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Al Young, Shifting Gears, My Global Bike Odyssey (including an interview with the author)

Al Young, Shifting Gears, My Global Bike Odyssey (including an interview with the author)

Shifting Gears: My Global Bike OdysseyShifting Gears: My Global Bike Odyssey by Al Young


Trafford Publishing, Victoria, 2005

(See the end of the review for details on how to purchase Al Young’s book.)

When the history of American bicycle touring is written it will surely include the story of Frank A. Elwell of Portland, Maine who was the nation’s first bicycle tour organizer. He began "high-wheel" tours in New England and Quebec in the 1880s and continued on to Europe in 1889 and into the 1890’s.

This history will also include a chapter on Tim Kneeland and Associates’ round-the-world bicycle tour – "Odyssey 2000" – documented by Al Young in her book, Shifting Gears: My Global Bike Odyssey. The historians will decide just how important either of these events or individuals are in the history of bicycle touring, but the story Al Young tells helps to expose the horrendous boondoggle that Tim Kneeland pulled off to celebrate the turn of the 21st millennium.

A little background will bring the reader up to date on Odyssey 2000. Somewhere in the mid-1990s advertisements began to appear announcing that Tim Kneeland and Associates (TK&A), a Seattle based bicycle tour and bicycle events operator, would offer a round-the-world bicycle tour to celebrate the millennium change. The cost was to be $100 per day for 366 days, discounted to $36,000 for the year. The cost included most meals, support vehicles to carry luggage and equipment, a bicycle (that was yours to keep), and buses or sag wagons for tired cyclists.

This was a grand enterprise – a true dream trip for many. TK&A had hoped to attract 300 riders. In the end, by Dec. 31, 1999 they had 256 riders signed up. A year later 57 riders remained on the last leg after having paid an extra $3,000 to complete the journey when the TK&A went bankrupt. A group of riders from the original 256 filed a lawsuit against TK&A and on December 31, 2003 TK&A filed for Chapter 7 Federal bankruptcy in California.

Al Young’s book tells three stories in one. The first is the story of just how easy it is to plan, sell and bungle an enterprise like Odyssey 2000. The second is the story of how a quiet, reserved music teacher from small-town America "discovered" herself and the world on such an odyssey. And the third is the story of the trials and tribulations of a round-the-world-bicycle ride from the rider’s perspective.

Odyssey 2000 was flawed from the beginning because of Tim Kneeland’s huge ego and his inability to take advice or constructive ctiricism from those around him, including his "associates" and his customers. He planned a total of 14 international flights in his round-the world bicycle tour, adding huge costs and cumbersome logistics that he badly underestimated. The ride began in the U.S., headed to Baja California, then flew to Costa Rica where they pedaled to Panama, then flew to Chile to pedal just over the border into Argentina. Flights continued to South Africa, then to Europe, then back to the U.S., back to Europe, to Australia, Japan (where their bikes never caught up with them so they spent ten days touring by bus!), then to China, Southeast Asia, to Singapore, New Zealand, Hawaii (where they spent two weeks and rode only five days!), and back to the Continental U.S. Apparently the itinerary included so many flights because Kneeland had promised his customers cycling in forty-five countries on their trip. Apparently nobody said anything about "quality" of rides!

Kneeland is clearly not a geographer. His reputation had been based on conducting event rides in the Western U.S. and cross-country rides, often with a hundred or more participants. But apparently it never occurred to him to consult climate maps or climate data. He had his group riding through Malaysia during the monsoon season, South Africa during the wettest time of year (late February), and the Mediterranean basin in late winter and early Spring, one of the most unsettled times of year in many parts of the region.

In Italy TK&A failed to procure the proper insurance for their support trucks so the groups’ luggage stayed behind for three days while the cyclists went to France. In Japan customs wouldn’t let bikes into the country so they first waited five days then toured by bus for ten days. And in Spain they took a fourteen hour bus ride from Barcelona to Seville. Too far to ride, certainly, but why the bus ride at all? In short, lots of moving parts that didn’t make any sense.

Al Young’s story is more positive but only because she has an extraordinarily positive, indeed Pollyanna outlook on life. Throughout the book she reports mind-numbing snafus caused by TK&A while taking everything in stride. She observes fellow travelers who are completely disgusted with the organization of the trip and complains, ever-so-lightly, about their complaining. About the lack of luggage for three days, she observed "while some riders were getting testy, the rest of us looked at it as an adventure." About the mix up with bikes in Japan: "Some riders went ballistic. It was amazing how some just couldn’t go with the flow" (I would have gone ballistic!) The bottom line, though, about Al’s story was her discovering her own abilities and how hard she was on herself, forcing herself to pedal when her body couldn’t take it any more or when she got sick. She learned to cope and "take things in stride", including breaking her neck in three places, flying home to the U.S. to convalesce, and returning to complete the journey after recovering!

