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Pedaling and Pancakes: Brickner Traverses U.S. by Bike

Leo Brickner had never biked for more than 20 consecutive minutes before this summer. Now, Brickner can say he biked 3,623.8 miles in 49 days. In June and July, he cycled from Washington state to Maine alongside his high school friend. 

Brickner, MCAS ’25, and Patrick O’Connell completed the Northern Tier Bike Route during their trip, cycling through Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Brickner, who is from New Jersey, took a cross-country road trip during the COVID-19 pandemic from his home state to Los Angeles, Calif. Seeing the United States in such a way was eye-opening, he said, and he wanted to experience the country similarly again but at a slower pace. Brickner pitched the plan to high school friend O’Connell, a current sophomore at Princeton University, who agreed a bike trip would be the perfect opportunity to see the country, O’Connel said.

“[Brickner] said to me, ‘You’re like the one guy who I think will actually go through with this,’ and I was like, ‘Why not!’” O’Connell said. “I was kind of offered the opportunity and did it because the country is there.”

Drawing inspiration from his high school English teacher who Brickner said has biked across the country many times, he and O’Connell began to plan their cycling trip. Though the idea made his mom slightly stressed, he was determined to complete the journey, he said.

“I told [my parents] like a year and a half before, ‘I’m gonna do this no matter what,’” Brickner said. “The motivation behind it was to be able to see the country more deliberately, see it slower, and meet new people. I wanted to force myself to be able to stay in the towns that people usually drive by.”

With minimal training and experience, Brickner and O’Connell began their 3,623.8-mile journey in Anacortes, Wash. on June 8.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Brickner said. “On our third day, we ended up doing about 7,000 feet in elevation. That was kinda where it hit us that, ‘Oh, this is real.’”

Attached to the bikes were bags holding clothes, food, and camping supplies. They also affixed a handlebar bag that held easy-to-grab necessities, such as their wallets, phones, chargers, and snacks. According to O’Connell, Brickner was knowledgeable about the necessary camping supplies for their trip because he was an Eagle Scout.

“[Brickner] pretty much saved me a couple of times,” O’Connell said. “He brought a camping stove, which I didn’t think we needed. … He said I needed a sleeping pad, which I wouldn’t have known and would’ve frozen without.”

Apart from a few hotel stays, Brickner said he and O’Connell camped anywhere from traditional campsites to church backyards. The cyclists used the app Warm Showers, a hospitality exchange service for bikers, to secure a stay in backyards—or even couches—of houses. 

“Honestly, we got pretty lucky,” Brickner said. “[The houses] would have chargers. They’d have dinner for us. We could do our laundry there. It was awesome.”

During the daytime, they kept a steady schedule, which consisted of breakfasts at gas stations, a long lunch break somewhere around 50 miles in, and another gas station break before ending the day. The duo broke this routine for one important element of their trip: pancakes.

“We did rate pancakes in every state,” Brickner said. “I think the farther east we got, the better the pancakes were … [and] the food in general too. The Midwest had a food desert, so we didn’t have [vegetables] for, like, two weeks.”

From pancake stops to gas station meals and snacks, costs quickly started to add up for the pair. With the already expensive costs for the bikes and other equipment, the daily food purchases made for an expensive trip, Brickner said. Brickner said he funded his cycling journey himself, with the exception of a few purchases before the trip.

“Essentially, all the money I have made since I was 14, I hadn’t spent any of it until that trip,” Brickner said. “But, I was still pretty broke by the end.”

Although Brickner said the trip made a dent in his bank account, he managed to complete the journey with no major damages to the bike—apart from a few mishaps.

“My bike was a tank,” Brickner said. “I only got one flat tire, but Pat did get, like, six flat tires. And there was this one day in North Dakota [when] I wasn’t paying attention, so I crashed into the person in front of me and flew over the handlebars. Pat saw that and thought the trip was over, but I was pretty much fine, just scraped up.”

Aside from the injuries, there were few negative moments of the trip, Brickner said, until the cyclists arrived in Michigan. Michigan was not only the location of Brickner’s flat tire, but also the state where everything seemed to go wrong for the two cyclists.

“We would be biking on the highway, and people would open their doors on us, curse us out, and the roads were really rough,” Brickner said. “There was one day we were trying to find a campsite, and we asked this guy at a hotel, ‘Do you have any spots?’ He said, ‘No.’ ‘Do you know any other hotels open?’ ‘No.’ ‘Can we camp in your backyard?’ ‘No.’”

The trip changed Brickner’s opinion of many states, with Wisconsin securing the title of his new favorite. After experiencing the heat of Eastern Montana, he said the mild weather in Wisconsin was relieving. 

“The people were super nice,” Brickner said. “We didn’t camp out at all. … We met people who would give us a couch to sleep on or had mutual friends who wanted to host us. Everything was super green. The hills weren’t bad, and we ended up not getting that many tailwinds. … It was super nice.”

Throughout the trip, Brickner and O’Connell rode on and off with various other cyclists. One cyclist Brickner met was from his neighboring town in New Jersey while biking through Chicago and crossed the Canadian border with a group of University of Connecticut medical students. It was with those students that he said he formed his most distinct memory from the journey in a Montana town with a population of 114 people.

“We camped out behind a convenience store, and so there was this shed,” he said. “We just sat there for like six hours getting to know each other. Just to be able to sit [in] the middle of nowhere and appreciate how quiet it was … it was such a cool memory in the absolute middle of nowhere.”

Of the 49 days it took to cross the country, the pair rested for only five of the days. On the Fourth of July, Brickner and O’Connell took an unplanned rest day, spending the night watching a firework show in North Dakota. There were also some planned rest days that Brickner and O’Connell ignored, Brickner said, as wanting to get home proved stronger than the temptation to sleep in.

The trip concluded on July 26—15 days earlier than they had planned—in Portland, Maine. The moment Brickner saw the coastline, he knew he had reached the point he mentally prepared for the whole trip. Instead of feeling the rush of adrenaline that he had expected, he said he was overcome with exhaustion.

“[I] was just really tired,” Brickner said. “It was so rewarding, getting onto the beach and pushing the bike into the water. But then after that, I was like, I just want to go home, back to real life.”

Since they were away from home for over a month, repeating the same exercise every day, O’Connell said the hardest aspect of the trip was not the cycling but the mental stamina required to complete the journey.

“I think [it’s] 90 percent mental and like 10 percent physical,” O’Connell said. “But Leo is definitely a dude with serious mental fortitude.”

Brickner not only overcame a mental hurdle after completing the Northern Tier route, but he said he also accomplished exactly what he set out to do: see the country and its people.

“We had a family buy us new water bottles,” Brickner said. “Someone came up to us and offered us their house to stay in. … People are awesome, and it’s really cool to be able to see that.”

During the trip, Brickner and O’Connell said they would never bike across the country again. But recently, they have now found themselves circling back to Brickner’s English teacher for new bike route recommendations. While biking the Pacific Coast Highway is a possible prospect, Brickner and O’Connell said they are taking a rest for the foreseeable future.

“It was so worth it but definitely … a lot of type-two fun,” Brickner said. “We were hating it while we were biking, but at the end of everyday I was like, “Well, that was fun!’”

November 13, 2022