Back in March, we chatted with Jan Gierlach from Ride for 3 Reasons, as he prepared for a cross-country bike ride from San Diego, Calif. to St. Augustine, Fla. Two months and 3,300 miles later, the 18-year-old is safely back in his hometown of Barrington.
As one of the youngest riders to ever complete this ride unaccompanied, Gierlach feels both fortunate and relieved; despite a handful of struggles he faced along the way, he admits his love for biking is larger than ever.
“I didn’t know if after 3,300 miles, riding 50 plus miles a day, was I going to get to the other side and still love biking?” Gierlach recollects. “Honestly, there were days it certainly was the last thing I wanted to do, but near the end I kept thinking ‘I can’t believe I get to get up every day and ride my bike while my friends are still going to school.’”
Gierlach graduated early from Barrington High School in December, and took the spring semester to complete the ride. Although he spent several months before his March 7 departure training, there were just some things he couldn’t have prepared for.
Before he left, Gierlach was slightly warned for the amount of farm dogs down south, but never did he expect to breeze through two cans of pepper spray to ward them off.
“I was chased by over 30 dogs,” Gierlach says. “I had Rottweilers, Pitbulls, and all breeds and species chasing after me. There’s no greater motivation to pedal fast than to have a Rottweiler nipping at your Achilles.”
He learned that most dogs in the south are called “outside dogs” and people keep them outside for self-defense. Each ranch has anywhere from two to five dogs.
“It was weird because at home, we treat dogs like family members, but here, they literally live outside,” he adds.
As well-trained and in shape as he is, Gierlach said that a lot of the riding was harder than he expected. Right out of the gate in California, he struggled to climb out of the Imperial Valley and tackle the rest of the mountainous state. It did level off in the desert areas for a while, until he reached New Mexico and had to cross the Continental Divide at 8,000 feet, which he claims was the most challenging part of the ride.
In addition to the high elevations, the long distances between services and towns were a struggle; in western Texas, Gierlach rode for 90 miles in open desert at 105 degrees. He made sure to drink as much water as he could, but still the heat got to him.
On the eastern end of Texas, Gierlach faced swamp country. He met horseflies and mosquitos triple the size of Midwest bugs, and while the heat was still present, it was much more humid.
“And that’s their winter! The summer there gets over 120, and for a Midwesterner, that’s really hot,” Gierlach says. “I can’t say I’m a fan of humid or swamp climate, I don’t know how they do it.”
In terms of survival, Gierlach confesses that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the most accurate way to describe his experience.
“His theory says that you have your base needs, and it extends to emotional needs,” Gierlach explains. “But riding this trip solo, the pyramid is reduced to the bare necessities, and I was thinking about food and water, and where I’m going to sleep.”
Because each day required so much mental and physical energy and planning, Gierlach admits he didn’t really have time to feel lonely. However, when he did have cell phone service and got to talk to family and friends, it was nice to have familiar interaction.
Through it all, Gierlach comes away with more positives than negatives; not only was he taught an entire new way of living and survival, but he got to see parts of the country he otherwise might not have.
“One day, I was sitting under a drainage pipe on the side of the road for shade, and from the distance I saw a dust, funnel cloud. It was a little tornado just moving up and down gathering debris. It felt like a John Wayne movie,” he recalls. “There are multiple experiences like that … it was cool to see mother nature unhampered.”
Seeing so many different parts of nature forced him to learn more about it, and he now feels more appreciative of the world around him.
“In suburbia, we like to think we have a handle on mother nature – that we are in control as we manicure our lawns and yards – but being out, I rode through some really famous open stretches of untouched land and designated wildernesses,” Gierlach says. “It put a different perspective on the power of mother nature seeing it up and close and personal.”
Now, life for Gierlach goes back to normal; while he prepares to study mechanical engineering at Hope College this fall, he still makes time to ride local paths and will be competing in some gravel rides around the area this summer.
“I’ve taken for granted how nice the roads are around where I live,” he says. “I’ve come to appreciate roads and their conditions, and have started exploring other local ones as well.”
Ride for 3 Reasons is a 501(c)3 non profit organization that supports the following three beneficiaries: Les Turner ALS Foundation, Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, JourneyCare and National Hospice Foundation. Learn more about the charity, and read blog posts from Jan here.