In January, Gainesville resident Michael James, 36, took what money he could spare and bought a one-way airline ticket to San Francisco.
It was the first step in fulfilling a lifelong dream that had seemed all but impossible for the business owner, father and husband. A dream of cycling, on his own, across the country.
“I thought he was a lunatic,” said friend and fellow cyclist John Strickland when James told him his plan. “I said why, why do you want to do it by yourself? I was concerned for his safety.
“But he stayed on task. When he says he’s going to do something, for better or worse, he does it.”
On June 3, he unlocked his bike from its spot near the Golden Gate Bridge and started riding east.
On July 14, after 42 days, 3,450 miles and 24 flat tires, James finished what he had started, dipping his bike in the water at Onslow Beach near his hometown of Jacksonville, N.C. as friends and family cheered him on.
“It was an incredible journey with lots of stories of people’s kindness, gratitude and excitement,” James said. “It was a remarkable journey that was just a life dream that turned into a reality by buying a one-way ticket to San Francisco, without knowing how I was going to make it happen, and setting myself up for a trip of a lifetime.”
The journey started even before he rode his bike out of San Francisco.
James started cycling 15 years ago, and is currently one of the top-ranked cyclocross (a cross between road and mountain bike racing) riders in the state. This fall he will compete professionally in the sport.
He also runs a construction business in town and is part owner of another business that puts on bike races.
So the fact that James decided to go for a long bike ride was not, in itself, remarkable.
It was the scope and length of the trip that even his friend Strickland, who regularly cycles 40 miles or more miles a day, had a hard time wrapping his mind around.
“That takes a lot of planning and a lot of courage,” said Strickland, who got a first glimpse of his friend’s thinking when a few year’s before he had loaned him a copy of a book about a bike race along the continental divide from Canada to Mexico.
“He said he’d like to do that, but first he wanted to ride across the country,” Strickland recalled.
But before he started riding, James made a lot of preparations. He bought maps and planned out his route, even down to where he could stop to grab a few groceries to eat and store in his small trailer he towed behind his bike.
And as news of his upcoming trip began to circulate, people chipped in to help.
“I unintentionally created a fanfare,” James said.
Someone sponsored him with a bike, and Baxter’s MultiSport, in Gainesville, sold him all of his supplies wholesale.
He saw more generosity once he got going, including coming up to a grocery store that already closed in a small town, and being picked up by a local firefighter who took him to the firehouse for a dinner of pork chops, macaroni salad and a Coke.
“It was nice to see generosity at just the right time,” said James, who added that numerous people would hand him water bottles from their car windows as he was riding.
Of course, the trip wasn’t all happy days. In the southern Rocky Mountains around Telluride, Colo., he said he was run off the road by a car and fell into a creek 20 feet down a ravine, where he lay until awakening to see a firefighter helping him up. The firefighter then took him to get his bike fixed and had him stay the night to recover.
James also hit much of the record-breaking summer heat head on as he reached the Midwest. He said he would try to find a city park in the town he was staying in and sleep up on top of a picnic table in order to take advantage of the slight breezes.
Eventually he made it south and east via Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee, where he crossed the Appalachians with 40 days already under his belt.
At that point, he said that every 15 miles to the next town brought on a new struggle to keep going, but with the end and a reunion with family in sight, he pushed on, eventually reaching the coast and his family and friends after 40 days of riding (in addition to two rest days), averaging 86 miles per day.
“As I was approaching the bridge that goes over the Intercoastal Waterway (in North Carolina), a sailboat passed and the draw bridge opened up,” he recalled of his final miles. “I could see the ocean on the other side of the bridge along with all my family and friends with banners and signs welcoming me.”
And with that final push, he was done.
Even now, nearly a month later, people still ask him the same question, “why did you do it?”
“I did the trip for me,” James said. “On my bicycle 8-12 hours a day, there’s time for a lot of soul searching and a lot of personal fighting. I didn’t realize until halfway through how my trip was inspiring other people.”
He had friends and family back home checking his progress via a monitor on his bike he set up before leaving. And he said he had people, many that didn’t even resemble cyclists, ride with him for periods of time.
“It became something that I was proud to inspire somebody else to dream. And it basically boiled down to; anybody can do it,” James said. “It was even inspiring to me that you didn’t have to be this incredible cyclist. It was just a humbling experience.”
He said he became even more of a hero to his kids, and he even patched his relationship with his dad.
“My dad and I never had a strong relationship,” James said. “And it bonded that relationship; he became my biggest fan. For me to bring joy to his life was priceless.”
What the trip didn’t do was in any way effect his desire to ride.
Jut three days after he completed the trip, Strickland asked him if he wanted to go for a 60-mile ride, forgetting for a moment the huge trip his friend had just completed. He eventually persuaded James to scale down the ride, but not before his friend had answered.
“He said, yeah, let’s do it,” Strickland recalled.