Michelle Cassel and Ryan McAfee’s Tour of America ByCycle

Michelle Cassell and Ryan McAfee are multimedia journalists-turned-adventurers exploring America by bike. As the journalism industry continued to falter in 2011 and the duo continued to struggle to make freelancing work, they decided to set off on a cross-country bike tour from Virginia to Oregon. They documented their trip in videos that became season one of their America ByCycle bike travel series. Now they’ve started on their second trip and second season of the show. I spoke to them as they and their new touring partner Alex visited Seattle early on in their Canada to Mexico West Coast tour. We discussed the inspiration for their first tour, their experience as completely novice touring cyclists, their backgrounds as journalists and their goals for the video series, and more.

The two of you basically had no bike touring experience before the first tour. How did that five-month, cross country trip come about?

Michelle: I was contacted two years prior to that by an organization called Bike the US for MS. They’re a group that bikes the US every year several times building ramps for patients who have MS and talking at hospitals. They wanted a documentary filmed about their project. I wasn’t able to do it at the time, but it sparked an interest. I didn’t even know that people biked across the country. I thought it was crazy and awesome and started researching it a little bit. Two years later, I didn’t have any gigs coming, I had saved some money, Ryan had gotten laid off …

Ryan: Yeah, I’d been laid off from the newspaper in Vegas where I’d been working. I was freelancing at the time. Michelle just called me up out of the blue one day and asked me what I thought of biking across the country. I said let’s do it. It was really that informal. That was about two or three months before the trip started, so it was short notice.

Michelle: The longest bike trip we’d done before that was in Naples, Florida. Totally flat, no weight on the bikes. We were on mountain bikes. It was 39 miles and it took us all day. Like Ryan said, we had no experience, didn’t know what bikes to get or what gear. We had to do a lot of research.

Ryan performing some maintenance. Photo from America ByCycle’s Facebook page.

Did you go into the tour planning on making the mini-series about your travel?

Ryan: Yeah. We usually don’t go anywhere without our cameras. It’s a double edged sword because you want to have the camera with you, but at the same time you want to disconnect yourself from that. But we definitely planned on documenting our trip.

At first we wanted to do a video every week. Then it was every couple weeks. Then it was once a month.

Michelle: It’s very hard to bike 60 miles a day and edit video. Our background was working for newspapers doing a lot of fluff stories and depressing stories about environmental and social issues. We wanted to bring our cameras on this trip and just have fun with it. Meet people, share their stories. No expectations on ourselves really, but just go out there and explore our country, reconnect with our country and share it with others.

We met Alex, who’s been in a few of our videos, in Kansas. He rode with us from Kansas to Pueblo, Colorado for three weeks. Now he’s an official third member of our team. He’s going to be doing a lot of our writing. We’ll have videos out on Thursdays and blog posts on Mondays. Alex will be writing the blogs and video descriptions and stuff like that.

Ryan: We weren’t really thinking about doing a web series. We went into it thinking that we’d just post videos when we had good content to share. We did a video with a kayak rental place. We did a video about renting kayaks from them in exchange for the chance to kayak down the river for the day. So we made them a little two minute video. Then we have big videos we produced about things like getting to the Tour de Fat in Denver.

Michelle: We really just followed our curiosities. We never denied an invitation. And of course we had the Adventure Cycling route to follow, but we let the encounters decide where we were going to go. We didn’t include ourselves in the videos in the beginning. They were just about the places we went and the people we met. But we realized that people were interested in seeing our journeys and living vicariously through us. Not just seeing the glories of bicycle touring, but the challenges and the laughs and our learning process.

Acknowledging the fact that you can’t capture five months of travel in one answer, what were some of the highlights of that first tour?

Michelle: For me it was in Elkhorn City, Kentucky. I was going into that region of the country with an animosity towards the coal culture there. We’d also heard from cyclists coming in the other direction that Kentucky sucks. The coal trucks run you off the road, the dogs chase you, the people aren’t nice, there are a lot of meth labs.

Ryan: There was a bad stigma associated with getting in to Kentucky.

Michelle: And a little fear and apprehension. But the first guy we met ended up being the nicest guy we met on the entire tour. He took us in. There was a bad storm coming in and we were going to camp, but he let us stay in his trailer to get out of the rain. It turned out, he’d actually worked in the coal industry from age 18 to now in his late 40s. Everything from mining coal with a pick and shovel up to repairing the trucks.

We met him when he was feeding stray animals along this river bank where we were going to camp. He spends $1,500 a month feeding stray animals and he’s been doing it for 20 years. He’s definitely a humanitarian. We spent a couple days with him and learned his story and finally put a face to what I’d thought was an issue. By the end of the trip we were helping him feed stray animals. It was the first time I’d been able to connect with a story like that and connect with my country like that. It was a real eye opener for me.

