Out and Back: An interview with Jrdn Freelove about his 7 cross-country bike tours

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Words and non-studio photos by Joseph Ahearne. Studio photos by Jim Golden.

Jrdn Freelove is kind of famous in our community. This past summer he rode about 7,200 miles in a little over five months, crossing the USA and back again in a big loop, passing through 25 states. This brings his tally of cross-country trips up to seven—all but one of them solo.

Jrdn has been a fixture in the Portland bike community since before there ever was a Portland bike community. He’s not an activist so much as a socialite, and everybody I know knows him. And I think everybody they know knows him, too, and whenever anyone talks about Jrdn they can’t help but smile. The thing about Jrdn is, he treats everybody like family. He makes you feel special. His southern drawl is warm and inviting as home-baked pie. He looks you in the eye and he’s interested in what you’re doing. He loves asking questions. He’s quirky and humble and surly sometimes, and there’s nobody else even remotely like him.

And Jrdn loves bicycles. Everything about them: the frames, the history, the process of making them and painting them, their aesthetics and functionality, old parts, new parts, gear ratios (half-step!), wheel sizes, and on and on. But what he loves most about them is riding them. Day trips for sure. But his greatest love is touring. I sat down with Jrdn and asked him about this latest cross-country trip. If there’s one thing Jrdn loves to do besides ride bikes, it’s to talk about bikes. And drink beer. Strong beer. He had some tough times on this most recent trip, but he stuck it out, and I wanted to get the full story.

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“Jrdn,” I ask, “Why do you do this? Why do you do these crazy long bike trips?”

“Because I love it,” he says without hesitation. “There is nothing like being on the road, in the groove of things. You’ve got your house, you’ve got your kitchen, you’ve got your transportation, you’re dialed in. You know how to take care of yourself.” He thinks for a minute and goes on. “Life gets real simple. You’ve got three things that you have to think about every day.” He puts up one finger and says, “Where am I going to go,” two fingers, “What am I going to eat,” and three, “Where am I going to sleep.” He holds the three fingers there for affect and adds, “Beyond that, you’re just taking it all in, dealing with your daily contingencies of weather and so on.”

I ask him, “What’s the hardest part of traveling by bike, and traveling solo? Do you get lonely?”

“Everybody asks me the same questions,” he says. “Do I get lonely? How many flats did I get? How do I afford it? Do I get bored?” He shifts in his seat and takes a drink of the beer sitting in front of him. Terminator Stout. “Well,” he says, “I don’t get bored and I don’t get lonely. I love being alone. I love to just think about things. After a while on the road my thoughts slow down and my body’s working and my thoughts just flow. Like anything though, there are good days and bad days. It’s all mental, and that’s the hardest part of bike touring.

“People always ask me, don’t you get tired? Well, yeah I get tired. I just rode my hundred pound bike up a mountain for six hours. What do you think? But it’s easy with the body. You listen to it, feed it when you’re hungry, and when you’re tired, you rest.

“But it’s not like that with the mind. With the mind it can be a real struggle. When the weather is bad for days and days and you’ve got a ripping headwind it can feel like the whole universe is against you. It can really get you down. And when your head’s not in it, it can make the whole thing seem impossible. You don’t want to go on. But what are you going to do, quit? I mean, you can’t just sit there.”

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“So Jrdn, what was a low point for you on this trip?” I asked him. “I know you had a rough go the first few hundred miles. Tell me about that

He laughs, and says, “More like the first couple thousand miles. I got hit by a car in Phoenix. It’s a terrible place to ride. I just wanted out of there. It was at a stoplight, a big intersection with six-lane roads. Three cars collided; one caromed off another and hit me, threw me 30 feet and dragged my bike along the curb. I don’t remember flying, but after I landed I looked up and my bike was down over there and three of my panniers were lying in the road. I sat there on the curb and everything got real quiet for a minute. I checked myself over, nothing seemed broken, no bones anyway. I had some scrapes, but I was all right, physically. Mentally, though, that messed me up for a while. You know, not one person ever apologized for hitting me. Nothing.”

“And what happened to your bike?”

