Traveling Across America on a Tandem Bike

Duke biology professor spends summer pedaling 4,318 miles with her husband

Duke biology professor Kathleen Smith and her husband, Bill Kier, ride out of camp in Paulina, Oregon. They made a pit stop because their route was detoured due to forest fires. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Smith

Nearly three months of pedaling took Duke biology professor Kathleen Smith and her husband over the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, across the Mississippi River and back and forth along the Continental Divide.

But their experience was more than long highways and changing geography; their bike route was diverted by wildfires, Smith saved many a turtle and snake in the road, they visited Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky and camped in Yellowstone National Park.

Eighty-five days and 4,318 miles is the pinnacle of tandem bike trips for Smith and her husband, Bill Kier, a professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s biology department. The seasoned cyclists have ridden a tandem bicycle together for 24 years of their 30-year marriage – but this was their first cross-country trip.

“Crossing the U.S. is one of the ultimate goals of most bicycle tourists and was something we had always talked about,” Smith wrote to Working@Duke during her journey. “The TransAmerica is the classic cross-America route.”

The couple started their journey on April 28 in the Outer Banks, where they braved gale force winds and brought the front wheel of their bike to the shores of the Atlantic. They visited the Wright Brothers National Memorial and paid homage to the duo known for their experimentation with flight, but the men were also well-known bicycle designers and manufacturers in the late 19th century.

By Day 6, they rode away from their Chapel Hill home, leaving  friends behind and entering  the unknown.

“It is hard to leave our very good life behind for three months,” Smith wrote on her blog, Bill and Kathleen’s TransAm Tour. “We don't know exactly what to expect, but we do know that it won't be the ‘same old, same old.’ We are fortunate in many ways to be able to try this.”

They finished the trek at the Pacific Coast on July 21, after which they stayed for a few days with friends in Eugene, Oregon, packed up the bike and shipped it home, and then boarded a flight to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Smith and Kier are back at work.

During their journey, they averaged about 59 miles per day. Smith said they researched the trip and planned out what spare bike parts and clothes to take. The wind slowed them down at times, and early days in the Appalachian Mountains tested their physical strength. They braved sleet, hail and 104-degree heat, destroyed one of their wheels, and battled through a bout of food poisoning.

“We have had many challenges but have had nothing that has been too hard or discouraging,” Smith wrote to Working@Duke. “We knew it would be challenging, and one of the reasons to do it for us was to spend time out of our comfort zone.”

The bike they used during their adventure was purchased on their 20th wedding anniversary on June 9, 2004. They celebrated their 30th anniversary on Day 43 in Pueblo, Colo. Every day, Smith said, was a partnership, where every pedal stroke, hill and long day has to be conquered together.

“We don't chatter a lot in any circumstances,” Smith wrote about their time on the bike. “We spend time with our own thoughts. But on the bike we point out sights to each other, try to figure out geology or natural history, ask each other questions. But riding all day is very peaceful, even on a tandem. We both want to see, smell, hear and sense as much as we can.”