Sunday, May 27, 2018
Transportation

Brothers on 17,000-mile cycling trip from Alaska to Argentina

Even after the rough first day of their long-distance cycling trip, Matt and Andrew Sufficool could think of plenty of reasons why they'd have no problem making it to the end.

The scenery — frost-bound tundra stretching to the horizon in every direction — was bound to improve, as was the subfreezing weather.

They would eat their way through some of their 80-pound loads and jettison some of the rest.

And, after pedaling on a road that Andrew described as "a mud-bogging pit mixed with slush and jagged rocks," they could think ahead to the many miles of smooth pavement on their route.

What they probably didn't want to think about — not when it had been a discouraging grind just to get a mile out of Deadhorse, Alaska — was the total distance of the route:

Roughly 17,000 miles.

Matt, 32, and Andrew, 30, are Tampa residents who graduated from Hernando High School and grew up Brooksville, where their brother, Brad, still works as a city firefighter. You might have seen the two of them this spring, training on the roads outside of town on heavy, steel touring bikes loaded down with weight-lifting plates.

They have taken a year off from their jobs — Matt as a medical assistant, Andrew as a teacher and athletic trainer at Tampa Preparatory School — to ride from the northern coast of Alaska to Ushuaia (pronounced you-SHWAY-uh), Argentina, which bills itself as the "southernmost city in the world."

Here are some other reasons why, despite the distance, they think they can make it.

As extreme as the trip sounds, it has been done before — by a few cyclists every year.

Also, the Sufficools are old hands at this sort of thing, having pedaled across the United States together in 2011. Andrew followed that up the next summer with a trip from the Mexican border to Banff National Park, in Alberta, Canada, and last year cycled from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Seattle.

Besides teaching them useful lessons, such as the need to start slowly so as not to destroy their knees, these trips have given them faith in the general decency of humans.

Ask them about their previous trips and you get a string of anecdotes about strangers being nice — offering them water, meals, a place to pitch their tent or, from other cyclists, easy company as they pedaled down the road.

"The people are always the best part of the trip," Andrew said.

Take last June, when Andrew rolled off the ferry to the notoriously expensive resort destination of Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. He fell into conversation with a man who offered him and a biking buddy a place to stay as well as an unforgettable sailing trip on Lake Huron.

The next month, Andrew and that same rider took a detour to Kindred, N.D., population 692, looking for a classic, small-town Fourth of July celebration.

They found a family who cooked them pizza and poured them craft beers and insisted that the riders take in the town's firework show from the roof of the family's home.

The Sufficools see no reason their current trip should be any different, even as they ride through, say, regions of Mexico controlled by ruthless drug cartels.

Other riders who have made this trip, Matt said, "didn't feel unsafe in South or Central America, and they felt those people were more friendly than people in the states."

With at least one exception.

The Darien Gap, a swath of jungle on the border of Panama and Colombia, lacks even a single highway and is patrolled by groups of armed rebels. The Sufficools plan to bypass it on a boat.

As for physical challenges, the climbs in the Sierra Nevada Mountains will be tough, Matt said, but the "the real big daddies are in the Andes."

The biggest of these will be Punta Olimpica, a mountain pass of more than 15,000 feet in Peru, topped by the highest vehicle tunnel in the world.

They have already prepared for these climbs, passing through the Brooks Range on the 494-mile, 11-day first leg of the trip, from Deadhorse to Fairbanks in Alaska, where they gave a brief cell phone interview last week and updated their blog at end2endadventure.com.

The road was built for trucks carrying supplies to the oil workers in Deadhorse, and its engineers didn't worry about forming gradual grades for amateur drivers.

"We'd come around corners and see what looked like a roller coaster takeoff that we had to pedal up with these tugboats," Matt said.

They did get some encouragement from state road crews. One of the workers, named Josh, asked the Sufficools what kind of food they missed most, Matt wrote on the blog.

They replied that they could really go for some fresh fruit.

"Sure enough," Matt wrote. "A few days later, we pass Josh out working on a road grader, and he pops out with an apple."

Dan DeWitt can be reached at (352) 754-6116 or [email protected]

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