Dressed in a blue Bike Around Kansas souvenir T-shirt and capri pants, Dianne Franz, 71, moves her 5-foot-9 frame gingerly about her tidy Palm Harbor condo.
The retired middle school teacher, originally from Long Island, points to a map of the United States that takes up most of one wall in her study. It's dotted from east to west and north to south with dozens of yellow Magic Marker lines — and that's what she wants to talk about.
They trace the routes of the bicycle tours that have taken her to every state in the nation, an accomplishment she has been able to boast about since June 14 when she finished a 575-mile ride across Kansas, her 50th state.
She said she has always liked bicycling and went on her first organized tour, Bike Florida, in the early 1990s, while still teaching at Tarpon Springs Middle School. From that point until she retired in 2005, she went on a tour a year. Since then, she said, it has been two or three.
How it works
Most are camping tours, she said. That's when the riders pitch tents, which they bring along with their supplies and load on a truck that accompanies them from stop to stop — most of the time on the grounds of high schools along the route. They usually are run by charities or biking organizations or state agencies of some sort, Franz said.
Others are hotel-motel tours run by companies as businesses. Those are much more expensive, with lodging and food included in the cost.
Before a tour starts, riders are given maps that detail each day's ride, not unlike AAA's TripTik planners. Sometimes Franz brings her own bicycle, shipping it ahead; other times, she rents one. The cost is about the same, $175.
She has participated in coed tours and women's tours. The riders are of all ages, but most, she said, are between 50 and 70.
"Women's tours pamper women. If someone can't make the ride that day — like if you are supposed to go 80 miles but can only go 20 — a van will pick you and your bike up and take you the rest of the way," she said.
You have to be fit and have stamina, but the riders in her photos look like regular people with average bodies, not all buffed and toned with leg muscles of steel.
Her three bikes
Franz taught school for 30 years, 20 of them in Florida, where she, her then-husband and two children moved in 1985 because they wanted to live in a warmer climate. As a retirement gift to herself she had a custom bicycle made just for her, a street bike for Florida without low gears for mountains.
They measured all parts of Franz to be able to customize the bike's frame size, seat height, handlebar placement, even the length of the stem, that piece that connects the handlebars to the steering column.
The cost? $7,000.
For hilly riding, she uses a $1,500 touring bike, which is now disassembled and stored in a cardboard box in her garage.
"When you ride across the country, it's become a tradition to dip your back tire in the Pacific when you start and then your front tire in the Atlantic when you get there.
"Well, as I was about to dip my tire in the Atlantic (after an eight-week ride), a huge wave came and got the bike all wet and it rusted. Now, I'm not sure quite what to do with it. Should I get it fixed? Buy another?"
Franz's third bike, which also cost about $1,500, is a cross bike that has interchangeable tires so she can use the correct width for the surface on which she's riding. The softer the surface, the fatter the tire.
A typical day
On a tour everyone gets up and gets started on their own, but each night they end in the same place. One day, they might ride 18 miles; the next, 63; the next, 78.
"I always get up early, 5 or 6, because I like to get in by 1 or 2. I gather up my stuff, then stuff my sleeping bag in and start to take down the tent. They serve us breakfast usually in the high school gym.
"People who don't have tents or don't like to sleep in tents sleep on the gym floor.
"Then I look for the moving van. You go up a ramp and put your stuff into the moving van.
"It's much nicer to ride with other people than to ride alone but you have to find someone who rides at the same pace you do. I won't hook up with a novice rider," she said.
At each stop on the tour, someone in the van throws all the gear out on the lawn and riders hunt for their own — hers is a tent and a duffle bag loaded with (she had spilled its contents in the kitchen for display) a ground cloth, toiletries, pillows and stakes for the tent. In addition, she said she packs four pairs of biking shorts, heavily padded on the seats, and four biking shirts, made of a material that wicks away moisture. Also, cycling sandals, which she wears most of the time, or cycling shoes for cold or rainy days.
