By Louis Melini
Ben, my oldest son, gave me Old Man on a Bicycle for Christmas. “It fits you”, he said, reminding me that I rode across the U.S. in 2018 at the “young” age of 67. Don Petterson was 71 when he started his ride across the U.S. in 2002, finishing in 2003 after a broken clavicle (collarbone) in Price, Utah aborted his 2002 ride. He published the book 11 years later.
Don wanted to do something out of the ordinary in his retirement, so he decided on a whim to ride across the United States on a bicycle, a bicycle that he did not yet have. The bike tour was actually his second choice. Fortunately for the bike-touring community he realized that, despite being a licensed pilot, his thoughts of flying a fixed wing ultralight plane across the U.S. would not work out.
Mr. Petterson had “not ridden a bike in years” and “had never ridden for more than a few miles”. Within minutes of starting his trip he had to call his wife as he “slipped his chain” jamming it so that he could not make the repair. This occurred because he was trying to fix his bike computer while riding. If anything, this was an embarrassing start to a trip in front of family members, some of which questioned his judgment and sanity. After getting his bike and bike computer squared away he was off again realizing that he may be not up for the challenge. “I was shaky on steep turns”; “had not practiced emergency stops”; clumsy when releasing my feet from the clamps of the bicycle pedals as quickly and safety demanded”; “I could manage only the most basic repairs and knew nothing about making adjustments”; “I had never made an overnight bike ride and I hadn’t yet built up enough muscular endurance”. These quotes were some of his thoughts and anxieties on that first day. After reading that passage it reminded me of my 1975 trip across the U.S. but I was young and naïve. He ended up having a good first day, riding 58 miles.
As a bicycle touring books go, this one is pretty good. It has a good mix of travelogue writing (i.e. diary), autobiographical information about the author, entertaining anecdotes, and some of what I will call “preaching”. Mr. Petterson inserts into the book numerous short tangential information such as the benefits of helmets, the not so beneficial effects of smoking, and some science related to the physiology of aging among numerous tidbits of information. Most of the information is welcome and nicely adds to the book.
At the time of his ride across the U.S., Mr. Petterson was retired as a Foreign Service officer having served as an Ambassador for the U.S. After his retirement he also served in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. I think his age and occupation was a part of my interest in his book. The book was well written and I can relate to his age-related maladies.
On the other hand he was, to be polite, a bit absent minded. He twice left his wallet on the rear rack of his bike, fortunately not losing it. He lost a pair of riding tights, a few tools, a previously helpful map, and his camera, though he rode back to the motel and found the camera in the trash. He knew about Adventure Cycling Association but decided on a do-it-yourself route that caused him to lose countless hours during the course of his ride after getting lost, backtracking, and finding himself on really bad roads. Twice he was told by bike shop employees in Colorado and California that he had ridden on the most dangerous road in the area. To his credit, Mr. Petterson did well on the roads he chose except for the incident in Price.
In order to travel as lightly as possible, he was unprepared for cold weather and rain, so he stayed in his motel until the weather improved. He didn’t camp nor have a camp stove so he ate an interesting variety of meals some of which were good. Since he didn’t carry much in the way of food, he rode too long on more than a few occasions to obtain food. He even needed to go to bike shops to properly pump his tires, as his pump was small on only useful to inflate a flat tire to get to a shop.
Despite my concerns, he did do the trip and should be commended, as anyone should be for completing a ride across the U.S. He did the ride differently than I would, but that is okay. Given that he rode alone, much of his riding style choices were in part to socialize. Even the need to go to a bike shop to pump his tires was a social exercise to chat with the employees perhaps about the roads he should take to get to his next destination. When you retire you will understand the need to socialize.
I enjoyed the book. I primarily enjoyed getting to know Don and read about his travels that included stretches of road in Utah, eastern Colorado and Kansa that I also have toured through. Because of how he wrote the book, the time lapse of 12 years between his ride and publication was not a deterrent on the quality of the book.
Old Man on a Bicycle: A Ride Across America and How to Realize a More Enjoyable Old Age by Don Petterson; 2014: Outskirts Press Inc. Outskirtspress.com, https://outskirtspress.com/oldmanonabicycle, ISBN: 978-1478722915