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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 fifth in a series of letters that began in Washington State and will end in the nation's capitol. Writing for World Travelers of America, Wilker offers a unique view of America from 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 2


Hi from Missoula . . .

We arrived in Missoula, Montana yesterday afternoon after a 105-mile ride including a climb of 4000+ feet. Our stop here is a dormitory at the University of Montana, a low keyed western-flavored hillside campus overlooking the entire city, with a giant "M" painted onto the hillside at the end of a mile long trail. From daybreak, a host of hikers can be seen climbing the hill in this land of the young and the healthy.

The three-day ride across Idaho and western Montana to Missoula was spectacular, with changes in the terrain every few minutes. The first day we rode north out of Spokane to Sandpoint, a neat little resort town on Lake Pend Oreille, which extends over 80 miles into Montana. No one uses last names, at least at this stage; we identify each other mostly by the bikes we ride, and often need to be reintroduced as soon as we change out of our biking gear.

Four of us, all with New York connections, had lunch together in a bagel shop: Mark went to Elysse Francais on 95th Street; John lives on 5th Avenue at 77th Street, Charlie from Santa Fe has a house at Sag Harbor and is originally from Massapequa; and I. The bagels were pretty good, but not quite H&H.

The next day we rode for over 80 miles along the lake and Clark Fork, the river that feeds it, into Montana. The scenery became more magnificent in an instant, including our first view of the high, snow-peaked Rockies to our east. I found myself stopping every few minutes to take a picture and just take in the wonder of it all. (Of course, it's a lot easier to stop when you see a big hill in front of you.) The scenery along the Clark Fork changes every few minutes from forests to farmland to pastures to orchards and ranches and back to forest, interspersed with small railroad towns on the Burlington-Northern Railroad line.

With our first headwind, we immediately formed a pace line, a system where bikers in close formation take turns cutting the wind (or "pulling" in bicycle lingo) for the rest of the small group, like geese in formation. Most of the day we were pulled by Uli from Pittsburgh, a member of a German bike team before he left Berlin for the USA in 1964. He rides in the smoothest of strokes, never changing cadence and changing gears perfectly as we climb and descend the rolling hills; it's a great learning experience to ride behind him.

Also in our pace line were two Floridians - Bob from Jupiter and Howard from Hollywood. Bob is a retired airline pilot and Howard is one of the numerous lawyers in our group. Uli and Bob are 66 and Uli has two artificial hips, so Howard and I were humbled a bit, at least as much as two litigators can get humbled.

Camping out at the Thompson Falls High School, we were treated to a fine home cooked meal by a local church group, and a movie, "The Insider," an appropriate choice on a ride sponsored by the American Lung Association. Most of us skipped the film; we were all asleep before the sun went down.

By the time we woke up, the temperature had dropped to the low 40's, and the sun was still behind the mountains as we got underway for the longest ride yet. We were all pretty bundled up, but as the sun got higher the temperature rose into the 80's making the ride a bit tougher. For the first time I decided to hang back with some of the slower riders.

One of them was Maryanne, a 62-year-old transplanted Dane who asked me about my shirt, which has a racing team logo with a map of Denmark. I admitted I bought the shirt out of a bin in a factory in Italy for about $5. It turns out that Maryanne is another New Yorker and had trained for the ride exclusively in Central Park. Her 5 kids all graduated from top colleges, and law and graduate schools. Her husband, once a nationally ranked tennis player, was the president of Mennen and then the international president of Colgate-Palmolive. She became a psychotherapist after her children were raised, and decided to ride a bike across America while her husband went to England to watch the tennis tournament at Wimbledon. Maryanne pedaled along slowly but surely all the way to Missoula, where she met up with a daughter who flew in from San Francisco.

Some of the other riders in the back were really suffering from the effort and had to be rescued by the Sag Wagon. I decided to stop dawdling. For a while I got behind two young women, both in medical school at Ohio State and both, as it turned out, on the university's bike team; they went flying on, and I got "dropped" when I couldn't keep up.

Next I hooked up with yet another lawyer, Jonathan from Washington, DC, who always gets a late start and was still relatively far in the back. Together, we did a fast two-person pace line, passing numerous riders and skipping the last water stop at the 90 mile point -- to the cheers of the 20 or so riders loading up for the last leg. We caught up to Howard, and the three of us completed the day's ride with a fast finish.

It was interesting that riding with the slower riders seems to have sapped my adrenaline, but as soon as I picked up the pace, my energy rose and the last 15 miles were about the easiest of the day. (Of course, it also helped that the ride into Missoula is pretty much downhill). Bill Rogers, one of the last great American marathoners, said after winning the NYC Marathon in just over two hours, that the real heroes are the runners who take 5 or 6 hours to finish because they're out there over twice as long. That also applies to long-distance bicyclists.

I am now off to explore Missoula on my bike with a group of the older guys and tomorrow we are driving up to Glacier National Park in a rental car.

Today and tomorrow we are resting for a two-day climb over the Continental Divide. Life is tough.

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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 web sites above to determine any changes to the information.