When Pádraig O’Dea was learning to ride a bicycle in his home town of Tullamore, Co Offaly, more than 50 years ago, he never imagined that his ability to balance on two wheels would lead to a 4,500-mile odyssey across north America.
On 5th June, the former prison officer (58), who now lives in Maynooth, commenced his cycling trip in Oregon on the Pacific northwest and on August 17th, he will complete the journey when he arrives in Port Washington on Long Island, New York.
The idea for the trip came to him in 2013 when he was holidaying with his wife Julie, daughter Allison (24) and son Ronan (22) at the Grand Canyon. While taking a walk around their campsite one evening he met a French man who had a bike with a trailer attached.
“It was covered with stickers of all the countries he had visited, including Ireland. At that stage I wasn’t a cyclist, but two years later I met a group of cyclists from Donadea Wheelers at a coffee shop in Allenwood.
“They were training for a charity cycle so I joined them and later that summer I completed a 327km cycle from Howth Head to Achill Island.”
But it was a series of conversations with his cousin Conor O'Dea who was a patient at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire that really inspired Pádraig to make the trip a reality.
“Conor was a triathlete who was seriously injured in an accident. I used to visit him in Dún Laoghaire and we had great conversations about cycling and about the trip. He was such an inspiration to me.”
Two years ago, Pádraig joined the Adventure Cycling Association, an organisation based in Missoula, Montana, and used their bi-monthly magazine as a guide for his preparations.
Along the route friends and other cyclists have joined in and departed at various stages and he will be joined for the last leg in New York by a friend, Marty Corbett from Co Wexford.
The two months he has spent in the saddle have been an amazing experience, he says and the whole trip has exceeded his expectations.
“There is a cycling community and then there are the people who see the Irish flag and they start a conversation. It’s been amazing the number of times we stopped for a coffee, or lunch or dinner, struck up a conversation with someone and then when we went to pay for our food we were told that it had already been taken care of.
“In Idaho, we met a woman in the local post office who told us that her husband was Irish, his father was from Dublin, but he had never been there. Later when we were in a pizzeria this man came up to talk to us and said he was her husband. It was such a small town that it was easy for him to find us.”
On another occasion they met a retired musician who told them that he had cycled across the US in 1982 with his ex-wife. Six days later, they were hundreds of miles away when they met two cyclists, one of whom was a women who started to tell them that she had cycled across America in 1982 with her ex-husband. “It’s such a small world. We had a great laugh with that woman and her new husband.”
Most of the time he has felt safe on the road, but at the beginning there were a few occasions when large logging trucks on the narrow Oregan roads came a little too close for comfort. “They scared the living daylights out of me,” he admitted.
“People have been so kind. They have helped us pitch the tents, given us tips of the best routes and places to go.”
However, from an early stage he realised it was best not to discuss politics or gun control. “I just let people talk, but I don’t offer any opinions.”
Pádraig has kept friends and family up to date on his journey through his Facebook page My American Adventure.
He will conclude the journey in the town of Port Washington where he lived from 1986 to 1991. His wife will be there to meet him along with his sister Mary and her family.
“This trip was on my bucket list and I am so pleased how well it went. The kindness of strangers has been overwhelming and I got to see a completely different side of America than visitors usually get to see.”