Sunrise cyclists: Cross-country bike trip reinforces ’belief in humanity’
Anya Cooper-Hydell is one of 19.7 million students whose college or university education was interrupted by COVID-19 in the United States last March.
After ending their sophomore year’s spring 2020 semester online, Cooper-Hydell and childhood friend Sophia Lehmer-Peasley were looking for a learning experience beyond their online classrooms.
“I was on my college’s cross-country team, but because of COVID, I went home,” Lehmer-Peasley said. “I really needed an adventure.”
Prior to the pandemic, Cooper-Hydell and Lehmer-Peasley intended to study abroad through their respective colleges — UC Santa Cruz and Chico State. Instead, the pair teamed up to bike across the continental U.S. to sightsee in a relatively carbon-neutral way.
“We’re both pretty involved in climate activism and biking is the most sustainable form of travel that you can do,” Cooper-Hydell said.
Amid the ongoing tension caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 presidential election, the traveling cyclists were moved again and again by the compassion received over the course of their trip.
“If there was one thing we learned, it was how nice people are and that the world is a good place,” Cooper-Hydell said.
The 4,200-mile trip took the Nevada City residents — self-titled “Sunrise Cyclists” — through Nashville, Tennessee; Mobile, Alabama; Austin, Texas; Phoenix, Arizona, and ended in Lompoc, California.
The pair of young women began their trip with a flight to Chicago, where a friend picked them up and drove them to St. Joseph, Michigan. There, the women took their respective handlebars and started pedaling toward their first destination, St. Louis.
According to Cooper-Hydell, the two former Nevada Union High School cross-country teammates did not train pre-trip because cycling is a low-impact activity.
“I think biking is very doable for the average human,” Cooper-Hydell said.
According to Cooper-Hydell, the pair’s daily mileage goal and corresponding success were largely dependent on the day’s conditions.
“It was challenging at first, but it didn’t feel bad at the end.”
The collegiate athletes coordinated where they slept on a daily basis, seeing old friends and making new connections on Warm Showers, a platform to connect cross-country cyclists with friendly hosts.
“It’s kind of like couch surfing for bike tours,” Cooper-Hydell said.
Cooper-Hydell said she and Lehmer-Peasley endured a steep learning curve after they were caught “stealth-camping” in a plot of poison ivy early on in their trip. The runners also learned the basics of patching and replacing their tires — over and over.
In addition to the September heat and 20 mph headwinds, Chico State junior Lehmer-Peasley lost feeling in her hands due to prolonged pressure on her handlebars early on in the trip.
“My pinky and ring finger went numb,” Lehmer-Peasley said.
The expedition nearly ended, but was saved with an emergency cortisone shot.
“Luckily, the nerve damage got better,” Cooper-Hydell said.
Cooper-Hydell said on the pair’s longest day, she and Lehmer-Peasley covered 113 miles, nearly twice their average of 60 miles a day over the course of the three-month endeavor.
Cooper-Hydell said the hardest part was chasing daylight as the winter progressed.
“When it gets dark at 4 or 5 p.m., that means we have to get up,” Cooper-Hydell explained. “We would get on the road at 5:45 a.m. and bike until 6 p.m.”
Cooper-Hydell said one of her favorite memories is of the care she experienced in Grove Hill, Alabama.
The police chief, city clerk and town mayor all made a point to check in on the travelers as they settled in to their tents pitched in a centrally located public park.
Cooper-Hydell said the city clerk gave them “real food” — nuts and fruit — which was especially appreciated given the nomads’ dietary restrictions.
“I’m gluten free and neither of us eat meat and everything worked with our diets,” Cooper-Hydell said.
Cooper-Hydell said, given the food desert in the South, it was obvious the donor had gone out of her way to help.
“There’s food, but from Dollar General,” Cooper-Hydell said of available nutrition options. “You can get rice and candy, but not vegetables. For people on the road it would be really challenging.”
Cooper-Hydell said her faith in humanity was further bolstered by friends made along the way.
Luke Tremblay is a native of Arlington, Massachusetts, who decided to bike west from Florida to get outside and raise awareness around mental health. Tremblay’s team of three 25-year-old men raised upward of $30,000 for the Jed Foundation, which provides resources for struggling teens and young adults.
Tremblay was in Lantry, Texas, when he first heard about the two women with the @SunriseCyclists Instagram handle. He remained a day ahead of Cooper-Hydell and Lehmer-Peasley, giving the pair travel advice through social media channels. The two cycling groups linked up for Thanksgiving, and rode to the West Coast together.
Tremblay said most of their riding was flat, which provided adequate conditions to get to know one another.
“When you’re on a ride like that, your mind is so clear and your head feels so free,” Tremblay said, adding that he made a point to share his own mental health journey with those he met along the way.
Tremblay said he and Cooper-Hydell connected over conversations on family.
“You spend so much time getting to know someone, you could know them better than some of your friends back home,” Tremblay said
Lehmer-Peasley said tension caused by obstacles early in the trip were resolved, and relationships in and apart from the trip led to renewal.
“I saw the good in every person I met,” Lehmer-Peasley said. “I am much happier to ask for help because it feels like someone wants to help me, as opposed to feeling like a burden.”
Cooper-Hydell said the duo’s gratitude for their hometown only grew as they traveled.
“We probably like this town more than any other we biked through,” Cooper-Hydell said. “We realized the diversity of ecosystems — the mountains, ocean and desert are not too far away. It’s so beautiful and the community is so strong here.”
Cooper-Hydell and Lehmer-Peasley said there is one facet of this city life that could improve — biking accessibility.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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