Yes, they ride in the rain. And yes, they meet lots of colorful characters along the way.
"In South Dakota, it rained for four days. We were riding on the famous Mickelson Trail and most of it is unpaved," Franz said.
The Mickelson Trail, a path traveled by the likes of Gen. George Custer, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, follows an abandoned railroad bed built to transport gold miners to the Black Hills more than 100 years ago. It has been resurfaced with crushed limestone. A tough ride in dry weather.
"There was a road that paralleled the trail, so I asked if I could ride there," she said.
They told her it was okay, so she rode in the rain and freezing cold all by herself, stopping in a bar for a cup of coffee — and to check on her directions — along the way.
"There was a big old cowboy at the end of the bar. He asked me where I was going. He gave me directions and then said in a big cowboy drawl, 'Let me warn you, there are a lot of buffalo on that road and they can be mean. There are two things I have to tell you. One, don't ever get between a mama and her calf. And, two, don't ever get between a bull and his lady.' "
A story for every ride
Franz doesn't keep a journal. She relies on the blog (golindago.blogspot.com) of her Scrabble-playing bestie, Linda Tilley, 63, from Detroit. They've taken 12 trips together since meeting on the extended 450-mile Great Allegheny-Chesapeake & Ohio Canal tour that took them from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.
Once Franz starts talking, the stories come tumbling out. One after another. Rapid-fire. Like the one about a tornado that blew through her campsite in Oklahoma.
"I abandoned my tent and rushed to the gym for shelter. I heard 'Bang! Bang! Bang! 'Really, really loud. I didn't know what it was because I was too busy hauling to the gym."
The next morning, she woke up and went back to her tent, walking past a line of portable toilets — all lying on their sides. The bangs she heard the night before were them tipping over.
"As I'm passing the Porta-Pottys, I hear, 'Help! Get me out of here.' A bunch of men came running and lifted the Porta-Potty upright. Out walks this guy. He had spent the night in the Porta-Potty!"
Then there's a story about being treated like a queen.
"When you go into the heart of the country, when 800 bikers pull into a town of 450, you're treated like royalty. Farm towns. The heartland. We are greeted with welcome signs. Women make homemade stuff for us. Girl Scouts come to sell us things they've made."
Her shortest state tour was in Arkansas, a spin around Little Rock, the closest place to get her bicycle fixed after it broke down while she was on a tour 250 miles to the east.
To celebrate the millennium, Franz rode on Bike South 2000, a 2,000-mile tour that winds through six Southern states, starting in Tallahassee and ending in Charlottesville, Va.
While setting up her tent the first night, she heard a "baa, baa, baa." Sure enough, a little later, there he was. Not a sheep at all, but a goat. Walking through the campsite. She assumed it had come from a nearby farm and didn't give it another thought until the next day when, as she passed a rider pulling a baby cart, she (know where this is going?) saw there wasn't a baby in it at all.
"The lady is on the tour with this goat! She's biking 2,000 miles hauling a goat!" Franz said. When Franz asked about her odd traveling companion, the woman got a little indignant.
"First off," she told Franz, "do not refer to him as a goat. He has a name. His name is Matthew, Matthew Blankets to be exact. And secondly, a lot of people bring their 'kids' on bike tours."
That was pretty weird, Franz said.
Tips from the road
She learned a lot of lessons bicycling around the United States, but says perhaps none was as important as the one she learned in Alaska, where she was told, "If you come across a black bear, make yourself look bigger," she said, putting her long arms in the air and waving them around. "And, make a lot of noise. …
"If you come across a grizzly bear, don't look him in the eye. Don't look at him at all … just," she said, her words hurried, recalling her fright, "get down in a fetal position, pull your arms around your head and don't move."
It was just as the sign along the side of the road had warned: "Grizzly Bear Territory. Be Bear Aware."
Contact Patti Ewald at [email protected]