Don't Usually Eat That
Making my way down the aisle of a grocery store in Kansas, I noticed an older man in overalls staring tiredly at me. I smiled back at him, accustomed at that point to attracting attention. I was halfway through riding my bicycle across the country, and my spandex shorts and noisy bike shoes were a dead give-away. The man eyed the bag of carrots in my arms as I walked by, informing me quietly, "Bikers don't usually eat that". I couldn’t have been more surprised if he’d pulled out a kazoo and started playing it.
“What’s that?” I asked, certain I’d heard him wrong.
“Too heavy,” he added, shaking his head dismissively and looking down the empty aisle.
I laughed aloud, asking if he rode a bike too.
“No.” He shifted his weight, and didn’t make eye contact. “Just seen a lot of you folks comin’ through here...”
They did see a lot of us. Thousands of traveling bicyclists follow the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail route every year. Our bikes with fully-loaded saddlebags stood out like sore thumbs in the small farming communities.
As I left the store, I looked down at my carrots. What DO cyclists usually eat? I wondered.
Yeah, carrots were heavy. But they made me feel better than the microwaved Jimmy Dean sandwiches and canned soup I'd been getting at gas stations across the nation. I'd stooped so low on this bike trip, one night outside of Yellowstone National Park I'd dined on Snickers bars for dinner.
After riding upwards of 60 miles per day, I was always starving and didn't care what I put in my gut, so long as it was fast and filling. There's not many food options for a touring bicyclist. The bags we carry on our bikes only have so much room for snacks, and the distances between grocery stores can be a day's ride or more. Therefore, I spent a lot of time picking my way through the narrow aisles of rural gas stations, squealing with delight when I found a package of un-sugared nuts or a real-live banana sitting on the shelf.
As for available restaurants, picture the greasiest diner you've ever been to, then fry that whole image in more veggie oil. You get the picture.
So I put up with the extra weight of carrots. I put up with the extra weight of a lot of things, so long as they were healthy. When I pedaled through the South, from Louisiana to Florida, I practically lived off of boiled peanuts and fresh tangerines. It was citrus season, and I'd buy tangerines by the five-pound bag from roadside stands. I'd stand there, much to the amusement of the tangerine-sellers, peeling and eating as many fruits as I could while flinging the peels into the offered garbage can. After I was stuffed with tangerine, I'd strap the rest of them onto the back of my bike and pedal away, wobbling under my top-heavy load.
I'd never even heard of boiled peanuts until I rode through the South. They could be found at any gas station, boiled whole in their shells and ladled from a steaming crock pot behind the counter into the ubiquitous Styrofoam cup. I learned to pop open each shell with my teeth and extract the soft peanut inside. They were horrendously salty towards the bottom of the cup, but I still bought them two or three times a day. When it came to a snack that was fast, handy, and protein-packed, I couldn't beat boiled peanuts.
Fresh food was a rare treat. During those four months of traveling by bicycle, Farmer's Markets were the most exciting roadside attraction. The crispy texture of garden-fresh lettuce would bring tears to my eyes, and the sun-ripened flavor of home-grown tomatoes would make my heart skip a beat. I'd load my bicycle with as much produce as I could, and wobble off to destinations unknown with a grin on my face.
Eating fresh vegetables made me feel like myself. So who cares that "cyclists don't usually eat that?"