After biking 3,500 miles coast-to-coast across 14 states, Aaron Neufeld and six others finally reached what looked like a mirage -- the George Washington Bridge.
Peering through a chained fence in disbelief, the recent Stony Brook University graduate just about teared up.
“I literally biked every inch from coast to coast,” said Neufeld, 22, of North Woodmere. “It’s very surreal. You’re working toward this goal and then you show up and see the city and you realize you made it. It’s too surreal and absolutely the experience of a lifetime.”
Last spring, Neufeld and six other cyclists from across the country and overseas signed up to participate in the second annual Bike 4 Friendship cross-country bicycle ride.
The group started on its trek in Los Angeles on July 1 and reached their destination in New York on Aug. 19. About 40 others joined the group, biking shorter segments over the seven weeks.
The riders raised at least $5,000 each for Friendship Circle International, a Jewish organization that helps foster friendships between teen volunteers and children with disabilities. Neufeld surpassed his goal by raising $5,025 and all the riders collectively raised $72,407.
On their first day in Los Angeles, Neufeld and the others rode to a nearby beach to dip their tires in the Pacific Ocean as tradition with an end goal to dip the tires when reaching the Atlantic.
The group averaged 80 miles a day, over the course of eight hours. In the first two weeks, temperatures reached over 100 degrees during the day, so they biked at night, between 2 a.m. and 10 a.m. By the time they reached New Mexico, they switched back to a normal schedule of lights out at 8 p.m. and waking up the next day at 5 a.m.
“Our favorite state was Colorado,” Neufeld said. “We saw the Rocky Mountains, going south to north, and the sand dunes were like a mini Sahara Desert.”
Shmuly Lazaroff took the role of team captain, keeping the riders on schedule and adequately prepared for each day. Lazaroff and Neufeld were the only ones to make it coast-to-coast without any vehicular help.
“It was an amazing journey. It was the best way to see the states,” said Lazaroff, 24, a native of Houston, Texas. “Aaron rode in the front almost every day. He was really a stable and inspiring force on the ride and always had a good attitude.”
Neufeld would sing Queen’s “Bicycle Race,” while riding 2 mph uphill, in an attempt to inspire the guys struggling to push forward.
“The ride wouldn’t have been the same without him,” Lazaroff said. “All the guys looked to Aaron for stability to get through the tough days.”
At each stop, Neufeld kept up with his blog on Tumblr, posting video and photos from his iPhone. He kept a count of the 92 flats they accumulated. Along the way, he also kept track of the 712 roadkill bodies — including possums, raccoons, snakes, birds and elk — they passed. (Check out his Tumblr account at www.shluffy04.tumblr.com.)
Lazaroff added that his family and friends depended on Neufeld’s blog for travel updates.
Neufeld remembers scraping his arm on a cactus, a decision he made instead of cutting in front of a car, which he considered the lesser of two evils. He also recalled the scary, yet thrilling moment the group biked 60 mph down a steep incline in Pennsylvania, where they passed signs directing runaway trucks to ramps used during emergencies.
When they reached their destination, they arrived underneath an arch of balloons at the Friendship Circle of the Upper West Side to a roar of applause from family and friends.
Although his mother, Olivia Neufeld, called her son every day to check up on him, she was happy to see him take on such a journey.
“I was nervous, but thrilled that he wanted to undertake something so big for such a good cause,” said Neufeld, 53, of North Woodmere. “I’m really glad he had the opportunity to meet different people from all walks of life across the country.”
She said he was so different as a child -- the opposite of a risk taker.
“He was levelheaded and wouldn’t engage in anything the least bit scary,” she said. “It’s interesting to see that as a man he’s developed his sense of adventure.”
Instead of attaching his bike to the back of his parents’ car at the end of his journey, Neufeld got on his bike and sped off with his fellow riders to a beach in Brooklyn. There, they dipped their wheels in the Atlantic Ocean and appreciated the East Coast for the first time in months.
Check out newsday.com's map chronicling Aaron Neufeld's ride here.