“It broke off one of my brake studs, ruined a tire and scraped up a brake lever. There was a guy, calls himself the Frame Doctor. Igleheart found him (Christopher Igleheart of Igleheart Custom Frames and Forks iglebike.com) I didn’t have a smart phone when I started this trip. I’ve never wanted one, never needed one. But this trip was different. The last time I did this trip was four years ago, and ever since then there just aren’t any phone books anymore. Nobody has them. I used to look up campgrounds and bike shops and all that. Now everything is electronic. Now I’m a convert. You pretty much have to carry a smart phone if you don’t want to have to stop and have people look stuff up for you on their computer.

“I just had a flip phone, and anyway I called Igleheart in Portland and he got on the computer and found this Frame Doctor in Phoenix. It was great; the guy showed up in his truck, picked me up and took me back to his place, welded my brake boss back on and sent me on my way. After the accident my back was kind of sore for a while, but I got through. Advil became my friend. I ate it like candy.

“After getting hit was the hardest part of the trip. I was sore and then I got into Texas and Oklahoma in May and it got hot. And I mean hot, like it wouldn’t let up. Man, I was already down, my sore back and my head just not in it. The heat just about killed me. I almost called it quits a couple of times. I lost my groove when I got hit and I just couldn’t get it back. The other thing, I couldn’t find a good road with a shoulder. It was cut with those, what do you call them?”

“Rumble strips,” I said.

“Yeah, rumble strips. Unridable. So you’re either in the road or in the ditch. I wish somebody would map that on GPS or something, have an app for it. Or even a paper map that told you which roads had shoulders and if they were smooth or not.”

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“So Jrdn,” I said, “you never answered your own question. How many flats did you get?”

“Six flats, all by the time I reached Phoenix. I had to replace a tire after the accident, but then for the whole rest of the trip, not one flat. Pretty incredible. I did change both tires when I arrived to Virginia. I mailed a pair of tires to my mom’s house and swapped when I arrived.”

“Which tires were you using?”

“Schwalbe Marathon Supreme on the front. Marathon Plus on the rear. The Supreme surprised me; it’s such a great tire. But I couldn’t believe I didn’t get one flat for the last five or six thousand miles. The Marathon Plus doesn’t have as nice a ride, but it’s bombproof. Heavy, but almost indestructible.”

“What kind of saddle?”

“I’ve ridden Brooks saddles on all my cross country trips. I like the B-17. It fits me. I had to retire my Brooks after this trip. I sweated so much going through the South, I think that really finished it. This saddle has over 20,000 miles on it.

“So tell us about the bike.”

“On this trip I rode my Ira Ryan touring bike. When I was 40 years old I rode cross-country on my Vanilla. It was a great bike, but when I got it I didn’t know what I wanted. I based the design on a Zeleris race bike that I’d toured on in Europe in the 80s. I didn’t know any better. Riding cross-country on my Vanilla I really paid attention, and when I got back I went to Ira and told him I wanted to run bigger tires, have a longer wheel base and stouter tubes. We tweaked the geometry so I was more upright. And here it is. It’s heavier than my Vanilla, but it’s a good bike. It’s solid.

“I don’t know that I’d change too much. Disc brakes maybe? I’ve got this new Page Street bike, the Outback. It fits big, big tires, and has disc brakes. I think from now on I’ll always tour with a generator hub that powers lights and has a charging system for a smart phone. I’ve gone completely over to the Dark Side. Before this trip I was a stubborn Luddite. Several things happened on this trip that forced me to reconsider, and I have to say I have seen the light. I am a convert. I’ll still use paper maps whenever I tour because I like to have that global perspective. You can’t get that on a 3-inch screen. But I also need to be able to locate campgrounds and bike shops and look at the weather report and that’s what the smart phone is for. The weather was really extreme on this trip, and newspapers are hard to come by. I need some way to get the forecast.

