We’re alive

Just a quick note for anyone who may have seen news of explosions in NYC – we’re all fine. We were a few blocks away and got some photos from behind the cordon. Full blog on Friday, probably.

An unfortunate chain of events

Yesterday we all awoke at 6am to the sound of Neil’s alarm. A few hours later I woke again to find Neil and Leo asleep on the floor, as apparently it had been too cold to start cycling. When eventually everybody set off a further few hours later, Ed and I visited our first diner for breakfast. It really was like a diner in the movies and my egg, cheese and ham bagel was a delicious start to the day. We then had a quick wander around the Botanical Gardens, which were nice, though the birdsong was curiously drowned out by the noise of the interstate (think the M1) on one side and the equivalent of a British A road on the other.

We pushed on to Scranton, stopping only for the town of Factoryville (disappointingly, it featured no factories that we could see) and a scenic overlook that featured no scenery to look over. In fact, other than the large viaduct towering over us, the focus of the overlook appeared to be a large commemorative stone to two apparently insignificant congressmen who had spent their boyhoods in this town; one of them had only been elected in 1998 and had lost his seat last November after his mistress complained of assault. It is difficult to imagine a British town deciding to erect a monument to, say, David Mellor or Neil Hamilton.

Andy and Alex, thanks to the TomTom, eventually reached the motel after the hardest day yet. Once again Neil and Leo were collected in the car from a street corner a couple miles away – they’d gone the wrong way, then my instructions to head along North Keyser Avenue failed as I didn’t specify which direction they should head, causing them to end up a further two miles away.

In the evening we drove into Scranton, a task made more complicated by six people not fitting into five seats, so I drove the monster truck in twice to accommodate everybody. Scranton felt like a ghost town considering it was a Saturday evening, which according to the multitasking waitress in the steak house was because it was a student town and all the college kids were on summer vacation.

As we loaded the last of the luggage into the car this morning, I received a phone call from Neil to say that he was just around the corner and his bike chain had snapped and bits of the geary part were bent. Andy and Alex darted round on their bikes with tools in hand, but by the time I’d located them in the monster truck it was apparent that the damage was not immediately repairable. Neil’s bike went on the bike rack and he reluctantly got in the car for the trip to New Jersey.

After spending some time in a Super 8 motel car park stealing their wireless internet access (our own motel had a crap internet connection) in order to find a cycle shop in New York City that sold the required parts, we drove on towards McAfee, NJ. We stopped for lunch on the way, conveniently missing a heavy rainstorm. Later in the journey, Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer was interrupted by a mysterious warning message from the local weather centre to say that a serious storm (presumably the one we’d encountered earlier) was moving across the area and telling us to seek cover.

A confusing detour through suburbia later, Ed, Neil and I finally reached our motel. Almost immediately we went for a drive which took in a Dairy Queen (an ice-cream parlour), the Franklin Heritage Museum (which appeared not to exist), the Franklin Mineral Museum (which was closed), the Gingerbread Castle Theme Park (which had been closed on and off for the last 20 years), a reasonably old Presbyterian church and an unnoteworthy synagogue.

An hour or two later, Andy, Alex and Leo arrived at the motel after another tough day in the saddle. Tomorrow we head for New York City.

Never mention politics

The cycle into Ithaca, particularly the final incline to the motel, really took it out of the cyclists and prompted a rethink of the plan for covering what should be the hilliest part of the challenge: the stages in New York State. Rather than attempting three further days of roughly 80 miles on a broadly south-easterly approach to New York City, the route was amended to four days of shorter length. The new route will take us south into Pennsylvania and east through New Jersey.

Today, Ed and I drove from Ithaca down to Binghamton, via a second trip to Toughannock Falls where we looked at the lake and walked along the river bank past some smaller falls that we hadn’t seen the day before. An interesting aside about the river here is that due to its east-west direction, the north- and south-facing sides of the gorge maintain different eco-systems. On the warmer, south-facing side deciduous trees grow, while no more than about 20 metres away the other side of the gorge can support only coniferous trees. Another interesting thing is the pun that appears on all the tee-shirts in the area proclaiming that ‘Ithaca is gorges’.

