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Tour de force: 'Cycle-logical' bonding for students, professor

Professor Jeff Tester cycling toward Teton Pass, near the border between Idaho and Wyoming.
Professor Jeff Tester cycling toward Teton Pass, near the border between Idaho and Wyoming.
Photo / Rocco Ciccolini
From left, Professor Jeff Tester, grad student Andy Peterson, former grad student Phil Marrone and grad student Rocco Ciccolini take a break at the Idaho border.
From left, Professor Jeff Tester, grad student Andy Peterson, former grad student Phil Marrone and grad student Rocco Ciccolini take a break at the Idaho border.
Photo / Jim Hale

It's not unusual for MIT professors and their students to socialize outside the laboratory. But here's a word of warning to would-be members of Jeff Tester's lab: You might want to think about getting in shape.

Every spring, Tester leads a group of people, mostly his students and members of his lab, on a 65-mile bike trip along the Connecticut River from Lancaster, N.H., through Vermont and then into the Great North Woods of New Hampshire, near Canada. Some riders tack on an extra trip to the Canadian border at Fourth Lake that brings the round-trip total to about 100 miles.

Tester and his wife, Sue, started making the trip, which includes an overnight stay at a former hunting-and-fishing lodge called the Glen, in Pittsburg, N.H., more than 25 years ago. After a few years, students started asking if they could join the trek through the breathtaking scenery of northern New England.

"We decided to take whoever wanted to go," says Tester, the H.P. Meissner Professor of Chemical Engineering and an avid cyclist. "For some of the students it becomes sort of a rite of passage. It becomes a great achievement for them to make it to the Glen."

Over the years, more than 100 students and spouses have gone on the trip, which serves to build team spirit among members of the lab, according to Rocco Ciccolini, one of Tester's graduate students.

"Much like the focus within our group, cycling with Jeff has truly taught me how to persevere through tough times and has really led me to appreciate group interaction," says Ciccolini. "We're a team. We all look out for each other. Whether it's venting to each other about reactor leaks, riding a shift in the support van, making carb-loaded sandwiches to fuel the team, or being in charge of photo taking for the trip, all of our contributions are important and complementary."

Ciccolini and other students whose appetites for cycling are whetted by the northern New England trip often join Tester for an even greater challenge: pedaling across the United States.

Tester, who took up cycling in 1978 after hurting his knee playing basketball, has already traversed the continent once and is working on his second cross-country trip.

The first trip took Tester and his companions from Puget Sound, Wash., to Hingham, Mass., over four summers. After that trek, they decided they were up for more.


In 2004, they embarked on another cross-country trip, this time traveling north to south along the Continental Divide. The group started the first of four legs in Eureka, Mont., near the Canadian border, and finished the third leg last summer in Los Alamos, N.M.

"We figured that if we could do west to east, we can certainly go from north to south. But it's not as easy as you would think. There are a lot of ups and downs," says Tester.

Cycling across the continent has also allowed Tester, who studies geothermal energy, to see hot springs in action firsthand--especially on his many trips through Yellowstone National Park.

Tester and a few friends started the first cross-country trip in 1998 and traveled across Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts over four summers. They roughly followed a cycling route known as the "Northern Tier," mapped out by the Adventure Cycling Association.

The route takes the riders through vast wilderness, farmland and river valleys, mostly along paved roads and up and down many hills. Along the way, cyclists encounter some of the most scenic parts of the United States.

In Tester's office hangs a photograph he took of Logan Pass, which is on the Continental Divide, in Glacier National Park, Mont., near the intersection of the two cross-country routes. "It's absolutely gorgeous, and not a lot of people go there," he says.

During one leg of the trip, Tester and two of his graduate students who wanted to see the United States took a side trip through Glacier National Park but wound up stranded for two days after an unexpected 15-inch snowfall in June.

That was followed by one of the highlights of the trip, a ride along Route 2 across Montana and North Dakota to Fargo. "We had terrific roads, the people were friendly, there was no traffic and minimal encounters with expected headwinds," Tester said.

Tester and his cycling companions hope to finish the fourth and final leg of their north-south trip this year but haven't set a date yet. They usually ride in the summer, but that could be difficult because they will be riding through desert from Los Alamos to their final destination at the New -Mexico-Mexico border.

In the meantime, the annual trip to the Glen will go on as usual. Tester and his wife have become close friends with Betty Falton, who for more than 30 years has operated the lodge at First Connecticut Lake, located in an area that supplied pulpwood to many paper mills. Now that most of the mills are shut down, the area is near-total wilderness.

"It's pretty much just us, the loons and the moose," Tester said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 13, 2008 (download PDF).

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