In the summer of 1980 five schoolboys from Newtownards were part of the Discovering America Cycling Expedition that rode 3960 miles coast to coast across the USA, setting two unofficial world records for a school group on the way. Here’s an article by Alastair Martin about the expedition (adapted from the book Recycled Memories).
In 1979, a group of cyclists from an American High School had cycled coast to coast in 45 days. Alan Evans (Senior Education Officer with the National Union of Teachers) thought that a London school could beat this. Pupils from Islington Green School (already famous for their part in the Pink Floyd video for Another Brick in the Wall) started preparing. Early in 1980 they decided to invite riders from across the UK to join the expedition and as a result an invite was sent to the Northern Ireland Cycling Federation. The NICF were not interested, and passed the invitation to Mike “the Bike” McConaghy, (then chairman of Ards CC). A group of us were leaving Comber Cinema one night, having just seen the American cycling film Breaking Away, when we met Mike. Fired up by the film, we were inspired by the idea of spending the summer cycling in the USA. Five of us started training immediately under the watchful eye of underage coaching legend Jimmy Thompson. He soon had us up the Antrim Glens and down over Spelga. By the time Alan Evans came to Newtownards to pick three riders we were flying! Alan was so impressed he picked all five. The five were Ralph Fowler (16), Ivan Edmonds (16), Alastair Martin (15), Robbie Dunn (14) and Robin Haughan (13). We joined two riders from Wales, one from Scotland and thirteen from Islington Green School.
The route was quite northerly. We started in Washington state on the west coast and rode through 13 states, covering 3960 miles in 39 days to finish in Virginia. This is longer than a more southerly crossing, but avoids the worst of the summer heat.
Looking back now, the thing that stands out for me most is the generosity of our American hosts. Through Alan’s links with American education authorities we were able to stay with American families on over half the nights. They were always very welcoming and kind – especially to the five riders from Ireland. I’m sure we were often subdued, tired and slept a lot, but they always fed us well, washed our clothes and got us to the start in time for the next day’s ride. We even stayed with a family in Bloomington, Indiana, where Breaking Away was filmed and they had an old, flooded quarry on their land where we went swimming, just like in the film.
Our toughest day was the 165 miles from Hot Springs in South Dakota to Scott’s Bluff in Nebraska. We awoke to find a block headwind and it took five hours to ride the first 60 miles. As we collapsed at the lunch stop there were still over 100 miles to ride. Luckily the wind eased and the route changed direction slightly. As the sun set in a glorious red ball, we descended through fantastic rock formations into Scott’s Bluff, where we were met by a welcoming committee including an enthusiastic brass band, despite being several hours behind schedule. A few days later we rode 215 miles across Nebraska to set an unofficial distance world record for a school party and it seemed a relatively easy day.
The only bad moments I can remember were getting abuse from some of the locals as we cycled through the poor, depressed areas of the Appalachians in Kentucky. A bottle thrown from a passing truck smashed on Ivan’s handlebars, cutting his hand quite badly. Having said that we entered the town of Hazard a few miles later to another big welcome. Dukes of Hazard was a top TV programme at the time so this was a big moment for us all.
The trip re-enforced my love of cycling – not just racing but touring, exploration and adventure. The bicycle I had used to play in the street a few years earlier had now taken me across a continent.
After we returned home, Alan Evans wrote, “the Expedition was not just about discovering America, but also about discovering ourselves. I think we all returned with greater self belief, confidence and independence. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it.” I often wonder if such an expedition could be repeated today. Would we allow of group of 13-16 year olds to head off on such an arduous adventure? If you think the answer is yes, please let me know as I’d love to be part of it!