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Cycling USA: The lawn-mower epidemic

Pedalling across the USA on a bike is not just reserved for Pros on the "Race across America". If you take a little time for the country and the people, you can really experience an America that the tourists rarely get to see. Important: you need to bring enough bananas with you from home!

Bison-hunt: The brute must be hiding somewhere here in the long grass...
Picture by S. Micke

If you sit on a bike for an average of 4 to 6 hours a day, after a few days you behind stops giving you problems thanks to doeskin padding and triathlon handlebars and a hundred kilometres a day havee become routine, then you have a lot of time to look at the surroundings, to wink at the farmers in the fields and put yourself in the shoes of the villagers.

You notice things that you would never see as you fly by in a car. For example, the "lawn-mower epidemic" (as we called this phenomenon), which is carried off by dozens of villagers on sunny Saturday afternoons particularly in the East of the country, for example the sandy banks of the Mississippi: as if possessed, middle-aged men (sometimes even women) with baseball caps like miniature "Forrest Gumps" hunt out each boldly protruding blade of grass on booming mini tractors in their front gardens.

Nothing can get these "mow-happy" Americans out of the saddle, and even the beloved rosebush is freed from weeds with the sentimental gas pedal at crawling speed (not, for example, with the garden secateurs!). If they aren't sitting "on their "hot potatoes, then they are lying underneath it, tinkering and screwing in order to perhaps elicit another half a horse power or a few extra blade-rotations from their beloved lawn-mowers". We have even caught a lawn-mower man getting his post with his mini tractor from the post box 50 metres away. Don't get off then!

In other respects, the Northeast of America is a unique, picture perfect idyll of peaceful country life: gingerbread houses with huge gardens, in which according to good old American custom no fence nor hedge obstructs the view of the garden gnomes and plastic deer, with meek cows and gentle, green rolling hills behind.

Over time we developed a very special relationship with these very cows. What does a normal cow probably do in the pastures, if a cyclist passes by on the road? In Austria, nothing. Not true in America! There, hundreds of cars, motorbikes and 18-wheelers race by, and a herd of American cattle will be lying in the grass dozing like in Austria, very bored and waggling their left ears. But a cyclist, or rather a colourful cow with wheels - these cows in Michigan and Wisconsin don't see that very often. The consequences – panic on the pastures!

Prince Charles must have had a similar feeling after a surprise visit in a London open air swimming pool: the hefy masses stand up and stare at the rare visit with an open mouth, in sheer amazement. For us, these honorary exhibitions were something special on the part of the cud-chewing ladies, and it became a dear habit to greet the polite US cows back when we pedalled past.

If you travel from Vienna via the south motorway and the Semmering expressway towards Rax, then the countryside changes rapidly: first a few hills, then a few mountains, then snow-tipped peaks. The countryside of North America changes just as rapidly, if you push forward from the Atlantic further towards the west in the centre of the continent. /p>

You cross a timezone from Michigan to Wisconsin, put the clocks back an hour and feel great, because you have never been able to do that on a bike before. However, you rarely appreciate the landscape changes at the creeping pace of a bike.

But a few hundred kilometres further (or a week later), on the border to Iowa, you come to a river on whose west bank another world begins: the Mississippi. The well-groomed East ends here! Right behind the mosquito swamps the "Midwest" begins. There are no more lawn-mowers and garden-gnome fairytale worlds, just endless maize and soy-bean fields, dusty, dead-straight roads and tougher, more affectionate race of people, whom the people in the East say that you should beware of because they are uncivil and common.

Those in the Midwest warn of the Easterners ("bloodless conservatives") and the Westerners ("they are all either crazy or gay"). And those in the West rant about anyone who is not within the distance for a trip to the Pacific ("Cowards, who fell by the wayside on a long trip"). All in all it balances itself out and, in a continent apparently full of mean guys and grim figures, we cannot believe our luck in just meeting the nicest people...

The powerful Mississippi also brought with it an important forfeit to our quality of life: a shortage of bananas! East of the river it went without saying that every supermarket or grocery store was stocked full of bananas (our most important sustenance for mid morning breaks), but from Iowa on we had to hunt for them regularly, like addicted monkeys. A grocer once said: "Sorry, an old lady bought the last two the day before yesterday, next week I'll get a few more in. But you can try the next town!"

< Read part 4 of this series: The White Giant

© A report by Tobias Micke (01-10-96) – Contact