“When I told my doctor, I wanted to go to the horn of Africa for three months with type 1 diabetes, he looked puzzled. Medical textbooks don’t tell you how to deal with a scenario like that,” says Erik, chuckling in a bright blue tee-shirt that read “Diabadass.” Erik Douds is certainly a badass! He’s recently completed a cycling trail across the United States with a large jar of peanut butter and jelly sitting on opposite sides of his handlebar. He is the founder of Diabetes Abroad, an initiative that engages and provides resources to a fast-growing online community of travelers with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. I sat with Erik to learn more about Diabetes Abroad and his personal passion for cycling.
Samina Siraj: What prompted you to spearhead Diabetes Abroad?
Erik Douds: Diabetes is an isolating disease and our community has recently begun to address that. I started Diabetes Abroad as a personal mission inspired by my grandfather who was diagnosed in 1940. The doctors told him he would live a short life, but he lived until 82. For me, the question of how long can we survive turned into: what are the limitations of what we can do and where we can go?
SS: Can you tell us more about Diabetes Abroad?
ED: Sure! Diabetes Abroad is an experimental diabetes-specific support network that allows for a global community of travelers who have pursued outdoor explorations to share their stories, information, advice, and knowledge. Experimental—meaning generating information unavailable in travel guides or medical journals for individuals with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. We basically share trials and errors: things that worked for us and things that didn’t.
“When I told my doctor, I wanted to go to the horn of Africa for three months with type 1 diabetes, he looked puzzled. Medical textbooks don’t tell you how to deal with a scenario like that.”
SS: How did you get involved in cycling?
ED: Years ago, I extended a study abroad trip in Copenhagen, Denmark after falling in love with the country. Copenhagen is known as the World’s Capital of Biking and almost everyone rides. Maybe it explains why they are also the world’s happiest people. The idea of a bike trip had always scratched at the back of my mind. It wasn’t until my friend Annalisa who proposed the idea of doing the Trans America Trail. The Trans Am, or Route 76 is a 4, 230-mile bike network from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia. She initially planned to do it the traditional way from the West Coast to East Coast but I wanted to join a group in British Columbia at the end of summer, so we decided to ride the opposite way. Having learned about cycling and the diabetic community at the same time—I think that’s why I’m still here. When you cycle, you pass through towns, you could end up in a church, a city park, or at a stranger’s home, that’s why cycling is so infectious: people see you and want to interact.
SS: How do you prepare for cycling journeys?
ED: People assume you need to be an extraordinary planner, but I believe going with the flow works better on these trips. When you’re going out for a few months, it’s difficult to plan it out. You need to consider whether your body is feeling good to take a short day, or to go 80 miles all day. There are so many hurdles and challenges but I learned going with the flow is an incredible strength. Being flexible is key.
SS: Do you maintain a specific diet?
ED: I start off the day with cooked lentils. You warm up a packet and throw all sorts of things in it—I know it’s unusual to have lentils for breakfast but it’s a high source of protein. I also finish a jar of peanut butter every two days.
SS: What is your biggest takeaway from cycling?
ED: My biggest takeaway from cycling across America is encountering the kindness and generosity of strangers. People always focus on the bad but that’s 1 out of 99. There are more instances of strangers going out of their way to help. You stick out your thumb on the road, and someone will STOP to help. In West Virginia, in a place typically stereotyped as not ‘bike-friendly,’ I was surprised to see a line of 15 cars waiting for me to pass without a single honk.
SS: What did you learn about the United States?
ED: Having cycled across America, I can now give you a real sense of what America looks like. When you meet people outside of your own viewpoints and backgrounds, and end up in places like Pastor Joe’s home who offers free lodging to cyclists riding along the TransAm, you realize how different people really are. When you’re stopping every 60 miles without identifying your destination or the place you’ll stay it creates a different type of experience. Strangers see you outside of the store with these bags hanging off your bike and ask how they could help. People often cooked us dinner and brought enough food for at least 15 people! Everyone is eager to lend a hand. I met so many kind individuals. You don’t hear about this sort of kindness in the news.
SS: How is cycling empowering?
ED: Cycling is healing and empowering. I always encourage people to take cycling trips, however big or small. Cycling radiates a super hero effect. Once you get out of the main city and have conversations with people in places like Kansas about where you’re from and where you originally started off, their expressions are amazing. Small towns aren’t accustomed to the craziness like in New York, so when a steel framed bike with four bags attached to it pulls up, people are like “what’s going on?” When you’re filling up water at gas stations or grabbing food, people are curious. And that’s how you meet people. You’re like a traveling circus but also a super hero.
Somedays I think I’ll be on a bike forever. There’s potential that I’ll be the first to cycle the world. The bike I ride now is my best friend’s older brother’s bike. I’m going to tell Jake “if I take this around the world, it’s mine!”
Join Erik’s journey here: