Why this blog?

Yonah Biers-Ariel refused to have a Bar Mitzvah. His parents insisted on an alternative rite of passage. In order to avoid leading a half-dozen prayers and dancing with his grandmother at his Bar Mitzvah party, Yonah pedaled a bicycle 3,804 miles—San Francisco to Washington DC—joined by his parents and little brother. Along the way, the family collected thousands of signatures on a global warming petition calling for the United States to undergo an energy rite of passage moving from our dependence on oil to a non-carbon energy future.

99 GALLONS OF GATORADE is the father’s memoir of this ordinary family’s extraordinary journey.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Chapter 3 - Equipment

At the top of the list: bicycles, those technological marvels that can move a human being four times a walking pace using one-third the energy. A human on a bicycle is more efficient in terms of calories per mile than any other mode of transportation. Though hard to believe for one living in the United States, it is the most ubiquitous form of transportation in the world.

Yonah had a cheap, hand-me-down bike, so we bought him a new one. He was a bit wobbly at first because he was used to his old bike, but it didn’t take more than five city blocks to adjust from the biking equivalent of a 1993 Ford Fiesta firing three cylinders atop four bald tires and lousy brakes to a new Toyota Camry Hybrid.

Djina already had a bicycle, but it was a racing bike. If Yonah's new bike was a Toyota Camry, Djina's was a Porsche Boxster. To the untrained eye, it looked like a touring bike, but while Yonah's was made of steel, Djina's carbon-based graphite frame could be lifted with an index finger. Unfortunately, Djina's bike would not be unencumbered as we pedaled across the States. Loading this bike with mundane items such as sleeping bags and tents would be no different than hitching Seabiscuit to an ice wagon. Still, if you had the choice of hitching Seabiscuit or a nag to the wagon, you'd take Biscuit.

Solomon and I needed a bicycle built for two, a tandem, and they were not cheap. A decent one was $3,000-$4,000. I was never much for tandems; this ride would be a onetime thing, so I refused to pay retail.

Djina recommended, "Buy a new one, and then if you don't want to keep it, sell it."

I replied, "Why buy a new bike when I can get a used one on eBay? It’s better to reuse than buy new, and it’s common knowledge that tandems are bought by guys who want their significant others to get into biking. The guy buys a $4,000 bike, and then they go for the first ride. She doesn't like that most of what she sees is his back, and she's hoarse from screaming at him to slow down. And while he gets to smell all the good nature smells, she smells smelly him. But she's a good sport and goes out with him on Saturdays for a month. On the fifth Saturday she refuses to mount 'that thing.' He argues, but she tells him the only way he is going to ride that tandem is if he finds another woman. So after 335 miles, the tandem is retired to the garage. One year later it’s moved up to the rafters. Five years later, she makes him sell it, so they can buy a bike trailer for the baby. And then I buy it cheap."

“I'd buy a new one."

My thought bubble chuckled, "I'll show her."

As it turned out, the tandem was not a single mouse click away. There were lots of guys looking to get their significant others into biking, and those bastards were too cheap to buy new, so I learned eBay strategic bidding which is to hold off bidding until the very last moment. Unfortunately, there are others employing the same strategy, and as a teacher, it’s hard to do personal business from school.

“…and the reason the theme of my short story is loss of innocence is that when I was six, my dad left us and…”

“Paul, can you hold that thought for a second? I just have to do something real fast.”

I lost three sweet bikes to final buzzer bidders.

After the third one, Djina reiterated her "I'd buy a new one" mantra.

My thought bubble could barely contain itself. “I’ll really show her!” it screeched.

And then I discovered Esnipe, a service that automatically slips your bid in thirty seconds before the auction closes. Pay a nominal fee, tell them how high you're willing to bid, and—voila—you’ve got a new—well—used bike.

A Burley tandem came up. It looked good in the picture. The seller, however, didn't know anything about it. He couldn't tell me the year or model. But that hardly mattered. In fact, it was better because it proved he didn't ride it. It had been mothballed in the rafters since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Lots of people wanted it and the bidding war was on. I contacted Esnipe, observed from the sidelines, and four days later received the "You're a winner!" congratulatory email.

The bike arrived and looked fine. Perhaps it had a few more than 335 miles on it, but that baby was solid. If Yonah had a new Toyota Camry and Djina was cycling a Porsche, Solomon and I were going to cross America in a good-condition 1985ish Ford F350 one-ton pickup.

"See, Djina," I crowed.

She smiled, but her thought bubble was easy to cipher, “I would have bought a new one.”

