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America: East to West on a postie bike

7th March 2013

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In 2009 I rode home from Australia on an old Australian Post bike. These bikes aren’t exactly made for such a journey, Honda designed and built them back in the sixties, selling them in various parts of the world until they stopped making them in the eighties. The only exception was in Australia, where the postal service was using them to help deliver the mail, hence their nickname; 'postie bike.'

Nathan MillwardThat journey from Sydney to London ended up being 23,000 miles, taking nine months and passing through eighteen countries (Australia, East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, India, Pakistan, China, Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Belgium, France, England).The bike made it needing only a new front sprocket, regular oil changes (every 1,000 miles) and a new rear tyre roughly every 4,000 miles. The same front tyre lasted the whole way simply because the weight was all at the back.

Stripping the engine in England revealed that despite having now done a total of 50,000 miles, it only needed new piston rings, cam chain, cam chain roller and clutch plates. To say what she had been through she was still in amazing shape and so you get wondering, 'Where could we go next?' And the obvious answer seemed like America.

Getting the bike there wasn't as hard as you might think. There are agencies which specialise in shipping bikes. I used one called James Cargo, based down near Heathrow, who for £600 were able to strap the bike to a pallet, build a box around it and then fly it to JFK in New York, it only taking a few days from dropping it off to getting there. A visa you can get for three months, and other than regular travel insurance that's all I needed.

To ride your foreign bike in America it has to be taxed, mot'd and you have to be the owner on the log book. Some of the police aren't aware of this, which saw me get pulled over the first day in Manhattan by NYPD who told me I couldn't ride a foreign plated bike there and that I would have to ship it home. After a lot of explaining, and going backwards and forwards to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), it was agreed that as long as I had the right documents I could ride.

Obviously a bike with a bit more power would have been handy, because what you realise quickly about America is that to get anywhere you generally have to take the interstate, which are like our motorways, and only being able to travel at 40 mph means these aren't the most fun places to be. To get from New York to San Francisco (my destination) I would then have little choice but to take the back roads.

To help navigate I bought a cheap sat-nav unit in Manhattan which I was able to plug in to a cigarette lighter socket that I'd fitted to the bike back in England.

I didn't have much of a budget, maybe £500 to get me from the east coast to the west. Cheap petrol helped, with a dollar – around 70p - a litre meaning that for around £10 I could cover almost three hundred miles, and with me thinking it would be around 3,000 miles coast to coast I imagined that I might be able to do the entire trip on little over £100 in fuel. The rest of the budget would be needed for food, occasional campsites and anything that might go wrong, like the first day when I snapped the brake lever and had to buy a new one. 

To be honest, the first few days were pretty tough going. In places like Thailand and Indonesia most people are on bikes and the traffic's not going that fast, but here in the States everyone seemed to be driving massive trucks and 4x4xs. There were big lorries on all the back roads as well which meant you had to have one eye on the rear view mirror to make sure traffic coming up from behind had seen you and pulled out to overtake. That ride from JFK airport to Manhattan I'll never forget. The traffic was insane, and on that occasion I had no choice but to get on the five-lane interstate, with a slow puncture on the front wheel, the broken brake lever and the road really greasy from all the rain. I just wore what I had, so jeans, t-shirts, jumpers; open faced helmet and some gardening gloves.

Once I was clear of the city it wasn't so bad. I headed north-west in to Pennsylvania, which is really rural, the road cutting through the bottom of the valley all the way until you get in to Ohio. I found Americans to be friendly and on some occasions surprisingly generous, one guy giving me $40, just for what I was doing, and another family giving me $20. The first few nights camping were out in the wild, behind a layby one night and down by a disused reservoir another. It is kinda creepy doing this, and I'd always sleep with a big knife, but you soon get used to it and have to do it anyway if you're going to make the money last. Although, with much of American land being privately owned it was often difficult to find a spot out of sight.