“I don’t need a lot of money. I rented my house, which is paid for. I don’t have any other debt. My truck was paid for in the 80’s. I started this trip with a budget of $20 a day. You can go less, cooking all your own meals, bush camping, staying away from pay campgrounds. But eating a good meal in a roadside cafe gives you the chance to meet people, talk with them and ask questions, get a flavor for the place you’re in. And camping where I can take a shower at the end of the day, or by a stream if I can find one so I can bathe, that helps me keep my head straight. Wash off the sweat. I sleep better, and getting good rest is as important to me as food.

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“After the accident in Phoenix and when it was so hot I allowed $30 a day if that was going to help me be more comfortable. That’s a hotel stay every now and then, or maybe two meals out and a campground, plus snacks. And that did it. Or at least it helped. I don’t mind taking loans if I have to. I’ll work when I get back. I’ll pay this trip off and save for the next one. I don’t make a lot of money, but I keep my priorities focused. No wife, no kid, no heroin habit. I tell myself I can do this. I make it happen.

“The U.S. is such a stunningly gorgeous place. I love it here. And it’s so big you’ll never see it all, no matter how many bike tours you go on. It’s like a big book, every tour just opens it up a bit more and you learn about some new place where you want to go next time. There’s just so much—so many great places to ride.”

“Any advice for others?”

“I think the biggest hurdle for someone new to bike touring is just getting out and doing it. But it’s not that hard. Like you can plan and plan and worry about the shape you’re in and where you’re going to go and safety and what all you’re going to take, but you just can’t figure everything out up front, you’ve got to let that go. At some point you’ve got to load your bags, stick them on your bike and start pedaling. And that’s it. You’re just going on a bike ride.

“I’m not saying don’t prepare, it’s just that, you’re going to figure it out. Start small, a short trip—one or two nights out. Pretty quick you’re going to figure out what you need and what’s dead weight. And you’re going to make mistakes. It’s inevitable. That’s another thing. Accept your mistakes. Learn from them. Don’t get down on yourself because it’s just going to happen. I’ve been touring for a long time and I still f— things up and you’ve just got to learn to let that stuff go. It comes back to keeping your head on straight.

“I see these old guys out there, or hear stories about an 80-year-old lady going on a bike tour, riding cross country. I want to be that person. I want to be 80 and still doing it. I hear these stories and I think, well if they can do it, I can do it. And I will.

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Jrdn, in jumpsuit, with Christopher Igleheart. 

Postscript

Jrdn lives right around the corner from my workshop, so I have the pleasure of seeing him regularly. He loves to come in and see what bike projects we’re working on or to borrow our latest bike magazines. He’s the only person I know who reads all the articles. And you get the impression that he makes the rounds of every bike shop in town.

A standard dictionary definition of fame is, “the condition of being known or talked about by many people, especially on account of notable achievements.” Riding bikes back and forth across the country is certainly a notable achievement, but that’s not why Jrdn is known and talked about. It’s kind of beside the point, really.

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Jrdn’s most notable achievement is just that he’s Jrdn. And when he comes around the shop he doesn’t just come to look at the bikes. He puts his hands all over them, sometimes in ways that could make a young person blush. In fact it’s so commonplace for Jrdn to fondle bikes that it inspired some anonymous person to have stickers made that say, “Jrdn Approved.”

These stickers have been sighted all over town, but nobody seems to know who actually made them. They’re on the beer taps at Velo Cult Bike shop. They’re on bike staples everywhere. I’ve seen them on street signs and public bathroom mirrors, on the picnic table up in Forest Park. Someone even stuck one on our workshop door. I ask him, “So, who made the Jrdn Approved stickers?”

“I am blissfully ignorant of this knowledge,” Jrdn says, smiling, clearly pleased about it.

“No, but really,” I ask. “Who do you think?”

“I’ve got it narrowed down to about eight people,” he says. “I think it’s either Igleheart or Kevin, maybe. It could be Smitherman. I asked Kevin and he was cagey about it, and I know he’s not telling me the whole truth. Or maybe, it could be you.”

“Me?” I say. “How so?” I know if he’s blaming me he’s really reaching.

“I have my reasons,” he says. “There are a couple other people I suspect could be in on it. But I just don’t know.” He’s still smiling. It’s the mystery that’s so fascinating, as the myth of the man grows.

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