North Bay rabbi gears up for bike ride across country

Rabbi George Schlesinger has never been away from his wife, Paula, for 52 days — the number of days it will take him to bike across the United States.

So she’s planning to visit him at a few stops along the way — be it in Salt Lake City or Pueblo, Colo., or St. Joseph, Mo.

From June 5 to July 27, Schlesinger, the rabbi at Conservative Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa for the past nine years, will see 12 states from his bike seat as he embarks on his first cross-country ride.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Schlesinger, 60. “But I have this romantic vision of going across the country by bike.”

Rabbi George Schlesinger

Schlesinger won’t be traveling alone on the open road. He’s one of 27 riders taking on the Cross Country Challenge, a coast-to-coast tour through some of the most beautiful and scenic spots in the country.

Organized by the New Hampshire–based America By Bicycle, the ride, which is broken up into six segments, will take Schlesinger’s group over the Sierras, through the Rockies and the Adirondacks, and to locations such as Dodge City, Kan., and Erie, Pa.

Riders have the option of completing the entire journey, like Schlesinger, or joining the group at different points along the way.

Schlesinger added a charitable component to his journey by raising money for Beth Ami. He’s raised more than $15,000 so far through pledges based on how many miles he travels. Plus, sponsors will receive regular e-mail updates about his progress.

The first 11 days of the ride, Schlesinger will pedal nearly 850 miles — and that will be followed by 41 more days of cycling. In total, he’ll cover more than 3,800 miles by the time he reaches the final stop in New Hampshire.

At the end of each day, the group will stay overnight at a hotel or motel. Schlesinger will be riding on most Shabbats, an unavoidable factor since the group leading the tour isn’t Jewish-affiliated.

There are five rest days built into the trip, and “one of the rest days happens to be on Shabbat,” Schlesinger said, adding, “I wish there was a Jewish group that would bike across the country.”

One not-so-Jewish ritual Schlesinger will participate in is the ceremonial dipping of the bike wheels. On a coast-to-coast bike ride, it is customary to dunk your back wheel in the ocean you are departing from, in this case the Pacific. Then, you dip your front wheel in the ocean where you complete the ride. The riders will leave from Burlingame and then head to the coast before turning east.

To prepare for the cross-country excursion, Schlesinger has been riding roughly 300 miles a week through Sonoma County.

Schlesinger plans to keep kosher on the ride by sticking to a vegetarian diet. Of course, that includes waffles, eggs, cereals and lots of peanut butter for breakfast. Lunches are on the road, and dinners generally at buffet-style restaurants.

Noting he’ll burn about 700 calories an hour, Schlesinger said a kosher diet on a ride of this magnitude “leaves something to be desired,” especially as fellow riders chow down on steaks and power bars. “I’ll be looking for a lot of carbohydrates and protein,” he said.

A longtime runner, Schlesinger injured his knee in 1978 and switched to cycling, a sport he felt was easier on the body. He rode 25 to 30 miles a few times a week, but never considered a long-distance ride until coming to Santa Rosa from the East Coast in 2001.

Since then, Schlesinger has been riding seriously, inspired by Sonoma County’s bike culture. While he’s never put in the mileage like he’s about to on a bike, two years ago Schlesinger did complete a 1,300-mile ride from New Orleans to Minneapolis. And he once led cross-country bus tours for United Synagogue Youth.

“It’s great to see the countryside at a slower pace,” Schlesinger said. “It’s about being outdoors and with a group of very nice people. The bike riding culture is a supportive world. If you pull off to the side of the road, someone will stop and ask if you’re all right.”

Congregation Beth Ami plans to track the rabbi’s progress with a map in the synagogue’s social hall. Schlesinger is currently on a four-month sabbatical.

“It’s going to be great,” Schlesinger said of finishing the ride in Portsmouth, N.H. “Realistically, I’ll be exhausted. But I’ll also be elated for accomplishing this goal.”