The idea for my Ride Across Indiana was sparked on July 7, 2007. That day my longtime friend Dawn and I followed the National Road across Illinois, starting at the Indiana state line. There we found this:
Looking it up later, I discovered that this is the Bloomington Bicycle Club’s annual Ride Across Indiana (RAIN), a one-day ride of about 160 miles from the Illinois line to the Ohio line on US 40. (So it was then; now they start at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College near West Terre Haute and end in Richmond.) If memory serves, we had seen hordes of bicyclists in US 40’s eastbound lanes as we traveled west to get to this spot, and wondered what it was all about.
Bicycling is my thing
I have always loved to ride my bicycle! But I’m not a serious, competitive cyclist, as the RAIN riders very much appeared to be. I rode for pleasure, to feel the sun in my face and the wind in my hair. (I began my riding days in the 1970s and 1980s, when nobody wore helmets.) The idea of riding across Indiana was compelling, but I couldn’t fathom being in the condition necessary to ride 160 miles in a day, or to be willing to afford an expensive, serious bicycle.
I’m unathletic and clumsy. I don’t much enjoy sports, and thanks in part to a mild impairment that robs me of three-dimensional vision, was never any good at them. But at age 7, on the day my father bought me a used Schwinn I got on and rode it like I was born to be on the seat. It’s the only physical activity I ever took to easily. Until I went away to college, I went everywhere on my bicycle. In my early teens I bought a new 3 speed at a sporting-goods store. It and I were a perfect fit. I put thousands of miles on that bike in the ten years or so I owned it.
The idea of the RAIN ride reawakened my desire to ride. I owned a good bicycle then, a hybrid with knobby tires. I rode it sometimes but didn’t love it. I preferred a 3 speed’s upright riding position and big, padded, springy seat. I couldn’t find a new 3 speed anywhere, so I searched Craigslist for a used one. Soon I found the 1986 Schwinn Collegiate that I still ride. I paid $60 for it, and invested about $100 in a tuneup to bring it into good riding condition.
I still didn’t ride all that much. Life was far too full, and besides, where I lived then afforded no places to ride that weren’t choked with car traffic. But my Schwinn was always there, ready to go.
Planning the trip
The idea to ride across Indiana was rekindled a few years ago when a good friend told me that he was planning to walk across Scotland that year with a group of colleagues. He wondered if I had any audacious ideas like that. “I’ve always wanted to ride my bicycle all the way across Indiana on US 40,” I said. I hadn’t thought about it in years, but it came to mind immediately.
But I wouldn’t do the ride in one day, I said. I’d want to break it up into multiple days, maybe over a week’s time. I want to really see US 40, the old National Road. I’d toured it by car several times, but I was sure I’d whizzed by several things I didn’t even notice. There were also things along the road that I wanted to stop and see, but there was no place to put the car. On a bicycle, I’d be going slowly enough to see everything and could park anywhere.
Moreover, I’m a middle-aged man now in middling physical condition. I don’t believe I could ever be ready for a 160-mile one-day ride.
I moved from Indianapolis to Zionsville four years ago, and then in 2020 the pandemic hit. Thanks to emotional eating and a slowed middle-age metabolism, I was packing on pounds. I started riding again as a way of managing my weight. I was working from home, which gave me some time back because I wasn’t commuting. Moreover, if I rode over my lunch hour and came back sweaty, nobody cared because we were all on Zoom. My suburban home is a few minutes’ ride from little-traveled country roads among the corn and soybean fields, which made for carefree riding, my favorite kind.
It hit me this year that working from home gave me the time and ability to train for this bucket-list ride. I mentioned the idea to Margaret, who was unequivocal: “You need to do this!” So I began training. All year I’ve been taking longer and longer rides to build up my chops. As I did that, I found a comfortable pace and learned my limits, which told me that I should break up the ride into about four days of 30-40 miles each. Fortunately, there were accommodations and restaurants along the route at about those intervals.
