Al Young, Shifting Gears, My Global Bike Odyssey (including an interview with the author)
Shifting 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:
If you are interested in purchasing Al’s book, you can do so directly from the author. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.