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.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chapter 4 - Training

I taught at a high school 13 miles away and commuted by bicycle. Many weekends included a 50-mile bike ride. So I was more or less trained. Djina took a spin class a few times a week. Spin? It’s a class where twenty stationary bicycles are crammed into a space the size of a living room. Instead of windows and fresh air, there are industrial fans. Instead of birds tweeting, Green Day, Rolling Stones, and other such truck blare over loudspeakers while an instructor, who makes Arnold Schwarzenegger (circa 1975) look like a pussy, screams, “Push it!” (If spin were an option at Abu Ghraib, there would have been significantly less waterboarding. No more lycra! No more Mick! I'll talk! I'll talk!) So Djina was more or less trained.

The boys played sports and rode their bikes to school, but their in-shapeness to ride across the country was the equivalent of being ready to pilot a jetfighter after mastering the art of folding a paper airplane. Our initial ride was 13 miles to Winters. After six miles at a poky 12 mph pace on a flat road and carrying no gear, the boys were kaput.

"Are you kidding?" I didn’t try to mask my irritation.

"I'm really thirsty," Yonah said.

"I'm hungry," Solomon piped in.

"Yeah," Yonah agreed.

While they took ten minutes to rest, eat, drink, and complain about how hard it was, I calculated. We needed to cover 60 miles a day. At this pace, plus gear, plus mountains, Greenland would be exporting pineapples by the time we'd roll into Washington DC. This was the reality check that we had bitten off too much. Way too much. There was no way. We had to amend the trip. San Francisco to Los Angeles was a legitimate long distance route, and at 400 miles, it might be doable. Yet to change the trip would be to admit failure, and all the naysayers who pronounced, “No way!” when we told them our plan could now crow, “See, I told you you were crazy.”

It wasn’t optimism that said, “Don’t give up, we can do it.”


We told everyone that we were going to ride cross-country, and—damn it—no matter what, we would stick to the plan because pride was at stake.

Pride is often given a bad rap. But it is the great motivator. Without it, our species might still be swinging in the trees. So I kept quiet, and after a few more grumbles, the boys mounted the bikes.

Two more trips to make Winters without stopping. We weren't breaking any speed records averaging 12 mph, but by the end of training, I figured we'd be at 15 mph. That would mean four hours of actual bike time to do the daily 60 miles. This would allow time to indulge in Djina’s pre-trip fantasies: eating at Rotary Clubs' pancake breakfasts, swimming in lakes, and taking in matinees to avoid the midday sun.

After Winters, mileage increased to a 40-mile loop around Lake Solano. Two months into training and it was hill time. Going coast-to-coast is over 150,000 feet of vertical climbing. That's thirty miles straight up, high enough to wave to the Space Shuttle. We live in the Central Valley. It is an ancient seabed. Our hills are the freeway overpasses. Cantelow Road is the only local topography. It is relatively steep at about an 8% pitch, but it’s short. It takes an average rider six minutes to get to the top. Nevertheless, it was our training mountain. It took Solomon and me 20 minutes to struggle up it. Average speed: 4.3 mph.

"Well," I said, "if we need to, we'll just get off and push the bike up the steep roads. No shame in that."

The next step was to add the panniers and trailer, and ride with weight. At this point, the tandem’s metaphor, a Ford F350 truck, was jettisoned and replaced by the bike’s true name, The Beast. If it was on the heavy side without panniers, there are no adjectives to describe it fully loaded. The tired allusion of Sisyphus did not do justice to peddling the fully-loaded Beast up Cantelow. It was more akin to peddling through seven-inch-thick, newly-poured cement. We crawled up Cantelow at 3.2 miles per hour, the same pace of my 80-year-old mother’s daily constitutional. The silver lining: we didn’t have to get off and push.

The goal of a 15 mph average was discarded like a banana peel on the side of the road. 12 mph was the new goal, but probably not doable. 10 mph seemed more likely. Six hours of actual riding time. With breaks and everything, probably on the road eight hours a day. In other words, good-bye to those matinees. I didn’t care. Most summer movies suck.