A plan started to come together. I bought the gear I’d need for the ride, booked the hotels and Airbnbs, and trained. I chose the week before Labor Day for the trip, and hoped the weather would cooperate. I didn’t want to ride in the rain as my brakes are poor when wet. Unfortunately, as my start date approached the forecast called for thunderstorms my first two days. I pushed the ride out to avoid the rain. It wasn’t any fun at all to re-figure-out the whole ride, especially when availability of accommodations forced me to change the route from west-east to east-west. But I did it.
Despite all of this training and preparation, I told nobody outside my family about this goal, because I wasn’t sure enough that I would do it. What if this much riding was too hard on my middle-aged body? What if the Schwinn wasn’t the right bike for the job? New bikes are hard to come by these days. What if bad weather wiped the whole trip out? It wasn’t until mid August, just a couple weeks before the trip, that I decided the risk of scrubbing the mission had become low enough that I was willing to tell anyone I was going to do it.
Riding the ride
I knew the ride would be physically demanding, but I thought I’d still want to stop to photograph absolutely everything that interested me. I stopped a lot, but it was mostly to rest. Especially in the afternoons, as fatigue and soreness increasingly caught up with me, I just wanted to get to where I was going so I could be off the saddle and rest!
Here was my route:
- The first day I rode from my hotel less than a half mile from the Ohio state line, east to Dunreith, 33 miles. There was one short old alignment at the very beginning of my ride, but otherwise the route followed the four-lane US 40. I had a flat tire at the very end of that old alignment, which was frustrating and time-draining. I rode through two of my favorite National Road towns, Centerville and Cambridge City. I was tired by the end of the first day, and my back was sore, but I was in good spirits.
- The second day I rode from Dunreith to Downtown Indianapolis, 39 miles. Again, the day began with an old alignment, the original route of the road all the way to Knightstown, about 4.5 miles away. It’s a lovely stretch of quiet country road. Otherwise, I rode on the four-lane US 40, which passed mostly through open farm country. I arrived in Downtown Indianapolis a little more tired than the day before, but in good enough spirits to meet my brother and his girlfriend for drinks.
- The third day I rode from Downtown Indianapolis to Cloverdale, a town a few miles off US 40. This was my longest day, at 44 miles. It was also my hardest day — it took me 8.5 hours to reach my destination, a full two hours longer than any other day on the trip. Not only was this the hilliest day of the trip, but also, I struggled with poor energy all afternoon. I think the drinks the night before, plus poor food choices all day (including an insufficient lunch and a sugar-bomb sundae at a Dairy Queen in Plainfield), messed me up. I was incredibly relieved when this day was over. At least I got to ride over the Washington Street bridge in Indianapolis, which used to carry US 40 but has been pedestrian-only for at least 30 years now.
- The fourth day I rode from Cloverdale to Terre Haute, 36.5 miles. My original plan was to ride all the way to the Illinois line, which would have added 18 miles to the day — 9 miles to the state line and 9 miles back. I knew I didn’t have that in me. So I shortened the route to the Vigo County Courthouse where the National Road met US 41. But then it rained all afternoon. Not only were my brakes useless, but my handlebar grips were slippery. In the interest of safety I cut the day short, and rode straight to my friend Michael’s house, in town. But it was a day of good spirits and energy, and I got to see several old alignments of the road, including three in Putnam County and one long one in Clay County.
Despite not photographing things as extensively as I wanted to, I made more than 500 photographs along the way. I’ll share images and stories in the weeks to come.
My bicycle, a 1986 Schwinn Collegiate 3 speed, is heavy. If I had this trip to do over again, I’d rather do it on a much lighter bicycle. However, I would still want an upright riding position. A bent-over position would be too hard on my back.
On some hills, I would have killed to have a granny gear, that is, a gear with a very high ratio. Going up some of the hills, even first gear wasn’t low enough and I really strained. I would have pedaled a lot more using a granny gear but it would have been less strain.
When you’re having a hard time, there’s nothing to do but keep going. You will eventually arrive at your destination.
Pleasures can come at unexpected times. Do your best to not be so focused on the ride that you miss the good things by the roadside.
I should have skipped the drinks in Indianapolis on the evening of the second day, and eaten better on the third day.
Now that I’ve done this, I’m pleased to have done it, but I need never do anything like it again.
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