How cycling changed me – Ali Dastagirzada
Last name: Ali Dastagirzada
Hometown: Philadelphia (from Media, Pennsylvania)
Occupation: Currently in work-study, previously civil engineer
Riding time: Since early childhood
Reason to ride: I ride to challenge myself, to get out of my comfort zone, and ultimately to travel across America.
I learned the transamerican trail in college from a friend who had done it in 2015. He was a year below me and at one point took a semester off to do this 4,000+ mile tour through the country. I followed him on social media and was shocked, thinking, “Can you just cycle across the country?” He also does photography, so he was taking these amazing photos. His journey has marked me, even though I hadn’t really planned to do the same thing until recently.
I have always cycled quietly, never in competition. I learned to ride when I was 3 years old. Growing up, we biked around the neighborhood with friends. We drove to a local Wendy’s without telling our parents, even though it was maybe half a mile down the road. It was fun. I have always owned a bicycle.
I started toying with the idea of doing the tour a few weeks before 2022. At the time, I was working as a civil engineer in traffic operations and transportation planning. I loved my company and my co-workers were great, but the job itself was not what I saw myself doing for the foreseeable future. I needed a break. I had money aside and this idea in mind: I wanted a medical examination challenge That would take me out of my comfort zone.
My Bicycle at the time was not specific to touring, so to do that I needed a different bike first. I was either interested in Konasutra or the Trek 520. I was checking local stores online for weeks without success. Then, around mid-March, I saw that this bike shop in Baltimore actually had the Trek 520 in stock. I called and asked if they could hold it for me, and made the 1.5 hour trip to Baltimore. They let me test it for about five miles – it was a great bike and I bought it. On the way home, my mind raced: I could really do this!
In May, I gave my two weeks’ notice. My family didn’t believe I was serious at first, but when I told them I was going on this journey, they were supportive. My mother and aunt drove me to Yorktown, Virginia, where the official departure point is and where, on Friday, June 3, I began my journey. I could have started anywhere, but I really wanted to do it right.
I don’t specifically train for this tour. I go to the gym three or four times a week, so I thought I was in good physical shape, but soon realized that I was in no shape for cycling. I wanted to quit after the first day – I was so anxious. On the one hand, my bike is derailleur Was giving me some trouble, but it could be fixed. Worse still, I was ambitious and hoped to do 40 miles, maybe 60 miles, that first day, and I had only done about 25 miles before my body gave up. The worst was that my cramped legs up.
There was a campground where I first stopped, but it was full. I did not know what to do. I couldn’t go 15 miles to the next one. By chance, I met a guy who offered to share his campsite with me. It was there that I first realized that there were people willing to help. I broke down crying, thinking how are people so nice? I sucked out my pride, put my ego aside and accepted his help. The next day I was supposed to do 50 miles to Richmond so I gave it a shot. It kicked my ass, but 50 miles later I made it.
From there, I tried to plan my stays two to three days in advance. I often called ahead to make sure of availability – sometimes the next stop wasn’t for 70 miles. Because the Trans America Trail is quite well known, there are plenty of churches, fire departments, and various organizations that welcome cyclists. I carried a list of possible places to stay. After long and very hot days, I treated myself to a hotel, sometimes sharing the costs with another runner I met. And once I got further west, I was able to do more camping.
The Adventure Cycling Association has maps specifically for the Trans America Trail, with elevation maps I brought with me. I also had a digital file, but I didn’t like to follow it too much.
Most of the trails run on low volume roads, while other parts are by bike or on foot trails. There were higher-volume state roads: I actually rode the Interstate in Wyoming, which was both cool and kind of dangerous. But I felt safe because the shoulder was quite wide.
My favorite thing about the trail was meeting other runners. I met people my age, sixties or seventies, sabbaticals and Europeans (I met a lot of Dutch riders). There is this camaraderie between people who ride bikes. We’re all crazy enough to cycle across the country, and it’s nice to share the experience because sometimes it’s tough out there.
At camp the first night I met Bob. We ended up riding together for seven of the 10 weeks before going our separate ways. Having someone to ride with made all the difference – if I hadn’t met Bob I’m not sure I would have finished the tour. That’s the thing: people care about each other there. Those who came before me always let me know what to look out for on the trail.
There were things to watch out there. The worst was definitely Eastern Kentucky. There were lots of steep climbs, humidity, coal trucks and on top of that I was being chased by dogs – that was my least favorite part of the trip.
Then there was a day in Wyoming, just before Grand Teton National Park, with a 75-mile stretch with nothing but a rest area and a small gas station. No services. You might as well drive to the next town. All day, there was this absolutely crazy headwind. We’d go down to 6% and I’d be down gear, pedaling as hard as I could, as the wind pushed me back up the hill, even with all my gear. A day like this should have only taken about six hours, but it took about 12 hours in total. But then I got into the Tetons, and it was absolutely amazing again. Looking back, it was actually funny, but at the time, it really sucked.
My plan was to finish within three months. I was on the road for 71 days – 67 riding days and four days off. I completed the tour on August 12, 2022. The final point is the shore of the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon. You’re supposed to dip your back wheel in the ocean when you start, then dip your front wheel in the river when you’re done. You hit the coast about 100 miles before the finish line, so I soaked my tires there in Neskowin, Oregon and then drove up the coast for the next two days.
I wondered how I would feel when I was done – would I cry? I rode my bike for 10 weeks and just like that it was over. It took a while to fully realize that I had actually done it, but I felt really proud of myself.
Would I do it again? Yes, but I would only keep it in the western half. There was more access to the campsite, more sites to see. Go through National parks like the Tetons and Yellowstone was completely unlike anything I had seen on the East Coast.
Although I took a break for a few days to complete the tour, since returning to Philadelphia I’ve done a lot of hiking on the Schuylkill River Trail. I’m always looking for the right job, but this journey has taught me to step back and take it one day at a time. I know I will understand everything. I can take my time. I will be working for the next 30 years or so, what is a few months of unemployment? If I’ve learned one thing, it’s to take it easy, and then I’ll get through it.
These three tips made my cycling trip a success:
1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
I contacted so many people before and during the trip, asking for help and advice, and without them I couldn’t have made it this far. More people are willing to help you than you think, no matter the circumstances.
2. Go for it
You will never know if you love bicycle tourism unless you try. Determine where you want to go, see if you want to camp, Airbnb or stay in a hotel, put your bike away, and leave. It’s a great way to travel and see places from a different perspective.
3. Take your day-to-day visit
Enjoy moving to a slower pace, and be sure to stop to look around and take pictures. You won’t be able to recover the moments when you’re traveling 10 miles per hour, so be sure to seize the moment and capture them in any way you can.
Ali’s essential equipment
→ Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Bags: These bags did a really good job of keeping all my gear dry.
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