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When strangers expressed astonishment at the length of our journey, our standard response was to shrug it off. ‘It’s not that tough,’ we’d say, pointing out that it was essentially just a lot of short bicycle rides one after the other. ‘The first ten miles are the hardest.’

This wasn’t just a glib response. Of course, there are challenges: mental, physical, logistical. But you expect them, and in some cases they were the reasons you left in the first place. The toughest part of any lengthy trip to lands unknown is the departure. By comparison, everything else is easy.

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Nearly everything. For as we crossed the US, it started to dawn on us that we might have had the whole thing back to front. By this time at home without a home, comfortable without comforts and in perpetuum mobile, we realised that the toughest miles would be those at the end of the road.

And this, really, was why we’d chosen to finish in New York. While we’ve nothing but admiration for those who cycle, for example, the length of the UK or the length of the Americas, neither John O’Groats nor Ushuaia have ever struck us as appealing places to finish a journey. Planning to ride our bicycles for two years from A to B, we always knew we wanted the B to be neither an avatar nor a symbol, not just an airport with a town attached, but a place that would quicken the pulse, somewhere we’d be genuinely excited to reach. Where better than New York?

 


 

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From our last substantial entry, though, we still had roughly 1,000 miles to ride. Rolling north-east out of Louisville, Kentucky, at last leaving behind the South, we were soon funnelled into a region with a glorious industrial past behind it. This is the Rust Belt, the kind of evocative nickname used with scorn by outsiders but affection, not all of it ironic, by residents. The nickname also explains, at least in part, why the cities within it have struggled to reinvent themselves since the fall of the industries on which their economies had been built.

The poster child for this decline is Detroit, which Will visited some years ago. Its troubles have been well documented, not least in Julien Temple’s stunning documentary about its near-apocalyptic collapse (you can watch it, free, at this link). Nobody, though, is making movies about the desperate riverside city of Steubenville, Ohio, a former coal-and-steel boom town where, since 1950, 80% of all manufacturing jobs have gone and the population has been cut in half. Nor, for that matter, about Cincinnati, 200,000 residents lighter than in 1960, where post-industrial economic decline has been compounded by poor urban planning and the financial crash of 2008. Others have suffered just as badly, if not worse.

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The comparative absence of powerhouse industry across Ohio and western Pennsylvania has had one unexpected benefit for cyclists. The area was once criss-crossed by a web of railroads, some built for passenger travel and others for commercial purposes. Most have long since been left to wither; the US no longer has an extant rail network worthy of the name. But many of these former railroads have found second lives as rural trails, offering runners and riders a series of hill-light and traffic-free routes through the region. In truth, these tree-lined trails can get monotonous; in search of variety, looking for light to go with the shadows, we often found ourselves dipping back on to the parallel roads. But they’re pretty enough, plainly popular with local riders, and usefully quick.

 


 

We never stopped being astounded at the generosity of the hosts we met through Warmshowers, a kind of Couchsurfing-for-cyclists online network that allows touring riders to make connections in towns and cities through which they’re passing. Nor did we tire of hearing their stories, which often revealed deep and fascinating connections to cycling culture. Take these three examples, all from a short stretch in the buckle of the Rust Belt.

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In tiny Cedarville, Ohio, we stopped with Jay Kinsinger, who’s combined his professional skills (he’s a professor of mechanical engineering) and his personal interests (cycling) into a small sideline making bicycles out of wood. Our photographs don’t do justice to these quite beautiful machines, built from black walnut, on which Jay and his family have toured in Europe and the US. Better, perhaps, to visit his website, take a look at this short article, or watch this four-minute video summarising the 100-hour labour each bike requires.

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Down the road in Columbus, we stayed with Jess Mathews, a passionate cyclist, occasional musician and part-time ice cream maker who’s at the forefront of a movement to improve cycling conditions in her home city. An inspirational woman and terrific company, she keeps an occasional blog here; you can also see her putting her case at this recording of a TED talk she gave in 2013.

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And for four nights in Pittsburgh, we fell in with John Miller, a banjo-playing, baseball-loving, Belgian-American newspaperman who’s bringing his road bike to France in July to tackle the one-day brutality of the Marmotte. (He’s not shy, by the way. We just forgot to take his photograph.) Pittsburgh, incidentally, deserves far more space than we’re going to give it here. Proud of its industrial past but eagerly looking to a very different future, it’s a tough, robust and thoroughly invigorating city. We’d love to return.

 


 

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From Pittsburgh, 11 agreeable, easygoing days through fast-arriving spring to New York. Two days on the Great Allegheny Passage, another pretty riverside rail trail, with a diversion to Frank Lloyd Wright’s breathtaking Fallingwater. Through the hills of western Pennsylvania and on to a night at a chocolate-boxy Gettysburg address, then two more in mellow Lancaster. Across the Delaware River and into New Jersey: waterside Lambertville, collegiate Princeton, suburban Rutherford. And then, just like that, over the George Washington Bridge and on to our journey’s end in New York, a city that needs no encomiums from the likes of us.

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Well, almost our journey’s end. After heading directly from Heathrow Airport to Clitheroe for the Cycle Touring Festival, a fabulous three days spent in the company of 200 fellow travellers, we decided to make our way south by bike on a somewhat circuitous route. We’re delighted we did. We hadn’t exactly forgotten how beautiful the English countryside can be, but after 22 months out of the country and a little unenthusiastic about returning, we were glad of the reminder.

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We were also glad to catch up with some familiar faces along the way, as we threaded together a route through the home towns of scattered friends and family. Will’s fabulous second cousin Bidi, her saintly husband Greville and Bidi’s daughter Kate. Cath and Mike (pictured left), sometime Londoners and longtime friends now holed up in rural Shropshire. Simon, still running a museum in Bromsgrove. And in Oxford, pictured right, Will’s cousin Charlie and her husband Pete – with their child Robin, not even on the radar when we left but now a year old, and walking. Time flies.

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And now, at last, London and a home, at least for a few months. Enough time to unpack, at least, and reacquaint ourselves with everyone and everything we left behind. Maybe we’ll stick around; maybe not. We’ll see. In the meantime, thank you for reading. Perhaps we’ll see you soon.

 


 

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The Americas, 10 July 2013 – 28 April 2015
Countries 17
Nights 658
Distance 28,683.01km
Climb 246,735m
100km days 101
Punctures 47
Broken spokes 4
Chains 10
Touring cyclists encountered 100
Trains 2
Boats 35
Planes 8
Broken teeth 2
Dog bites 3
Socks lost 5
Headphones broken or misplaced 8
Blog entries posted 144
Words published 118,866

from London, UK