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American Bike Project: What I Learned

National Geographic Travel photographer Tyler Metcalfe recently quit his job and sold off his possessions to embark on an epic solo adventure of cross-country cycling that has dealt him many ups and downs.

Tyler Metcalfe bikes across America.
Video by Tyler Metcalfe

With only a hundred miles left to go in my cross-country bike tour, I began to imagine how my trip might end. I assumed that the final days of my journey would involve an easy ride over the scenic foothills of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, which would eventually give way to a gentle path leading down to a beach where I would finally dip my bike tires in the Pacific Ocean. At that point, my journey would be complete, and I would have enough sunlight left in the day to sit and reflect on my journey.

I should have known, however, that situations on a bike tour don’t often work out how one might expect. Instead of a few days of bike-riding bliss across the Olympic Peninsula, I was faced with a number of complications, including multiple dead-end roads, rough riding conditions, a malfunctioning tire, and a run-in with a bear in the middle of a forest. These complications were all due to the fact that I was quick to assume how things would turn out—which resulted in me diving into the final leg of my journey unprepared.

After 106 days on the road, I was still learning lessons, and this, I believe, is one of the great benefits of traveling by bike. Here are five major takeaways from my cross-country bike trip, including a valuable insight from my final days on the road.

Avoid Assumptions

The Olympic Peninsula would be my first major section without the use of Adventure Cycling’s route maps, and instead of doing any research on the area, I made the mistake of choosing to wing it. I had been riding for over 4,000 miles at that point and I felt confident enough to take on any unexpected scenarios. My friend Seth would also be joining me for this section of the trip, and between the two of us, I assumed we could figure things out along the way. Unfortunately, we did.

Had we done a bit of research before departing, we would have avoided a number of obstacles, dead-end roads, and one particularly arduous section of travel through a supposed alternate bike route (according to Google Maps) that resulted in us dragging our bikes over rough, rocky terrain for two and a half hours. Doing research would also have revealed that though the trail to our final destination, Shi Shi Beach, was accessible by road, getting to the actual beach required a few miles of hiking through a dense, muddy forest and posed a serious roadblock to those traveling with loaded touring bikes.

These obstacles were made worse by the fact that in the last 20 miles of riding, I noticed that my rear tire was starting to bulge due to the extensive amount of rocky terrain we had been moving over. With every rotation of the wheel, I feared my tire would explode, sending me and my bike tearing to the ground in a broken mess.

In one grand finale of things going wrong, we found ourselves biking down a narrow dirt path, which we hoped would finally take us to the ocean. Instead, it led us to a dead end in the middle of a forest where a black bear appeared to be waiting for us. Fortunately the bear immediately rushed off into the foliage, but the situation left us on edge as we backtracked out of the forest in the dark. At that point, I simply wanted to make it to the coast in one piece and deal with any remaining issues after touching the ocean and completing my journey.

The following morning, we made it to the ocean, and after 4,290 miles of biking, I was finally able to touch my tires to the waters of the Pacific Ocean. I was overcome with relief. The final days of my cross-country trip had been unexpectedly complex, but our mistakes added a sense of adventure to the journey. These complications also taught me one last lesson: When traveling into the unknown, avoid making assumptions without first doing a bit of research.

Bike Touring Is for All Ages

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Joel Guzman and his family—Nita Kotenkar, Adrian Guzman (age nine), and Alyssa Guzman (age five)—from Dunn Loring, Virginia, used a Bilenky tandem bicycle with modifications along the Adventure Cycling Association's Great Parks Trail from Montana to Colorado.


“I wish I had done something like that when I was younger.”

A number of people told me this throughout my journey after hearing that I was biking across the country. What these people didn’t realize was that an overwhelming number of the cyclists I met on the road were much older than me, and in some cases, much younger. Age seemed to make no difference when it came to people’s decisions to ride a bike across the country, which contradicted my initial assumption that a predominantly young demographic would make up the bulk of the bike touring community.

My first encounter with a fellow cross-country cyclist came on the fourth day of my trip when I met a man named Bruce. At age 58, Bruce was older than what I expected the average cyclist to be, and I was even more surprised to find out that he had just completed a few years of chemotherapy, which left him without much feeling in his feet. Neither his physical condition nor his age prevented him from making the decision to bike across the country.

From this point onward, I continued to meet cyclists who were older than the demographic I expected to find biking the TransAmerica route. In Colorado, I met a couple from New Zealand who were in their 70s and had been making bike-touring trips around the world for the last few years. Now they were biking across America at a pace of between 60 and 70 miles per day. In Yellowstone National Park, I met a man who had been one of the original cyclists to complete the first ever Bikecentennial ride (now named the TransAmerica bike route) in 1976, and was now back in the saddle, 40 years later, to ride the route again.

