After his friend Kevin Bowser died in the World Trade Center on 9/11, David Sylvester decided to honor his memory by following through on a long-time personal goal—riding his bike across the U.S. After that trip, he was hooked: he rode across Africa. Then Asia. Then the U.S. again. He’s racked up more than 20,000 miles, broken a frame and a fork, and given countless hugs and high-fives. He’s also written magazine articles and a book and developed a message of inspiration that he hopes to promote as he rides from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to New York City, destined to arrive on September 10, 2011. Sylvester pulled over on Indiana’s Route 2 to tell Outside why he’s still riding. Here’s what he told us.
I think when you look at a lot of great adventures or journeys, the first thing people say is, "Hey, I physically can’t do that. I’m not that strong, I’m not that willful, I’m not that whatever." But right after the America ride, I was like, you know what, I’m physically strong enough for this. I can do this. Initially all I was gonna’ do was ride across the United States, but there were more opportunities.
When I got back from Africa, the idea was to go do South America solo, but I was driving a truck and got hit by a drunk driver. They told me I wouldn’t walk right and certainly wouldn’t ride a bike again. But you know, the thing about doctors is, doctors know injuries, but they don’t know you. While I was rehabbing, one of my friends that I met in Africa called me and he suggested that I get my shit together and I joined him and my other friend for this bike race across Asia.
Asia was very challenging in a different way. I had gotten kicked off the tour. Another rider and I got into an argument and I pushed him down, and for that push, for that infraction, I was kicked off the trip, which meant that me and my bike and my gear was put on the side of the road and I was left to my own devices to make it a thousand kilometers to Beijing. The option was, Hey, do I stop here, or do I finish? And you know, I try to keep my word. I had given my word to my friends that I would bike into Beijing, and by hook or by crook I was going to own up to my word. When times are tough, I think you really find out what means the most to you. And the thought of not owning up to my word really bothered me. So I did everything I could to bike into Beijing, which meant that I had to throw away a lot of my gear, in order to trim down my pack to something that I could actually bike with. And I biked into Beijing.
When I came back, ESPN asked me to write an article on my travels, and you know, the response to that article was just overwhelming. It was just exactly what I needed, the letters, the calls, the hugs. All that stuff meant so much to me—means so much to me. That’s what gets me through the day, up the mountain.
I got the idea that the best way to say thank you for all that was to help somebody, so I decided to go across the United States again, solo, and help people along the way. I rode across, and in every state, from San Diego to New York, I stopped and I helped somebody. I fed the homeless in San Diego, biked to a school for blind children in Phoenix, a hospice in Las Cruces, a halfway house in El Paso, a cancer treatment center in Austin, the Galveston YMCA, the New Orleans SPCA, a home for battered women in Mobile, Alabama, a home for drug-addicted women in Nashville, Tennessee, also a center for homeless people in Nashville, and Walter Reed Medical Center.
There’s a lot of negative things that have come out after September 11, and I think it’s important that people see something decent emerge from that day. I’m not saying that anything can bring my friend Kevin back—nothing can bring any of those people back—but I think that people need to see that moment in time was sort of a starting gun for something very decent. So that when there are other moments, pivotal moments in peoples’ lives they can say, Hey listen, you know what, I can go out and I can do something decent too.
I am stronger, smarter, more capable, more willful, I’m just more than I ever dreamt I was. And the greatest thing about that is that I’m no different than you. I’m no different than anybody. I’m just a normal person and that I think that the greatness or the betterness or the moreness or whatever that I found within myself is within you. You just have to challenge yourself to find it. To find those abilities and then cultivate them as a talent and then give yourself permission to let those talents really flower. That’s the answer, that’s what I’ve seen.
Photo Courtesy David Sylvester