Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Nothing To Lose

In 2009 I happened upon a documentary about an Englishman who, rather unusually, cycled from Alaska to Argentina on a tandem bicycle. On his own. The really compelling part, however, was that he would pick up strangers along the way to ride in the second seat. For once, I thought, there is an adventure tale that I can feel something for. This was an expedition about people - the physical challenge was secondary to the bonding of strangers and cultures. There was no segregation of possibilities between myself and some hearty sportsman breaking a world record by climbing a mountain barefoot at record speeds. (I haven't really heard of anyone doing this. Although am sure it won't be long.)

I was so taken by this journey that I kept an eye on what this Englishman was going to do next. His name is Dominic Gill, and as it turns out, his next project was going to be even more incredible.

So incredible, in fact, that I wanted more people to know about it. I spoke to Dom Gill and pitched an article to a silly number of publications, but nobody seemed interested. I'm used to pitches and proposals being ignored, but this time it made me feel disappointed and frustrated in equal measure. "Don't ignore this one," I pleaded silently. Yet ignore it they all did.

All I want to do is tell this story, however, so if I have to do so here, on my blog, then so be it.



Ernie Greenwald, a 74-year-old from California, is going to fulfil the dream of a lifetime by cycling across the America he’s never known. It is no easy feat, but in this case it will be a far greater challenge, because Greenwald has lymphocytic leukemia.
Travelling with him is British adventurer and film-maker Dominic Gill, who proposed the idea to Greenwald after a chance meeting in 2006. Despite his condition, or perhaps in spite of, Greenwald accepted. As Gill explains, “Ernie wants to prove as much as possible that life is for the living. It’s almost as if he’s woken from a dream and thought ‘I’ve got nothing to lose’.”

Together Greenwald and Gill will travel coast-to-coast across the USA on a two-seater bicycle, taking in the country that Greenwald has lived in his whole life and never had the chance to explore. They will discover a variety of landscapes and culture, and hope encounter some good old American hospitality along the way.

Gill, 29, previously cycled a tandem bike from Alaska to Argentina for the documentary and book
Take a Seat, inviting the people he met along the way to fill the second seat and join him in his adventure. It was on this journey that he met Ernie Greenwald, whose days as a keen cyclist were, it seemed, well and truly behind him, but who overcame his hesitation and took the opportunity to get back in the saddle.

They met while Gill was stopping for refreshments in the quiet concrete city of Lompoc, central California. Local resident Greenwald, a cycling enthusiast, was studying the tandem with some interest.
“He didn’t look like a keen cyclist anymore,” admitted Gill, but he offered Greenwald the opportunity to ride with him the next day. Greenwald’s hesitation was followed by the explanation that he had to stay and take care of his ailing wife. This might have been the end of their encounter, but 20 minutes later Greenwald came back and accepted Gill’s invitation. The next morning Gill and Greenwald cycled the 60-odd miles to Santa Barbara in the sultry Californian heat.

While physically it was tough, Greenwald enjoyed the challenge. It was not until later that Gill learned the sorry truth: that Greenwald’s wife had died six months before, and on top of that he was also suffering from chronic lymphatic leukaemia (CLL). Yet Greenwald relished his time on the tandem. Gill says it was as if Greenwald realised that he “could wallow in self pity or take an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Since this chance meeting, Gill could not forget Greenwald’s story. So he came up with a particularly edifying plan for his next adventure. “I contacted Ernie and asked if he would ride across America, if I facilitated it,” explains Gill. “He said he trusted me, and agreed.” And so the Dom & Ernie project was born.

Gill and Greenwald will set off from Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles, on June 26 2010, cycling through the bottom of Utah, Montana, the Mid-west and across to the Eastern coast where they will finish in New York City. On the way they hope to take in Death Valley, the bright lights of Las Vegas, the wild grandeur of Yellowstone National Park, “windy” Chicago, and North Dakota.

The two will be cycling a Pino Tour bike from Hase - a semi-recumbent tandem. The special features of the bike include the position of the gears and steering rod at the back, rather than at the front, as on a typical tandem. This allows Greenwald to ride in front whilst still being the stoker’s position (which is normally at the back). The Pino Tour also has a freewheel mechanism which allows Greenwald to stop pedalling when he gets tired, and Gill to carry on cycling.

