An Irishman's Diary


THERE’S A curious weather pattern that all cyclists will be familiar with: namely that when you’re riding a bike, no matter what direction, the wind always seems to be against you.

Meteorologists do not recognise this phenomenon, however. They insist on the existence of such things as prevailing winds that, contrary to all evidence, have nothing personally against you. Which is one of the reasons why, when three young Irishmen cycle coast-to-coast across America later this summer, they will start in the west.

The advice to “Go east, young men” was based on the balance of these winds: considered more helpful to cyclists pointed in that direction. But it’s a marginal call, explains Mark Leonard, whose idea the trek was. Eastwards or westwards, they still have to go through “Tornado Alley” which, loosely defined, stretches from North Dakota down to Texas and spans about one-third of the country’s width.

Not that wind was the only influence on their choice of route. The original itinerary differed not only in direction, in fact, but in latitude. The trio wanted to start in Virginia and finish in San Francisco. Then they noticed a relative shortage on that trajectory of two things vital to their plans: 1. Towns located conveniently short distances apart, and 2. Irish-Americans.

The latter, or at least organised communities of them, seemed to be more common in the top half of the US. And when one organisation in particular, the Chicago-based Irish American Heritage Center, rallied early to the young men’s cause, it pushed the whole route northwards. Now they plan to cycle from Seattle to Washington DC, via a pivotal stopover in the “Windy City” (as the Heritage Center people may have forgotten to mention it’s called).

The trio’s cause, by the way, is cancer. A Dubliner, from Drumcondra, Mark took to long-distance cycling as a fundraiser after his father James died of the disease in 2006. With a friend from Marino, Eoin McNamara – whose girlfriend’s mother would later die from it too – he first raised €10,000 on a tour of Ireland in 2007.

Then, inspired by Englishwoman Jane Tomlinson, a cancer campaigner who cycled across the US in 2006 a year before she finally lost her own long fight against the illness, they in turn set their sights on America.

In the process, they roped in a third pal from their Dublin City University days: Wicklow-man William Kerwin. Then they realised that a schedule of 6,000 km in six weeks would not be possible without a support vehicle to carry gear. So they acquired a van and enlisted two more friends to drive it.

It’s probably fair to say that the notion of five young men trekking across the US in summer does not evoke only hardship, not matter how windy it might be. There’s a big risk of them having fun too. So it’s only right that they should pay for it themselves, and they will. All costs – flights, food, accommodation, the van, etc – will come from their own pockets; although any free hospitality along the way will be welcomed.

As for money raised, Mark promises, every cent will go to cancer charities. Having borrowed America as a backdrop to the adventure, the group decided that sponsorship given there should stay in that country, via Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation. But all donations this side of the Atlantic will go to the Irish Cancer Society, which like most Irish charities, needs all the help it can get these days.

Marathon trip that it is, crossing the US is not necessarily the hardest thing you could do on a bike. In the pantheon of epic cycles, it’s only in the ha’penny place alongside, for example, the trek described in Dervla Murphy’s great debut travel book, Full Tilt.

Among her preparations for that two-wheeled solo voyage to India in 1963, Murphy acquired and learned to use a revolver, something that came in handy twice: once for repelling wild dogs in Yugoslavia, and later for repelling wild men in Iran (although it didn’t help much on an Afghan bus when an armed stand-off developed between driver and passengers and an accidental dig from a

rifle butt broke several of her ribs).

With any luck, no such complications should arise on the US trek. But a coast-to-coast cycle there does have its own challenges, 6,000km and possible tornadoes apart. For one thing there’s the precise planning of the route. Barred from Interstate highways, Mark and friends are having to map out an intricate network of back- and side-roads to take them through the likes of Butte, Montana; Spearfish, Wyoming; Rapid City, South Dakota; and so on.

Then there’s the small matter of training, which currently involves 6am treks to the Phoenix Park and weekend spins between Dublin and Arklow. A series of triathlons is also helping toughen them up, so by late summer they should be prepared for anything: even swimming across the Mississippi with bikes on their backs.

The trio leaves Seattle, in Washington state, on August 1st and they hope to be in the other Washington by September 18th. Anyone who would like to sponsor them, or offer a bed or meal en route, should log on to for more details.