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There’s a lot to be said for being young, strong, footloose and fancy free. You can just dream yourself up an adventure, and go.
traveling light: Matthew Baxter, left, and Alex Weaver carried 25-30 pounds of gear in the panniers of their fixed-gear bikes. Submitted photo
Take Matthew Baxter and and Alex Weaver. They made their minds up a couple of years ago they would ride bikes 1,800 miles across Alaska and Canada via the fabled Al-Can Highway.
They did it this summer. It was a feat that took courage, stamina and a willingness to suffer through hardship.Hardship, in fact, dogged them the whole way. Still, they had a heck of a lot of fun.
“We were anxious to go. Everybody told us we’d never make it on the bikes we had,” Weaver said.
“I was just way excited to get started,” Baxter added.
Riding the Al-Can is an incredible physical feat, but it’s not so rare a thing for people to do. Dozens if not scores of cycling enthusiasts try it every year. Many complete the journey and emerge with bragging rights to last a lifetime.
But Baxter and Weaver did the ride with style all their own. No fancy 30-speed touring bikes for them. No motor vehicle tagging along, carrying their gear.
They made the trip on a couple of aging machines modified into “fixed gear” bikes, lugging everything they had either in packs or panniers.
It was a real coup. With fixed gears, there’s no shifting when the climb gets steep. And there’s no coasting, either. The pedals turn round and round for as long as the bike is in motion.
“You can’t cheat,” said Baxter. “Hundreds of people use bikes with gears. This set us apart.”
Baxter and Weaver, both 21, are students at Eastern Oregon University. Baxter studies business and history; Weaver is enrolled in the nursing program.
Baxter is from Alaska and knows plenty about the Al-Can, that long lonesome stretch of highway that connects the contiguous United States with Alaska through Canada.
A couple of years ago, the two friends started talking about a long trip, an ultimate bicycling adventure. Somewhere along the line, the talk turned serious.
“It started out kind of like a joke. It was Matt’s idea. He said we should try the Al-Can some summer. Then, we started training,” Weaver said.
Both happened to be fixed-gear aficionados, and almost from the beginning they knew they were going ride that way. One of their first jobs was to replace the progressive gear systems on their stock machines with a one-gear, no-shift system.
The two did the conversion themselves, with technical assistance from the Mountain Works bike shop in downtown La Grande and Speedaway Cycles in Anchorage, Alaska. Shop experts gave sage advice and loaned out hard-to-find tools.
Baxter and Weaver started their training with day rides around the Grande Ronde Valley, testing the bikes and looking for the most efficient ways to pack and carry gear.
The more they rode, the more they felt compelled to. The training trips got longer, and longer still. In May 2007, the two rode all the way to Portland.
“We went through Ukiah, Heppner, Condon, Biggs, The Dalles, then over Highway 14 to the city. We did 120 miles the last day,” Baxter recalled.
They continued training — and dreaming of the good times to come — until they finally felt ready to take on the Al-Can. On Aug. 3 of this year, near Anchorage, the adventure began.
Times weren’t so good at first. The tone was set early as the riders passed through a construction zone and Weaver had a flat, or “popped a tire” as cyclists are fond of saying.
It was the first of many tires that popped during the arduous journey.
“We probably got a flat every day. There was a lot of construction going on, and a lot of rocks in the road,” Baxter said. A journal the two kept states that one construction zone was 47 miles long.
Packing just 25-30 pounds of gear apiece, Baxter and Weaver rode 115 miles that first day. For most days after that, they averaged around 100 miles.
Besides flat tires, they had to deal from time to time with mechanical malfunctions. Most were minor in nature, and fixed on the spot.
Once, a bolt on Baxter’s handlebar broke, and was replaced with a bolt from a highway sign.
“The bikes definitely had their problems, but they made it the whole way,” Baxter said.
The Al-Can, constructed during World War II, runs from Delta Junction in Alaska to Dawson Creek, British Columbia, via Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. It crosses the Continental Divide.
There are small cities along the way, including Whitehorse and Watson Lake in the Yukon and Fort Nelson and Fort St. John in British Columbia. Between towns, the country is high, wild and lonesome.
Baxter and Weaver encountered plenty of wildlife along the way, black bears and a grizzly, moose and caribou, and a herd of bison that according to local lore began its life domestically but was later left to run wild.
The riders also encountered bad weather, and lots of it. Rain fell 10 out of the 18 days the pair was on the road. Both men agree weather was the harshest challenge of the journey.
“It would rain all day long, till your rain pants were soaked through. It made it really hard to keep going,” Weaver said.
Added Baxter, “It was always cold until you got into your dry sleeping bag at night.”
There were times when they thought of turning back. They resisted the temptation partly because they didn’t want to ride back over the same mountains they’d just crossed, and partly because they were too stubborn to give in.
“We did think about it, but it was never like we really would. We decided to do this, and we were going to get it out of the way no matter what,” Baxter said.
And so they kept at it day after day, laboring uphill and flying down, the pedals turning every single foot of the way.
On Aug. 20, they cranked out their final 30 miles, quitting at Hudson Hope in British Columbia.
They’d done what they set out to do. And coming to a final stop felt oh, so good.
“I was excited and relieved that we’d made it with only minor troubles. I was thinking it would be nice to be in a building and not smell like crap. It was great to take a shower,” Weaver said.
Said Baxter, “I was looking forward to getting home and doing something else.”
Just what that something else might be is anybody’s guess. Probably it will have something to do with riding bikes. Baxter and Weaver are kicking around the idea of a trek through Northern Europe and Israel.
Chances are, they won’t ride the Al-Can again for a long, long time.
When it comes to biking, variety really is the spice of life.
“Even when we’re training, we never do the same ride twice,” Baxter said.