The two cyclists will also be accompanied by Greenwald’s RV, in which he currently lives alone with his two small dogs. As well as the benefit of carrying their gear and supplies, this will make the journey physically and emotionally easier on Greenwald.
“By taking the RV he has his bed, his dogs, nothing changes,” explains Gill. “And anything that gets Ernie across the States on a bicycle is good with me.”

Physically, Greenwald will have to be carefully monitored. Due to the cancer limiting his blood cells he gets very short of breath. He also has an erratic heart so has to take medication and therefore feels the cold.
“Ernie will struggle,” admits Gill. “But I will also struggle. I will be carrying about 70% of Ernie’s weight. However strong Ernie is, his upper ceiling is low.”
Greenwald’s oncologist has agreed to be at the end of a phone if needed, and there will be tests every month for his blood cell count and check his metabolic level.

Gill says the Dom & Ernie project is not a test of Greenwald’s physical endurance, but an opportunity for him to explore his country. “This is not about bravado, it’s about showing people adventure is for everyone. Ernie wants to give as good as anyone else gives.”
The Dom & Ernie project hopes to raise donations for Livestrong & the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which provides support for people suffering from cancer across the globe.

While this challenge is largely about Greenwald fulfilling the dream of a lifetime, Gill also has his own additional motivation for taking the journey.
“I want to change the misconception that the world is out to get you. We’re going to the most fear-filled nation, and I want to prove that if you stick your neck out, you won’t get your head chopped off.”



Of course, this is not the whole story. In late May Ernie's health took a sharp drop and since then he has been in and out of hospital, and has had to undertake a brief course of chemotherapy.


Just yesterday, Dom made the announcement that Ernie would not be able to make the journey. At least, not the whole journey, and not yet. 
"I have just been to see Ernie in hospital. I have decided that he's not going to make the journey... maybe a portion of it, but not all of it."

I cannot begin to imagine the disappointment Ernie will be facing. One can only hope he will be strong enough to undertake at least part of his goal. However, it seems that now the project is going to become something special for even more people. The journey that Ernie has hoped to undertake to inspire others may become their own journey.

"During a visit to see Ernie in hospital two days ago, he said in no uncertain terms that the show must go on, if not with him, with other willing volunteers."
Dom is now looking for anyone with any ailment or disability which may have prevented them from completing a cycling journey or other physical challenge - or simply anyone who wants a "pick me up" - to take Ernie's place in the stoker's seat for a while. It's Take a Seat part 2, but with a greater goal.

Can you help?

- Do you have a friend with a disability that prevents them from getting outdoors as much as they would like?
- Do they live anywhere approximately on the
 Dom & Ernie cycling route ?
- Would they be excited about the prospect of a cross-country cycle journey on a tandem?
- Would they be happy to talk to a hand-held camera on the bicycle (held by Dom)?
- Would they be prepared to camp if all equipment was provided by way of a support vehicle (that can also be used to travel in should a problem arise)?

If the answer is yes to all of these, Dom would love to hear from you or them. He says "Being fit and strong is not necessary (I can take up the slack) but being prepared to cycle for 2 to 20 days and being up for the challenge is.The Dom & Ernie team are currently trying to source funding to ensure their riders have return travel to their start point."

"The journey - with an almost confirmed departure date of Wed July 3rd 2010 - has the potential to not only make an incredible story but provide and inspirational example to those that are striving to get out and achieve something in the face of adversity. We are all hoping that Ernie, the inspiration behind the project, will be well enough to undertake a stage of this journey, but for the time being will be relieved as and when he makes a full and speedy recovery. In the meantime, help us find others will to give adventure cycling a try - no previous experience necessary! Can you help us keep this dream alive?"

You can contact Dom Gill via the project's Facebook page, and to learn more about the project, visit www.domandernie.comPlease spread the word, and let's show Ernie, and Dom, and everyone involved, absolute support.

"Only those who will risk going too far can possible find out how far one can go."
~ T.S.Eliot


  1. Yup, wow indeed! Good luck to all involved...and all the best to Ernie

  2. Oh my god - I am crying here - I so so want Ernie to get back in the saddle - if only for a short time.
    Sending you all the positive thoughts & well wishes I can!! xxxx