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Woodburn grad Philip LaDuca bikes cross country with his cousin to Brown University

COURTESY PHOTO: PHILIP LADUCA - Philip LaDuca takes a break midway through his cross country bicycle trip from Oregon to Rhode Island in the Black Hills of South Dakota, with the back side of Mount Rushmore visible far behind his right shoulder.Philip LaDuca is no stranger to traveling long distances. But 4,000 miles? That's another story altogether.

Yet despite having never owned a bicycle, possessing little to no experience and being in the midst of a global pandemic, the former Woodburn distance runner made the trek of a lifetime — biking from the Pacific Ocean to Rhode Island — in two months during the summer of 2020.

"I come from a family of people who have done very adventurous things," LaDuca said. "It was me and my cousin's turn to carry on the tradition."

Plans for the journey began in late 2019 during LaDuca's senior year at Woodburn High School. After being inspired by the Che Guevara biopic, "The Motorcycle Diaries," LaDuca was compelled to follow suit. While applying for college admissions, he vowed to bike cross-country to whatever university he got accepted into.

When he was accepted into Brown University, located in Providence near the Atlantic Ocean, the full scope of his commitment became clear.

Rather than balk at the sheer enormity of the undertaking, LaDuca dived headlong into the task of preparation in January.

LaDuca was prepared to make the trip alone after his cousin Jonah originally was unable to join due to study abroad commitments. After COVID-19 canceled those plans, the two joined forces and set out on June 14. Armed perhaps with more ambition than common sense, the pair set forth from Lincoln City, traveling to Salem, Portland and into Washington where they followed the Columbia River Gorge on their way due east for the next 120 days.

COURTESY PHOTO: PHILIP LADUCA - LaDuca (right) and his cousin Jonah are geared up on the opening leg of their journey, pausing for a break at Jonah's home in Salem before traveling north into Portland and Washington before biking east along the Columbia River Gorge.PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - LaDuca was an avid distance runner at Woodburn High School, competing at the varsity level for the Bulldogs' cross country team in the fall and track and field in the spring."We were complete beginners," LaDuca said. "Neither of us had owned a bike. We still hardly know how to do bike maintenance. The first time I changed a tire was in eastern Washington when I hit a rock."

As a distance runner, LaDuca knew that the opening leg of a race can make or break a competition, which applied naturally to a cross-country bike ride as well.

"The start of the trip was by far the hardest. For the first week, every day would be a complete roller coaster of emotions," he said. "Once you get through it, you find your groove and that's what happened to us."

The lack of training nearly spelled disaster before LaDuca even cleared the Pacific Northwest. Less than a week into his trip, LaDuca's right knee began to swell and become painful, a result of not being properly fit to his bike.

"This is super important," LaDuca said. "If anybody wants to do this, you've got to get your bike fit. Your knees need to not have any lateral movement. It needs to be straight up and down."

A quick trip to a local bike shop provided an easy fix for free, but soon he was beset by another problem — swollen, pus-filled hives had begun to form on his feet.

"I ended up going to two dermatologists," LaDuca said. "It was sweat glands getting disturbed because I didn't have enough socks. A nice pair of socks can make a huge difference."

COURTESY PHOTO: PHILIP LADUCA - LaDuca and his cousin Jonah take a photo on the I-205 bridge into Washington after crossing the first state off their journey in June.Once LaDuca and Jonah left Washington, the trip began to fall into a steady rhythm. The pair aimed for northern Idaho and into Montana, dropping down into Wyoming through Yellowstone National Park and toward the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The more they biked, the more they built their endurance. Soon they were biking 70, 80, 100 miles per day.

"We'd look for campsites on the way and we'd kind of hop bodies of water," LaDuca said. "There's nothing better than ending at a lake and getting to jump in after a long day of biking."

Coming down from the Rocky Mountains, the two would use the elevation and tailwinds to their advantage, using an app that tracked wind speed and direction to make sure they rode with the wind at their back as much as possible.

PMG FILE PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - With spring track and field season canceled due to COVID-19, LaDuca was able to spend that time preparing for his two-month summer trip."There were times when a nice tailwind would come at sunset, and we'd turn the lights on on our bike and we just rode until 3 a.m. and then stopped at a rest stop and passed out," LaDuca said. "That was incredible, out in the middle of nowhere. No clouds, no moon, full view of the Milky Way. It's breathtaking."

The duo found providence sometimes in unexpected places. A pair of young cross-country bicyclists sticks out like a sore thumb to those who know what to look for.

"You kind of stick out," LaDuca said. "You don't always see people doing bike trips. You attract attention."

The pair attracted the attention of rock climbers in the Black Hills who had experience with long-distance biking. They offered their home as an overnight refuge and took them climbing on a 100-foot cliff face the next day.

"He understood how good staying with someone could be, and he was willing to offer us some place to stay," LaDuca said. "That was always a treat, if you had someone who could lend you their backyard, or relatives that would let you shower."

From there, they continued east into Wisconsin on their way to Chicago, where Jonah would take his leave for college. As fate would have it, the storage rack on Jonah's bike gave out three days outside of the Windy City, forcing LaDuca to carry whatever bare essential equipment Jonah couldn't mail.

COURTESY PHOTO: PHILIP LADUCA - LaDuca learned halfway through his trip to Rhode Island that freshman classes at Brown University would be pushed back to January due to COVID-19, forcing him to fly back to Oregon upon completion of his journey.COURTESY PHOTO: PHILIP LADUCA - LaDuca and his cousin Jonah were inspired to make their cross-country journey after watching 'The Motorcycle Diaries,' a 2004 biopic of Che Guevara's motorcycle trips across South America.After taking leave of his cousin, LaDuca began the solo journey east. Prior to parting ways in Chicago, LaDuca learned that freshman classes at Brown had been postponed until January, but there was no going back at this point, so he pressed on through Ohio, Pennsylvania and into upstate New York.

"Once we separated, it was my turn to have full control over what I'm going to do," LaDuca said. "It almost gave me an even greater sense of freedom where I could, quite literally, decide what I wanted to do, in terms of where I wanted to go and when I wanted to take a break."

LaDuca passed the time listening to audiobooks and had a relatively easy trip the rest of the way, taking advantage of numerous bike trails south of the Great Lakes. Family members in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, New York, provided a place to stay in the final leg before cutting down from Albany to Providence.

COURTESY PHOTO: PHILIP LADUCA - Upon reaching his destination at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, LaDuca took a celebratory selfie to commemorate the 4,000-mile trip.LaDuca reached his destination on Aug. 17, toured the campus for the first time and flew back to Oregon several days later. He's able to take one online class from home in the interim before full-time classes in January and would like to pursue astronomy and astrophysics.

Reflecting on his trip, LaDuca said he has a greater appreciation for the natural landscape of the country, seeing first-hand the geographical wonders of the northern United States.

"You get to feel the landscape," he said. "When you bike up a hill, you know how many you've got to go up, because you've suffered through all those hills. It's important to slow down and take in the surroundings. Appreciate the more subtle things in nature."

He also was left with inspiration to just what he can accomplish when he puts his mind to a task.

"With a bit of training, you realize the limits you have in your mind are way too constricting," LaDuca said. "Humans are capable of a lot. It's very cool to go out there and push your own perceived limits."

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