The third story line in the book is simply a story of surviving an ill-fated tour such as this that suffered from poor planning, poor logistics and poor leadership. The group camped most nights (60% or more), often in the rain, often in the mud. They had poor sag wagon support and learned to cope with that by taking public transportation, renting cars independently and just "going off route" for a few days to rest and gather their wits. That was also the only way some could cope with the unrealistic pace of 80 mile days for six days with one rest day before starting again.

I couldn’t resist contacting Al after reading her book to see how she feels about her trip nearly five years later. Here is my online interview with her:


[Rick Price] This is a pretty interesting story, Al. Can you give me an update on how your life has changed since you returned home?


[Al Young] Well, I went on the Odyssey trip thinking I’d get rejuvenated and come back and teach another 10 years before retiring. I really did think that. But that first spring after the trip, I could hardly stand to be inside. I’d look out the window and just drool, wanting to be in the fresh air, rain, snow or sunshine. I was miserable and too young to retire. So I stuck it out until I turned 55, 2 years later, and took early retirement and pursued my interest in plants. I had been working part time after school and on weekends, as well as summers, at the landscape nursery so I decided to go full-time seasonal. It was a tough decision since I took a 50% pay cut for the year. I had to decide if money or my sanity was more important. I don’t need to tell you which one became reality. It’s been tough financially at times. I don’t have a lot of discretionary money to spend but I’m happy. I have to plan my "vacations" very carefully and I work long hours all summer (commonly 50 hours a week plus jobs on the side and music gigs) to help me through the winter.


[RP] You’ve retired from teaching? You’re gardening now? In your book you set some goals for yourself, including hiking the Haute Route to Zermatt in 2005. Did you do that?


[AY] I did hike the Haute Route in spite of the fact that I had a ski accident in February (tore my MCL, ACL, meniscus and patella lateral epicondyle) and still had to wear a brace. Three of us girls went and had a blast. My knee did fine but I’m still in rehab. I will be having corrective foot surgery in December in preparation for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail this next summer. Here’s hoping the foot heals quickly. There are four of us from Odyssey who are planning to through-hike the trail starting at the Mexico border and ending at the Canada border. It takes 5-6 months. So I’ve asked for a leave at my job. I’ll be missing the busy season and my major income period but I’ve planned to do this and if the body holds out, I will. Three of the four of us are having knee and/or foot issues as we speak so there’s a slight possibility that we may have to postpone it a year. But we will do it.



[RP] What lasting thoughts do you have about how the Odyssey went? About TK&A?

[AY] I guess my most prevalent thought, and one that reccurs often, is that I am so glad I went on that trip, no matter how hard it was, or scary, or traumatic, or exhilarating. It was the best thing I ever did. I have so many great friends from that trip. The ice cream gang is a close knit group of about 10 of us that get together every year for the ‘ice cream gang reunion’. We take turns hosting it at our homes. Since we are from all over the country, we get to see new places and show off our geographic area. Yes, we ride bikes and eat lots of ice cream. I feel the negative people really missed out on a great adventure. They just couldn’t see past their own unhappiness. I know those people can’t possibly see joy in their everyday life. What a way to live.


As far as TK&A goes, I’m glad Tim Kneeland had the foresight to try something like this. I’m sorry his ego got in the way. If it hadn’t been for his brainstorm, I’d probably still be in the classroom. I would not have met my wonderful friends; I wouldn’t have all my memories to feed my soul; I never would have seen some of the most beautiful places in the world; and I would not be who I am today. Bitter? Not in the least. I do not have bad feelings against Tim Kneeland. He opened up my eyes to a world I never knew, for which I am grateful. Would I take another trip with him? NO. I can go on my own now or with my new found friends. Life is good!


[RP] It’s interesting that I’m just now planning a mini-expedition (see it here – ExpeditionPlus.com). Your book is a reminder on how NOT to do a lot of this. Any words of wisdom?


[AY] I think TK&A’s downfall was due mostly to personality clashes and lack of flexibility. I know when you plan a trip of that magnitude, some things can’t be changed. But to alienate people did no good. Don’t promise if you can’t deliver and always look at the bright side of things. Let people help if you truly need it. Odyssey folks wanted to help and we got shot down every time. (My example of wanting to help the staff while I recovered was not an option. And I could have done lots to alleviate the overburdened staff people if they had just let me.)


If you are interested in purchasing Al’s book, you can do so directly from the author. Her e-mail address is bikeral2000@yahoo.com.