* * *

To carry gear and food, some transcontinental cyclists have a friend or family member follow in a sag vehicle to haul everything. Since this defeated the low carbon footprint message, we had two options: panniers (saddlebags) or bike trailers. For panniers, a bicycle needs brazons, a threaded nut in the frame that a bicycle rack can be screwed into. The panniers then attach to the rack. Racing bikes don't have brazons, so Djina got a trailer. We put panniers on the other two bikes because a trailer might be too difficult for Yonah to handle, and a trailer on the back of an already stretched tandem, would make it longer than an actual Ford pickup.

Now the gear itself. The plan was to camp most days, so it was to REI for lightweight camping equipment. There was a 3 pound, 11 ounce tent for $168. For $329 we could get a 3 pound, 3 ounce tent.

Me: Let's get the $168 tent. (I had already put it in the cart.)

Djina: 1/2 pound is a lot of weight. (She put the other one in.)

Me: That's like five Clif Bars. And it's $160 more.

Djina: Trust me, every ounce counts. It's not that much money to save your knees.

Twenty more minutes of arguing discussion, and like Solomon’s namesake, we cut the baby in half. One $168 tent, one $329 tent. (One month later, still two months before the trip, the $329 tent was on sale for $159.)

The other items weren't any easier. Titanium or aluminum pots? This time the difference was 3 ounces and $30. We went titanium. Then the stove. There were twenty stoves from which to choose. Djina liked a particular MSR stove. It was light and dependable, but it required a special fuel canister. I was skeptical about finding one of those babies in Kentucky, but the salesman assured us, “You can buy MSR fuel canisters everywhere.” So it went into the cart.

The camping equipment was rounded out with stuff from home: sleeping bags, ensolite pads, matches, sporks (spoon/fork/knife combination utensil), bowls, cups, and our friend Ken Giles' special pencil gift: a number 2 pencil wrapped with duct tape.

Me: Gee, Ken, I hardly know what to say.

Ken: You’ll see. It’ll come in handy. Duct tape can fix anything.

Me: Uh, thanks.

Other equipment included my Leatherman, a Swiss-army knife on steroids. With its pliers, knife, and 13 other gadgets of which I hadn’t the foggiest idea of their uses, we were covered for exigencies such as opening beer bottles that weren't twist-offs.

I bought a bike tool. It had tire irons (for removing the tire from the wheel to repair flats), assorted wrenches, screwdrivers, and a chain link remover.

"A chain link remover?" I asked incredulously. "Why would I ever need that? I've been biking for over forty years, and I've never broken a chain."

"Well," the mechanic at B&L Bikes said, "if you do happen to break your chain in the middle of the desert, it'd be good to have."

"Whatever," I said and he rang it up.

The final piece of equipment was a set of Adventure Cycling maps. This organization produces ten or so map sets that crisscross the United States. These maps are genius. Each one covers between 300-450 miles of roads that avoid heavy traffic and big cities. In addition to giving the safest, most scenic route, the maps provide elevation profiles and locate campgrounds, grocery stores, hotels, libraries, and bicycle shops. Yonah and I pored over them and made an itinerary based on mileage, elevation changes, and campgrounds. We figured 63 days riding plus 6 rest days.

The sleeping bags and tents went in the trailer. The two other bikes had eight panniers distributed between them. Four small ones for the front, four larger ones for the rear. Each person had a large one for clothing. The small ones would be for equipment and food.

The equipment was set. Next, training.

Questions to comment on: 1. Some husbands claim that the secret to a happy marriage is to always agree with one’s wife. Agree or disagree.

2. Predict what foreshadowing was present in this chapter.


  1. Re 1: the secret to a happy marriage is to always question one's wife and at the last minute, agree. You might just get a reprieve. Otherwise, you're nothing but a sap.

    Re 2: Backpacking and bikes don't mix. They don't even overlap. Backpackers survive, bikers scrounge. A light tent? No, a manger in Bethlehem.

    Finally, a chain tool is something even Jacob Marley would have found useful.

  2. I want to know if you ever needed the duct tape.

  3. Re 2: Half a pound DOES matter, you DID need the chain tool, and in the end the duct tape was the only thing holding the tandem together. Oh, and there are no MSR fuel canisters in Kentucky.

  4. #1 i do not agree with that, a healthy marriage is full of disputes but they agree to disagree sometimes
    #2 i think that your chain breaks in nevada, or you need to fix something with the tape, or combine those two, OH OH or you are collecting signatures and you need a pen, and the paper rips so you fix it with the ductape (on the back as to not cover up anything) and then use the pen?

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