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The Great American Ride virtual event takes riders on a 3,700-mile route across the U.S.

Participants will track their progress along the not-yet-completed Great American Rail-Trail, from Washington State to Washington, D.C.

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The Great American Ride might just be the best virtual event yet. The challenge combines an activity that many people are doing in earnest — riding bikes — with something no one has done before — completing the Great American Rail-Trail across the U.S.

When it’s complete, the Great American Rail-Trail will connect more than 145 existing trails and 90 trail gaps over 3,700-plus miles in 12 states between Washington, D.C., and Washington State. The project, which is the vision of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), is 50 percent complete right now, so participants in the Great American Ride will get a preview into what the off-road route across the country will eventually look like.

It costs $50 to participate in the Great American Ride, and most of the entry fee will benefit the work of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Jon Lugbill, the executive director of Sports Backers, the Richmond, Virginia-based promoter of the Great American Ride says that the idea for the challenge was a compromise between two ideas: one, he was mesmerized by a co-worker’s ride across the country during the TransAm bike race last year, and two, he had competed in similarly ambitious running events.

“I’ve been part of a running relay team for years, doing the 200-mile Blue Ridge Relay where we took turns running,” Lugbill said. “When Brantley was biking across the country, I was like, ‘running, when you do it with a team and do it 24 hours a day, it’s not that different.’ So, if we do a team biking event, you don’t have to be that insane. You can bike normal hours and have a job.”

The Great American Ride kicks off on July 11 and puts a few fun twists on the virtual challenges we’ve all become so used to during the coronavirus pandemic. Since riding 3,700 miles solo might be daunting (or too time-consuming) for many, the challenge is for teams of four, eight, or 12. Notably, it incorporates miles and hours that you’re already putting in on the road (or trail, or trainer) into your overall effort, rather than dictating how far, fast, or high you need to ride.

The challenge takes some hints from ultra-distance cycling races like the TransAm, and the Tour Divide where people track riders’ progress by watching their ‘blue dot’ on the platform.

“As you individually do a ride, you input your miles and time into a digital platform, and your dot will move,” Lugbill says. “As your teammates do it during the day, your team’s dot moves, so you’re constantly moving across the country, and you also see everyone else’s dots as they move.

Participants must track their rides using GPS-enabled tracking systems like Strava or Map My Ride. Then, they upload each tracked ride into the event’s site which will update the leaderboard and move each team’s dot across the course map.

In addition to the thrill of moving across the country, how riders get from the west to the east coast is the other thing that makes the Great American Ride unique. Lugbill could have chosen from myriad cross-country cycling routes when scheming the Great American Ride, but when he stumbled onto the concept of the Great American Rail-Trail, he was hooked.

“‘How cool would that be?'” Lugbill recalls thinking. “In real life, this would be a dream, to ride across the country and not be on a major road. Why not do it virtually?”

To create the experience of being on the Great American Rail-Trail, the event promoter will be emailing participants information about where they are along the route based on their blue dot. As riders cross into a new state, they will receive emails with information about the trails in the area.

“We’re going to try to bring as much of what trail life would be like to life,” Lugbill says.

The Great American Rail-Trail begins on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.

Lugbill hopes that, in addition to giving people a challenge to sink their teeth into, the Great American Ride builds excitement and momentum for the completion of the Great American Rail-Trail. The $50/per person participation fee will help toward that end. Although Sports Backers most often produces local sporting events, offers youth running and fitness programs, and advocates for safe and connected networks of bike and pedestrian infrastructure around Richmond, the completion of The Great American Rail-Trail similarly resonates with the event promoter.

“We work on bike and pedestrian advocacy, we work to get trails built, so although this won’t be something here in Richmond, how cool would that be if we could help get the trail get built across the country?” Lugbill said. “It’s trying what we do locally with something bigger nationally.”