Cyclist crosses country for cause

PROVIDED PHOTO  Brianna Coughlin takes a break from bicycling at Half Moon Bay in California.

Brianna Coughlin takes a break from bicycling at Half Moon Bay in California.

By Dan Colton | Correspondent.

Brianna Coughlin hopped on her bicycle and left New Haven, Connecticut around noon June 14. It was a sunny day.

Seventy-five days and 4,009 miles later, the Rutland High School and Saint Michael’s College graduate dipped the front tire of her Giant Live Avail 3 bicycle into the Pacific Ocean in California.

Coughlin, 22, left Connecticut with a bike and a cause. As part of the nonprofit organization Bike & Build, Coughlin’s continental ride was sponsored in exchange for volunteer work promoting affordable housing with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity — though the Habitat website says it is not directly associated with any other group.

“We had 15 build days out of the 75 total days,” Coughlin said.

Before her 4,000-mile journey, Coughlin described her experience cycling as “basically nil.”

“About four months before the trip started, they sent me a road bike,” she said. “You’re supposed to bike about 500 miles for training, which I did over the course of four months. That seems like a lot, but not after doing 4,000 [miles] in 75 days.”

The most memorable build day, Coughlin said, was constructing an adobe hay-bale house in Utah.

“We’d break up into smaller groups,” at build sites, Coughlin said. “I usually painted. We built a lot of patios, shingling, painted sheds. Whatever they could come up with.”

According to the Bike & Build website, the nonprofit group has contributed more than $4.5 million in 10 years to fund housing projects. Its website says the organization has worked in 47 states.

Coughlin said the longest stretch of biking, 740 miles in nine days, took her through Utah and Nevada. The most beautiful portion, she said, was the mountains and high-desert plains in Colorado.

Coughlin rode with 30 other cyclists from around the country. They came from Illinois, from Texas and Alabama, from Brazil, ranging in age from 19 to 28.

“Depending on the terrain,” Coughlin said the group averaged 70 miles per day.

At night, everybody would pull into a church along the way, where a warm welcome and meal greeted the tired travelers as the day drew to a close.

“When we went to the churches … they’d feed 30 people and let us sleep there,” she said. The cyclists would spread out on the church floor to rest; morning’s light was accompanied by the sound of deflating air mattresses.

Twice, the convoy of bikers set up camp in a Nevada state park. The outdoor bivouacking, Coughlin said, was necessary. “There are not a lot of places [in the Nevada desert] that can support 30 people, and all our bikes and equipment,” she said.

For the first leg of the trip, getting into the groove of things wasn’t easy for the amateur bicyclist.

“Your body isn’t used to biking that much. The first couple weeks, we’d get in at 7 or 8 [p.m.] and leave around 6 in the morning … A steep learning curve.”

Coughlin’s distance record topped out at 118 miles in a single day.

“I was riding with this girl, and it wasn’t even so much about the ride as getting to know her and just chatting,” Coughlin said.

The weather, uncontrollable, was something “you just learn to live with.” The majority of the 4,000-mile journey saw favorable skies, she said.

“The worst is when it’s cold in the morning,” Coughlin said, adding that they hit the road one 37-degree morning in Colorado.

The journey made her more athletic, she said — but even more than building strength, she loved building friendships.

“My favorite part was getting to know all these people from across the country … You get to know these people really well when you’re struggling up a mountain side.

“I don’t know how we did it,” she said. “I don’t believe it sometimes.”