I’M WRITING THIS AT HOME IN ATHENS, GEORGIA, two days after my March 18 birthday. It’s the first time I’ve been home in March—and perhaps April, May and June—since 2010. The novel coronavirus has destroyed any semblance of a plan that we had for this year. And I’m not complaining; it’s just the way it is. I’m one of millions, billions even. I hope that by the summer I don’t look back at this and think, “What drivel.” I know that this might sound like unimportant in a moment like this, but if it’s possible to go and see the world outside, alone, on your bike, maybe there is something to be said for the following words. Maybe.
I BLINK AWAKE IN THE CAR. IT’S AFTER MIDNIGHT.
Andy is at the wheel, John is behind him in the backseat leaning forward, keeping him company. A song I’ve never heard is blasting: “I found a new way, To open up my mind….” I drift off, but I like that song. Andy tells me later that it’s by Twin Peaks.
Winding back a few hours, we’re riding our bikes. It’s deep dark, truly pitch black. John is sandwiched between Andy and me. It’s just our lights, two of them, and the darkness. John left his light in the car, so he’s using ours as a cocoon of sensory aid to get back.
We’re climbing, slowly. The dirt roads along this remote section of the Cohutta Wilderness on the Georgia-Tennessee border are a never-ending succession of ups and downs, all sung to in the key of rotten rough road (but fantastic!).
John, a devout follower of the faith of ebb and flow, has a down moment and slowly drops back—first a bike length… then two…three. Then he comes around with a whir of pedal strokes and noises resembling something like words, grunts and groans all rolled into one. Normally, people call something like this a second wind, but John gets winds like we take sips from a water bottle. He gets a hundred winds on a ride, so it becomes known as simply a wind…and then he comes whooshing by.
And so we plod along. I’m sleepy. We’ve been riding for seven hours, and we still have over an hour to go. I don’t feel terrible, but I don’t feel great either. I’m lost in my thoughts, and the sounds coming out of John’s mouth—just a constant stream of nearly nonsensical thoughts powered by tiredness—are like an inane, but enjoyable song.
His wind passes, and he once again quiets, drifts backward, one bike length, two, three. I look back—there’s no one there. There’s nothing there. It’s a screaming wall of black. It’s the blackest darkness I’ve ever seen. I turn back around, and I’m comforted by our small lights, a little bubble of normalcy in the foreign lands of nighttime. I feel small. Extremely so. We wonder what it would be like if our lights were to go out. I realize that’s a scary story to wonder about once we get back to the car.
Andy and I call out to John. He’s about 10 bike lengths back—in the mouth of the darkness—but charging out of it, back to us. Another wind.
Eight hours after we left, we arrive back to the car at Mulberry Gap. Exhausted. Delirious. Hungry. And still two and a half hours from home.
I’m asleep in the car. I’m not sure which seat I’m in, and it’s that song. I ask Andy for some info. It’s Twin Peaks performing “I Found A New Way.” I try to remember that, then fall back to sleep.
A week after this first real epic, I pick up two of the three bar bags used on the expedition. One was coated in the remains of double-stuffed Oreos (Andy), the other in red Takis crumbs ( John). I smile. It makes me want to go again. And there are so many possibilities within a short drive of home…so many more adventures ahead.
AT SOME POINT DURING 2019, Andy told me about this website that turns your Strava heat map into something far more interesting. It takes those roads and instead of colorcoding them by how many times you’ve ridden them, it gives you a number of how many unique miles you’ve ridden. Say, for instance, Jefferson River Road in Athens, which is about 13 miles long. I’ve ridden it at least a hundred times, but I get 13 unique miles for it. It doesn’t matter which direction I’ve ridden it, how many times I’ve ridden it, it’s worth 13. The map is just blue lines (where I’ve ridden) and white lines (where I haven’t).
The seeds for Wandrer were sown about 10 years ago when Wandrer’s founder, Craig Durkin, started Concrete Jungle with Aubrey Daniels. Concrete Jungle is an organization they started to pick otherwise neglected fruit that grows all over the city of Atlanta to donate to local homeless shelters and food banks. It’s a fascinating, fantastic project that deserves attention in its own right, but I have to stay focused on the task at hand.