After filling up on gas, we drove the monster truck south following TomTom’s fastest route setting. The outcome of this was pleasantly surprising as it took us along rolling single-lane highways, passing vineyards and farms for most of the journey, only settling for the blandness of the interstates on the final few miles into Binghamton.

Due to our detour north, Andy and Alex had actually beaten us to the motel by a few minutes so we checked into the motel (we’re in a smoking room – it stinks but was bizarrely $20 cheaper than the fresh air equivalent) and watched some Tour de France to put things in perspective. Neil and Leo, once again suffering due to a lack of satellite navigation to guide them directly to the motel, were later picked up by car from a neighbouring town after overshooting Binghamton and finding themselves almost joining a six-lane interstate.

Neil had been having gear problems with his bike, so we drove to a store about 10 miles away where they replaced the offending parts for a refreshingly modest fee. On returning to collect the cycle, Neil and I made the mistake of assuming that the well-travelled, eloquent owner of the store was not a fan of President Bush. I think he may have actually used the phrase “evil-doers” in his defence of Dubya. In a country where only 22% of the population think their leader is doing a good job, and in a solidly Democratic state, what were the chances that we would find a Bush Republican running a bicycle shop?

For the second time in three days, Ed, Andy, Alex and I decided we would attempt to watch Harry Potter at a local movie theatre. After maybe a mile’s walk (partly along the grass verge, and occasionally having to cross the four lane highway) we turned up to learn that the four screens showing the new film were booked up for another hour and a half. Not wanting a late night, we decided to watch the new Michael Moore film, Sicko, which was just beginning on screen 8.

I’m certain it wasn’t Moore’s intent when he made the documentary, but never have I felt quite so proud to be British as when he spent 20 minutes comparing the NHS to the scandalous system that Americans put up with. Beneath the smiley ‘have a nice day’ surface of this country is a rotten, greedy minority who profit shamelessly off the health care (or, more accurately, the lack of health care) of everybody else. It was strangely warming to hear the laughs of exasperation and surprise from the American audience as they learnt of the better healthcare available in Canada, Britain, France and even Cuba. I hope these people go out and demand better from their government, as if I had to give one reason why I wouldn’t choose to live in their country, that would be it.

Having filled ourselves with the smug self-gratification that comes from living in a country other than America, we went to McDonald’s where we ate cheeseburgers and fries and drank Coca Cola.

The first couple of days of cycling

After the cyclists left, Ed and I went to breakfast, which we had been told was next door at the Best Western motel. Perhaps we should’ve twigged as we waited to be seated and were then served by a friendly waitress, but it was only at the end of the meal when we were presented with a bill each for $13 that we realised that this particular breakfast was not included in our motel bill.

As I checked out of the motel in Niagara Falls, the weather changed from overcast to torrential rain. I got drenched walking/running from reception back to the car, so I could only imagine how soaked the cyclists were getting in their opening miles over the border in the USA. We then dutifully joined the queue of cars on the Rainbow Bridge waiting to cross the border.

It turns out that the (rather slow) Canadian border guard up in Michigan/Ontario was not supposed to remove my visa waiver from my passport as I was leaving the country only days later. Because he did, I had to apply for another one at a cost of $6 and wait ages for the US Department of Homeland Security to stamp some forms. As it happens, I would have had to wait ages anyway for Ed to get his visa waiver, as he had entered Canada directly.

Once across the border the torrential rain continued. We had decided to take the TomTom bicycle route, as we figured that would be more scenic than the interstate that we otherwise would have taken. This, however, turned what should have been a journey of an hour or so into a journey of three or four hours, much of it spent waiting at traffic lights and almost all of it with a visibility of only a few metres ahead, negating the benefits of a scenic route.

Ed and I arrived at the motel just outside Rochester NY in the early afternoon and were joined a couple of hours later by Andy and Alex who had negotiated the opened heavens and arrived courtesy of the TomTom. Neil and Leo, however, had been navigating by map and were not able to find the road to our motel, so were collected in the car from a nearby town.

