The Ride of her Life

Inside the long-distance cycling craze


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Jackie Loza with her bike

Jackie Loza with her bike at Ocean Beach

The Cross-Country Craze

Long-distance routes that originate in San Diego
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Cross-country biking routes

The year Jackie Loza lost her job, she bought a bicycle and went on a very long ride, her first ever: 1,804 miles, to be exact. She took Amtrak to Washington, then pedaled south down the west coastline from Ballard to the U.S.–Mexico border.

All told, it took her a month and a half.

Loza, 32, had moved to San Diego in 2009 from her native Washington, D.C., to work on the construction of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law as a project coordinator. But when the campus was completed, her job ended. Then it was either move away from her home in Ocean Beach, or change professions.

“There was a lot of pressure from my friends,” Loza says. “They wanted to know what I was going to do, not being from around here.” Long bike rides seemed to let off steam. “It’s easy to freak out when you’re out of a job.”

That’s when she began to consider embarking on a journey.

She had done a little distance biking with a local friend who was training for a half Ironman triathlon, but as for the rest of what long-distance cycling entailed, Loza was green. “It’s funny,” she laughs. “I don’t look like a cyclist.” She had in fact never before considered such a thing as a tri-state bike ride, and says the deciding factor was being out of work.

“I’d never even gone camping by myself, let alone pull a 60- to 70-pound ‘bob,’ with all the equipment that I would need to be self-sufficient.” She explains that a bob is what cyclists call the small trailer that attaches to the rear of a bicycle: “A one-wheel bike trailer.” In it, one tows one’s life support while on the road: food, water, portable shelter, dry clothing, foul-weather gear. A sleeping bag.

But the announcement of Loza’s big adventure got a less than enthusiastic response. “Some people thought I was crazy.” A few of her friends were worried. She says one of them even asked what kind of weapons she was planning to take with her. “I had a pocket knife,” she says. “And some mace.”

“It’s funny, I don’t look like a cyclist. I’d never even gone camping by myself, let alone pull a 60- to 70-pound ‘bob,’ with all the equipment that I would need to be self-sufficient.”
 
Jackie Loza riding her bike

The Things She Carried

Aside from a small tent and sleeping bag, Loza carried a portable camping stove, called a Pocket Rocket, with extra fuel, a cooking pot, and a spork (spoon, knife, and fork in one); food; a rain tarp; bike headlights; spare bike parts; a heavy jacket; three outfits, including a rain jacket and rain pants; her camera; and her iPad and iPhone. “And your bathroom essentials,” she says. Add to that a standard-issue first aid kit to which she added holistic medications: Arnica salve for bruises, and “Chinese magic oil for my knees and wrists, because they got sore. Kwan Loong oil. It worked really well.”

The long-distance cycling phenomenon has been trending upward for some time, with a sharp uptick in recent years. The Adventure Cycling Association says this is not a coincidence.  Its best three years have coincided with the worst three years of economic calamity, according to Winona Bateman, the non-profit’s media director. Over the past decade, she says, ACA membership has increased 19 percent, and map sales have gone up by 48 percent. The association is headquartered in Missoula, Montana. Forty-four thousand members represent every state in the U.S. Most of them reside in California.

“Overall, people who do these trips are people who are at a turning point in their lives. Or, they have a lot of spare time, which usually means one thing,” Bateman says. “They are involved in some challenge in their lives that they want to overcome,” which more often than not means unemployment. “When I look at the last few years, I’ve heard stories of people’s trials and tribulations, of people reinventing themselves.”

Jackie Loza left San Diego with problems to solve, big ones, such as where to live and how next to earn her living. She figured to work out the answers while pedaling. The idea was to ride solo, but she met other bike riders along the way, and they were all pretty much in the same boat she was. “I talked to a lot of cyclists that didn’t know what they were going to do next with their lives. They said that cycling was kind of clearing their minds.” She adds, “A lot of them had either quit or lost their jobs too.”

“Overall, people who do these trips are people who are at a turning point in their lives. They are involved in some challenge in their lives that they want to overcome.”

She describes her inaugural night of bike camping as awkward, weird, then finally, self-affirming. “I got into the campground late, and I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing. I thought, okay, this is it. This is what my bike trip is all about.” She ate some Justin’s peanut butter and chocolate for dinner, to celebrate getting over the first hurdle. “I thought to myself, okay. I can really do this.”

There were miles and bruises still to come, along with good weather and bad, mishaps, sore muscles, and sometimes, bad food. “Beans with jalapeño on quinoa? Worst thing I ever ate.” Over time and mileage, what did she come to miss most about San Diego? “My bed,” she says, “and having electrical outlets to charge my different devices.”

