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Jay Wilker is one of 200 bicyclists in the Big Ride, a summer-long bike-a-thon sponsored by the American Lung Association to raise public awareness and funding for respiratory health. This is the seventh in a series of letters, which began in Washington State and will end in the nation's capitol. Writing for World Travelers of America, Jay offers a unique view of America across the handlebars. In his other life, Wilker, 56, is a litigation attorney with Oppenheimer, Wolff and Donnelly, LLP, in New York.

Bicycling Across America - Leg 7,


Hi from Sandusky . . .

The Big Ride began to flatten out, literally and figuratively, soon after we left Madison, reluctantly, on Saturday morning. We rode 82 miles to Belvidere, Illinois, the first of six legs to the port city of Sandusky, on Lake Erie, where we arrived on Thursday. Along the way, with stops in Naperville, Illinois, LaPorte and Kendallville, Indiana, and Napoleon, Ohio, the beauty of the rolling Wisconsin hills all too quickly turned into flat and largely nondescript farmland, small towns and strip malls. In the last week we've seen a whole lot of corn and soybeans alongside roads that seldom rise or fall. However, there were a few "highlights" in some of the towns we visited.

In Naperville, two of the highlights turned out to be in the Sunday New York Times, where we read about Tiger Woods setting another record at the British Open and Lance Armstrong winning his second Tour de France. But our main topic was which one of us on the Big Ride deserved to be named Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Year. Mark and I sat outside the Main Street Starbucks on a beautiful, cloudless day, collecting opinions from numerous others on this trip. Many of us, of course, are voting for ourselves.

La Porte, Indiana, near South Bend, turned out to be a happy surprise. This utterly charming, prosperous looking little town is filled with friendly people, many of whom came out to the city park where we were camping. They put on a pig roast, with corn cooked in its husks over an outdoor fire, and provided a super DJ and dancing. A cyclist from La Porte who did the Big Ride in 1999 organized the festivities, and he brought along the mayor, the chief of police and other local celebrities.

Some of our riders turned out to be great polka dancers, including Phil, our oldest at 79. The party rocked along despite the fact that we had all biked at least 110 miles that day (I did 135 due to an extra 28 mile ride to a small town south of the more direct route through some corn fields -- what else). My informal poll of several riders rated La Porte as the best campsite on the trip, beating out the previous favorite, Miller, South Dakota.

The road to Kendallville passes through Amish and Mennonite farmlands, including Wakarusa, Indiana, where we stopped at what may be the world's best bakery - an opinion possibly influenced by the fact that I had ridden 50 miles by 9 AM that morning. In Topeka, Indiana, we watched a dairy cattle auction with Amish and Mennonite farmers whose horse-drawn buggies - about 100 of them - filled the parking lot.

In another parking lot - our checkpoint outside a church in Bryan, Indiana - we were met by John and Fritzie, two members of the Bryan City Band, the second oldest city band in America at the age of 149 (they said the Allentown, PA band is the oldest). John and Fritzie, 87 and 89 respectively, and married 64 years, played some rousing tunes as several of us paraded our bikes in a circle.

Finally, in Fremont, Ohio, I was once again interviewed on live radio. I tried to tell the host that my grandmother, Rose Haslinger, was from Fremont, and I wanted to say hello to all the Haslingers out there since I had just found a whole bunch of them in the phone book, but he was more interested in what was my most memorable experience on the ride and I never got the chance. (I told him it was probably riding through the Badlands of South Dakota in a lightning and thunderstorm.)

If there is any advantage to riding through flatlands for days on end it has been the opportunity to chat with some of the riders whom I hadn't had a chance to get to know in the more hilly and difficult rides in the West. On the longest ride of the trip - 135 miles in Indiana - I rode with Marjolein, a pulmonary physician from Boston.

Marjolein rides a Dutch city bike called a Gisele, that is nothing like its namesake. It features such amenities as a built-in lock, fenders with mud flaps, lights that go on automatically when it gets dark, adjustable handlebars, and a specially cushioned seat. The Giselle weighs 40 pounds, over twice the weight of my Italian racing bike, and many of us told her during the trip that she had the wrong bike for this type of ride. She plugged along, day in and day out, often getting into camp as dinner was just wrapping up.

