While reading an article about the Trek 520 touring bicycle in a recent issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine, these startling words snagged my attention: “But when it comes to finding out what the bike is truly capable of, I tip my hat to the late great David Lamb.”
I had not known that the man who inspired my passion for bicycle travel had died.
I learned from obituaries I found on the Los Angeles Times and New York Times websites that David Lamb passed away in June 2016 at the age of 76. The obituaries summarize his many notable achievements as a journalist and author. My brief connection with him related to the bicycling adventure he wrote about in one of his books.
As the Adventure Cyclist article summarized it:
In 1994, the veteran Los Angeles Times correspondent rode his 520 more than 3,000 miles from the Potomac to the Pacific, eventually spinning the three-month journey into a book, Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America by Bicycle.
I bought Over the Hills when it was published in 1996 and also heard Lamb speak at the Smithsonian about that trip. What struck me most was that, when he set out on his Trek 520 from his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for Santa Monica, California, Lamb was in his mid-50s and a cycling novice. Yet he managed to cross the country under his own power with no significant mishaps, not even once getting caught in the rain.
His trip struck a chord in me that continued to reverberate as I reread Over the Hills during the next few years. Through his book I discovered the Adventure Cycling Association and a culture of bicycle travel I had never even known existed. Each time I closed the book, I thought to myself, “I could to do that!” As my 50th birthday approached, I began to consider the idea of embarking on my own “midlife escape.”
That trip, which I finally undertook in 2006, was a self-contained Adventure Cycling tour down the Pacific Coast from Bellingham, Washington, a few miles from the Canadian border, to San Francisco. For me it ended a half-day’s ride farther south at my sister’s home in Half Moon Bay. Before I embarked on the trip, I wrote David Lamb a letter of appreciation:
All of this—these last four years of dreaming, planning, and preparing— have happened because of the inspiration I gained from reading Over the Hills. As this adventure approaches, I just wanted to write to you and simply say, thank you.
I was on the tour in Washington when I received his reply.
David, thanks for the great letter. Can a writer have any greater reward than knowing he has inspired a reader to travel down a new road? Your upcoming Bellingham–San Francisco ride definitely qualifies as epic! You will make it with ease because half the challenge of long-distance biking is mental, not physical, and mentally you’re obviously already psyched.
He extended an invitation to meet him for lunch after I returned from my trip and concluded with words I would reread time and again along the way, and that would help me over my own hills:
When you pull into your sister’s home in Half Moon Bay, you’ll feel like a hero. And you’ll be one, too.
For the rest of the trip, we kept up a sporadic email conversation. I had no smart phone back then, so I looked for public libraries along the way where I could access a computer. His brief messages cheered me on as I biked through Oregon and California and reached my final goal.
A few weeks after my trip ended, I arranged to meet him for lunch at Chadwick’s in Old Town Alexandria. I biked from my home about 15 miles away; he walked from his a few blocks away. The notes I wrote afterward recall, “I almost didn’t recognize him when he walked up. He was shorter and thinner than I expected. His hair was sort of blonde. His voice was a little faster and raspier than I remembered when I heard him speak at the Smithsonian about ten years earlier. But he seemed like an affable guy.”
We chatted for about an hour and a half. I asked if he had any regrets about his cross-country trip. No, he replied, other than not stopping longer to smell the roses. (I said I regretted that too.) I asked if anything surprised him about his own reaction to his trip afterward. Not really, he said. It ultimately didn’t change his life.
He told me about his time living in Hanoi, his travels in a recreational vehicle to write a book about minor league baseball (he loved living in an RV), and the supported cycling trips he had since taken with his wife and friends in a half dozen countries. Like me, he’d thought about cycling the Florida coast someday, would prefer staying in motels rather than camping on such a trip, and liked riding about 50 miles a day.
Afterward, we went outside and I showed him my Trek 520, very similar to his own. “The 520 is a great bike for touring,” he had written me. “The best, I think. I was in Trek’s Wisconsin factory and met the guy who designed it. I got fatter tires at his suggestion for my trip. Wish [like you] I’d thought of lower gears.”
He signed my copy of Over the Hills, and I gave him a signed copy of a book I had written. Then we wished each other well, said we hoped our paths would cross again, and parted ways. I contacted him a couple of times over the next few years for one reason or another, secretly hoping he might someday invite me on one of his biking trips, or that we might plan one together. But our paths never did cross again.
David Lamb’s bicycle journey may not have changed his life in a lasting way, or so he believed, but it profoundly changed mine. It inspired me to challenge myself and undertake my own epic adventure that took me farther beyond my comfort zone than I had ever gone. In the end, I did feel like a hero, even if just for a while. And in the years since, taking bicycle trips has become an important part of my life, and I have found my own circle of touring friends.
And so I bid a belated Godspeed to David Lamb for cresting that final hill, and I offer him one last heartfelt thanks.
David Romanowski, 2017