Profile: Cheryl Marek and Estelle Gray's Record Breaking Ride

Cycling the U.S. on a Bicycle Built for Two
3,000 miles, 30 years later

By Diane Rudholm
With special thanks to Sharon and Joe Dickerson

Photo at right: Cheryl Marek (left), and Estelle Gray (right), prepare for the ride of a lifetime in 1984. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Marek

On June 21, 1984, Cheryl Marek and Estelle Gray stood on the Pier in Santa Monica, Calif., with their tandem bicycle at the ready. They and their eight-woman support crew were in good spirits as they prepped for departure and smiled for photos.

The whole crew ready to ride on June 21, 1984, in Santa Monica, Calif. Back row: Lori Limbocher (official), Tori Scott, Estelle Gray, Martha Hines, Mary Marek. Front row: Marilyn Painter, Cori Mar, Carolyn Davidson, Cheryl Marek, Peggy King, Judy Fihn. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Marek

No other female duo had attempted the 3,000-mile tandem ride across the U.S. to New York City, N.Y., but Marek and Gray—largely unknown outside of the Seattle, Wash. cycling community—had trained extensively for the mental and physical challenges ahead of them.

Cyclists Lon Haldeman and Sue Notorangelo held a mixed transcontinental tandem record of 10 days and 20 hours. Marek and Gray hoped to shave a day off that record.

The ’80s were different

When Marek and Gray set off on their ride across America, there was no doubt that they were skilled endurance cyclists. But, getting to the start line was still a challenge.

“The ’80s were different,” says Marek. “Women didn’t get taken seriously. We didn’t have as many role models or opportunities, though that’s still needed now.”

There were other differences, too. Bikes were heavier. No carbon or titanium fibers for these ladies. Gooey energy foods hadn’t made an appearance on the market, either.

Both women had to be in excellent shape for the ride, of course, but it was also vital that they were supported by their community and by each other.

“We were both tough—mentally, I mean—that’s what we needed,” says Gray. “Together, we felt fueled and inspired and tough enough to take this on.”

Toll of the road

The duo averaged close to 300 miles a day, riding first through the flat desert of Arizona, then New Mexico. Despite bruised bottoms and saddle sores, they rode deep into the night for six days—sleeping for a couple of hours each night, just before dawn.

When they reached Missouri around the sixth day, fatigue and pain really set in. Gray could barely grasp her handlebars or brakes. Marek’s legs were swollen and tender from overexertion.

“At some point during the ride, I sprained my ankle,” says Gray. “There were pictures of me with an ace bandage. People asked me about it, but I was so exhausted that I didn’t even remember it happening.”

Despite the wear and tear on their bodies and morale, and even some shared hallucinations brought on by fatigue, the two women stayed on their bike. Their crew kept them fed, massaged their broken bodies at pit stops and did their best to remain positive—singing songs about aching bottoms and other cycling maladies helped.

“New York, here we come!”

Estelle Gray (left) and Cheryl Marek (right), circa 1984. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Marek

Marek and Gray got a second wind on the ninth day as they were crossing the Appalachian Mountains.

They were on the homestretch, but—cue the thunder, cue the lightning—they were met with torrents of rain. Temperatures dropped in the night. Marek fell asleep while riding. The women were in rough shape, cold and frazzled. Just 350 miles from New York, their pace slowed to a crawl.

Crew chief Peggy King ordered them off their tandem, so they and the support team could recoup and start again when the weather cleared in the morning.

While this set them back several hours, they were still on schedule to beat Haldeman and Notorangelo’s mixed transcontinental tandem record. Police escorted them through Pennsylvania to New Jersey, helping ensure a clear and safe path, but—one last setback—the Holland Tunnel, their main access to Manhattan, was closed until 10 a.m., forcing them to wait.

Marek and Gray made it to New York City, N.Y., shortly after. It had taken them only 10 days, 22 hours and 48 minutes to bike 3,000 miles. They were a few hours short of breaking the mixed transcontinental tandem record. However, they established a women’s transcontinental tandem record, which remains intact 30 years later.

Still going strong

While Marek and Gray’s lives have taken many turns since their wild ride across the country together, they have remained friends through the years and cycling continues to be an important part of their lives.

Marek adventured to Switzerland in 1991. She loved it, so she stayed for a decade before moving back to Seattle in 2001. Now, she is the president of HELP Training, Inc., where she leads group activities—cycling, running and hiking—and helps people of all fitness levels and ages achieve their personal training goals. You can learn more at www.helptraininginc.blogspot.com

Gray’s love of bikes led her to a career at R&E Cycles in Seattle. She was half owner when she said goodbye to the shop and started her next adventure in California in 2004.

“I asked myself what I would regret not having done when I retired, and the answer was easy,” she says. “I always wanted to be a teacher. I like it as much as working at the bike shop.”

Gray teaches special education and lives with a handsome black lab named Humor. He comes to school with her each day—often riding tandem in a bicycle trailer.

Diane Rudholm is the managing editor and social media coordinator of OutdoorsNW. She loves bike rides with friends and is considering a spring tandem adventure (of much smaller proportions). Send comments via email here or @OutdoorsNWmag

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