The Tour de Banks

Words and photos by Tom O’Brian 

“I hate this hill,” Jake whined as he dismounted his bike and began pushing it toward the summit of the climb like Sisyphus with a boulder. “I can’t believe you thought I was serious about riding all the way to North Carolina. I MEANT IT AS A JOKE!”

It was no joke now. The two of us were all alone on day one of the first self-supported bike tour either of us had ever attempted, and nothing was going well. Not yet noon, the temperature on this late July day was well into the nineties, with 100% humidity, and we’d already repaired our first flat tire (only 13 miles from home). To make matters worse, I hadn’t yet figured out how to remove the panniers, nor had I bothered to make sure my brand new mini-pump was set up for Presta valves. Neither one of us had even ridden a featherweight road bike over the Taconic Mountains, much less a fully-loaded touring rig. It was going to be a long day.

What was looking more and more like a really bad idea got started back in February when, from out of the blue, my 14-year-old son said,“Hey Dad, why don’t we ride our bikes to the beach this year?” The “beach” he was referring to wasn’t one town over; it was in Corolla, North Carolina—600 miles away from our home in Connecticut—where his grandparents rent a vacation house every summer.

It was a ridiculous suggestion that should have gone in one ear and right out the other. Although I was a lifelong bike fanatic, I’d never done a multi-day tour. And Jake was a fair-weather cyclist who’d never ridden more than 30 miles in one day. But suddenly this surly teenager, who considers his middle-aged father a constant source of embarrassment, was talking about spending weeks on the road with me. I promised that if he was serious about taking this journey, I’d find a way to make it happen. Apparently, he didn’t have the guts to fold when his bluff was called.

So that’s how we found ourselves drenched in sweat, inching our way up a mountain in eastern New York, and rapidly running out of water. Just as we crossed the summit and began our descent toward Poughkeepsie, I took a sip from my Camelback and was rewarded with nothing but a blast of warm air. A moment later, Jake, red-faced and sweating, turned to me and said, “I’m dry.” Lucky for us, at the foot of the mountain we found a convenience store selling spring water in gallon jugs for 99 cents. We bought two.

Things got better from there. Our first night on the road was spent with friends on the outskirts of Poughkeepsie who treated us to a cookout and a refreshing dip in their swimming pool. Maybe it wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

We awoke the next morning in much better spirits and decided to give this mad adventure one more try. Both of us were looking forward to the opportunity to cross the big river using the famous Walkway Over the Hudson, a restored mile-long railroad trestle that soars two hundred feet above the surface of the water.

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On the second day of their ride to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Jake and Tom O’Brien take time to savor the view from the 212 foot high Walkway Over the Hudson.

Like a first visit to the Grand Canyon, the word “breathtaking” does not begin to describe the panoramic view from the center point of that magnificent structure.

We could have lingered on the Walkway for hours—besides the view, there were ice cream vendors set up on both ends of the bridge–but we were hoping to cover another 50 miles before stopping for the night, so off we rode onto the rail trail that led to the college town of New Paltz, and our choice of 5 different pizzerias for lunch.

At this point, I should mention that my son considers himself a pizza connoisseur (even though the only kind he’ll eat is pepperoni). Before we left home he had started a travel blog and promised to post a review of all the pizza places we visited. Here’s his expert opinion on New Paltz’s My Hero Pizzeria and Submarine Shop: “Pizza was great, perfect amount of grease, plenty of pepperoni, and just great overall.” After a long morning in the saddle, that pizza tasted “great” to me too, but after two weeks, and 8 or 9 large pepperonis, I’d had enough.

Thunderstorms out to get us

Part of the reason that Day 1 was such an ordeal was that we had to figure out our own way to get to Poughkeepsie (hence the insanely steep mountain crossing), but from that point on we intended to follow Adventure Cycling’s well-traveled Atlantic Coast Route for the remainder of the journey. Assuming that the roads would be flatter and the traffic calmer from this point on gave us a bit more confidence that we might actually complete the journey. Too bad the weatherman didn’t get the memo.