Ryan: Highlights for me include getting to go down into Mammoth Cave, where tourists don’t get to go. We got to spend some time with the National Parks Service and the National Speleological Society. They took us in like we were part of their group from day one. We spent a week in Mammoth.

Our last night in Pueblo Colorado, when we parted ways with Alex, we spent the whole night singing karaoke and drinking beers. The guy who owned the bar gave us a bottle of whiskey. He’s said “If I gave you a bottle of something, will you have fun?” as a way to send us off.

Michelle: We got to help build an Earthship in Jefferson, Colorado, which was amazing. A family was building an Earthship and we stayed with them.

Ryan: Part of the reason we were there was because we wanted to get our hands dirty and earn our keep. They said they were putting in their floor, so we were there with them mixing the sand and the clay and water.

Michelle: We got to go to the Adventure Cycling Association headquarters in Missoula, Montana. That was really awesome. The culture there, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Missoula, but there’s really great bike infrastructure there, great bike culture. It was one of the first times we got to experience that. We walked in their doors and asked if we could do a video about the organization. Amazingly they’d already seen some of our videos and they were all for it. It opened up a partnership for us and now, we’re actually partnered with Adventure Cycling for this series. They’ll be publishing our videos and hopefully we’ll be generating some traffic from that. They’re a great organization.

Ryan and Alex in Vancouver, BC at the start of tour 2. Photo from Adventure ByCycle Facebook page.

How did your experience as visual journalists influence the way you approached your tour, both in the obvious way like the mini-series and perhaps less expected ways?

Michelle: I think it’s helped and hurt our experience. We’ve been in Seattle for five days now and we’ve spent most of the time sitting in front of our computers editing video when we’d much rather be outside exploring the city. But on the flip side, the fact that we have this passion to share these stories with the rest of the world, it motivates us to get out there and be more investigative, more curious, start up conversations with people.

Ryan: She hit it on the head. The trade off is that we spend so much time editing. So that’s why we go so slowly. Not counting riding around Seattle, we’ve gone 267 miles in three weeks so far on this tour. You’re talking about an average of 10 miles a day. But, we’re having the opportunity to spend more time with our subjects, learn more about them, and get a better story. Instead of just coming into town and saying “hey you want to do a quick interview?” We get to develop a relationship and a whole story line with people.

It’s been less than a year since you finished your last tour. You just started another long tour three weeks ago. What drew you back to touring?

Michelle: The plan originally was to continue our last trip all the way to Los Angeles. But we ran out of money. We also got really sick at the end. It got wet and cold and we were exhausted. We decided to take a break. Freelance for a while and save some money. We had a lot of content to sift through and piece together and post some stuff. It also gave us some time to decide if this was even a thing we wanted to keep doing. And it was.

After we posted the Adventure Cycling piece, we did a series of how-to videos for them. Those got a good response and we thought “maybe we’ve got something going here. Maybe we can get a following and continue touring.”

We were back in LA after the first tour. It’s not bike friendly and there’s no nature around if you don’t have a car to get to it. So we were just itching to get back on the road.

Ryan: On top of just enjoying producing videos about biking, we love bike touring itself and everything about it. We wanted to find a way to make it work where we could do both of the things we love. Now we just need to find a way to fund it.

It seems like you have more of a focus on this second trip, partially because of your partnership with Adventure Cycling. What are you hoping to accomplish with “Season 2” of your videos?

Ryan: Maybe a bigger influence would be a way to put it. It’s not just about getting more people to like us. It’s about spreading the message and getting more people involved.

Michelle: We’re also hoping to find that rhythm to make it work. We’re still experimenting with our style. Should we use narration, should we not? Should we include ourselves more or less? Finding a style that works and is unique and a consistent publishing schedule are all important. We also want to find a balance between experiencing touring and having fun, but also finding time to edit. That’s all taken a long time to figure out and we’re still figuring it out.

You say you’re trying to get the message out. What is that message?

Ryan: Our mission statement is we want to entertain, inspire, and educate people to travel their world by bicycle, while having a good time ourselves.

Michelle: It’s not just to get people to travel by bike more. We are bike advocates, but it’s also to challenge people to get out there and get to know their community more.

Is there anything else you want to say about America ByCycle?

Michelle: We often get asked “how do you afford this?” and hear things like “I could never find the time” or “I’m not in shape.” We try to encourage people and tell them that you don’t need a lot of money to do this. You don’t need the most expensive bike or gear. Yeah it takes time, but you don’t need to go across country to experience this. You can go on a bike overnight or on a three day trip to a park nearby and meet some people and see the landscape that way. It’s a totally different experience than going camping by car. And anyone can do this. We did 13 miles on our first day. We didn’t know anything about bike touring and we weren’t in shape. People were doing this back in the 50s and 60s with I don’t know what kind of bikes.

Ryan: All you need is a bike and the will to go somewhere and have a good time.

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