 
Jackie Loza with her bike

“In Ocean Beach, on the bike paths, on almost any day you’ll see people either ending or starting a cross-country ride,” Samantha Ollinger says. “It’s a tradition to dip your wheel in the ocean at OB for good luck.”  

Ollinger, 31, now lives here, but cycled solo once all along the back roads from Philadelphia to the middle of Texas. She says San Diego is known as a hub for long-distance riders. “There’s a whole community that does this, whether in groups, or one at a time. We’re a destination for the north-south [California coastal] route and the east-west route.”

Some of the longer bicycle rides that originate in San Diego include the relatively short six-day tour called the Christmas Ride (it starts near USD December 26 and ends back at USD on New Year’s Eve), the annual San Diego to Palm Springs run, or the Coast 2 Coast Bicycle Tour, that leaves San Diego in March and finishes in St. Augustine, Florida, in April. And at least three different national tours terminate here.

Ollinger, like many who ride cross-country, sometimes camped, overnighted in motels, or relied on the good graces of an informal bicycle tour hosting service on the Internet known as Warm Showers. With nearly 25,000 members around the world, Warm Showers is built on the concept of reciprocal hospitality—cyclists stay with each other. Founded by Terry Zmrhal and Geoff Cashman in 1993, the site claims some 14,050 active hosts. Bradley Moyer and his wife are among them.

“For a while,” says Moyer, who has a home in Southeast San Diego, “it seemed we were the only hosts in town.” After Moyer’s son rode cross-country in 2008, the Moyers joined Warm Showers, which now lists some 77 such members throughout the county.

“San Diego is a real hot spot for hosts,” Randy Fay of Warm Showers emails, “because three major bike routes from Adventure Cycling terminate or start there. They are the Pacific Coast, which is one of the most famous bike-friendly routes in the world; the Southern Tier; and the Sierra Cascades. I think hosts in San Diego are in mighty high demand,” he says, “probably more than they want to be.”

 
Jackie Loza riding her bike

Warm Showers takes its name from an advantage of civilization that long-distance cyclists frequently do without while in transit: indoor plumbing. Hosts likewise provide meals, a bed, and laundry facilities.

“On our host page, we say three days is the max for a stay,” says Moyer, who thinks they’ve hosted more than 100 cyclists. “We have a guy with us right now, a guy from England.” He too calls San Diego a traditional stopping point for bicycle tourists. “It could be the end of their trip, or a place to regroup before continuing on into Baja.”

Does he ever think about taking off on a cross-country jaunt himself? “Yeah,” he says. “I’m really jealous.”

“I have this one scar, right there.” Jackie Loza points to a place where a roundish 1-inch chunk of flesh looks like it was carved from the skin around her knee. It happened early in the journey, and it had to have stung like hell. “In Oregon, I was drafting, meaning I was following pretty close, behind a Canadian guy named Alex I’d met along the way. He stopped abruptly, and I hit the brakes. There was no time to unclip my feet from my bike pedals, and I went over. I fell into oncoming traffic. A car almost hit my head.”

There were other times when the bob would come loose or Loza would tip over, a frequent occurrence in the beginning while she was getting used to her equipment. Near the start of the trip, she lost her wallet. And then, just as she crossed into California from Oregon, the rains came.

“I was headed to Orick, which is about 40 to 50 miles from the California–Oregon border.” There, she faced her first serious miles-long hill climb. She had gained the company of a cycling companion named Jamie for this leg of the journey. He encouraged her to suck it up and keep going. “Cars were zipping by splashing water on us, and I’m like, oh my God, what am I doing on this bike? I was thinking that I was crazy, that this was a dumb idea. I started bawling.”

 

For the last two weeks of the ride, her wrists began to hurt. “Part of that was from not riding the bike properly and from putting all my weight on my wrists.” Loza also lacked standard cycling wear and paid the eventual price for that as well. “I didn’t have any bike shorts (with gel padding sewn into the seat) and my bottom also started hurting those last two weeks. By then, I was so ready for the ride to be over.”

Loza decided to keep her Ocean Beach address. Now, she works as an education coordinator for the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition. “It feels really good to be working, and to be doing something I feel passionate about.” She also freelances as a photographer, and has plans to start an aerial photography business.

“A lot of people thought I was crazy to do the ride, because I’m a woman. I think people project their fears onto women.” She’s glad to have ignored them. “It reaffirmed that I could do anything I put my 100 percent effort into. When I got back, I felt like I could move the world.”

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