Day 2 was even more oppressive than Day 1–extreme humidity, temperatures flirting with triple digits, and pop-up thunderstorms lining the horizon. On Day 3, an approaching cold front promised relief from the steam bath, but not until after a line of strong storms pushed through. The night before, we’d made plans to get an early start and make it to Port Jervis, NY well ahead of the front. But getting a teenager moving in the morning is like kick-starting an ancient Harley Davidson. We didn’t get on the road until 10 am, and within a few hours, the towering clouds and rumbles of thunder were bearing down on us.

If I was riding alone I would have pressed on. We’ve got good life insurance, and I’m sure that no reputable carrier would try to invoke a suicide clause just because some poor sap wasn’t smart enough to come in out of the storm. But when I’m traveling with my son, my maternal instincts take over.

We kept pedaling, but I made note of every covered porch, open barn, or unlocked garage that we passed, in case we needed to make a mad dash for shelter.

When a huge bolt of lightning struck way too close just as we were passing a wastewater treatment plant, it was time to cut and run. Lucky for us, the gates were unlocked and just inside the fence was an enormous pavilion with nothing but a plastic-lined dumpster underneath, plenty of room for two bike travelers to take shelter from the storm. I had a pretty good idea about what was inside the dumpster but decided to keep my suspicions to myself.

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The boys were grateful to find shelter from the thunderstorm at a wastewater treatment plant near Port Jervis, New York, but they tried not to think about the contents of the dumpster.

Eventually, the storm let up enough for us to pedal into Port Jervis, tired and soaking wet. Although we’d planned to camp, I was glad to find an inexpensive room in The Erie Hotel, a restored landmark from the golden age of the railroad, with a restaurant downstairs that served no pizza. The only downside was that the bike parking was two flights up.

We awoke to much cooler temperatures and a steady rain that was not expected to let up all day. We hadn’t thought to include fenders or serious rain gear in our trip preparations, but neither of us wanted to lose a day’s worth of travel so we decided to press on.

I was certain that Jake would be miserable, and that I’d have to spend the rest of the day listening to a whining teenager complaining about the rain, and the cold, and how he was going to get himself legally emancipated as soon as we got home. But he was loving it. About 20 miles down the road, when we were both thoroughly soaked, he turned to me and said, “This is the best day yet!” It was indeed a refreshing change to be drenched in rainwater rather than sweat. Later in the day when we took a break at an ice cream parlor, I felt so guilty about the enormous puddle we left under our table that I borrowed a mop to clean it up.

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After riding 3 sweltering days soaked in sweat, a cool rain was blessed relief.

We were planning to camp out, but the rain never let up, so I was glad to find a room in a motel with a covered balcony that allowed us to dry off our bikes, remove the seat posts, and turn the bikes upside down to let the water drain out.

Looking back on it, every day of our journey was unique, but most days started and ended the same way: struggling to wake up a comatose teenager and finding another excuse to forgo camping.

A sunny weekend on the river

We spent the next few days following the Delaware River from the Water Gap to the outskirts of Philadelphia. It was the weekend, the weather, at last, was perfect (sunny, high seventies, low humidity), and the river was teaming with activity. Early on Saturday morning, we were joined briefly by a peloton of club riders out for their weekly 50-miler. They were excited to find out about our adventure and we rode together for a couple of flat miles, but when we hit the first climb, our heavily-loaded bikes were no match for their carbon fiber racing machines, so we waved our goodbyes.

Early that afternoon we started seeing school buses, dozens and dozens of them, passing us from both directions. At first I wondered what school could possibly be in session in late July? Then I noticed the hundreds of bright pink inner tubes floating down the river and realized what they were up to. Going tubing down the Delaware on a warm summer day looked like it might be almost as much fun as biking.

When it came time to stop for the night my luck ran out. There was no chance of rain, air conditioning was totally unnecessary, a private campground was a mile away and it was not filled up. We were going to camp.

Jake was delighted. By the time I emerged from the shower, he’d pitched the tent, inflated our sleeping pads, started a fire, and had marshmallows ready for roasting. We had a great time until it was time to try to get some sleep. Despite having sprung for the most expensive inflatable sleeping pad, I awoke the next morning with a stiff neck that would haunt me for the remainder of the journey.

Smells like teen spirit

Aside from my little aches and pains, Sunday was another delightful ride along the Delaware. Until about 4 pm when, just north of Lambertville, New Jersey, Jake began to complain that his front shock had gone squishy on him. It wasn’t the shock: He had a flat tire, his first of the trip, and he insisted on fixing it himself. Until he had trouble; then he wanted my help immediately. Until he didn’t need my help anymore; then he wanted me as far away from him as possible. Until he had trouble; then he wanted me back NOW!