While both Djina and Yonah's bikes worked like the well-tuned machines they were, The Beast—well—I was not as right as I could have been about buying a tandem on eBay. This bike had been some couple's workhorse for twenty years and was tired and ready to go to pasture. Components failed on a regular basis. I replaced chains, shifters, cables, and reconfigured the brakes. And still it got grumpy at times.

"You can still get a new bike," Djina offered.

And admit I was wrong? Hah! Let facts dictate behavior? Never! Sure the bike wasn’t perfect, but what did she expect? It wasn't new. It just needed a little TLC. It was still significantly cheaper than a new bike, and it rode pretty well except for the problems that brought me to curse it and get busted by the family's language cop. Solomon’s mission was to stamp out curse words. If someone said, "Damn!" "Shit!" or other non-synagogue word, he shouted, "Checkmark!" hoping that through his intervention we would clean our diction and substitute approved exclamations such as "Gosh darn!" But when you strain up a hill at 3 mph, and need one entire breath for every single pedal rotation, and you can't take your hands off the handlebars long enough to wipe the sweat stinging your eyes, and the hill becomes even steeper, and you steel yourself for more pain as you shift into the lowest gear you have, and the chain decides at that moment, that very moment, to jump off the chain ring and wedge itself between the chain ring and the frame as if it had been superglued into place, and your pedals come to a dead stop, and so do you, and you fall, and your knee, hand, and shoulder get bloodied, and all those part replacements and adjustments you made over the last month prove themselves worthless, then "Gosh darn!" or even "Jeez!" just won't cut it. The only words to act as balm are, "Goddamn motherfucking piece of shit!"

And then standing above his sprawled out father is Solomon, hands on hips, "Checkmark, checkmark, checkmark."

The Beast’s most significant problem was its cluster of three chain rings. The largest diameter one was for going fast. (Used every third blue moon.) The middle one was where the chain lived 80% of the time. Then came the small ring, actually it was tiny. It had to be. There was no other way to get The Beast up a climb. Unfortunately, the chain ring was so small that the space between it and the middle chain ring was wider than on most bikes. Occasionally the chain shifted too far and wedged itself between the chain ring and the frame. As a devotee of Murphy's Law, the chain only wedged at the worst of times. To free it meant yanking it with both hands, in conjunction with a good strong oath, and then repetition of these two steps until the chain, satisfied that my hands were sufficiently blackened with grease, relented.


1. Why isn’t spin registered as an enhanced interrogation technique?

2. Should Matt have jettisoned The Beast in favor of a new bike, or is character building more important than having proper equipment?


  1. For #2

    I was understanding of wanting to buy a used bike for the trip prior to riding it, but after reading of the problems I would have probably wanted to buy a new bicycle.

    I don't have children, but the idea of possibly putting a kid in danger because of a faulty bicycle seems like it would be enough for me to want to buy a good new one.

    It would seem like after the trip you could even sell it and make up a good amount of the difference between a new and used bike. Though if I were to complete a trip like that with my Dad i would want to keep the bike for keep sakes forever.

    Sp to sum up, proper equipment should always be important especially if the safety a a kid is involved.

  2. The Beast feels like a part of the journey (okay, maybe not the best part, maybe a bad part). Anyone could roll this on a new bike.

    First four chapters are great fun; looking forward to more. I was right there with you on the gdmfpos part.

    Can you use duct tape in spin class?

  3. Great writing Matt; I'm thoroughly enjoying each chapter. I don't get the spin thing. Why do that when you can hop on a bike and do the real thing? It's like watching porn when..., oh never mind. I would have bought a new bike from the get go, probably two of them.

  4. to #1 because the prisoners it would be afflicted on do not have enough extra calories to do it,
    and #2 i would have gotten a new bike but character building defiantly is important but seeing as the trip is already full of it i dont think a change of bikes would hurt too bad

  5. i originally planned on just reading some of this as in to get the extra credit, but i have become fully intrigued by the story, and am learning oh so many things about you, and cannot wait for the next addition to the work, also i think this has great potential of publication.