This past summer, Lucas Giannetti, Darien resident and junior at King Low Heywood Thomas high school in Stamford, decided to take a break from competitive swimming and instead embarked on a cross-country bike ride.
On this six-week trip, 16-year-old Lucas rode over 3,000 miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean with a group organized by Overland, a community service and adventure organization for teenagers. The group of nine students and two adult leaders started the cross-country trip near Savannah, Ga., and slept in campgrounds, community centers and school gyms.
Although Lucas has competed since he was six years old, biking was a new experience. “It was hard at first,” he said. “I stopped swimming three months before the trip just to train for it.” With the trip scheduled for June, Lucas started riding every day in March. By April, he was practicing with a fully loaded backpack filled with supplies.
With months of preparation behind him, Lucas flew to meet his group in Georgia on June 22. Their first group activity was to dip the front wheel of their bikes in the Atlantic Ocean. The “American Challenge” is Overland’s most difficult trip and the teens are expected to support each other.
They were supposed to take turns carrying supplies, and cooking and cleaning their campsites. The teens also took turns writing in a collective journal. Luke reflected in a personal journal as well, which is suggested as part of the program. He did not understand the importance of the trip until the end. “I wanted to figure it out on the way there,” he said. “It’s only now that I realize it’s much, much more.”
OverlandSummers.com warns that all participants must train months ahead of time and be able to keep up with the group or risk being sent back home.
The days started around 4:30 a.m. because they had to start riding at 6 a.m., Lucas said. They were allowed four days to relax if they were on schedule. Cellphones and other electronics, besides cameras, were banned. Lucas said that he sent letters home to his parents on rest days. Overland has contacts along the route for mail stops and help in case of emergencies.
The Overland route would take them through the South. From Georgia, they traveled through Alabama and met people who were alive during the civil rights movement. By July 10, they rode through Mississipsi, Arkansas and arrived in Oklahoma, covering around 80 miles a day. As they headed west, the towns got smaller and they were riding through plains and taking photos with haystacks. Lucas noted that one town, Slapout, Okla., had an eight-person population.
Despite the promise of an easy ride over flat land, a metal rod lying on the road got lodged in Lucas’s wheel and caused an accident. “I basically went from 20 miles per hour to zero. I flipped over the handlebars,” Lucas explained. “It destroyed the whole front fork.” A local doctor treated him for a contusion and internal bleeding in his elbow. Lucas sent the broken bike fork and metal rod home to Darien. Overland called his parents to let them know he was all right.
The route became more difficult from there, as they pedaled against 30 mile per hour winds for four days, Lucas said. On July 12 the group crossed through New Mexico and began an upward ascent through the Rocky Mountains. They rode through Arizona with a view of the Rio Grande and the Grand Canyon.
At the end of the month, they were scheduled to cross Death Valley in the Mohave Desert, one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. They woke up 2:45 a.m. to prepare. Overland provided a van carrying water and supplies to follow them, and light the way, due to the difficulty of this section.
“Everything was training just for this one day,” Lucas said. “We were pumped. We were ready to go through the Mohave and the only thing it did all day was rain.”
Lucas said that they were one of the only groups in Overland history to see rain in the desert. “At one point we had to stop because the rain had collapsed a road and we needed clearance to get through,” he said.
On August 3 they spent the night near Angeles National Forest, less than fifty miles outside of Santa Monica — their final destination. The next day, their trip was only 25 miles through Los Angeles but took about four hours to complete, Lucas said.
Lucas’s parents, along with those of the other riders, met them with cheers at the Santa Monica Pier. Lucas dipped his front wheel into the Pacific Ocean to mark the end of the journey.
Ines, his mother, said all of the teens looked like they had not showered, their bikes were dirty and they had black stripes drawn on their faces. She added that Lucas lost twenty pounds over six weeks. The Giannettis only stayed in Santa Monica for one night. “It was a good thing and a bad thing that they weren’t allowed to have phones,” said Ines. “You hear all the little stories and if I knew any of this, it would’ve been crazy.”
Lucas had about month before school started to sort through many photos and memories. “It took me a long time to reacclimate,” he said.
His experience was mostly positive and all of the towns were completely different from his home in Darien.
“It enlightens you, the different areas of the U.S. that people don’t see and the culture,” he said. “Before I would classify [Darien] as a small town, now I view Darien as almost a small city compared to some of the places that I’ve seen.”
Lucas said he would encourage other teenagers to take the trip if they can commit to living with strangers for six weeks and “absurd” bike riding. “It’s something that you won’t forget,” he said. “It’s definitely different.”