The Man Who Rode to the Moon (and back) (twice)

I read the story of Freddie Hoffman in the July 2001 issue of Bicycling Magazine. Before I originally posted this page, I did a search on the web to try to find more information about him, and found that he has been an inspiration to many cyclists and others around the world. Many people seem to be looking for this article, so I have reproduced it here without permission. I hope the folks at Bicycling are good sports and don’t complain to me. If they make the article available on their web site, I would be glad to replace this page with a link to their article.

By Sean Coffey
Photography by Michael Darter

Hoffman1.jpgFreddie Hoffman is a geek. His ride, a battered Schwinn Voyager, is clad with a chrome steel cruiser bar, fenders, front and rear racks, eight taillights, six front flashers and a generator light. His handlebar is cluttered with a bar-mounted compass, cable-driven odometer, Avocet cyclometer, a squeeze-style horn and an electric air horn, and a small towel for nose-wiping. The bike easily outweighs many downhill bikes, and Hoffman doesn’t look much better–he has a noticable spare tire around his midsection and rides in the same faded blue sweatpants, stained T-shirt and grubby gray hooded sweatshirt he wore the day before.

Freddie Hoffman is one of the most accomplished cyclists in the world. He could kick your ass.

The 43-year-old New Jersey native wiggles his no-name running shoes into toe clips. His lifetime odometer stands at an astonishing 1,202,625 miles. His top tube reads “To the Moon and Back, Twice.”

He pushes off and turns an easy gear at a buttery-smooth 80 rpm, then begins clicking through the gears, which shift as swiftly as those on a pro racer’s bike. He automatically maintains the 80-rpm cadence through each increase in resistance, until he reaches a cruising speed of 18 mph.

Hoffman rides completely upright, only rising from the saddle to absorb a particularly rough section of road. He dives into corners with the confidence of a seasoned criterium racer. In traffic he’s comfortable but wary, using his hand-squeeze horn to blat gentle warnings to motorists, and resorting to the alarming blast of his high-powered compressed air horn for drivers who could turn into his path. Three towns from his home, somewhere in southern New York, a motorist shouts a greeting to him by name, to which Hoffman casually waves. He doesn’t recognize the driver, but it happens all the time–everyone within a one-day riding range knows who he is.

Forty miles pass beneath his worn, 700x40c hybrid tires in just over 2 hours, and Hoffman’s no slower or more physically worn than he was upon first swinging his leg over the bike. This is just his first ride for the day. He’ll churn out another 20-40 miles before he turns in for his customary 6 hours of sleep, which he says is enough for him to recover from all but the hardest rides. On a typical day, he goes for two or three rides for a total of anywhere from 50 to 120 miles, and during the summer, he does up to 200 miles a day, often for days on end.

Freddie Hoffman’s life is an incarnation of the fantasy we’ve all rolled through our heads after a particularly wonderful day of cycling–“What if all I had to do was ride?” he lives at home with his 84-year old father and works a modest job as a nighttime church custodian. He has no wife, no kids, and he hasn’t ridden with someone else in a decade.

“My life socially is like the surface of Mars–barren, lifeless so to speak. Unchanged and monotonous,” he says. “How many 40-year-olds do you know who’ve never had a date, never driven a car and have no desire to do so?

“I’m happy, but I’m abnormal.”

He was born oxygen-deprived and suffered slight brain damage. It’s not apparent until you hear him speak, when a slight stutter and cartoon-like drawl undercut his heavy New Jersey accent. His motor skills, writing and information processing were also affected. It’s not the sort of thing that keeps him from tying his shoes, but it distinguishes him from what he calls “normal people” enough that he claims to be incapable of functioning like everyone else. “In school, I couldn’t work in a class with 30 other kids and finish a project within a specified time frame. I was slower, and there was nothing I could do about that.”

Childhood was hard on Hoffman, and he doesn’t have many good memories that don’t involve cycling. His disability made him a social outcast, so he didn’t enjoy baseball games, summer camp and sleepovers like most kids. His bicycle helped him ride away from his problems. When he rode, he says, he felt normal.

“Cycling was something I could do on my own, and I needed something I could do to nurture myself. I could go ff on my own little journeys in my own little world, and do what I want, when I want, wherever. I built a world for myself around my bike riding. My bike served as my playmat, my brother and my counselor. Anytime I was riding, I was happy.”

