Riding Across the Country on a Citi Bike: Meet Jeffrey Tanenhaus

Photo: Matthew Miller

Photo: Matthew Miller

Jeff Tanenhaus decided to ride across the country on a Citi bike. Yes, he quit his oppressive desk job, grabbed a Citi bike and rode from New York to Santa Monica, California on a bike used in New York's bike sharing program. Jeff was part of the group that made this New York bike share happen, and he wanted to do something that showed just what human power is capable of. As a regular and daily bike commuter, the bike has been both a utility and a source of freedom for Jeff.

Stinner has been working to get involved in the sustainable transportation discourse that's ongoing in cities across the country. Part of the effort has included the development of the Stinner Commuter which now lives at The Wheelhouse in Los Angeles. More information will be coming out on that bike later this week!  

We'll call this the start of commuter week here at Stinner Bikes, so we had a little conversation with Jeff about just what made him do it. 

Stinner: When did you start dreaming up the idea of riding across the country on a Citi bike?

Jeff: As a founding member of NYC’s bike sharing program, I used Citi Bike to get all around town. The idea came on a Friday night bike commute after an infuriating week at work. Pedaling hard down the Hudson River Greenway, I looked across at the lights in New Jersey and wished I could ride across the water. Next thought: why stop at New Jersey—why not bike to California? And not on any bike, but the same Citi Bike that took me everywhere in NYC. The seed planted that evening grew to fruition 1.5 years later when I carried out my vision and called it Countri Bike. 

When did you decide to do it, and how did you put everything else on hold?

Jeff: Working as an event planner was making me miserable, and while I searched for other options, I kept thinking of the freedom I’d feel biking across the county. I quit my job and my apartment lease expired. I locked my stuff in storage and worked remotely on freelance projects, including my own travel app New York City Essential Guide. I was already living out of a backpack and crashing on couches, so the transition to biking with a trailer and Wi-Fi hotspot wasn’t difficult.

What's been your background in cycling up until this point?

Jeff: Not much! I had only cycled within New York City, mostly as a commuter. My first long ride was the 40-mile, car-free Five Boro Bike Tour in 2012. The next year I graduated to the full NYC Century Bike Tour, which is not a closed course. For these tours I used a road bike, which I bought used for $300 from a local bike shop. Once bike sharing came online mid-2013, my road bike got more use as a laundry drying rack. I used Citi Bike for everything—errands, commuting, meeting friends—until I took the ultimate plunge and pedaled cross-country.

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What did you hope to accomplish with this ride?

Jeff: As I told Stephen Colbert when he invited me as a guest on The Late Show, I wanted to find a new reality for myself as well as see my country. I was tired of feeling unfulfilled working in a windowless office in Manhattan, having only the weekends to look forward to. I’ve been to more than 50 countries, but I haven’t traveled much domestically since I was a kid on family trips. I wanted to see the United States up close and thought a bicycle would be a great way to tour.

You have to have some funky stories from riding across the country. Any that really stick out that you'd love to tell for years to come? Or how has the reception been from people since you've ridden across the country?

Jeff: I was treated with kindness and curiosity wherever I went. The people I met were the most rewarding part of the journey and made the difficult days worthwhile. Dozens of hosts from the Jersey Shore to East Hollywood gave me food, shelter and inspirational conversation. Riding a Citi Bike made it easy to connect with bike share operators and bike advocates across the country and gain instant friends in unfamiliar cities.

People like to hear bad news, so the most told stories are of hardship. Getting snowed upon in northern Arizona. Camping with the wrong gear in Joshua Tree in December and waking up with ice cubes in my water bottle—inside my tent. Being assaulted on the roadside by an ax murderer in Oklahoma takes the prize for most gruesome encounter. I ended up in the hospital but have fully recovered and made a lot of supportive friends in the Tulsa area as a result.

How did you choose your route, did you try to avoid riding across the mountain ranges?

Jeff: Finding the flattest route is a priority when riding a 45-pound clunker with three gears. I paralleled coastlines and rivers and followed rail-to-trails from New York to St. Louis where I picked up the Katy Trail. That took me 225 miles to western Missouri where I picked up Route 66 in Joplin. I followed Route 66 through Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before turning south in Kingman, AZ to seek warmer temperatures. (I got snowed in twice in AZ.) I dipped down towards I-10 that took me into the California desert, which was freezing at night. Due to time of year and topography, crossing the Rockies was never in the cards. Hills weren’t such a problem, but headwinds were brutal.

What do you think is great about cycling in general (I.e. does it inspire adventure/escape for you, utility, aesthetics, etc.)?

Jeff: Being on a bicycle feels liberating. I fell in love with self-propelled motion to get somewhere. In New York, bike commuting was therapy for me, yet was an individual pursuit. Pedaling across America was the first time I interacted with the bike community. I found wonderful hosts through the network warmshowers.org. I also made life-long friends, such as Val who started her own bike tours in Pittsburgh and Jessica and Mason to who I met camping in Joshua Tree National Park. There is an instant kinship among people on bicycles. No other activity has such a strong community yet low barrier to entry. I think I proved that by biking to California on a shared bike, and am so grateful for all the people who supported me from coast to coast.