When I rode across the US with RideToAwareness in Fall 2015, I loved the adventure and the challenge, the team that emerged, and unexpectedly, the combination of riding and writing.
Within 5 minutes of learning about that ride in June 2015, I applied. Within two more days, I was welcomed to join the ride. And quickly, I wondered if I might set a Guinness World Record (GWR) by doing it. In my immediate sphere of women cyclists, Babes on Bikes, I didn’t know anyone older than myself who had done it. I inquired with Adventure Cycling Association and Terry Bicycles, founded by a woman, Georgena Terry, and explored Women on Wheels, a website about women from all over the world who have cycled in many of the world’s countries. I followed leads I found. The closest I came to an answer was Anne Mustoe, an Englishwoman who traveled around the world on a bicycle and wrote A Bike Ride and Lone Traveller, One Woman, Two Wheels, and the World. I don’t know how old she was when she crossed the US or whether she ever took lifts or ferries, either of which would not have met the Guinness’s stringent rules, though her travels were fantastic.
Without a definitive answer, I searched the GWR site. It turns out I had to apply to set a record to find out. An expedited answer cost money while a slow answer was free so I waited. A month into my RTA trip and shortly after my 66th birthday, I received an email from GWR. Should I wish to do the ride when I turned 67, I could set a record. At that point, I had no intention of doing it again, so I let the thought go.
However, once I had returned from my trip and my mind had settled down, I thought I’d check into the GWR record to put my mind to rest on the point. I was told that Celeste Callahan set the record of age 66 on the 2008 Race Across America. When I looked into her record, I found that she rode on a relay team, not solo. That’s still really impressive for such a rigorous race! When I pointed out Celeste’s relay team status to my contact person at GWR, she agreed and found Janet Christiansen to hold the age record at 51 for the same race in 2012.
Was there really no woman who had crossed the country riding every inch of it after age 51?
• My friend, Marie, who crossed the country with her husband in her 60s, would have raised the record age but may not have thought about it being a record.
• Georgia Glashauser, in Bicycle from Sea to Shining Sea, wrote that Shirl Kenney was 67 when they rode together on a Southern tier crossing. Again, I don’t know if she completed the entire crossing on her own or whether she realized it might have been a record.
• We met a German grandma riding self-supported on our same route during RideToAwareness. However, I don’t know how old she was.
• If you know of a woman who has completed this journey at age 67 or older, please let me know and I will give her credit in this blog.
While there may be a woman older than me who has crossed the US on a bicycle, she has not applied to and been approved by GWR, and then done it and turned in the documentation that GWR requires. If I were to cross the country at age 67 and meet the rules, I would set a GWR. Seriously? I’m an unlikely candidate. For the ten years after my friend, Linda, was hit by a car when cycling, I rode only on trails. I only resumed road riding in June 2015. My Babes on Bikes friends probably laughed when I would drive my bike and myself to a ride start on a trail. Before September 2015, I had never done a multi-day bike trip.
How to do it
I needed a support person and a route. The route was easy. To compare apples to apples, I’d do the Race Across America route where the previous record was set. Then came the absolutely critical support person. I knew just the one – my friend of about 40 years, Susie Schmitt. I sent Susie an email with my proposal and she was on board in minutes. Yippee! My friend, Joanie McMullan, will give Susie a break for the middle two weeks.
The Race Across America has a section they describe as the hardest, measured in elevation gain per mile, from Cumberland, MD to Hancock, MD. Susie has friends in Cumberland. We arranged to meet and attempt this section. I would find out if I was up to the challenge and Susie would find out if she could embrace the role of checking on me as I inched along and everything else a sag (support and gear) person does.
On April 16, 2016, we drove to Cumberland, driving the fear-inducing 37-mile portion of the route in reverse. It crossed five steep long mountains. The first we drove would be the last I’d ride the following day. I peered at the road as it dropped before my eyes. I was not sure I’d be able to cycle up that incline. The next day, heart in my throat, we set out. One by one, I climbed the first four ascents, but Sideling Hill, the steepest, was still ahead. I rounded the corner and started up the hill. All the way down in my granny gear, I cycled slowly but surely as Susie cheered me on at each place she was able to pull over safely. Finally I summited! Hooray! I would be able to meet the challenge and Susie enjoyed seeing the countryside at a slow pace and cheering on a friend.
When to do it
We were going to do it! Next task was to set the date. One option was to begin in late May after mom’s 92nd birthday. Another was to start late summer. Susie, a weather buff, suggested the weather in the plains could include tornados in late spring to early summer. The other consideration was my birthday. If I were to do more than half the ride after my 67th birthday, I would set the record at 67. We set the start date as August 26, 2016, from Oceanside, CA.
How a woman older than myself, much less older than the current record of 51, has not set a record baffles me. One guess is that I am still in the generation of women who hesitates to toot our own horns. It was only in 1967, my final year of high school, that Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston marathon, masqueraded as a man. Also, I went to college before Title 9, before athleticism in women was encouraged through legislation.
I aim to set a bar that I am sure can be surpassed. I ride with women fully capable of completing this journey. I know there are women outside my circle who can do it. I believe women can do so much more and much later than we thought. Women are breaking barriers in politics, the military, and other male-dominated careers. Why not in cycling?