Early on, through a project with the U.S. Forest Service to document all the fruit trees in five different Atlanta neighborhoods, Craig decided to ride every road in those neighborhoods. Turns out, the fruit trees in those neighborhoods ended up being the least interesting part of his project. “There were so many unfamiliar places, historic sites, abandoned houses, pleasant streets and strange industrial zones that were way more interesting,” he says.
That experience was the basis for Craig starting the first iteration of Wandrer, and sitting here all those years later, I’m pretty happy he started this passion project (to go along with the one that actually benefits human beings). Wandrer puts all of its emphasis on new. This past winter has been all about new roads—paved, unpaved, single track, double track, no road at all—I want to ride.
I took that to heart. Instead of doing the same routes over and over again, I started branching out. It’s addicting. It made me realize in blunt terms that I’ve spent a lot of times riding the same roads over and over and over again. At home in Athens, the classic recovery ride is a Pink Church Loop. It takes about an hour—it’s nice, basic, chill. I’ve also ridden it about 500 times. I don’t need to ever do another PCL again.
I’ve now begun to turn what would have been a PCL into a quest to ride every road in my home county: Athens-Clarke County. It’s the smallest county in Georgia. Sure, it involves a lot of ridiculous loops and silly turns within quintessential American suburban neighborhoods, dead-end turnarounds, and what would likely make a lot of people cringe—but it gets me excited. It turns what would essentially be a boring outdoor Zwift session into an adventure. New. Exciting.
Wandrer has a leaderboard, and it’s good fun to try to make that number creep up and up. But that’s not what I’m here for. I love the spirit behind Wandrer, and I feel that Craig says it best: “Wandrer is meant to encourage you to take a small action against going where you’d normally go. There are many places out there worth seeing for their own sake.”
For me, that word “encourage” has been an understatement. I feel compelled. I want to fill in the map, make it whole.
ANOTHER RIDE, A BASIC ROAD RIDE, is a long day to a new place: Elberton. I’ve seen it on the map for probably my whole bike-riding life in Athens, but for some reason I had never gone there. John and I got up, rode out for a duringthe-ride-breakfast an hour in. It was at a trailer, Cafe Racer, next to a busy road in Arnoldsville. It was amazing. Then we went into the truly isolated and quiet lands of northeastern Georgia. We rode for ages, saw no one save for a dog and his owner at a used-tire shop. We filled our bottles at a church.
Four hours in, we arrived in Elberton and ate fried chicken and corn dogs at one of my all-time favorite midride stops. We then rode our bikes through the Granite Capital of the World—that’s Elberton. In the end, that ride wasn’t important, but I got something out of it, more so than if we had done a normal loop. The journey into the unknown made it all the more memorable, turned us on to the new, opened our eyes. What more can I ask for from a bike ride?
I LOVE TO RIDE BIKES. It’s how I communicate with the world in some weird way. I feel alive, I feel at home. I’m my best self on the bike. The bike is also my tool for adventure—why in the world would I not use it to see all the things, at the bare minimum, in my own backyard? Why wouldn’t I use it to see that road that no one uses at the far fringes of what’s possible in a one-day ride from my home?
Why wouldn’t I go check out that dead-end road—I probably won’t find anything down it, but if it’s that lucky one-in-ten road, there might be an unforgettable, specially painted riot-of-colors mailbox, or deer, or a bamboo forest, or a view of the Oconee River that I’ve never seen before, or a Foot Locker’s worth of shoes dangling from the power lines in an apartment complex, or just a smiling face from someone in their yard and a wave, a high five to a little kid on a bike, a family on a walk in their neighborhood who see me five different times in 20 minutes—each time, we smile a little broader; and on the final time we stop and chat, and I explain my silly project.
And then, Wandrer released this new thing where you can download a pretty large area, put that file on your Garmin, and then, voilà, all the unridden roads on your map screen turn red. So now I go out and play a real-life version of Pac-Man. It’s fun. It’s silly. I can already hear the comments: “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” “Whatever happened to just riding your bike?” “Strava sucks, etc., etc.” “Don’t bother.”