The cities were also hard-work. In that first week I passed through Chicago and Detroit, Detroit being the murder capital of America and I had a target on the side of my helmet. The problems arose because the alternative roads to the interstate take you right through the ghettos, so you're riding for twenty miles, through parts of the city that look like they've been bombed in a war, half the houses are burned down, the police don't patrol these parts and it's probably as bad as the country gets, but I never felt intimidated or had reason to worry. I think in America, more than most other places, that if you keep your head down and just keep riding you'll be fine.

From Chicago I took the old Route 66, heading down to St Louis. This is the old highway that people used to follow all the way to LA in the hope of finding a better way of life. Now it's largely been superseded by the interstates, so the surface is pretty warn and so are the towns and villages you pass through along the way. It's more of a tourist attraction really, with all the old diners and gas stations trying to get you to come in buy souvenirs. It's a bit naff, but still a cool place to see, especially when you're just meandering along at 40mph with your sunglasses on.

After passing through St Louis – the place where you can go up the massive metal arch – I decided that rather than carry on along the old 66, I'd head directly west, through Missouri and Kansas. This is what's known as the Bible Belt, and as I would soon discover, a long straight road for 1,800 miles through fields of absolute nothingness. I rode for days and days and barely saw a thing, just fieldss of dying corn because of the drought. I met a few cyclists though who were pedalling across the States, and we all agreed it's a lot bigger than it appears on the map. You just keep riding, for as many as 14 hours a day. 

I preferred it when I finally got to the Rockies, deciding that rather than detour beneath them I'd go straight over, finding an off-road trail that takes you high in to the mountains – above 13,000 feet – and on along some stunning forested mountain roads. Signs warn of bears, but I never saw any. It was the altitude, if anything, that was causing most our problems. At this height an engine really can't breathe so well, so on many occasions I had to get off and literally push the thing, holding it wide open in first at the same time, just to get up the slopes. If you could come out here with a proper enduro bike you could have some great fun taking these dirt trails across the entire length of the State. In fact, you can ride almost entirely across America using only dirt roads; it's called the Trans-American Trail.  

Nevada and Utah followed. These are the main states on the tourist map and suddenly from seeing no other foreign travellers I was joined on the road by gangs of middle-aged men from Europe who'd come out here to rent Harleys and ride around like Hells Angels for a few weeks. There were also a lot of couples in motor homes and campervans, others in cars staying in motels at night. It is an amazing place though. In such a relatively small area you've got Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Monument, Zion, and then my favourite place of them all; Death Valley. This place is just breathtaking. It's actually below sea level, but because it's so hot there isn't any water, and the bottom of the valley completely dry. It was 120 degrees Fahrenheit the day I passed through. 

I was originally going to hit the coast at Los Angeles and then ride up to San Francisco, but by this point I was sick of having to find my way through the big cities so hit the coast just a little way up from LA, before making the last push up the stunning coastal road – Route 1 – that leads you right over the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time I made it to San Francisco I had in fact done 5,000 miles – so must have got lost somewhere and was about all out of money. 

I did a talk though for a San Francisco bike club, which had a whip around and made me a few extra hundred dollars, so rather than stopping the trip here I made a push for Seattle, some 900 miles up the coast. It was stunning road, the sea to your left and these massive redwood trees to your right. The bike was just about hanging in there; the mechanic in San Fran saying she might make it to Seattle, but might not. Every 100 miles we covered you could feel her struggling a bit more and more. The mechanic had said it was 'piston slap,' where the piston's not firing straight in the bore. 

The road passed through the town where the Goonies, the classic adventure film from the eighties, was filmed. This area – the State of Oregon – was perhaps my favourite place in America. It felt like going back to the eighties, where everyone rode around on BMXs and life just seemed a bit less chaotic. Finally the road brought me to Seattle, where I found someone who would keep hold of the bike for the winter while I came home to England. My plan was to save up some money and in the spring of 2013 go back to Seattle, do some work on the bike, then make the final push north to Alaska, to where the Ice Road Truckers is filmed. The bike's now done 55,000 miles. Who knows how many more she's got in her....

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