HELP ME!
I GOT THIS, NOW GO AWAY!
HELP ME!
DAD I GOT IT!

Our little dance went on for about 45 minutes. But all was forgotten once he pumped up the tire and it held.

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Jake wasn’t happy when he got a flat tire, but he insisted on making the fix by himself (mostly).

Every parent of a teenager has to figure out how to relate to a human being who ping-pongs between childhood and adulthood at random. Given the stress of taking on a journey that neither of us had properly prepared for, I was expecting much worse. Aside from his first few days on the road and the flat tire incident, Jake handled his frustrations well.

It was the other characteristic of being a teenager that I couldn’t stand: his strength. If I were to draw a graph that compared our pedaling power as the trip wore on, it would show me significantly stronger at the outset, holding my own for awhile, then gradually getting weaker. Jake, on the other hand, would struggle for the first few days, then get stronger every day afterward. While I had to help him get over the Taconics on the first day of the trip, by the time we reached the steep hills on the banks of the Susquehanna River a week and a half later he was pulling me along like a domestique in the Tour de France. Life is so unfair.

Car transfer to North Carolina border

Another critical detail I failed to plan for was how much further we’d have to travel in order to ride back roads to the Outer Banks of North Carolina rather than drive the interstate. I had been assuming that after two weeks of riding, we’d be deep into Virginia. But we were still in Pennsylvania, a day’s ride north of the Maryland Border. Fortunately, we had a backup plan.

One of the reasons that I went along with Jake’s nutty idea of bicycling all the way to the beach was that my wife Cece was planning to drive there two weeks later, so if we fell behind, we could always get a lift. I didn’t want Jake to miss out on precious time with his cousins at the beach, so we met up with Cece just across the border in Maryland and loaded our bikes and gear into her car.

Jake and I had no idea how much we’d grown accustomed to a slower pace of life over the past two weeks until my lead-footed wife drove onto I-95 and hit the gas. I was plastered to the back of my seat as if the Ford Escape was being launched into outer space. And all I heard from my traveling partner in the backseat was “WHOA!”

After spending the night in a motel in Richmond, Cece dropped us off on the North Carolina border, so we could bicycle the remaining 63 miles to the beach house in Corolla. Unfortunately for us (at first), it was a Saturday morning in August, and the four-lane road we had to follow for the first 20 miles of the day was packed with speeding vacationers anxious to get to the beach. Many were hauling boats and motor homes, and seemingly oblivious to the safety of two fragile bike-riders on the shoulder.

Both of us were delighted when the Atlantic Coast Route took us onto back roads for the next 10 miles of the trip, but we weren’t looking forward to rejoining the “highway” and then taking our chances on the 3-mile-long bridge (with narrow shoulders) that links the mainland with the islands.

I suppose you have to be a bicyclist to rejoice when you encounter a massive traffic jam. But during the brief time that we were away from it, US 158, the main road to the Outer Banks, had been transformed from a speedway to a parking lot. All of that beach traffic was at a standstill, but the shoulder was wide open. For the next half hour (at least), two bicycles traveling at 14 miles per hour were the speed demons on the Wright Memorial Bridge. Just as we neared the east end of the bridge, I heard this plaintive whine from a child in one of the trapped cars: “They’re going to make it to the beach before we will.”

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With beach traffic at a standstill, the bike lane became the fast lane.

Twenty years ago when I first visited the Outer Banks, it was not bike-friendly. SR 12, the main north-south road, had no shoulders and steep edges that dropped off into deep sand. Nowadays, there’s a generous shoulder along the full length of the road as well as numerous bike paths. We took our time negotiating the final 25-mile ride to the beach house—partly to savor the remainder of the journey, and partly because Cece called to tell us that some of our relatives were stuck in the bridge traffic and wanted to be there to greet our arrival. We were happy to slow down to allow the motorists to catch up.

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All of their relatives come out to welcome Jake and Tom as they complete their journey to the beach house.


Tom O’Brien is a carpenter, freelance writer, and bike advocate based in New Milford, Connecticut. 

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