Book Review: Old Man on a Bicycle By Don Petterson

Long time readers of the Mountainstroh blog know I have one fear: Getting Old.  I am honestly scared to death of being old, decrepit, and being barely able to walk to the mailbox.  That, plus a guy I saw once in Disneyland (another post for another day) are why I bust my ass and work out so much.

Don, an ex US Ambassador, though, gives me, and those like me approaching, ok well into, middle age hope! Why, because at 71, this man decided, “What the hell!  I am going to ride across the United States!”…


The full title is: Old Man on a Bicycle: A Ride Across America and How to Realize an Enjoyable Old Age.

First off some quick facts.

He was NOT a cyclist.  He hadn’t ridden a bike in decades! Even when he did, it wasn’t long distance. He decided to cycle across the country mainly because he felt his flying skills (also decades old) were not up to safely using an ultralight to cross. Seems perfectly logical to me!

He did NOT sign up for a tour, or take a support crew. This 71 year old packed up a new touring bike and rode from New Hampshire to San Francisco alone. One man, two wheels, saddle bags and a credit card (or 2).

And finally, he did NOT take the easy way.  In all the books I have read about crossing the country, east to west is considered harder. More often than not the winds are out of the west, which means a headwind! And rider will tell you headwinds suck.

I will say, it is point number three that made the difference for me in this book.  Yes, he had headwinds almost each day.  And yes, they made it harder to ride. But the man never whined once.  I can’t tell you how many authors come across as whining about them page after page.

Don simply indicates yep the were headwinds, yep it slowed me down, sometimes to single digit mph, and hell yes it wore me out, but a good meal and a beer (or two) at the hotel made things much better!

I had to laugh the one time he seemed to apologize for drinking beer so often. But then, as he put it, when you ride all day, and drink bottle after bottle of water, more water with dinner is the LAST thing you want. (Personally, anyone who rides across country, let alone someone who is 71 has earned all the beer he or she wants!)

He has the perfect balance for a bike travel book, in my humble opinion.  He quotes his miles and the terrain, and talks about the things you can see from a bike. (I’ve seen whales, seal lions and elk, but he has me beat with a bear). But then he goes into his thoughts, experiences, and inspirations as well. In essence it feels like you are riding along with him. And, I love the fact he scored many a free meal from people impressed at someone his age riding that far.

This septuagenarian badass even gets hit by a car in Utah, breaks a collar-bone, and has to fly home.  The next spring, after PT, Rehab and working out, he flies back, finds the spot he was hit, and finishes that days ride. Only then does he continue on to San Francisco.

What I enjoyed almost as much as the travelogue was his explanation of how aging affects the body.  Thinner skin, less muscle mass, less dense bones, thicker heart, less efficient lungs and recalcitrant joints. All a direct result of aging.  Once again though, no whining!

He is not complaining about these things, he merely points them out as facts, and, in each case, explains how exercising and being in good shape can mitigate many, if not all of these issues. He also explained how he adjusted his ride to take account of the older body.  Shorted days, more sun screen, icing when need be.  All in the effort to keep his body moving and bike rolling.

I know many people, MUCH younger than Don, who would benefit from his example.

All in all this was a quick, fun and easy read.  It also has me even more jazzed for my ride along the Oregon coast this fall! If he can ride 3500 miles, my buddy Rob and I can do 350! I highly recommend this book!

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