Nate Bartlett was tired. He’d been biking all day up the long hills that led towards Vermont. Twice that day he had needed to repair tires that seemed to conspire against him and go flat almost instantaneously. Through eastern New York, he faced incline after incline. At the end of the day, Nate was not back at home in a warm bed: He was in a riverside tent, and he had 14 more days of cycling to go.
Cars. Buses. Trains. Planes. Most freshmen arrive at Northwestern using a combination of these transportation methods.
But for Nate Bartlett? Bicycles. The McCormick freshman biked 1,100 miles from his home in Leyden, Mass. to Northwestern to start his college career. The 19-year-old and his father, Sam Bartlett, planned a trip from Massachusetts to Chicago, through New York on routes and roads that followed the Erie Canal, to Niagara Falls, across Ontario and through Michigan, eventually heading to Evanston in time for Bartlett to start Project Wildcat. Bartlett and his father intended to cycle about 10 100-mile days, leaving space in the 15-day trip for rest and weather problems.
“When I was in high school, I would bike about 14 miles to school, so I asked my dad if he would ride to Northwestern with me,” said Bartlett. His father’s first reaction? “That’s a long way to ride!”
“But I also realized it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, to spend two weeks with Nate doing something we both love,” said Nate’s father, Sam.
Bartlett, who has been riding since age two, commonly cycled with his father; biking is a central part of their family life. Bartlett had done longer rides before — like 200 miles over two days — and saw the trip to school as a challenge for which he was prepared.
“I regularly rode with other riders who were better than me and older than me. I figured if I got good enough, I could do it,” he said.
But this was a trip unlike any he had ever made before. Besides the daily exertion of constant pedaling, the Bartlett men had days when everything seemed to be working against them. Weather. Cars. Flats. The hardest part of the trip for Sam? “The seventh flat tire in one day,” he said. “It seemed Nate’s tire was blowing out for no reason. We were out of spares and realized our patch kit wasn’t working.”
He kept a blog and a Facebook page for the trip and kept statistics on daily accomplishments and sights (including roadkill and bunny tallies). “Everyone I talked to wanted to hear about it,” he said. “In 2007, I met someone biking cross-country and writing about it on his blog. Things like statistics evolved as we went, an interesting way to do a little trivia about each day. It was cool to see people were reading it.”
Fellow students in the incoming freshman class followed his trip, as did members of the cycling club.
Just as inspiring was Bartlett’s ability to stay upbeat even when things were tough. Biking through Niagara Falls had its frustrations, including tricky signs: instead of using a stop sign when a bike path intersected with the road, Canada used yield signs.
“But when we got to the other side of the Rainbow Bridge, the customs officer was a cyclist and he gave us advice on a route,” said Bartlett.
Assistance from strangers was common; in one instance, someone offered to find them a place to stay the night. “In the biking community, people are always interested to see where people are going,” Bartlett said. “They relate to you directly.”
Before Bartlett even got to campus, he encountered the dangers of Sheridan Road. Traveling through Illinois proved scary due to ruthless drivers who on one occasion almost cut him off, making Bartlett nearly hit the car.
Bartlett described arriving at Northwestern: “It was raining. I had my backpack in my trailer and it was wet. I was cold. But I saw some people and they were like, ‘Oh, you’re that kid that biked here, that’s so cool.’ And I went in and started meeting people.”
He especially enjoyed participating in the cycling club while the academic year was still new, before the realities of being a student hit him. Still, he did a ride every other week until the cold settled in and he stopped riding outside. “Racing season starts in March,” he said. “I don’t know much about the races at all, but I’m looking forward to it.”
In the meantime, Bartlett will begin training indoors. As for getting around campus, he has not yet joined the ranks of Northwestern students pedaling up and down Sheridan Road and Campus Drive. That will soon change. “I don’t ride my bike up to Tech because [my bike is] pretty expensive,” he said. “But I built a bike with snow tires for this quarter.”
Inspired By Nate? Become a Biking Buff.
Plan a route. Look to the Adventure Cycling Association to help you plan a trip. They have 38,000 miles of routes mapped. According to Winona Sorensen, the association’s media director, all the routes have been researched and created for the pedaling crowd, which means quiet or scenic roads, low traffic and a good shoulder. “Mapping your own ride is a great way to go,” Sorensen said. “But we really research and plan routes that are specifically for cyclists.”
Ride baby, ride. Getting off the couch and into the saddle is the most important thing you can do to prepare for a ride, said triathlon coach Elliot Bassett, a tour specialist at Adventure Cycling. To prepare for a long, one-day trip, Bassett recommends starting to ride three to five times a week. Start with 30 minutes and build up to two hours of steady riding. Mix it up with spin classes if the stationary bike gets too boring. Once the weather warms and you can get out on the road, Bassett advises heading down to the lakefront once a week and taking increasingly longer rides. “When you come out of winter, start at two hours and do shorter rides through the week,” he said. “Progressively build that ride up to six or seven hours with longer mileage. If your goal is to ride 100 miles, build it up slowly, add a half hour or an hour every week.” And remember to enjoy it. Bring snacks, remember to stop and rest, and take in the scenery.
Get conditioned. The most important exercise to prepare you for cycling is, well, cycling. But Khashayar Sarrafi, a master personal trainer at SPAC, recommends also keeping fit with the rowing machine (“one of the best cardio workouts”), the elliptical on high resistance, or jumping rope (“you’ll get the result of a half hour on the treadmill in five minutes.”) He also suggests strength training with the following moves that work multiple muscle groups at once:
- Stand on a Bosu (ball side up), with one foot on top and the other foot on the floor. Hold a medicine ball about five inches away from your body, with your knees slightly bent. Squat and jump over the Bosu from one side to the other. Extend your arms with the medicine ball while you jump. Then jump again, returning both your arms and legs to the starting position. Repeat.
- Flip a Bosu over so the half ball is on the floor. Stand on the flat side (balancing will be tricky!) with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent. Make sure to keep your back straight. Hold a kettle ball in front of your thighs. Do a squat, and as you rise back to starting position, lift your arms overhead using a swinging motion. When you return to squat again, bring your arms back down. Repeat.
- Position the Bosu again so the half ball is on the floor. Balance on the flat side, holding a medicine ball. Squat down and bring the ball to one of your toes. As you rise, extend the medicine ball to the opposite side overhead. Repeat. Switch sides.
Stay safe. Don’t forget your helmet (duh!), but also remember safety glasses (sunglasses are fine), a whistle, and a flashlight and reflective vest if you’re riding at dawn or dusk. On longer rides, bring along a small first aid kit and some maintenance tools, and don’t forget to stay hydrated and warm.