On the other end of the age spectrum, I was surprised to meet a few families who decided that bike touring was the best form of a summer vacation. One family of cyclists I crossed paths with included two children ages five and nine. Another family I met included two teenagers who were tagging along with their parents on a three-week-long bike tour before heading back to school. Both situations opened my eyes to what is possible in terms of travel, even after committing to raising a family.

As it turns out, bike touring is for all ages, even families, and it provides accessible adventure for anyone willing to seek it out.

Always Wear a Helmet

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Tyler Metcalfe's bike lies on the side of the road while he is attended to by emergency medical dispatchers after being hit by a car in Pittsburg, Kansas. He suffered a severe concussion, broken spine bones, bruised ribs, and a torn leg muscle from the wreck, temporarily ending his ride across the country.


Thirty-five days into my bike tour I was struck from behind by a car and suffered injuries that took me off the road for 50 days. At the time of the wreck I was wearing a helmet—a fact that may have saved my life, and at the very least, prevented an even more serious brain injury than the one I sustained. I cringe when I think about the handful of cyclists I have come across who opt not to wear a helmet. Some people choose to go without a helmet due to hot riding conditions, others simply don’t like the way helmets look.

One young man I met 10 years ago was biking from Florida to California and had been riding the entire route without a helmet. “I’m extremely careful,” he claimed. But as I came to find out, cyclists involved in car wrecks are oftentimes not at fault, and had this young man been in my position while riding without a helmet, things might not have turned out so well for him.

Wearing a helmet while biking should be a no-brainer. A helmet is a cyclist’s final line of defense should something go wrong, and riding with caution isn’t always enough to prevent accidents from happening.

Oregon Offers the Full Bike-Touring Experience

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A bike trail winds through Oregon's Columbia River Gorge along the Historic Columbia River Highway.


If I had to go back and bike through only one state along the TransAmerica route, Oregon would be my choice. Out of the 10 states I passed through, Oregon offered many of the aspects I came to love about traveling by bike, such as the opportunity to meet new people and the chance to move through a variation of scenic landscapes.

The route passes through a number of extremely different environments, from remote stretches of desert in the east, to the mountainous regions of central Oregon, to the lush rain forests of the west, and finally, the coast. Each environment offers a different experience, be it through introversion and reflection along stretches of desert road, or actively pursuing the landscape by hiking one of the Cascade Mountains’ many trails. The state took me through small towns with friendly people, and big cities with great food scenes and an abundance of microbreweries.

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The diverse terrain of Smith Rock State Park, Oregon


Furthermore, Oregon seemed to have a growing bike hostel scene, and I stayed in a few hostels throughout the state that were literally brand new (one hadn’t even officially opened yet, and one hosted me as one of their first guests). The owners of each hostel were friendly, engaging people who seemed to have entered into the business simply because they wanted to give back to the biking community. Finally, most of the roads through Oregon were relatively safe, and offered plenty of wide highway shoulders, along with drivers who seemed to be aware of and respectful toward cyclists.

Between the varying landscapes, scenic views, great cities, and good riding conditions, Oregon seemed to have everything a cyclist could want in a bike tour.

Getting There Isn’t a Task

I decided to cross the country by bike so that I could be captivated by every moment along the way. Whether it was cooking dinner with a close travel companion on a gravel parking lot in front of a convenience store, or biking through a heavy rainstorm that drenched me to the bone, or sleeping under the stars for multiple nights in a row, I wanted to feel it all. The constant rhythm of discomfort and comfort gave me an appreciation for the small details of each day, and I began to look at the bike tour as a choice of lifestyle rather than an athletic endeavor.

At one point early in my trip, a man exclaimed “That’s crazy!” after hearing my plan to spend over a hundred days biking across the country. From his perspective, biking for a hundred days seemed like an arduous task to be completed before returning home to a supposedly normal life. Upon hearing his statement, however, I realized that the idea of waking up every day and biking 60 miles had begun to feel as routine to me as a full-time office job had in the past.

Choosing travel as a lifestyle allowed me to slow down and experience the world at my own pace. It presented an opportunity to get lost, to spend time talking to strangers, and to fully embrace the unexpected.

In the end, my bike tour across the country was an incredible travel experience that offered a fully immersive opportunity to gain new perspectives and explore the vast beauty of the country. The journey was filled with challenges, but with each challenge came a great reward, and what were once daily, routine expectations became rare moments that I began to cherish.

If you’ve ever considered bike touring as a way to travel, take the plunge, embrace each moment, and be open to what you can learn along the way, for learning is what makes travel so thrilling.

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Tyler Metcalfe completes his journey at Hobuck Beach, Washington, holding the National Geographic Society flag.



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