On a lazy summer afternoon in 1969, Freddie Hoffman sat alone on the floor of his parents’ house, watching a black-and-white television as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. Lots of kids wanted to be astronauts after that, but Freddie’s desire to go to the moon was more desperate and emotional. He won’t express the idea this explicitly, but you can imagine him envying the astronauts’ ability to leave this world behind, go into their own private space capsule and ride to a place where they’d emerge into glory and admiration.

Hoffman2.jpgThat day, the child vowed to ride to his own unreachable place–the 500,000-mile mark, the distance to the moon and back.

His obsession is chronicled in a pile of handmade and meticulously maintained mileage logs he started keeping in 1965, at the age of 7. He’s estimated his mileage going back to age 5, when his riding consisted of 1/2-mile laps around the block on a tricycle, sometimes adding up to 15 miles in a day. His totals piled up quickly. “I did my first centry on a Schwinn Sting-Ray, with just one gear, and rode 19 centuries in a year at age 10. That’s a lot for a little kid.” Riding was so important to him that his mother’s most severe punishment (usually administered for riding too far from home) was to not allow him to ride. Even then, Hoffman would sneak out in the middle of the night to ride. When he hit half a million miles, he says, he was neither satisfied nor tired of riding, so he simply decided to go for a million miles–about two trips to the moon and back.

In what he calls “The Roaring Eighties,” a decade of mild winters, he rode 506,900 miles–a little more than 50,000 miles per year. His mileage log is peppered with 200-mile-plus days. In 1983, he rode 200 miles or more on all but 8 days in August, and even those shorter days ranged from 120-195 miles. In 1988, he averaged 142 miles a day for the entire year, about 1,100 a week.

It’s astounding. On an ergometer test he took in his mid-20’s, Hoffman endured a staggering 33 minutes–top racers of the era such as Davis Phinney and three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond typically held out for around 20 minutes.

Hoffman had taken the test at the request of Mike Fraysee, a veteran USCF coach who stumbled onto Freddie and tried to get him into racing. “I won local Cat 4 races,” Hoffman says, “and there was a time when I was in the top 6 or 7 in the district every year, but I was always short of placing.”

The engine wasn’t the problem–Hoffman couldn’t adapt to the tactics and speed of racing or, especially, to the equipment. “I would not be able to function on the type of equipment I needed to race on to maximize my power. You can’t pedal thousands of miles on a touring bike, and then get on a tight, aerodynamic racing bike and expect to ride at 100 percent efficiency. Racing was just an experiment. I didn’t have the right attitude for it. I kind of feel bad that I never won a good race for Mike Fraysee.”

Freddie Hoffman realized his dream of riding a million miles after 32 years of riding an average of 84 miles a day. It was August 8, 1996, in the middle of the high plains of Colorado. He was alone.

“I was on top of the world. I felt like I had really climbed into a rocket years ago and had been traveling for light-years, for decades,” he says. Uncharacteristically, emotion seeps into his flat tone. His eyes shine.

To quell potential naysayers, and to compensate for any margin of error in his mile-measuring equipment or training logs, he didn’t tell anyone he’d ridden the million until a few months–and thousands of miles–afterward.

The same thing happened that had happened when he’d reached half-a-million miles: Nothing. Freddie Hoffman was Freddie Hoffman, and a million miles wasn’t another planet. It’s telling that he didn’t simply double his goal the way he did previously.

Hoffman3.jpgHis annual mileage is down to 35,000-38,000 miles–an unreachable, 100-miles-every-day year for the rest of us–but the miles are no longer the only point.

His mother died of leukemia in 1986, and in addition to naming his bike, Ruth E., after her, he now uses his superhuman mileage to raise money for leukemia research. He spends his summers doing two- and three-month fund-raising voyages from New Jersey into the Colorado Rockies and beyond, totally alone and self-supported, not unlike a space mission, though he does stay in hotels for the showers, beds, and air conditioning.

Hoffman has crossed the country 20 times, and he has photo albums stuffed with pictures of everything from scenery to befriended locals. And he can recall anecdotes to go with each one–like the time he watched a photographer cross “Do Not Cross” fences to get a good picture and drop an expensive camera and tripod into the Royal Gorge, or the day he watched another cyclist ride off a cliff in Colorado, presumably to his death, or the Parade of Bicycles that happens on July 4 in Shelby, Ohio.

