Biking and building across the country


Rising College junior Suzette Wanninkhof is biking across America with Bike and Build


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While many Penn interns this summer may consider their morning commutes long, they don’t quite match up to one student’s 82-day journey.

Rising College junior and The Daily Pennsylvanian staff member Suzette Wanninkhof is biking across America with Bike and Build, a program that organizes cross-country trips to benefit affordable housing. Wanninkhof is biking cross country with only her helmet, a sleeping bag, a few sets of clothes, basic toiletries, 32 other 18 to 28-year olds and a mission.

Beginning in South Carolina and concluding in California, the group will cover a total of 4,201 miles of backstreets and highways. Along the way, they will stop for 17 days at designated spots to help construct houses. So far, they have traveled over 1,500 miles.

For Wanninkhof, the journey began with a childhood dream and chance meeting.

“Some people want to go to the moon, I wanted to bike across the country,” Wanninkhof said, chuckling at her childhood aspirations. “But life gets in the way... biking across the country doesn’t really fit into anyone’s agenda.”

One day, stranded on the side of the road after missing her bus to New York, she struck up a conversation with a fellow strandee, who had done Bike and Build. It was then that her former dreams rekindled.

Although Wanninkhof had never biked more than 40 consecutive miles, she biked the mandatory 500 miles beforehand by biking to class, to Center City and in 13- mile loops every other day.

“If you want to bike across the country, you’re going to,” Wanninkhof said of Bike and Build’s mentality. “I never doubted that I would be able to do it.”

Preparation for the trip also involved fundraising. Each rider is required to raise $4,500 to cover all building supplies, expenses and donations. Wanninkhof, who was surprised by the generosity of her peers, began in November and hit her goal in May. She continues to receive donations even now, raising around $6, 000 so far. In total, her group has raised over $165,000.

“A lot of people want to help [create] affordable housing, but there’s no easy way to do so,” Wanninkhof said. “Oftentimes, it seemed like people were just handing me money and saying, ‘Go help.’”

The group began their adventure at the end of May. Each day, they ride in different groups of three to six people due to safety concerns.

“Eight hours of riding can be pretty boring if you don’t have a pretty good conversation going.” Wanninkhof said. “There’s only so much you can talk about to one person for three months.”

Over those eight hours, the group averages 75 miles a day, although the longest stretch so far was 116 miles. The distance mainly depends on where the night’s hosts or campsites are located. The first day was “a mere 46 miles, which then seemed pretty insurmountable but now seems like a joke,” Wanninkhof laughed.

Hosts range from churches to police stations to canoe rental houses and provide housing, dinner and breakfast. Each host gets $100 to give to their choice of affordable housing organization, and is not compensated otherwise, apart from the riders’ gratitude.

It isn’t just the hosts that demonstrated generosity and kindness. While they typically avoid the highway for safety reasons and take country backroads when possible, the group was forced to cross the Mississippi River over a dangerous section of highway. Before crossing, they paused at a gas station where a man stopped them to talk.

Deeming the highway unsafe, the stranger offered to follow the bikers in his car. Driving at 10 to 15 mph, he slowed down traffic in their wake.

“It was amazing that people like him would be so generous to take half an hour of their time to ensure our safety.”

Of their nearly three month travels, however, a large portion is spent building. The team stops every three or four days to build, mostly shingling, siding and painting. The largest of these build projects is in Colorado Springs, where the group stops for a week to build a house from the foundation up, often with the help of the future resident.

Wanninkhof noted the stark difference between the Penn environment and her summer on the road.

“I’m so used to the Penn lifestyle where you do 150 different things and you see 150 different people. And there are so many different directions that you’re being pulled in, whereas for this, it was to just go straight,” Wanninkhof said. “At first, it was a bit crazy, but I’ve grown to love the predictability of it. I wake up every morning with just one goal, and that goal is a lot more concrete than a lot of other life missions are.”

Although the ride hasn’t been entirely smooth, Wanninkhof said that even the five to 10 daily flat tires have silver linings.

After biking through the Appalachian Mountains in the pouring rain, Wanninkhof suddenly got a front flat tire.

“I fell off my bike, all scraped up, and it felt like the end of the world,” Wanninkhof said. “The three other people I was with picked up my bike, brushed off my knees, changed my tire for me, and it was just that type of camaraderie and laughing about the ridiculousness of how it seems like the end of the world just ends up being something so good.”

Although her cross country adventure will end with her return to Penn, Wanninkhof said that the experience has helped her define her goals.

“I think at Penn, and life in general, [everything] is towards accomplishing the most. You have to get the best grades, most friends,” Wanninkhof said. “This trip is making me realize that I don’t want a job at Goldman Sachs. I want a job helping people.”

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