Everybody needs a Grand Tour

A little over a year ago, I was bicycling across the country with my friend Tony. It was almost exactly 3,000 miles, and took us 49 days. It was the longest vacation I’ve ever taken since I was 16 years old, by about 40 days. I remember talking to my friend Nick when I got back from the trip, and saying, “It was great — it just wasn’t that formative, or that life-changing.”

Nick said, “You said that it wasn’t going to be that formative before you left.”

“Oh.” What I was trying to say is that it wasn’t going to change me that much, the way I was changed when I discovered the mountains, or moved to Montana, or went rock climbing the first time.

I’ve had some time to look back now, and think about what the trip meant to me, and the most poignant thing I’ve come up with to say to someone is:

“When you’re riding a bicycle across the country, you never feel like life is passing you by.”

I am one of three people giving slide shows about bicycle travel on May 25th at Salvagetti Bicycle Workshop in Denver, and I don’t really know what to say to people, besides riding your bike a long distance over a couple month is … awesome. Yes, awesome. I’m sure people will be floored by this striking and unique revelation.

I think I struggle to succinctly say something about one of the biggest adventures I’ve had, and maybe I don’t know how to start if I don’t have room for a 500-word explanation. I wrote a couple of articles about the trip, “From Commuter to Tourist” in Adventure Cyclist, “I am doing something extraordinary, as you have probably read on my Facebook page” in the Mountain Gazette, and “Across America on a $100 Bike,” forthcoming in the Rivendell Reader. Those gave me a little more space to get my thoughts out, but still don’t quite capture it. I know what was great about it, now that I’m back staring at a computer screen 50 hours a week.

I miss sitting on the curb outside convenience stores and eating, because we had nowhere else to sit. I miss eating 6,000 to 8,000 calories a day. I miss people at gas stations and rural cafes all over the country taking an interest in what we were doing, even though we were doing nothing more spectacular than being a couple of the hundreds of people who decide to ride their bikes across the country. I miss taking in west Texas from a bicycle seat. I miss calling my friend Scott, who is always the busiest person I know as the owner of a bike shop, and having him take 5 minutes to walk me through fixing all the minor mechanical problems with my bike. I miss reacquainting myself with my friend Tony, spending 7 weeks together after seeing each other once in about 8 years. I miss feeling like what I was doing every day was the most important thing in the world for me, right then.

A few years ago, I was interviewing a guy named Matthew Lee about the unsupported, 2,745-mile Tour Divide mountain bike ride/race he founded, and wins almost every year. In the story, I wrote:

Lee says the idea of Tour Divide comes from the 16th- through 18th-century European tradition of the Grand Tour, an itinerary designed to expose young men to art and culture through a long trip. He says in this age of long weekends and vacation allotments, we’ve forgotten how to take a meaningful long trip.

Every cyclist, and everybody, for that matter, needs to do a Grand Tour once in their life, says Lee.

I’ve found the best way I can explain my bike tour to people is to tell them about Matthew Lee’s philosophy, that we all need a Grand Tour. Something that throws what we know as life completely off-balance, and settles us in to something drastically different. Now that I’ve done one Grand Tour-type trip, I feel like I need another one, this year. I’m taking August off, to cram in as much of something as I can into four or five weeks of unpaid vacation. What’s it going to be? I don’t know. But everybody needs to do a Grand Tour once in their life. And if Matthew Lee is leading by example, I need several — he does one every year.

What’s your Grand Tour?


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3 replies on “Everybody needs a Grand Tour”
  1. says: Rick Olson

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Brendan. I spent all last summer retracing the National Park-to-Park Highway, a 4,500 mile loop traveling through 14 National Parks. First trip of any kind I did like this and I’m a much different person because of it. My cabin fever has been amplified. One cool note about a trip of this sort that my girlfriend and I realized is that a trip of this nature is not a vacation, it’s a trip and we couldn’t see ourselves doing it any other way.

  2. says: Will

    Depending on how you feel about river travel, I would take a page out of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and paddle down the Mississippi. You could start at Great Falls (or at the Denver REI) with a touring kayak, and paddle all the way to New Orleans. I read a great story a couple of years ago about two guys who paddled the length of the Los Angeles river from Encino to Long Beach, if that’s possible, I’m sure you’d find no worse conditions on the Mississippi.

  3. says: Mick

    Grand Tour? I just want to start carving out the Black Diamond run at Rampart Ski Resort. Hell ya!

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