Shon and Janis Neufeld, the folks behind Shon’s Bike Shop recently returned from a 4,000 kilometre cycling journey from Nakusp to Valdez, Alaska and home from Vancouver. No, that’s not a typo: not only did the couple cycle 4,000 km, they did it under a deadline for a cruise leaving Alaska on August 19.
Leaving Nakusp on Friday, July 19 at five in the morning, Shon and Janis climbed on their fully loaded Marin bicycles and headed out into the brightening blue yonder.
Before embarking on this epic journey, the Neufelds had toured around on lightweight road bikes, packing minimal gear and relying on the power of plastic money for places to stay and their food.
This time their 4,000 km trek was unsupported, meaning they were packing tents, gear and as much food and water as they could all the way themselves. Planning their route, they sent two caches of supplies on ahead, one to Smithers and one to Whitehorse, with fresh gear for their journey.
Fortunately, fresh water and peanut snacks weren’t too hard to come by as they pedalled their way north. While they stocked up on high-protein and -fat nutty snacks at gas stations and grocery stores along the way, streams researched as from a spring source and not lake-fed provided potable water. Packed food gave the duo partial breakfasts and suppers, which were happily supplemented with more meals wherever they could be bought.
“It’s the most incredible part,” said Janis, “how much we ate.” Scenery and challenge aside, the sheer volume of food required to maintain the energy needed to fuel the cyclists was staggering. Between 5,000 and 10,000 calories a day were consumed just to keep them moving, which meant two full breakfasts were easily eaten by both Shon and Janis in preparation for their day. A week of relaxation on a cruise ship not only meant comfy beds and showers, it meant full meals, often followed by trips to the all-hours buffet.
Life on the road leading up to the cruise was a stark contrast. This wasn’t your typical bike tour, it was more like bike traveling, said Janis, with nine to 11 hours a day spent pushing pedals to make the daily quota of 150 km necessary to get them to the boat on time. A gruelling schedule of four days cycling, then one day off kept them on track time wise, and it was a challenge to maintain the pace.
For Janis, difficulty sleeping and dealing with stifling heat were trials she suffered through, sometimes hitting a psychological wall that left her in tears saying she couldn’t go on. But she did, reaching her limits and then surpassing them, and always making the daily quota, one kilometre at a time.
“It was hard a lot of days,” Janis told the Arrow Lakes News, “I was so proud of myself. I had to dig really deep, that’s what made it so rewarding.” Being able to face, and complete, the task of riding a nearly Ironman-length cycling distance day in and day out was a major achievement. And for Shon?
“He was very solid,” said Janis, who felt fully supported by her husband-travel mate. On days off, Shon would ride to get groceries or work maintaining the bikes as they made their way.
“I could have opened a bike shop on the side of the road,” joked Shon.
Forty pounds of bike mechanic’s gear, regular maintenance and the right two-wheeled steeds paid off: the trip was plagued by just two flat tires and two broken spokes.
What might be even more surprising is that Janis and Shon weren’t the only two-wheeled human-powered travellers on the road. The new Nakuspians sporadically met a dozen cyclists biking from the tip of Alaska down to the end of Argentina who ranged in age from teens to 70s. They were travelling from north to south (maybe they’d heard it was all downhill), and generally travelling at a more sedate pace of 100 km per day.
Janis and Shon themselves hit the B.C.-Alaska border on August 10, and still had hundreds of kilometres to go.
“You don’t realize how large B.C. is until you bike across it. It’s huge,” said Shon. If they weren’t in shape before they set out (they were), the pair certainly were at that point. Getting fit is a side effect of long-distance cycling, quipped Shon.
Another effect of being slow on the road is experiencing the land in a very different way than from behind the wheel of a fast-moving car. Distances seem more real, and landscape features like mountains and rock formations can be seen thoroughly, every perspective and angle of approach appreciated. For Shon, dropping into the Fraser Canyon on the way home from the Coast was awe-inspiring on a bike.
For Janis, their arrival in Valdez was a milestone marking the culmination of all their work and effort, one that will stay with her for a very long time.
“It’s a once in a lifetime trip,” said the Kaslo Sufferfest organizer and coach. With five kids and a store to run, it’s unlikely the couple will be able to find the time to do it again, but they are planning on taking their kids on week-long bike camping adventures in the future.
“Anybody can do it,” said an enthused Janis Neufeld, although she recommends starting slowly and giving yourself time not only to build up strength but also time to travel at a slower pace.
After many moments on the road, the Neufelds breathed a sigh of relief when they were back in the Kootenays. The drivers were more courteous and careful than some they had encountered abroad (including close calls with a dump truck and some big truck traffic on the northern highways), the air was clean, the mountains beautiful: they were home, back in one of the best places on earth.