Never one to back down from a challenge, Escalon’s Joann Van Vliet can now count herself among the experienced cyclists in the world.
But she didn’t start out that way.
The 51-year-old local resident joined in a Sea to Sea Bike Tour to help ‘end the cycle of poverty’ and rode cross country and into Canada to raise money and awareness.
“I have been very blessed, I have been in law enforcement, been a firefighter,” Van Vliet said. “This was a chance to ride my bike across the U.S., it’s not like it’s a bucket list, but it’s something active and a challenge.”
Van Vliet learned of the Sea to Sea trip through her church, Escalon Christian Reformed Church, and said she had heard about the cyclists in 2005 and 2008 before deciding to join them this year.
“Third time is the charm,” she explained.
Admitting that she didn’t really know what she was getting into, Van Vliet joined with other cycling enthusiasts in Long Beach to dip their back tires into the ocean there. The prize, at the end of the long journey, was a front tire dip in the ocean at Staten Island, going from the Pacific to the Atlantic. There were four people from California on the trip, Van Vliet said, while about 40 percent were from Canada, 40 percent from Michigan and the other 20 percent from locations across the country.
“In December I committed, I had to raise so much money to go,” Van Vliet explained, with money raised helping to fight poverty and hunger across the country. “I had a couple of cousins walk me through it, they are cyclists and I am not.”
Van Vliet said the touring bike she got for the trip was a real blessing, equipped with special tires, as she had only one flat tire all along the route. There were scheduled ‘drops’ throughout the tour, and she said she made sure she sent herself four inner tubes each time, but only ended up needing one for the entire nine week tour.
“We had some miserable days, struggled with elevation and heat,” she admitted, but said the good far outweighed the bad and there were plenty of special moments along the way. Like when a motorist at a red light saw the group all wearing the same outfits and questioned what they were doing. When he learned of the Sea to Sea effort, he immediately handed over a sizeable amount of cash – two $50 bills ? to support the cause.
Van Vliet said putting it all in perspective still takes her breath away, as cyclists joined for a portion of the ride, met up with the group for a week or a few days as their schedule would allow, and others went coast to coast.
“How many flats, falls, how many God moments,” she reminisced. “We had a young girl whose bike frame broke, in Iowa, a whole group was there for the weekend, five of us were in a hobby shop, and the gentleman that overheard us talking called a bike shop, he put up a thousand dollars for a new bike for her, she finished the tour.”
Van Vliet wanted to help end the cycle of poverty. Not only did she do that, she also found plenty of human kindness left in the world, people willing to help out. Cyclists camped in community parks, at churches, had food brought in, had a caravan traveling with them for first aid and a variety of supplies. The tour started in Long Beach on June 24 and culminated with the dipping of the front tires in the water off Staten Island on Aug. 25.
“Cycling is a different world, you sit on your seat for six to eight hours,” Van Vliet said.
The goal of the group was to raise $1.5 million and there were 80 cyclists that rode the entire way. The group number peaked at 148 when they arrived in Montreal.
Van Vliet said she had some near misses along the way as well, including one time when she should have been hit by a car, seeing headlights in the early morning fog at the last minute.
“Somebody was praying for me that day,” she said.
Back at home, her sister would send special Dutch cookies and they were gone within minutes of arrival, her brother would get an Atlas and let her mom, Betty Van Vliet, know where Joann had traveled that day, and what was coming next.
The group rode Monday through Saturday, then would stay overnight Saturday and typically give a Sunday morning presentation at a local church, then join in for a good meal and fellowship before getting ready to head out again on Monday morning.
“God was good,” Van Vliet said. “My story is it was the Lord’s will that I finish this.
“I was not a cyclist, I now can shift gears.”
The local resident also took a little extra time to stay in New York after completing the cross country ride.
“Being a firefighter, I wanted to see the 9-11 memorial, wanted to see the Statue of Liberty,” she said.
Van Vliet will offer a talk on her trip at the Escalon Christian Reformed Church on Sunday, Sept. 29, sharing her experiences. The church supported her along the way as well, she said, and she knew the prayers and support of her family and church would get her through.
“After nine weeks I was ready to come home,” she admitted. “I met a lot of wonderful people along the way.”
For more about the trip, visit joannvanvliet.wordpress.com.