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Thursday, August 2, 2007
Following the Susquehanna: Biking across continents

By Jim Caple
Page 2

EPHRATA, Pa. -- My summer sports tours have taken me across the country -- from one end of I-90 to the other, down the length of the Mississippi River, in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, and nearly to the Arctic Circle for a world wife-carrying championship. But David Sylvester has me beat by so wide a margin, I might as well be riding on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' team bus.

Summer on the Susquehanna

Day 1: Cooperstown, NY
Day 2: Scranton, PA
Day 3: Farmersville, PA
Day 4: Ephrata, PA

Sylvester not only has crossed the width of the United States, he's traveled the length of Africa. On his bicycle. That's right. He biked from Cairo to Cape Town. And on Thursday he leaves on another adventure. He flies to Turkey, where he'll get on his bike in Istanbul and ride all the way to Beijing.

It's a route so daunting Lance Armstrong would wet his pants. Sylvester will lead a group of 20 to 30 people on a journey that will cover more than 6,000 miles in three months of pedaling. They will ride through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and some other places you can't spell, let alone imagine biking across. They will average about 70 miles per day, over whatever roads they find. They will climb over 10,000-foot-high mountain passes. They will ride across countries you'll never even fly over in a plane.

Jim Caple and David Sylvester
Here's Jim with his new buddy, David Sylvester.
About the only way the ride could be more demanding is if they had to deliver the Daily Samarkand each morning as well.

In other words, it's a long, long ride. But in a way, Sylvester has been pedaling ever since that awful day when his lifelong friend and mentor, Kevin Bowser, was killed when the airplanes flew into the World Trade Center. At Kevin's memorial service, Sylvester decided he had to do something to honor his friend.

So, he got on his bike and rode across the United States to raise money for the Kevin Bowser Scholarship Fund. And when he finished that, he joined the Tour d'Afrique and biked down Africa -- becoming, he believes, the first African-American to cycle across two continents. He planned to cycle down South America last fall until his car was hit by a drunk driver, injuring his knee so severely that he was able to see the bone.

Having finally recovered from that, he and his group will now ride across Asia.

"This all started because a friend got killed on 9/11 and I wanted do so something to honor him," he says, adding that he's raised $40,000 for the scholarship fund, which is managed by the Philadelphia Foundation. "And it has since grown to so much more. I want people to read my story and then think, 'I can do something simple and make the world a little better.' I'm not doing anything great. But I'm riding my bike, spending my own money, trying to inspire people to do something that will make the world a better place.

"This is not just about my friend Kevin anymore."

Everything about Sylvester is big. His heart. His smile. His laugh. His sense of humor. His drive. His ability to carry his end of the conversation (at one stretch, he spoke passionately for 45 minutes with only one interruption from me). And of course, his body. He's 6-3 and weighs 260 pounds. He's a personal trainer and former bodybuilder who can leave you gasping after his crushing hugs. He tests the limits of spandex in his cycling shorts. He dwarfed me on his bike when he joined me in Ephrata, Pa., for a ride on my sports tour of the Susquehanna River.

As we began our ride, I told him that I recently drove over the long, high and very windy Astoria Bridge that crosses the Columbia River, which is the bridge where Sylvester began his cross-America ride by immediately taking a wrong turn. "When I rode across that," he says, "a truck driver rolled down his window and slowed down just long enough to say, 'You are out of your @#$%*@ mind!'"

David Sylvester
Sylvester is indeed a big man, with a big heart.
Sylvester documented his two transcontinental journeys in a powerful video that was screened at film festivals around the world. When he first sent it to me, I put it aside and forgot about it. When I finally watched it, I was so impressed that I showed it to my wife and a friend, and they both were knocked out by it as well. The documentary mixes engaging narration with still photographs taken during his rides. The stories are funny, sad and always touching. He tells of a funeral march for a child who drowned trying to retrieve a ball in a river … a man doing good business selling coffins out of a roadside van in an AIDS-stricken country in Africa ("People are dying brother," the man explained to him) … the generous Sudanese family who warmly welcomed him -- this enormous stranger on a bicycle -- into their home made from scrap … the Kenyan boy who rushed up and took his hand and wouldn't let it go … the sunset on the Zambezi River … the animals and insects he still can't identify … the people he met.

