What’s in the numbers
- October 8, 2018, by Julie and Adam -
Earlier this summer, on a road in northwest Canada, we met three cyclists within a matter of hours of each other: one who has spent the last two and a half years riding north from Argentina, one headed west looking for work a few hundred kilometers away, and a third riding south as fast as possible. Both of us independently wrote our thoughts about them. Here is a combination of our reflections.
His name was Yuyang. A young man from China who wore an over-sized jacket, a pair of thin tracksuit trousers and some smart suede shoes. His long thin hand reached out for a shake and we introduced ourselves with discreet smiles and nods.
Yuyang, from Beijing, had a scraggly goatee that might have made him look like a very wise old man if his face had had even a wrinkle. His baseball cap worn over a long ponytail suggested a leisurely pace to me, but the scale of his route was no less than staggeringly ambitious.
He showed us a trans-continental zigzag across Brazilian soya fields and the American midwest wheat belt. It may have revealed an interest in long, straight agricultural roads, or a determination to avoid returning home where he told us people were afraid for their health if they cycled. Two and a half years, it was hard to grasp.
His stories are for him to tell, but he inspired and reinforced my desire to take my time and let the days ahead unfold with no anticipation of what should be. His route had taken him across so many lands and was soon to end at our starting point in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
And not only was he slowly inching up the continents in 60 to 70 km daily increments (a respectable pace with a load such as he had), but he had had three bicycles stolen along the way. The last theft had been in Montreal, where they took not only his bike, but also all his gear. Apparently the cost to replace everything there had been too high so he had made his way back to the US to replace all his equipment, and continued.
His polyester tracksuit bottoms, suede lace-up shoes, crisp gore-tex jacket and paisley print cotton handlebar bag seemed mismatched, both as a whole and to the undertaking. I imagined the process of getting re-equipped after the third theft must have been somewhat opportunistic: perhaps a trip to an outdoor gear shop followed by a thrift store, and then a knitting shop for some handlebar flair?
This is a face of persistence:
And while I cycled on with these thoughts, another character came into view. Camped at a rest stop by the side of two rubbish bins, a man aged about fifty lay inside, desperately packing his pipe with tobacco and lighting it with a small flame from a candle stub. As we approached, his faint voice called out from within the tent "You gotta anythin to smoke?"
A large cooking pot sat outside the tent, looking worn and empty of any evidence of a recent meal. His old bicycle was propped up on a wonky stand, like an elderly horse that only responds to their rightful owner. He explained that he was making his way to Haines Junction to find work but he had been writing poetry along the way.
I felt compelled to help him and held out a tin of sardines and a five dollar bill. "Oh thank you sir, I have no way of repayin' ya, all I have is this poetry here and if you'll let me read some out to ya?"
A feeling of guilt and sadness accompanied me as I rode off afterwards - yet another set of thoughts whirling around my head.
The next day we flagged down a rider who we thought looked like a local road biker for info on a side road we were considering. As we started chatting we said we had started seven weeks ago in Prudhoe Bay, and he replied, "Oh yes, Prudhoe Bay, I started there seven days ago." Our eyes widened. Days?
Jonas, from Germany, is attempting to break the current 125 day record for an unsupported Alaska to Ushuaia ride by more than a month - he aims to ride the distance in two and a half months: yes, months, not years.
Each day he rides hundreds of kilometers, crouched over his aerodynamic handlebars on his lightweight bike, counting kilometres, minutes and calories, ceaselessly going, going, going.
He said headwind and hills were the greatest challenges he anticipated, and so far luck had not been on his side: he had only had headwinds, and rain.
Fifteen hours a day against headwinds while racing the clock sounds like a form of psychological torture to me. And yet, he was relaxed, matter of fact and actually stopped to help us. Though after just a few minutes he did clip back into his pedals and sprinted off into the distance, before we could close our gaping mouths and think to take a photo.
It had taken seven weeks for us to cover the distance from Prudhoe Bay, and these riders were measuring their journeys in days, months and years. What do we achieve in two and a half of any unit? A two and a half hour lunch break perhaps?