Day 2 began early and under significantly better weather conditions, with the sun warm but not scorching. Ed and I first drove into Rochester to see what was there, but after not seeing much and being directed to turn around by traffic police, we left. Again following the cycle route, we pushed on towards the town of Waterloo, where Neil and Leo were due to meet us for lunch.

Waterloo is a quiet little town, focused on a crossroads around which there are two banks and a post office. I’m not certain they have many visitors from overseas, as it was something of an ordeal for them to cash an American Express travellers cheque. Firstly, the lady in the post office told me I could only use a travellers cheque of maximum value $5 to pay for some stamps there (she refused outright to simply cash the cheque); who on earth would carry a $5 travellers cheque?

Next stop, the bank across the street, where I was told that I’d be better trying a larger bank, as they didn’t handle them. Finally, the cashier in the larger bank on the third corner of the crossroads took my cheque and showed it to her colleagues before asking me if I bought it overseas. She seemed a little perplexed as to how I could buy a dollar travellers cheque outside of the USA. Once she was satisfied that she did indeed work in a bank and that it was therefore her job to take my $100 cheque off me and replace it with $100 in cash, she took my passport.

Her initial reaction on turning to the penultimate page in my passport was to sigh an “awwww”. I assumed she thought I looked somewhat cuter at the age of 19 than I do now, though in fact she was simply expressing how nice and quaint it must be to be from the UK. I know this because her next question was to ask whether I was “from the United Kingdom or from Northern Ireland”. Unsure as to whether she’d just misread the country’s full name or was attempting to lure me into a sectarian debate on the constitutional position of Ulster, I told her I was from England. After a few moments of confusion about me dating the cheque in the European style and her consequently assuming I thought it was 7th December, she handed me $100.

Neil, meanwhile, had been busy managing to twist his ankle while walking across the carpark towards our car. After a break for lunch, bandaging and the reinflation of tyres, we went our separate ways once more. Ed was keen to visit a nearby museum about the women’s rights movement, so we drove to the neighbouring town of Seneca Falls and tried to find it. After failing entirely, we hit the road once more and headed for a waterfall at Toughannock Falls near the southern end of Cayuga Lake. We drove by countless vineyards and wineries (New York produces more wine than any state other than California) on the long straight road that runs roughly parallel to the lake, before pulling into the carpark. The falls are some 33 feet taller than Niagara Falls, although are infinitely less dramatic. Nice setting though.

We then pushed on to Ithaca, briefly stopping to meet Andy and Alex in the town centre before heading to the motel a few miles out of town. The motel was rather more expensive than the one in Rochester, but was the only available option. It has thick sinking carpets and two swimming pools, but is otherwise pretty standard. The final climb out of Ithaca really took it out of Andy and Alex; Neil and Leo, meanwhile, are a couple of hours behind and should arrive in Ithaca shortly.

…and they’re off

Yesterday we put Ed on a Greyhound bus to Niagara Falls and then followed him in our tank. After arriving in Niagara at around lunchtime we walked a few miles into town and ate in a restaurant called only ‘Family Restaurant’. We mostly had pasta dishes of one variety of the other, each served with an identical, slightly disgusting tinned tomato sauce. They did bring Andy’s dessert out with candles in the top, though, to celebrate his birthday (and one of the last opportunities to eat deep fried brownie for the next 4-5 weeks).

We then headed to the falls themselves, which I had been pre-warned about not being as tall as one would imagine. It’s true that they aren’t the tallest waterfalls in the world, but they are almost certainly the most magnificent. The raw, uncontrolled energy of the water tumbling over the American and Horseshoe Falls takes the breath away, and the spray from the falls travels high and wide. Apparently, 20% of the world’s fresh water flows over Niagara Falls, which is mind-boggling.

After taking photos from every possible angle, we bought our tickets and went into the tunnels behind the waterfall. The plastic ponchos that they hand out are essential, as one of the viewing platforms takes you just feet away from the torrent of water, soaking you from head to foot. The tunnels extend 200m behind the Horseshoe Falls from the Canadian side, so I suppose we were briefly in no man’s land.

