By David Willis
---- — He was a high school volleyball star, is a basketball nut and, at 19 years old, is already an accomplished sports journalist.
But Andover’s Joe Kuykendall admits that he never considered himself a dedicated cyclist.
“When I didn’t have a car, I would sometimes take my old cheap bike from Target to get lunch in the summer,” Kuykendall said with a laugh. “And sometimes in college, I will bike to go places. But no, I was never really a cyclist in any way.”
That’s possibly why his parents, Laura and Dave Kuykendall, were so stunned when their son informed them that he would be spending his 2013 summer on a cross-country biking trip.
“We were completely surprised,” his mother said. “A cross-country bicycle trip was not really something I imagined Joe would ever choose. But I think doing it for a good cause was the most appealing thing to him, and as an athlete, we felt he could figure out the physical part.”
That cause, in fact, has been the driving force for Kuykendall throughout his nearly 3,800-mile journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
This summer, the 2012 Andover High graduate set out with a group on a cross-country cycling trip from Virginia Beach, Va., to Canon Beach, Ore., for the charity Bike & Build, which aims to increase the affordable housing stock nationally.
“The harder it is, the more I think about why I am doing it,” said Kuykendall, who will be a sophomore at James Madison University in Virginia this fall. “It’s intimidating, fascinating and incredible all at the same time. It’s hard, but it is worth it. I tell myself, ‘Never underestimate the major impact a minor action can have.’”
Kuykendall is a member of a 29-person group, all strangers prior to the trip, cycling the Central America route — one of 10 organized by Bike & Build. They pedaled off on May 31 and are expected to finish on Aug. 10.
“It’s been crazy,” Kuykendall said by phone from Idaho. “I expected it to be certain things and it’s been a lot of different things. It’s been a great growing experience personally, and I have learned a lot about the affordable housing problem in America.”
Kuykendall first learned of Bike & Build through his mother’s job with the health and wellness company Boulder Brands, which is a sponsor for the charity.The program has been around for 11 years and in 2011, the daughter of Boulder Brands’ CEO took part in one of the cycling trips.
“They had sent something out with the employees asking if anyone’s children wanted to take part in the program,” Kuykendall said. “I knew I wanted to do it.”
After being rejected the first year for being too young, Kuykendall embarked on the long process to insure he’d be part of this year’s ride.
The preparation for the trip was far from as simple as signing up and hopping on a bike.
“First, you had to fill out a long application and were put into a lottery to see which of the routes you would take part in,” he said. “There were a lot of doctors’ appointments and you had to do 500 miles of training.”
Each cyclist is also required to raise $4,500, a portion of which covers expenses and the remainder is donated to Bike & Build.
Kuykendall’s team raised more than $150,000, and so far the program has donated $4 million.
An average day for Kuykendall and crew begins between 4 and 6 a.m. and consists of approximately nine hours of cycling.
“We wake up, eat breakfast and have a half-hour to pack our bag and get it to the support van,” he said. “We hit the road and we are on our own to do what we want as long as we get to our next location by 4 p.m.
“You can’t listen to music, so the best thing to do is find someone to have a good conversation with. But when you are on your bike by yourself for eight hours riding through Kansas, there is a lot of time to think.”
The group stays at host locations at every stop, usually churches (“about 90 percent of the time”), but also schools, host families and even campsites. While most locations have been solid, a few have stood out for both good and bad reasons, he said.
“On July 2, we rode into this really small town called Clay Center, Kan.,” Kuykendall said of the 2.8-square-mile town. “It just happened to be on a day the bank was giving out free meals. Then, one of the guys was at a pharmacy and mentioned what we were doing, and we got invited to this great Fourth of July party. It was a great slice of Americana.
“The worst was when we were biking through Bloomington, Ind., and our host called and said they couldn’t host us. Luckily, one of the guys goes to the University of Indiana. So 29 of us crammed into his college apartment, with the air conditioner broken. It was rough.”
Making a difference
Throughout the trip, Kuykendall’s crew has made 10 stops in various states for “Build Days” during which they have helped build low-income housing.
“The build days are great because it’s very moving to make a difference,” he said. “Most of the days are working with Habitat for Humanity. We build and paint, whatever they need.”
Kuykendall said most people don’t understand the need for affordable housing.
“Did you know the average age of a homeless person in the U.S. is 9 years old? That is crazy and disheartening,” he said. “And in no county in the U.S. can a person work for minimum wage and pay for full rent.”
His mother is thrilled to see her son giving back to such an important cause.
“It’s hard to put into words how proud we are of Joe,” she said. “I can’t talk about it without getting emotional and teary. It’s amazing what he is accomplishing, and I think he and his group will be changed both physically and mentally by the experience.”
Kuykendall is a little more than a week away from Canon Beach, where his parents will be waiting to greet him. As of early this week, his group had reached Idaho City and covered almost 3,200 miles of the 3,794-mile trek.
“It’s amazing all the challenges he has overcome,” Laura Kuykendall said. “He has hit a few walls, but he has continued and done an amazing job. It will be a relief to have him home. I can’t say I don’t worry every day about their safety. But it will be a bit of relief with a lot of pride and admiration.”
As for the emotions Joe expects to experience when it is all over?
“I don’t even know,” he said. “I think it is going to be a greatest sense of accomplishment in the world. We just biked across the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There are those long, hard days when you don’t think it’s ever going to end. But you realize you overcame the struggles and really accomplished something.”
Kuykendall and his group intend to end the trip with the same grand gesture in which they began it.
“(On May 31), we all dipped our bikes in the Atlantic Ocean,” Kuykendall said. “And when we are done, we are going to dip them in the Pacific. It’s pretty surreal to think we would be crossing the country on human power alone.”