“I found a new way
To open up the day…”
ANOTHER RIDE, WAY DOWN SOUTH, THEN TO THE WEST. I never go west. It doesn’t’t take long before westerly rides run into the outskirts of suburban Atlanta. I can’t abide that. I love quiet roads. I love the nothing—suburban Atlanta is the opposite of nothing.
The ride was 120-or-so miles, of which 75 were all new. We met two friends along the way from Atlanta in the middle of their own epic day filled with new roads. We rode for some hours together before they made the turn toward home (west) and we made the turn toward Athens (east). As always, I don’t remember much from that ride, specifically, but I recall the feelings, the pleasure in it, the satisfaction. I remember talking at length to John about the idea of pursuing his passion and talent for cooking. I remember Michael’s sweet wheelie in Newborn. I remember the end-of-the-day store stop in Between, Georgia. I remember the road that deadended at a truly crumbling bridge—one that neither of us dared to cross. We made a mark in our memories that day; and I hate to admit it, but Wandrer played a part in making that happen. But then again, is that so bad? A special day happened from such basic ingredients. We made a route, then we just walked out of our door and rode our bikes.
That ride showed me that it’s not all bad over there. There are beautiful roads in those less-explored lands between Athens and Atlanta. I found some of my all-time favorite roads in Georgia that day.
A LONG TIME AGO, A FRIEND TOLD ME about how another friend was into something different every year. This year, he’s into X. Last year, he was into Y. I can’t wait to see what he’s into next year. We laughed. I wouldn’t so much say we laughed at him, but we did find his yearly interests to be humorous. Looking back, it seems kind of natural. I hope that’s me as I get older. I want to do something different each year, even if I’m still doing the same thing—riding bikes, obviously!
With the wisdom provided by some more data points in my life, I can see my annual phases: last winter, I followed a pretty structured plan full of brutal eight-minute intervals. I did those intervals plus did all that I could to not get dropped by the guy who’d be second place at the world under-23 TT championship six months later: Ian Garrison. He did eight-minute intervals on his TT bike a bunch last winter. I groveled. We went fast. The winter before that, I did a lot of Pink Church Loops for some unknown, baffling reason. This past winter, it’s been adventure, new roads, paying attention to the little things along the way…and it’s going slow.
As a self-employed person who specializes in really hardon periods and a really hard-off period, I have a lot of benefits. I can’t complain. I’d like to underline this: I’m not complaining here. If there’s one thing I don’t love though, it’s the feeling that I should always be working, that there’s always something else I could be doing. There’s this constant low-grade hum of “Shouldn’t you be working? Aren’t there pictures to edit, words to write?” Turns out, the only time I don’t have that feeling is when I’m riding my bike. It’s the only time that it goes away.
ANOTHER RIDE, ALMOST ALL DIRT, NEAR ELBERTON. It’s John, Frank and me. I flat in a creek crossing—three cuts to the sidewall in the span of about 3 feet. No worries. We have tubes. Throw it in…we ride on. The dirt around Elberton is riddled with large rocks though. These roads see a lot of heavy traffic, because this is the Granite Capital of the World. They’re not the unused hardpacked dirt we love so much around here; they’re constantly in some state of maintenance, so my tubed front tire takes a beating. I go along as safely as I can (at least I think so), but I flat again. And again. And one more time for good measure… and we’re out of tubes. It was a great loop—one that’s worth remembering on its own—but I’ll always remember this one as the day of flats. I’m okay with that. They don’t all have to be wistful memories of glorious perfection. Some of them can make me laugh and I can shake my head and be thankful I didn’t have to get a ride home.
I KNOW THIS KIND OF THING ISN’T FOR EVERYONE. The idea of staring at maps and trying to figure out where to ride your bike next is not tops on a lot of people’s lists, but it works for me. It has lit a fire in me like I haven’t felt in a long time, and for that I’m thankful. I don’t get to pick what excites me. I’m just a passenger sometimes, and I’m fine with that.
I’ve thought about the idea of starting over again—what if I made a new profile and did it all over again? What if I start anew in Athens like it’s my first-ever bike ride all those years ago at the end of 2001? I love the idea of starting the game over again. Exploring all the old roads anew. Read the book again.