Our thirst for getting soaked by the world’s most powerful waterfall was not yet quenched, so we handed over $14 each (in a mixture of US and Canadian currency; a combination of being so close to the border and the exchange rate being almost exactly 1:1 means they are interchangeable in Niagara) and boarded the Maid of the Mist vessel.

The boat first cruised reasonably close to the American Falls before moving right into the heart of the Horseshoe, practically within touching distance of the falls. Again, we were equipped with ponchos and they were perhaps even more useful than earlier, as the spray made good visibility a pipedream and gave us a better shower than a budget chain motel could ever manage.

Later that evening, after returning to the motel for a rest, we drove back into town (with Andy following on his bike) and ate huge hamburgers (called Baconators – two burgers, four strips of bacon, cheese, mayo and ketchup) at Wendy’s. There was a strange novelty in eating at a fastfood chain that for some reason has never made it to the UK.

Niagara Falls as a town is a bizarre, seedy place. The centre is a brightly lit strip of hotels, motels, casinos, tacky giftshops, museums and crap restaurants. It’s almost as though the Niagara Falls authorities thought, “Hey, we’ve got one of the great wonders of the natural world right here, so lets build Blackpool next to it.”

Our appetite satisfied, we wandered down to the falls and observed their magnificence when lit by floodlights (incidentally, powered by the falls themselves via the huge hydroelectric plant upstream). If it were possible, they looked even better than they did during the day.

This morning we rose early for the raison d’etre of the trip: the cycling. Shortly after 7am Leo, Neil, Andy and Alex left the motel on two wheels, stopping only for photographs at the start of the bridge across to the USA. All being well (apart from the gear problems that Neil’s just discovered), they should now be pushing on through New York state towards Rochester. Me and Ed will cross the border in an hour or two, joining them en route for their midday rest break.

This is a cycling event, honestly

Yesterday we went back into downtown Toronto, leaving our car, bikes and possessions in a multi-storey car park (we’d checked out of one motel and were waiting to check into a new one). We made a beeline for the CN Tower and took the elevator up to the viewing platform at 330m above the ground, where we walked across the glass floor and took in the views. Neil, Andy and Leo then joined the queue for the elevator to the Skypod at 447m. Me, Alex and Ed meanwhile went for a wander around Toronto.

Toronto is a nice city, with its safety and cleanliness standing in contrast to the US cities we’ve visited, but it’s just a bit… well… dull. The CN Tower is cool, and there’s a lot of impressive buildings and a great harbour front, but it just doesn’t have that simmering excitement that we found in Chicago.

Anyway, after wandering through Toronto University’s campus and then through Chinatown, we headed to our new motel for the night. The Knights Inn in Richmond Hill is wonderful. We booked it as it was the cheapest one that the website we use could find, but the rooms are nicer than any we’ve seen elsewhere, one of them featuring a sofa. Last night we ate takeaway pizza and Chinese and drank a few bottles of beer. Ed, wasted after sniffing the beer, went to collect the Chinese and returned with a woman who wanted to meet the ‘mad English guys who are cycling across America’. She left after a few minutes and then her friend turned up: a man who also wanted to meet the cyclists so that he could tell his friends when we were famous. I took his advice (and that of the Chicago moteliers) and sent details of our trip to the local and national media over here.

In the next hour we leave for Niagara Falls, with the cyclists beginning to face the reality of what they have ahead of them. Tomorrow morning we get up early and cross the border into the States, and then the challenge begins at last.

Put your hands up for… Flint, Michigan

Since I last blogged we’ve travelled almost 600 miles from Chicago to Toronto. On our first full day in the States we took the train to downtown Chicago and checked out a food festival. Me and Andy befriended an anti-Bush activist and Andy is now the proud owner of an Impeach Bush flag. Then, by an enormous stroke of luck, a passer by identified us as being from out of town and recommended a restaurant that did fantastic steaks and also directed us to Buddy Guy’s Legends blues bar where those of us over 21 spent an immensely satisfying two hours being entertained by the finest blues in Chicago.

