Local Lifestyle

Saturday, Mar 16 2013 11:56 PM

HERB BENHAM: Cycling through life keeping this rider alive

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Avid bike rider Jim Roach.

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By The Bakersfield Californian

We met Jim Roach in front of the Fox Theater at the end of a Tuesday lunch ride. Glenn started the conversation. We were on fancy road bikes and Roach was riding a sturdy steel bike that would have worked fine if he were delivering mail through rain or snow.

Roach, 62, didn't look familiar, although cyclists are more apt to identify each other through their bikes. "Oh, I know you, you ride the black Cannondale."

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"You read the newspapers and listen to the news and you get the impression that the world is a mean, cruel place. It isn't, except for one cop in Gay Hill, Texas."

-- Jim Roach

Roach had a drifter quality to him that stopped this side of homeless. Glenn asked for his number. Roach gave him a card that had his name, number and a website -- jimsfrogs.blogspot.com -- chronicling his adventures.

You see these people traveling on bikes. You wonder. Where have they been? Where are they going?

A few days later, I called him. We talked. If one-tenth of what he says is true, Roach is the second coming of Forrest Gump.

He says he's walked across Africa, been arrested three times as a spy -- once, he was condemned to death in Lagos and he escaped prior to being executed. He said he was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to write a thesis paper in Berkeley for a student at Johns Hopkins who later sold it to Chevron for $4 million.

Roach either has great stories or imagination to spare.

"I wish I knew how much was real and how much was BS," said his daughter, Sarah Roach, who lives in the Bay Area and works for GGblue, a women's golf clothing company. "I know some of it is true because you can see the pictures on his blog."

Roach, who was raised in Janesville, Wis., has dedicated his life to travel.

At 18, he drifted to Oceanside and worked on a tomato farm. He sunk his savings into a six-month trip to Europe followed by six years in Europe, Africa and Australia. Roach sold leather bracelets, belts, chokers and headbands to tourists to get by. I've seen those people and now I've met one.

"By the time I was 27, I had been to 70 countries," Roach said.

Roach wasn't staying at the Ritz. He was doing the Lonely Planet before the planet was lonely. Roach may not have invented adventure travel, but he was adventure-rich.

At 27, he returned to Berkeley from Australia with his pregnant girlfriend soon to be first wife. The plan was: have the baby, then six months later, the three of them would hit the road.

"She got pregnant again with twins and that was it for awhile," Roach said.

He switched gears, was a stay-at-home dad for seven years and helped support the family -- which now includes Cahl, 34; 32-year-old twin girls, Sally and Sarah; and Robin, 28 -- by writing thesis papers.

After his divorce, Roach stayed in the Bay Area, built three houses and parented in his own way.

"He was more like a friend than a father," Sarah said. "He's the guy you could call if you got too wasted and couldn't drive."

In 1991, when Roach was 40, he said doctors found a tumor on the nerves in the hip.

"I had multiple surgeries," Roach said. "I was flat on my back for a year and then in a wheelchair for a couple of years after that."

Roach could barely stand or walk. A friend came over on a bike and told him he could ride. Roach disagreed.

"He insisted and so I jumped on his fancy 10-speed," Roach said. "He was right. I could ride. The more I rode, the less pain I was in."

Roach got up to 50 miles a day. Last year, he completed a 7,000-mile bike trip that took 102 days (67 days riding) and went across the southern U.S. -- California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana and beyond.

Roach has been on disability since 1994, receiving $1,007 per month. How does that work traveling like he does?

"He mooches, he's frugal and he makes friends," Sarah said.

He camps in churches, firehouses and on the sides of roads. There is a group nationwide called "Warm Showers," that hosts touring cyclists.

His kids think he's nuts, but there is grudging respect too. They have this father who could have written the sequel to "On the Road."

That explains everything except how he found Bakersfield. This is his second winter here. He rents a room from a woman in south Bakersfield.

"I'm in chronic pain and the Bay Area is not good for chronic pain," Roach said. "I was looking for the hottest, driest weather in California and I found Bakersfield."

In April, Roach will travel to the Bay Area where he will leave on his next 7,000-mile, six-mountain range, 102 days of riding trip, that will go through Seattle, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and up into the northeast.

Gear includes four panniers packed with a sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, cooking gear, first-aid kit, two changes of clothes, a computer, camera and phone -- about 45 pounds of equipment. He uses bike-friendly maps from Adventure Cycling.

His biggest problem is food. How to get enough of it. He lost 30 pounds on his last trip.

"I can burn 7,000 calories a day," Roach said.

On his last trip through Texas, he ordered two back-to-back jalapeno cheeseburgers and the waitress almost fainted.

Motorists stop and hand him water when it's hot. They are curious and friendly.

"You read the newspapers and listen to the news and you get the impression that the world is a mean, cruel place," Roach said. "It isn't, except for one cop in Gay Hill, Texas."

Roach is thankful he can do this.

"Bike riding saved my life," he said.

Roach finds it painful to sit, stand and walk. Biking gives him relief. That doesn't seem crazy at all.

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