He spends three months before these adventures riding 500 miles a week to canvas up to 5,000 sponsors, for anything from a fraction of a penny to a nickel a mile. He doesn’t take any of the donations to supplement his meager income or help foot the bill for equipment and travel expenses. “I have a separate sponsor that helps with my expenses when I’m on the road,” he says. His single-handed fund-raising effort of nearly $500,000 has earned him a high ranking on the Northern New Jersey Leukemia Society’s list of major fund-raisers–right between the mammoth contributions from corporations like Johnson & Johnson and Turner Broadcasting.

On his kitchen counter sits a handmade toteboard with paper numbers flipped to $38,308, the amount of money he’s raised this year so far. As he sits at the table guzzling a gallon of orange juice after a ride, he’s ringed by six framed letters and plaques hanging on the walls among family photos and decorations.

There are also hand-signed letters of appreciation from George Bush, Bill Clinton, the U.S. Congress and high-ranking state officials. He’s shaken hands with 22 governors and received the key to the city of Quincy, Illinois.

“I meet and get stuff from all kinds of important people,” he says casually. He’s proud of his accomplishments–there’s a hint as he catalogs his awards and describes his fund-raising, but it becomes undeniable when he bristles when compared to perhaps the only other cyclist who’s raised more money for medical research than he has.

“I should have been on the Wheaties box instead of Lance Armstrong,” he says. “Lance Armstrong owes the fact that they fixed him up in part to people that do work like I do. I’m out there riding and doing all the door-to-door fund-raising. Before Armstrong had that [cancer] I didn’t hear about him going out and pounding the pavement, raising money for research, but after he was cured, then it was a big deal, then he used his big name and his notoriety. I do it the old-fashioned way, by myself, pedaling my butt off. I do a hell of a lot more work when it comes to raising the money. But,” he concludes in a shot a diplomacy, “I do admire Lance’s fund-raising efforts, accomplishments and Tour de France victories.”

He handles his plaques as if they’re made of porcelain, and stores them in protective boxes. Even so, you can sense a very vague discontent, a feeling that the plaques, and even the cash, have become like the miles. Endlessly spooling out, but not really taking him where he wants to go. That kid watching the black-and-white TV is still looking for a place to land.

Now there’s the movie. Freddie’s combination of athletic ability and determination, mental disability and sideways fame draw inevitable comparisons to Forrest Gump. When his few acquaintances–Richard Schwinn of Waterford Cycles or the employees of bike shops near his home–compare him to Gump, Hoffman takes it as a compliment. He’s watched the movie two dozen times and admits the similarities are striking–both he and Gump lost their mothers to cancer.

“Someday,” he says, “I might go into a store and see my life on the shelf.” A producer bought the rights to make a movie about Hoffman, currently being pitched to studios. Freddie’s hopes for the movie are both practical–and end to financial uncertainty, since he has no retirement fund or 401k–and fanciful: He dreams of walking up a red-carpeted aisle in a tuxedo to accept an Oscar for Best Picture, an honor the producer promised him.

Would he ride the next day?

It’s 11:30 p.m. Hoffman is on his bike, the only place where he feels normal, happy to endure the night’s sub-30-degree temperature–plus the windchill of pedaling 20 mph. He’s wearing the same blue sweatpants, T-shirt and gray sweathshirt he wore earlier, and the day before. He’s done this particular ride just about every night for 21 years: to the church where he does his nightly janitor work for sub-welfare wages. It’s one ride with a destination he knows he can reach. Hoffman4.jpg

3 Responses

  1. […] mile was cycling nirvana.  Michigan is very beautiful. I met an amazing person today, his name is Freddie Hoffman, Google this guy makes Lance Armstrong look like a pussy.  Let’s just say in the year 2002 […]

  2. […] Oh, and it turns out 150,000 miles is not such a big deal anyway. It appears the guy with the most lifetime bike miles is a fellow named Freddie Hoffman. He’s had over a million miles under his belt — for years. Here’s his story. […]

  3. […] The Man Who Rode to the Moon and back twice | Miles 4 Melanoma. […]

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