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A Self-Propelled Man

by Clare Coppa

Bob Parsons rode a bicycle to work for 35 years. He was on a bike when the World Trade Center fell. He cycled ten years through upper New York winters.

Last fall, the retired editor pedaled over 2000 miles (3200 km) from Washington State’s San Juan Islands to San Diego.

Why does he do it? “I have been bicycling forever,” said the resident of Larchmont, Colo., who enjoys the fitness it brings.

Riding to work prepared him for longer jaunts. For 15 years, he rode 7.5 miles (12 km) to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in Atlanta. For 20 years, he biked a few miles to jobs at the Universities of California, and Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y. “I had an old clunker and I wore rubber galoshes,” he said, shrugging off any indication that riding through plowed walls of snow in Ithaca was challenging. “There were days it was a little cool,” he admitted.

He started long distance cycling in 1987 with a co-worker from Nashville to Atlanta after a meeting. His described his latest trip from Washington to San Diego last September: “I particularly enjoyed meeting and riding with other cyclists along the route. And, of course, the rocky overlooks along the blue Pacific, the wide sandy beaches in the Los Angeles area, and the cathedral-like groves of redwoods in the Avenue of the Giants were wonderful to see.

“But September 11 became almost surreal for me after a motorist told me that the World Trade Center was gone. He saw me at an overlook along the Columbia River about six hours after it had happened. I couldn’t help but grieve and wonder how my world could remain so peaceful and beautiful after such a terrible thing had occurred.”

Steep hills near the northern California coast held the hardest terrain for Parsons, who rode a Trek 520 with 27 gear combinations. With stops for sightseeing and visiting, he spent 36 days on the road carrying 40 pounds (18 kg) that included clothing, a tent, sleeping bag, mattress, cooking gear, and food. Temperatures were typically 50°F (10°C) to 68°F (20°C).

Sleeping in state campgrounds offered sights of “salmon swimming upstream to spawn, sea otters swimming in the mouth of the Rogue river, sea lions in several places, and elephant seals near San Simeon,” he said, citing the Hearst castle above the Pacific.

He viewed Orcas Island in Washington, “snow-capped Mount Rainier, the majestic Columbia river, and Fort Clatsop where the Lewis and Clark expedition wintered after they had reached the mouth of the Columbia River.” He ate blackberries along the roadside from Washington to just north of San Francisco and saw jellyfish in the Monterey aquarium “that are displayed such that they look like slowly moving, brilliantly colored abstract art.” While he was cruising, his wife Ann, a nurse, was in Costa Rica improving her Spanish.

A former ASHRAE technical editor, Parsons has a masters degree in agricultural engineering from Cornell. He is a member of ASTM Committee E43 on SI Practice which maintains standards for the International System of units (the metric system). For the past six years, he has converted metric equivalents in Standardization News.

You can’t keep Parsons off of his bike. After we spoke, he headed out to ride several hours in the Rocky mountains near his home.

Copyright 2002, ASTM