Cross-country cyclists meet in 'Cajun Crossroads'

They travel through Avoyelles Parish each year -- about 100 solitary silent cyclists pedaling their way from sea to shining sea. It should be no surprise that from time to time these non-motorized “road warriors” would cross paths in the “Cajun Crossroads.”

One such meeting occurred this past week in Bunkie, and it not only symbolized a joining of the nation’s coasts but also a meeting of two continents and bridging of two generations.

Paul Coolen is a 60-year-old pharmacist and teacher from a small town in northern Belgium who decided to start his cross-continent cycle trek from New Orleans to San Francisco on April 3.

Jan-Edward Gierlaca, 18, just graduated from a Chicago-area high school in December. He flew out to San Diego to begin his American road trip on Feb. 7. He plans on reaching his final destination of St. Augustine, Fla., by early May.

The two men paused and shared their cycling experiences during a chance meeting at the Bunkie Fire Station on the night of April 5. They ate dinner at Pizza Hut that night, slept on couches at the Fire Station and then ate breakfast at the Bunkie Shell Station at Lexington and Main before parting ways -- one going east and one going west.

Despite the difference in culture, nationality and age, the two developed a friendship rooted in a common love of cycling and adventure.

Coolen is a veteran cyclist who has tried to do a bicycling tour each year since the 1990’s. He has left his hometown of Heusden-Zolder to pedal the roads of South America, India, Nepal, Cambodia and throughout Europe.

He is married with two grown children.

Coolen’s route will take him through Dallas and Las Vegas before he finishes his trip in San Francisco.

‘MAIDEN VOYAGE'

Gierlaca is on his “maiden voyage” as a long-distance cyclist. After finishing his mission, he will decide on a college and enroll this fall.

Coolen’s son used to be his partner on the road, from the age of 6 to 18. Now they both continue their love of cycling with solo trips.

Perhaps Gierlaca reminded Coolen of that last father-son adventure.

Why would someone expose themselves to the sun, rain and wind, push their body to the physical limit and be away from the creature comforts that are so much a part of our modern lives?

“Health is one factor for taking the trips,” Coolen said. “My father died at an early age.”

For Gierlaca, he is raising funds and awareness of three issues that have personal meaning to him. Those causes are lung cancer, which claimed the life of his grandfather; ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in honor of a close friend who died from that disease; and hospice care, which provided such loving care for his grandmother before she passed away.

“My parents were nervous at first, but they got behind me before the trip started,” Gierlaca said. “I usually talk to them every couple of days, but it depends on cell phone service.”

One highlight of his trip has been his first-ever visit to the South.

Gierlaca said he tries to average 60 miles a day, but has had to travel farther than that during certain parts of the trip.

The only problem he had between California and Bunkie had been a pack of aggressive dogs he encountered in New Mexico.

“I didn’t know what to really expect from the people along the route when I started,” Gierlaca said. “The people in the South and here in Bunkie are very friendly. It has been a great experience.”

Coolen agreed, saying he never makes sightseeing plans for his trips, preferring to let the local residents recommend places he should visit along his route.

Another plus to seeing the country from the seat of a leg-powered bike is the chance to meet and talk to more people than is possible when touring by motor vehicle.

“The people in America are more open and positive than the people in Europe,” Coolen said. “Every day is an experience. Riding the bike across the United States is impressive because you are close to the country and close to nature.”

Coolen may have enlisted another young man into the ranks of dedicated cyclists.

“This is my first trip on a bicycle, but I do plan to do more in the future,” Gierlaca said. “After listening to Coolen, it may be trips to Europe.”

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