Women on Bikes Series: Barb O'Kones

I am a 64 year old grandmother who lives in West Union, Iowa. After many years of teaching special education at East Elementary in Waukon, I retired in 2011 and am enjoying a busy, active retirement. Although I loved teaching, the freedom of retirement enables me to do things that were not possible when I was working.   In addition to cycling, I enjoy gardening, basket weaving, playing piano and organ, traveling by car with my husband and spending time with family, especially my three grandsons. 
One item on my bucket list was riding the Southern Tier Route from St. Augustine, FL to San Diego, CA. Recently my brother and I successfully completed this self-contained tour riding over 3100 miles in 9 weeks.

When did you first start riding a bike? 
I first rode a bike as a child but did not do any serious riding until 1996 when my brother planned a family cross country trip from Anacortes, WA to Yorktown, VA. This trip included siblings, as well as, nieces and nephews.  Two support vehicles the accompanied the group. I started riding early that spring in hopes that I could bike with them for a couple of weeks during that summer. My goal was to be able to ride 25 miles each day. Although I was unable to get away for the whole summer, I rode for a week in Montana and a week in Iowa.  Much to my surprise I was able to ride 60-90 miles and complete each day during those two weeks!

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years? 
Initially I was motivated because I lost weight without even trying when I began riding in 1996. In those days I weighed 235 pounds and was quite unfit. Today I'm no feather weight, but my weight has remained far below that number, and I am much healthier because of cycling. Over the years, I have participated in many organized rides. A huge motivation for group rides is the opportunity to meet new people who share the love of cycling.

What made you realize that cycling was something you were passionate about?
I feel such joy and freedom when I'm on my bike. The stress, frustration, and pressure of everyday life just seem to disappear. I love being outside surrounded by nature, and traveling by bike allows me to see things I would miss if I were in a car. The world looks and feels different from the seat of a bicycle.

Have you had any accidents or situations that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome? 
Fortunately, nothing serious has happened to me while biking. A few years ago while riding on a road just a few miles from home I was bitten by a dog. After that I tried to mentally and emotionally prepare myself for more dog encounters by deciding what course of action I would take when being chased by a dog. Usually I wait until the last second before screaming as loudly as I can. If the dog does not back off and continues to chase, I typically stop and get off my bike. For me, fumbling for a water bottle to squirt or trying to outrun the dog doesn't work as well. My anxiety level still rises when a dog barks and chases, but I don't panic like I used to.

Two years ago I crashed on a city street in Syracuse, NY, while riding on the Cycling the Erie Canal bike tour. I was following my sister-in-law when a traffic light turned yellow. When she stopped suddenly, I bumped her rear tire and went down hard. I had a minor elbow injury and some road rash. Today I am much more careful not to follow a rider so closely.

This year you and your brother rode the Southern Tier, what inspired the both of you to go on such an adventure? 
Ever since becoming a Warm Showers host nearly three years ago, I'd had a burning desire to do an epic self-contained bike tour. Listening to the touring cyclists' stories fascinated me. Watching my guests take off in the morning left me longing to hop on my bike and join them. My husband doesn't ride, and the few female friends that I occasionally ride with are not into self-contained touring. I approached my brother Jerome with the idea of the two of us riding the Southern Tier together. Much to my delight he sent me a set of Adventure Cycling's Southern Tier maps for Christmas last year.

How long did it take for the two of you to plan your trip? 
It was about 8 months from the time I received the set of maps to beginning our trip in St. Augustine, FL..

What was one of the most inspiring moments you had on your ride? 
Rather than one defining moment, inspiration often came from the amazing people that we met along the way.  Total strangers everywhere showed us such kindness. This trip really restored my faith in the goodness of people and the greatness of this country. 

What would’ve been one of the more trying moments you encountered? 
Some of the challenges were heat, humidity, headwinds, mountains, and long stretches of desert without services. But the most trying moment for me was in Arizona between Globe and Superior. There was a stretch through the mountains with heavy traffic which included large mining trucks and equipment on a road with virtually no shoulder. Rumbles had been cut into the edge of the pavement and overgrown mesquite bushes with sharp thorns forced us out on to the highway with drivers that refused to slide left. To make matters worse, at one point we had to descend at a 7% grade through the Queen Creek Tunnel. Trying to keep our heavily loaded bikes under control while descending through the tunnel in the traffic lane with the deafening sounds of a semi behind us echoing off the tunnel walls was the scariest moment of the entire trip!

Not necessarily a challenge, but occurring after a close encounter with a rude driver while crossing a long bridge in eastern Texas, I found the horseshoe lying beside the road. I picked it up figuring either it would bring me good luck or I could throw it through someone's car window if they were being a jerk. Prior to the horseshoe, I had had two flats. After the horseshoe, 0. Jerome, on the other hand, had something like 18.  So maybe I should have recommended picking up a good luck charm when touring!

Did you discover anything about yourself on the ride? 
Yes, I discovered that I had the strength and resolve to complete this trip, both physically and mentally. What a sense of accomplishment to know that this 64 year old grandma rode her bike and carried all her gear over 3100 miles from St. Augustine, FL to San Diego, CA!

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to do a long-distance bike ride?
Go for it! It was an amazing experience and one of the most rewarding things I've done in my life.  

What do you love about riding your bike? 
As I mentioned before, I love the feeling of joy and freedom that cycling brings. Riding enriches my life and improves my physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
When I began riding in 1996, it was on a Schwinn mountain bike that belonged to one of my sons. I had slick tires put on and used it for touring. In 1999 I bought a Trek 7700 hybrid before riding my first RAGBRAI. I rode that bike until 2011 when I ordered a custom built Surly Long Haul Trucker as a retirement present for myself.  Travis at Decorah Bicycles built the bike for me. At the time, my intent was to do some touring, but NOT to haul all the gear. 

My goal was to be able ride long distances in comfort carrying only clothes and personal items –  credit card type touring. But my brother Jerome talked me into trying a couple of week-long, self-contained tours. I loved it, and the rest is history. My Surly Long Haul Trucker is a wonderful bike for self-contained touring. It is also a nice multipurpose bike that has served me well for various types of recreational riding.

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?
The touring items that I absolutely love and could not do without are my Terry Butterfly Century saddle and my Ortlieb panniers (front, rear, and handlebar bag with map case).

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling?
I think many women feel that they are not capable of cycling because they are not super athletes. The wonderful thing about cycling is that anyone can do it regardless of age, sex, body type, or level of fitness. I also wonder how many women have tried cycling but due to negative experiences have given it up. A well-fitting bike along with the appropriate gear make all the difference in the world. Another factor may be lack of a female friend to ride with. In my case, I almost always ride alone because there just are not many women in West Union that cycle. Finding a compatible biking partner can be difficult.

What do you feel could happen to make changes and/or encourage more women to ride? 
Having weekly group rides for women in the area would be a good start. I would hope that some of those rides could be structured so that no one gets dropped because that does more to discourage rather than encourage someone who is new to cycling. Teaching women the basics of bike maintenance and simple things like how to change a flat may help may boost their confidence and get them out on the roads or trails.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
I want to pass my love of cycling on to others with the hope that they too will become passionate about it.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I love the ocean and can spend hours walking the beach while watching the wildlife and picking up shells. Now that I'm retired we spend part of the winter in Florida along the Gulf where I walk the beach every day. Of course, I take advantage of the warm, sunny climate in Florida to do a lot of biking, too!


  1. That's so great! I want to spend my retirement riding bikes across the country too.


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