Q&A With Cris Rothfuss of The REAL Ride

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Cross-country road trips are hard, even when you’re in a car. Biking across the country? You’d better have a pretty good reason. Cris Rothfuss and the rest of The REAL Ride team definitely do. On August 1, this small group of cyclists will head out from Seattle and spend a handful of months crossing a minimum of 14 states, stopping in three other major cities en route to Boston. They’ll be living on two wheels, spending days in the saddle, and pedaling through rainforest, rocky mountains, dry desert, great plains, fertile valleys, and bustling metropolises. Luckily for them, they have a good motivator acting as a tailwind.

We sat down with Rothfuss to hear a little more about her plans.

Rothfus during a practice ride. | Courtesy: The REAL Ride
Rothfuss during a practice ride. | Courtesy: The REAL Ride

goEast: Cycling has been a pretty big part of your life. What drew you to that?

Cris: I grew up in Coventry, Rhode Island, the oldest of three sisters in a tight-knit family. I went to Yale and then UConn School of Law. I grew up playing team sports, including basketball and track and field at Yale. I’ve always cherished being part of a team, and consider those experiences as among the most meaningful and formative of my life.

After tearing my ACL playing basketball in college, I bought a 10-speed bike as part of my rehab. I loved it. Later on, I raced bicycles in three disciplines: road, mountain bike, and cyclocross. Cyclocross was my strongest event, and I ended up racing at the national elite level.

goEast: What do you do when you’re not on your bike?

Cris: Outside of competitive sports, I’ve enjoyed hiking and mountaineering, including having summited all 48 White Mountain 4,000-footers, Mount Katahdin, and Mount Rainier. I also have enjoyed sailing with my family, backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, all manner of water sports, and really anything that gets me outdoors.

And, I like giving back. I consider myself a fortunate human being, and am deeply interested at this point in my life in paying forward. I designed The REAL Ride to be something not only bold and ambitious, but something that could make a positive impact for others. All of us on the team view The REAL Ride as existing at the intersection of seeking adventure and making the world a better place.

bushwhacking

goEast: But, biking across the country? That’s a big step. What made you think that was something you wanted to do?

Cris: My family had a rough year in 2014. In the span of five months, we lost both of my parents and my uncle to a series of illnesses and accidents. In early 2015, one of the things I found comforting and therapeutic was to ride my bike. I had stopped racing by then, and started riding longer and longer distances, usually on gravel.

In early 2016, someone sent me an article about a cross-country bike ride, and I was struck with a compulsion to do something similar, although, I realized almost immediately, I wanted the ride to mean something bigger than myself—to honor my parents and all the boldness and ambition they had instilled in me and my sisters, and to make some positive impact in the world. The seeds for The REAL Ride had been planted.

Cris' bike with Ortlieb bags

goEast: You went beyond your own personal story for motivation, though. What was the rest of the “bigger meaning” you were able to assign to The REAL Ride?

Cris: We are raising awareness and funding for the efforts of a group of alternative high schools—Boston Day & Evening Academy (in Boston), Interagency Academy (in Seattle), Emily Griffith High School (in Denver), Milford Success Academy (in Cincinnati), and C.B. Community Schools (in Philadelphia)—as well as the students, who make their way to the doorsteps of these schools, having recognized that an education is the key to changing their futures.

goEast: Who are these kids?

Cris: They are young adults who have had a rough time in life, including in getting through high school. They got off track, often due to circumstances not of their own making. And, yet they persevere, and find their way to a high school degree, the alternative, rigorous way. Their own words more powerfully describe who they are.

Dan-Perri-Jay-Erin at team training camp

goEast: So, you talk about the route you chose to take across country as being somewhat “unconventional.” How did you come up with it?

Cris: Instead of following one of the established (i.e. paved) routes, we chose to pioneer a new route across the country, focusing as much on dirt as possible. The route tracks through the locations of our five partner schools in Seattle, Denver, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Boston, and is unconventional for that reason alone. It’s not the most direct route!

Starting with those points, and without the ability to scout in advance, we then researched “validated” segments that connect those points: Sections of dirt routes already established by others that we could stitch together between our target cities. We then filled in the gaps with our own mapping.

We’ll start on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail and the railroad beds that extend contiguously from it further east, all the way to Missoula. After some “gap filling,” we’ll pick up Adventure Cycling Association’s excellent and well-established Great Divide Mountain Bike Route almost all of the way to Denver. There’s a bit of “gap filling” we worked out with the help of local friends between Kremmling, Colorado, and Denver.

In the Midwest, we’ll spend over 500 miles roughly tracking the historical Pony Express Trail, on a route under development pioneered by Jan Bennett, with whom we connected through Ride With GPS. We followed this approach to stitch established and “fingers crossed” segments all the way home.

We’d be lying, however, if we didn’t admit that we’re scrambling to finish up the eastern portion of the route! We expect to hit snags and surprises on this route, but that’s the nature of pioneering. We’ll adjust on the fly.

team at party

goEast: Who’s “we?”

Cris: Four other riders who fit the bill of being deeply experienced and capable of such a ride, able to make it work in their lives and jobs, able to contribute positively to team chemistry, and crazy enough to say yes to this. In particular, they are Erin Abrahams, a veterinarian and Army veteran, with the world’s most infectious smile; Perri Mertens, a fellow ex-cyclocross racer and graphic and web designer extraordinaire, responsible for our digital presence and ride logo; Dan St. Croix, a visual display artist for Urban Outfitters, a fine artist, [and] a throw-back soul with a heart of gold and legs of steel; and Jay Vasconcellos, owner of Solstice Skateboarding in New Bedford, MA, a boarding legend, [and] salt of the earth [person].

goEast: The grit that it takes to be on the road for that long has to be pretty serious. What are you expecting that to be like?

Cris: We will be averaging 65 miles per day riding (some days more, some less), and we are equipped to camp much of the time.

Each team member has a Big Agnes tent, either the Copper Spur or the Fly Creek; these make terrific anchors for our individual sleeping systems. We have a mix of JetBoil and MSR WhisperLite stoves for personal cooking. While we have a SAG vehicle that will find us at the end of most days, we’re prepared to ride “fully loaded” and be self-sufficient in some of the more remote regions where van accessibility is not guaranteed. Ortlieb USA generously provided full bike-packing bag and rack set-ups for our frames, and we’ve been blown away in our testing with how excellent they are.

That being said, the van gives us a “base camp,” so we’ll also have a two-burner camp stove, a GSI Outdoors Base Camper cook set, a huge supply of freeze-dried food generously donated by Mountain House, and other amenities to ease such a long-term trip. Oh, and we’ve budgeted rest days and some nights in motels, so we’re not totally crazy!

Cris' Seven Cycles Evergreen

goEast: Is there anything you’re really worried about?

There is an inordinate fear of bears and snakes on this team! We were looking forward to the two-mile-long Snoqualmie Tunnel before someone mentioned aggressive gopher snakes. Just what the heck?

We’re also extremely mindful of nutrition. Sourcing and consuming the appropriate fuel and hydration for this extended, arduous ride is going to be a full-time focus. We have good guidance and help in this regard, but still…it’s a concern.

goEast: What are you most excited about?

Cris: Experiencing vast western vistas—practically a foreign land for this band of New Englanders. Taking in the diversity and breadth of this country, from an off-the-beaten-track vantage point, at a pace that allows absorption and contemplation of the experience.

 

Follow The REAL Ride on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and visit their website to learn more and find out how to support them!

Then, check back to goEast later next month to follow their progress!