The next morning our plan was to leave town for Detroit by 11am. Unfortunately, it turned out that the tubes of the bike frames were too large to fit the bike racks (which were themselves too small for the roof bars, so were tied on with rope and duck tape), so me, Andy and Alex went to buy a back carrier while Neil and Leo sat in the motel carpark. Three hours, seven stores and two bike rack purchases later, we were finally ready to leave the windy city.

After realising that we were running too late to see Detroit (assuming there is anything worth seeing there) we took a detour to get closer to the Canadian border. We pulled into the town of Flint, Michigan for the night, only to find that the Super 8 there was fully booked. According to the GPS, there was a Travel Inn 1 mile away. At first glance it looked a little like a prison camp and it wasn’t immediately obvious whether the fence was for keeping people in or out. After paying just $70 for two rooms we examined our lodgings. It can’t be denied that the dirty sheets and towels, and the mysterious splash marks around the sides of the bed (blood or mud, we weren’t sure), left us a little apprehensive about where we were staying. Regardless, it was 11pm at night and we hadn’t had any tea, so we headed to the McDonald’s down the road.

Upon arrival, the staff waved from the windows to indicate that it was closed, but the sign said ‘24 hour Drive Thru’, so we walked round the side and stood in the queue of cars waiting to order at the little microphone panel. A couple of minutes later a woman came out of McDonald’s back entrance, apparently concerned by our loitering. We told her we were just looking to order some food, but she told us that we weren’t allowed through the Drive Thru without a car. We left the premises quickly, anticipating the shotgun/guard dogs that usually accompany such an eviction in the movies. We rejoined the grass verge at the side of the busy road (there are no pavements in Flint – walking is clearly for failures, Communists and those who dislike Big Macs) and found ourselves a petrol station with an alarmingly rough clientele where we bought a pack of microwaveable burgers each, heating them there and then and eating the soggy messes on the way back to the motel. The night passed mostly uneventfully, apart from Andy sprinting from his bed to the window in the early hours when he heard a car ignition that sounded like ours.

Funnily enough, none of us were too keen to hang around Flint much longer, so we were on the highway by 8am this morning. An hour later we reached the border, where Canadian immigration quizzed us about our intentions for a good ten minutes. Shortly after crossing the border we grabbed breakfast at Burger King before hitting the long, straight road to Toronto.

The (thankfully pre-booked) Super 8 at Toronto is a wonderful contrast to the Flint Travelinn: clean sheets, a working TV, an indoor pool and wireless internet access. After collecting Ed Smith from Toronto Airport we caught the train downtown and had a slap-up meal in a restaurant with crayons and drawable table cloths. We then had a wander round the water front before heading back to the motel. Tomorrow we’ll be heading back in with the intention of going up the CN Tower and checking out the city when things are actually open.

Ignore anything I ever said about SUVs

We’ve discovered the perfect cure to jetlag – confuse your body so much that it has no idea what time zone it’s in. Yesterday was quite literally the longest day of our lives; it began in Heathrow airport as we tried to make a game of top trumps stretch from midnight to 5am. At roughly this point, we received the delightful news that somewhere along the line STA Travel had failed to book three bikes onto the plane TWICE. In the end we got them on, but it was quite a scare.

Fast forward two airports, many hours and lots of timezones, and we find ourselves queuing for permission to enter America with our Spanish-language visa forms in hand, hoping that we hadn’t inadvertently declared ourselves Nazi war criminals. Unfortunately, Neil had obviously ticked the ‘Si’ box next to the international terrorist question, causing him to be whisked away into an interview room for a while. In the meantime, Al had to have all his bags searched after he was caught by a sniffer dog trying to smuggle a ham sandwich into the land of the free.

While the others waited for Neil’s interrogation to be completed, I caught a bus across the airport to the National car hire centre. Knowing our problems with bikes, bike carriers and roof racks, and the fact we had significantly more luggage than any boot could hold, I enquired about an upgrade. For $16 extra each day, I’m now driving what I would normally politefully call a Chelsea Tractor. In Britain it would look huge, though it fits in quite nicely on the streets of Chicago. Sadly, our cycle carriers won’t fit onto the roof bars that come with the General Motors beast, so that’s still a problem to sort tomorrow.