And of course, the horrible bathrooms and toilets along the way.

"I had never camped before I went to Africa," Sylvester says. "The first time I pitched a tent was 12 hours before my flight there. I did it in the boardroom to make sure I knew how to do it. Our first camp was 60 miles outside of Cairo, on the side of the road, in the desert. This was all very new to me. I had never [relieved myself] in the woods. When we were pitching our tents, I noticed that people put rocks around their tents. I thought it was for good luck. I didn't figure out it was to hold down their tents for a couple days."

Tour de France riders cycle 2,000 miles over the course of the race, but at least they don't have to cross the desert and pitch a tent at the end of a stage.

The documentary's final message is Sylvester's admonition that people not be afraid. Don't be afraid to go somewhere you've never gone. Don't be afraid to try something you've never done. Don't be afraid to take a chance. Don't be afraid to get lost. Don't be afraid to find yourself.

Sylvester says he spoke to a Philadelphia high school class one day, and he asked the students to tell him their ambitions. Someone said to be a legal aide. Another said to be a physician's assistant. And as the responses continued, it struck Sylvester that many of the students aspired to some sort of assistant position. These are fine professions, he thought, but shouldn't high schoolers, with their entire lives ahead of them, be thinking of being more than an assistant to someone else? If they were already limiting themselves now, what would they end up like when they got older?

"The thing I say is, 'Find your bike.' And by your bike, I mean find your passion, what it is that makes you special. And once you find your bike, ride it hard. My talent is to ride a bike and high-five people and make them smile and inspire them."

Sylvester doesn't have a corporate sponsor. It seems lucrative endorsements go only to millionaire athletes who don't need the money and who encourage people to buy $200 shoes that cost $15 to make.

"I'm sick of hearing about Michael Vick," he says. "There needs to be an athletic figure who is trying to do some good. And I'm not the only one out there. If Nike sponsored 10 guys like me, or 20 guys like me, for the same money they pay Kobe; if they said, 'We're not going to sponsor Kobe, we're going to sponsor these people who are doing good,' just think how people would react. It could change the whole model and hell, it would be good for Nike. It would be cheaper."

I'll tell you this: Rather than following Barry Bonds around in the coming week, I'd much rather be riding with Sylvester and swapping movie quotes with a guy who is trying to improve the world one little revolution of the pedals at a time. "Did you ever see 'Almost Famous?'" he asked me during our ride. "Do you remember what Jason Lee tells the young reporter? 'Write whatever you want but just make sure you make me look cool?' Just make me look cool."

David Sylvester
It's hard not to be inspired by what Sylvester's accomplished with his bike.
Sylvester asked me for one other thing as we began our ride -- that my story not make him out to be a superman. He emphasized repeatedly that he is just a normal guy doing something everyone can do. He doesn't necessarily mean biking around the world (though they can do that as well), but that people need to see there is so much beyond their neighborhoods.

"I want people to imagine all the possibilities."

After Asia, Sylvester would like to bike around Australia, but he isn't sure whether he can afford it. These trips are enormously expensive -- we're talking at least $13,000 -- and at some point he needs to concentrate on earning a living.

But for now, he's concentrating on Asia. Sylvester says that he composed a "last speech" for his friends in case something happens to him on the ride. In it, he writes:

"Life ain't easy but it is good; no scratch that, life is great: if you have a good outlook. It is great because every day there is chance, opportunity and duty to be better than the day before."

At one point we rode up a steep hill, with Sylvester taking it slow and steady. Speed isn't important. Perseverance is. There's no limit to how far you can go in this life. All you have to do is keep pedaling.

(For more information on David Sylvester's rides, go to contribute2.org)

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net, with more installments of "24 College Avenue." His new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans" is on sale now.