Along for the ride: Biking books recount the ups and downs of cyclists' cross-country, global journeys

Along for the ride: Biking books recount the ups and downs of cyclists' cross-country, global journeys

Three recent biking books recounting multiweek journeys — both global and cross-country — inspire holiday gift ideas for cyclists. As inclement weather reduces saddle time, these adventures inspire long-distance challenges, pose goals for ambitious riders, and vicariously satisfy the dreams of others, myself included.

'Coffee First'

Biking books never stimulated sweaty palms until I read Jenny Graham's “Coffee First, Then the World” (2023). This 41-year-old Scottish endurance athlete set the Guinness World Record for females cycling the globe, under 125 days, often logging 150-180 miles daily in her 2018 18,000-plus mile odyssey. Totally unsupported except, of course, for coffee aplenty.

Book co-reviewer Neil Holdway, former Daily Herald deputy managing editor/late news, acknowledges its mounting tension. Eclipsing the existing 144-day record meant planning to ride 15 hours daily, sleep five, with one meal-and-wash stop, weather notwithstanding. Oh, per world record rules, timer's always ticking.

Graham's post-midnight riding especially unnerved me, as did Russian men propositioning her and sleeping in culverts, pipes under roadways, or (gross!) concrete-floored public restrooms. When she lodged in hotels or “warm showers” homes, I silently cheered.

“It's the fascinating travelogue you might expect,” Holdway said. “She starts in Berlin, cruises through Europe, embarks on Russia — Trans-Siberian Highway is dangerous, with big trucks nearly brushing her. Then peaceful and friendly Mongolia and China, where only border officials are intimidating. She conveys Australian and New Zealand scenery, then tells of inconsistent bear warnings riding through dark Alaskan and Canadian forests.

“You feel what Graham feels as she writes of her days' highlights diary-style,” said Holdway, including total time/kilometers, start/end points and sleeping venue.

Supported only by her wits, grit and resourcefulness (sardine oil for chain lube!), Graham reveals as much about herself as her four-continent journey.

Graham's engaging storytelling is more memoir than travel minutiae. Solo riding for seemingly endless hours spawns candid self-reflections, emotions, family memories and mental tricks. (“Acceptance is the greatest mindset of all on the road.”)

These personal disclosures unveil her steely discipline and why this enormous challenge was so appealing.

'Changing Gears'

Leah Day's tale of biking cross-country in 2019 with her 16-year old son exposes more than the fatigue, directional blunders and snippiness that plague exhausted cyclists. “Changing Gears: A Distant Teen, a Desperate Mother, and 4,329 Miles across the Transamerica Bicycle Trail” (2022) raises the travelogue bar.

Co-reviewer Ann Kennedy, longtime Bike Palatine Club member, recognizes that while trips like this “normally involve huge physical challenges, their relationship brought intense emotional/psychological concerns also. With flashbacks into wild son Oakley's childhood, Day, the social worker mom, clearly describes the angst any parent would feel with such a child.”

Day recollects past embarrassing, often frightening, predicaments young Oakley initiated: Vanishing from home, running off into crowds, pulling the school's fire alarm at an open house. She hoped distance cycling would channel his boundless energy and simultaneously reboot a frustrating relationship.

Chapters covering seven-10 days feature their most interesting/challenging experiences: Closed grocery stores at day's end, pursuits by wild dogs, cycling as local sheriffs pursue an escaped murderer.

“Tough times make good stories,” Kennedy said. “Accidents, illness, and a near-fatal collision help them realize, in the toughest of times, they have each other's back.”

Even Oakley's jaded blogs offer hope when struggles mount.

Kennedy echoes the positive vibes this book offered me: “Together, they saw America's many faces, from wealthy to poverty-stricken, yet people were unfailingly kind. They were uplifted with offers of free food, lodging and fireplaces warming more than toes. Despite apparent divisiveness across the country, people were kind, good-hearted and helpful.”

'Bicycling Historic Route 66'

Approaching its 2026 centennial, one of the original U.S. numbered highways is the subject of Peter and Tracy Flucke's 2016 tandem trek, “Bicycling Historic Route 66” (2023). They both recount their 2,600-mile, 49-day journey, alternating their personal perspectives: tandem writing not just riding.

Co-reviewer and Bartlett cycling advocate Terry Witt appreciates how they “give us a third seat, sharing the heat, wind, humidity and the unexpected at each pedal stroke. They journal daily, previewing weather forecasts and always listing destinations, distances and conditions.”

Readers experience ride details as if pedaling alongside. Their candid, almost intimate, conversational storytelling brings immediacy, making you feel like a longtime friend sharing their adventures.

Besides tracking original Route 66, they traverse its realignments, local trails, even interstates when no other alternative exists. Brief historical descriptions and numerous photos colorfully highlight their narrative. They refresh themselves, for example, at historical gas stations dotting the route, built in “house with canopy” style, like the 1922 Standard Oil station in Odell, Illinois, now in the National Register of Historic Places.

Their ride schedule precludes much exploring time, yielding a frequent refrain: “We need to get back here someday,” and whetting my own vicarious appetite for more. Wisely, their itinerary includes off-bike recovery days at regular intervals, letting them — and readers — enjoy local landmarks, clean “Violet,” their bike, and indulge in various amber beverages.

“Experienced in all ways you'd expect for an epic journey,” said Witt about the Fluckes.

Having biked cross-country west-to-east (2014) and north-to-south (Mississippi River Trail, 2015), they are no strangers to extensive planning. “Coast to Coast on a Tandem” (2017) retold their first trip, also written in a welcoming, conversational style.

• Join the ride. Contact Ralph Banasiak at

Tandem stoker Tracy Flucke pets a friendly cat outside the Hackberry General Store along Route 66 in Mohave County, Arizona. Courtesy of Peter and Tracy Flucke
Seven miles from the finish of their 2,600-mile Route 66 journey in 2016, Peter Flucke repairs the last puncture near Santa Monica, California. Courtesy of Peter and Tracy Flucke
Biking advocate Terry Witt of Bartlett biked the last day of a trip along historic Route 66 with Illinois cyclists, pictured here at the historic Standard Oil Station in Odell. The 2009 multiday ride from Granite City to Chicago was organized by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and League of Illinois Bicyclists, now known as Ride Illinois. Courtesy of Diane Banta
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