Monday, August 6, 2012

Bicyclists finish trip around Great Lakes - Article by Peter Passi

A pair of bicyclists from Duluth ended a more-than-5,300-mile trip around the Great Lakes on Sunday, back home where they began their journey May 1.

Kris McNeal and Zach Chase, ages 26 and 25, respectively, laid claim to becoming the first cyclists to circumnavigate the entire Great Lakes system, including the St. Lawrence Seaway, in a single season.
They completed their ride in 97 days, and were welcomed home right on schedule Sunday afternoon by a few dozen well-wishers waiting outside the Fitger’s Brewery Complex for their arrival.

“Thank you for following us, and thank you for believing in us,” McNeal told supporters Sunday, noting that public encouragement kept them going through difficult times.

The ride started hard. Just two days into it, McNeal’s wheel got caught in a rut, causing him to lose control and fall near Lutsen. But after a bit of bandaging, the two soldiered forward.

For nine straight days early in their trip, Chase and McNeal rode through cold, stinging rain up the North Shore of Lake Superior, pausing for an unplanned hotel stay one night, after McNeal suffered frostbitten toes.

A shoulderless stretch of road in Canada that’s heavily trafficked by trucks proved particularly harrowing.

“Those nine days were probably the worst, when you’ve got semi trucks whipping by you at 65 to 70 mph,” Chase said.

McNeal recalled that the situation required hyper-vigilance.

“For the first time, we became very aware we might die trying to do this trip, but it got a lot better after that,” he said.

Chase said they did their best to stay on shoulders and out of the way of motorized traffic, but that wasn’t always possible, and occasionally conditions forced them to ride in the roadway.

“For the most part, people really respected us on the road, but there were definitely times when cars would come extremely close,” he said.

Traffic wasn’t the only difficulty.

“For the first two weeks, our bodies felt pretty well beat, but after that, we got into a groove. And it wasn’t as much a physical challenge as a mental one,” Chase said.

The pair maintained a web site — — where people could track their daily progress and receive updates on the adventure. People also could post comments. McNeal said the messages of encouragement they received often provided a much-needed lift.

“We couldn’t have done this without help from our supporters,” McNeal said. “There were many times when we wanted to give up, but we couldn’t because we knew people were counting on us.”

Chase and McNeal shot video of their entire trip and plan to produce a documentary about their experience, in hopes that it will give people a new respect for the Great Lakes and will inspire others to seek out their own cycling adventures.

The pair typically spent about six hours per day in the saddle, logging 60 to 70 miles before making camp. On their biggest day, McNeal and Chase covered 104 miles of road, thanks to a favorable tailwind and flat terrain they encountered on the shores of Lake Erie.

Social media, including Facebook, also allowed the duo to make new connections on their journey. McNeal said a number of people they met online offered them food and lodging en route.

McNeal’s and Chase’s latest journey wasn’t the first ambitious biking adventure the pair has tackled.

In 2008, the two completed a 1,700-mile trek between Seattle and Mexico on the West Coast.

“On that first trip, we learned a lot about ourselves and each other,” Chase said.

“Just like everyone else, we have problems, and we have to work through them or nothing gets resolved,” he said.

McNeal agreed, explaining that both he and his travel partner share some similarities.

“We’re both pretty easy-going guys, and we don’t always speak our minds,” he said.

The trip taught McNeal a lesson about the value opening lines of communication.

“You can’t bottle yourself up. You need to be open and honest and talk, or else little things can build up and you might explode and say things you don’t even mean,” he said.

For more than three months on their journey, McNeal and Chase shared a small tent each night, and some days they chose to ride at a distance, reconnecting periodically.

“We realized we both sometimes needed personal time on the bike,” Chance said. “It’s about giving one another space.”

The pair traveled about 3,000 miles before sustaining their first flat tire, but the charm didn’t last, and they finished their journey only after repairing 15 flats in all. McNeal had the most serious malfunction, when the inner tube of his rear tire blew, and the rim was so badly bent that he had to hitchhike into town for a replacement.

Despite moments of adversity, Chase said: “This was an amazing way to experience the Great Lakes.”

After seeing them all, Chase said Lake Superior still remains his favorite as the most unspoiled. He described finishing the journey as a “bittersweet” experience.

McNeal, too, had mixed feelings about the ride coming to an end. “It has been life-changing. I’ve never tried to do something like this before. I’m really proud of what we’ve done. We accomplished
all of our goals as best we could, and that meant a lot to us.”

McNeal and Chase said they’re already hatching plans for their next trip — perhaps a journey on water instead of around it.

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