On this long stretch, I offered to exchange bikes for a while, which also meant switching pedals to accommodate our shoes. After 35 miles, Marjolein agreed that my Capin was the better way to go, and she is going to get a road bike when she returns to Massachusetts. But she told me why she is riding on the Giselle in the first place.

As a child in Holland, she had such bad asthma that she spent three years in a special facility for asthmatic children. She is not cured, but controls her affliction with medicine. She has spent a good part of her life working with people with asthma, becoming a pulmonary specialist at Tufts in Boston. She decided to dedicate her ride across America to the asthma facility in Holland where she spent her early childhood, and to ride the Giselle because it's a Dutch classic. She's a strong rider, and on my bike she would be right up in the front of the pack.

The lead generally consists of younger riders from schools and colleges, but there are a few older ones who can keep up with the kids or even show them a thing or two. One of the strongest riders, and possibly the best climber in the group, is Brad, a US Postal worker (he delivers mail in Denver) who of course wears the jersey that the US Postal team wears in the Tour de France. I bought a similar jersey, as did many other Big Riders, but it hasn't made us any faster.

Once in a while Brad will slow down and I can ride with him on the flats, along with another mail deliverer, Katie from Rhode Island. Katie is riding across America with her brother, Bill. They both are very good riders, but wear orange vests, which is unusual for bicyclists at their level. It turns out that Katie was hit by a bus while cycling across a bridge in Rhode Island two years ago and barely survived. She was in a hospital and rehab for nearly two years, and this ride is her effort to escape the demon haunting her. It's wonderful to see her brother being so protective, always riding close to her and watching for trucks and other hazards of the road.

I am constantly fascinated with the stories told by so many of the riders about their lives and how they came to be on the Big Ride. Many are "between careers' and, not surprisingly, a relatively large number are involved in efforts to combat asthma, lung disease and other respiratory afflictions. There are many doctors on the ride and a number of others in the health industry. Not everyone is a do-gooder. There are a lot of lawyers on the ride too.

The other day I rode for a while with Rita, a 50-ish woman who turned out to have just passed the bar. She said both of her parents were lawyers; her mother is over 90 and still works every day for the NYC Corporation Counsel's Office where she is the oldest city employee. Rita decided to follow in their footsteps when her kids got out of school. She tells very funny stories about her practice in Connecticut, which seem to consist largely of petty drug dealers (I should say alleged drug dealers). Most of them get caught selling their wares to narcotics agents who are overweight middle-aged white guys dressed up to look like street hustlers, a disguise that would fool no one except her clients.

At the other end of the spectrum, and continent, is Ursula, a prosecutor in British Columbia, with whom I have ridden a couple of times. She rides twice as fast as Rita and is about half her age. There are at least a half dozen other lawyers and we all talk from time to time as we ride along.

But probably there are more people in education - teachers, professors, and administrators - than any other profession on the ride.

On the flat ride, where riders of different capabilities are more likely to ride together, it has been a lot of fun hanging with people from all walks of life from all over the country sharing one common denominator, a love of cycling. (Hanging is a term favored by the under-30 members to describe riding with someone.)

Our group ranges in age from a 17-year old high school junior named Janel from Buffalo, to a group of men in their 70's headed up by Phil, our senior statesman and possibly the best dancer in the group. I have been told that the mean or average age is 47. This seems right since there are so many men my age or older, probably at least a third of the group. While there are few women over 30 or so, the top woman rider is over 40. Carol from Arkansas, a 6-ft triathlete sporting exotic ankle tattoos, is usually the first rider into camp.

We have equally eclectic geographical diversity, with riders from all over the country and Canada, and a few from Australia and France. Teams have formed by states, the largest by far being Team Washington with 28 riders. There is also of course a Team Texas; and there is a Team California, Team Ohio, Team Massachusetts and Team Illinois. About a dozen of these last riders dressed up as Abraham Lincoln with beards and top hats to meet us at the Illinois border as we rode south out of Wisconsin. This was the high point for Illinois. (I would be tempted to say it was all down hill from there, but it was totally flat.)

Needless to say there is no Team New York. New Yorkers don't know each other, or even if they do, they won't acknowledge it.

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Notice: This information is current as of Summer 2000. It is recommended that you contact the numbers, and/or visit the websites above to determine any changes to the information.