Overcoming allergies leads cyclist on long journey

Food allergies kept Stephen Kuhn from his dream of riding a bicycle across the country while in college, but 15 years later those allergies helped provide the motivation for him to achieve his dream.

Kuhn rode his bicycle this summer from Florence, Oregon, to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Kuhn averaged 122 miles a day on the 4,031-mile journey he completed in 33 days.

The 2006 graduate of Jacksonville High School got into bicycling at an early age. Kuhn’s grandparents, Alex and Mary Cole, moved to Jacksonville before the Kuhns arrived. His grandfather enjoyed cross-country cycling and Kuhn caught the bug.

“I would ride with my grandpa; 15 or 20 miles seemed like a lot. As I got older, I started biking longer distances. Then, I had a dream that I’d like to go across the country,” Kuhn said.

But Kuhn had to be careful while riding because he had food allergies, seasonal allergies, eczema and asthma. He has anaphylactic reactions to peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish.

“That can be a problem because granola and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are food staples for cyclists eating on the go,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn was active in cycling while a student at Washington University in St. Louis. When members of the groups he was involved with organized cross-country rides, he was unable to participate because groups were unprepared to deal with someone with food allergies and they were reluctant to accept the liability of a severe reaction along the ride.

Drinking fountains and restaurants other cyclists would stop at were too risky. He also would have had to carry everything required for his ride, including food, water, an EpiPen and an inhaler.

After he got out of school and started working as a mechanical engineer in St. Louis, Kuhn no longer had the summer break that would allow him to take three months off.

When the pandemic hit, Kuhn and his wife, Adrienne Knapp, decided they needed to stay active, so they got out their bikes and riding again became a daily thing.

“I could do a 200-mile back-to-back ride on weekends,” Kuhn said. “Then I told my grandma that I’d done 100,000 miles during the pandemic. She told me I was ready to ride across the country.”

A ride seemed to be a perfect opportunity to bring awareness to food allergies and raise money along the way. Kuhn paid all expenses for the trip and all money raised goes to Food Allergy Research and Education, or FARE.

“When I was younger, not nearly as much was known about food allergies, and the internet was not around,” Kuhn said. “My family navigated allergies as best as they could. My family depended on FARE to learn about food. They were a big part of my early life.”

He started looking at routes, planning logistics and talking to his boss about taking some time off. After that was settled, he rented a recreational vehicle, and the trip was set. His mother, Helen Kuhn of Jacksonville, and his aunt, Heather Cole, drove Kuhn west to the starting point of the ride. They then accompanied him back to St. Louis, where his wife took over driving duties for the rest of the journey to South Carolina.

Kuhn generally followed the TransAmerica Trail. It starts in the northwest and winds through Idaho and Montana, then south through Wyoming and Colorado before heading east through Missouri.

“The RV allowed us to stop wherever we were and to bring along the food I could eat. We saw things we wanted to go back and visit,” Kuhn said. “A lot of the rides across the country are large groups, or one person with a lot of equipment. I could just cycle as fast as I could go because everything I had was in the RV.”

The roads Kuhn took were paved but generally were small county highways. In Wyoming, where the speed limit is 80 mph, the roads had no shoulders.

Perhaps surprisingly, the most difficult part of the trip was the RV.

“Tire problems in Wyoming were a challenge. We had to stop for the day and find a place where it could get fixed,” Kuhn said. “In the Appalachian Mountains, a box truck pushed my wife off the road and the awning on the RV got snagged in a tree, so we had to deal with that. There were rough roads the RV didn’t always handle well.”

The ride was challenging, but nothing Kuhn didn’t anticipate.

“There were some issues riding that many miles a day — repetitive-use injuries and muscle strains, but those were expected,” Kuhn said.

One detour Kuhn called fun was riding to the top of Pike’s Peak.

“It was the hardest climb of the trip,” Kuhn said. “It was one of the fun challenges and detours that I wanted to take.”

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