someplace to stay.”
And if they couldn’t find a place to stay, then they’d sleep in the car and make the most of it, no matter the circumstances.
While the trio are all experienced cyclists, none of them had taken on a journey like this. Andy’s been riding since he was 10 years old. He started organizing bike-a-thons to raise money for charity when he was 18 and has been riding ever since.
Joe, 67, has been doing triathlons for more than 25 years and is a cycling instructor at the Blue Ash branch of the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati. He’s been riding in the Pan Ohio Hope Ride (Cleveland to Cincinnati) for ten years. That ride, which raises money for the American Cancer Society, was canceled this year because of the pandemic. So Joe turned the cross-country ride into a fundraiser and raised $3,000.
For the TransAmerica ride, Joe explained that the daily distance was determined by the location of the next camping site, which was typically 100 to 120 miles away. Originally, the plan was one person would drive the whole day (80-plus miles), while the other two cycled.
The day would start around 5:30 a.m. They’d pack up the tents and other gear, eat breakfast — typically oatmeal or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — and be on the road by 6 a.m.
In the span of a day’s ride, in addition to weather, such as rain, sleet, and pretty strong head and crosswinds, there were also flat tires and broken chains. At the end of each day, they’d set up camp, take a shower if there were facilities available, eat supper, and then crash by 8 p.m.
“The first 17 days in Oregon and Wyoming we had rain and sleet riding through the mountains, which was challenging,” Joe says. “Oregon, Wyoming, Montana, besides the 17 days of rain, had hills that defied description. Three-to-four-mile climbs going five miles per hour up the hill. Going downhill the winds were blowing across the road so keeping the bike upright was not easy.”
Terrain was mountainous until they got to Kansas, which was flat, hot, and very windy. “Kansas was usually 100 degrees,” Joe says.
The original plan was to end the ride in Berea, KY., and then head home. But when they were about two weeks away from there, they decided to just keep going to Virginia. So for a 120-mile ride, each would drive 40 miles and ride 80 miles, with stops for water bottle refills and lunch.
Joe posted updates on the ride on his Facebook page. There are photos of scenery, a highway patrol officer, a park ranger, and even a Dairy Queen stop. “On Day 25, leaving Colorado and heading to Ness, KS., it was a 95-degree day with 15-30 mph crosswinds. Highlights: trying to stay on the bike with the crosswind,” he wrote.
Like hikers on the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, those who make this ride — about 15,000 annually — are familiar to people who live in the cities and towns along the way.
“The locals were great!” Joe says. “Some of them questioned our sanity but they were very nice and helpful.”
Meeting the locals was the highlight for Andy. “My goal was to talk to people from all different parts of the country, just to talk to as many people as I possibly could,” he says.
When he was driving the car, he’d get a mile or so in front of Joe and Susan and stop and talk to a farmer or a truck driver. “I’d stop and talk to anybody,” he says. “You could walk into a farmer’s barnyard … in three to four minutes, they’ll give you the world. They’re so nice and generous.”
He recounted the time he saw a farmer hooking up a tractor. “I talked to him for a minute and he said, ‘Well, let’s go in and have breakfast.’” Andy told him that he had to catch up to the Joe and Susan, on the bikes. “He said, ‘Nah, just come in.’”
For Joe, Montana stood out. “Montana was just beautiful,” he says. “Blue skies and the mountains were beautiful. On the other hand, Kansas was quite the challenge. “Kansas was just a furnace. The roads just went on forever and the heat was unbearable.”
He says the daily distances weren’t the challenge. “Doing it 42 days regardless of the hills, heat, wind, and rain [and sleet] is what made this the most physically and mentally challenging thing I have ever done.”
Going through to Virginia had a few other perks: Six friends, including Andy and Susan’s children joined them in Kentucky and rode to the end with them. One of those was Karen Schlosser, who joined them on July 9.
She says it was a challenge mostly because she had recently recovered from a broken pelvis and had been back on her bike only a few times.
“I ended up logging just over 300 miles, but had the time of my life,” she says. The biggest challenges were riding the Appalachian Mountains and getting on and off her bike.
“Cycling has brought more joy to my life than any other activity I’ve ever done,” Karen says. “The blending of being outdoors, breathing fresh air, being challenged to do more than before [and] enjoying the ride and sharing the experiences with others.”
Finally, in Virginia, they touched their tires in the ocean, put the bikes on the back of the car, and headed back to Cincinnati. They got home at midnight and Andy was back to work at 7 a.m. the next morning.
“I’m glad I did it,” he says. “I don’t know if I’d do the same route again. I’d love to go and do other parts of the country. Being on a bike is a good way to do it. It slows you down.”