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Ever Dream of a 17,500-mile Bike Ride? Meet an REI Employee Who Lived It

How big are your outdoor adventure dreams?

For Matt Kelly, a sales specialist in the action-sports department of the REI Northbrook, Ill., store, his dream was big indeed. An avid touring and commuter cyclist, Matt last year (prior to working at REI) completed a 21-month-long bike journey from Alaska to Argentina—some 17,500 miles of riding.

The laid-back 27-year-old recently spoke with The REI Blog about his experiences, and he shares his remarkable photos here. Like what you see? Join a live Q&A session with Matt on Thursday, Jan. 12, at 6pm Eastern time (3pm Pacific) on the REI Facebook page or on Twitter using the #REIbikeride hashtag.  (View full-screen and click on "show info" to see Matt's photo captions.)

REI Blog: What prompted you to take this trip?
Matt: The short answer is that I wanted to do something out of the ordinary and see the world by bike. I had previously gone on shorter trips around Lake Michigan and in Wisconsin. Little by little, I decided I wanted to do something open-ended where I didn't have to be back at a certain time. Something clicked in my head, and I said it had to be all or nothing.

Evening sun in Montana, USAREI Blog: Why this route?
Matt: There was something alluring about riding from the 2 opposite ends of the Americas. Having grown up in Mexico City, I speak Spanish and that was a big advantage having that on the trip. It was just something I wanted to do.)

REI Blog: When did you go?
Matt: My trip from was June 2009 to March 2011.

REI Blog: How far would you go each day?
Matt: I averaged about 50 miles per day on days that I rode. I estimate that the ride was two-thirds on pavement, one-third on dirt, at least in miles, but dirt was much slower so a lot of my time was spent there. There were only 360 days of actual cycling, so I had lots of time to explore.

REI Blog: Where was it easiest and toughest to be a cyclist?
Matt: Anywhere with light traffic was more enjoyable. The toughest areas were due to traffic and bad weather. My coldest night was actually in Arizona in October. It got down to 10 degrees according to the little thermometer I carried from REI. The route I chose through the states was Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona. It was getting late in the year, so I was kind racing against winter. I tried to avoid big cities, but I did bike through Tucson, Guadalajara and a few large cities in South America.

Matt Kelly's routeREI Blog: What type of bike did you ride?
Matt: I had a Surly Long Haul Trucker touring bike with a steel frame and front and back panniers to hold camping gear.

REI Blog: What kinds of maintenance issues arose?
Matt: Things start to wear out after many months on the road. I wore though 4 tires total—1 on the front and 3 on the rear since the rear had more weight on it. I replaced the chain and cassette 3 times (once in Canada, Mexico and Peru). One big issue was a split rim in Alaska, so I needed a new wheel. I had to hitchhike back to Fairbanks to get one. Other issues I was able to repair myself or wait until I passed through a town or city where I could get it fixed. My chain broke again on my second-to-last day. Fortunately, I was able to repair and use the broken chain, as I didn't want to use my new once since the bike was so dirty at that point and I was so close to the end.

Casa de Ciclistas in PeruREI Blog: What are your fondest memories?
Matt: I definitely fell in love with the mountains of both North and South America. I had some great views while camping, especially in the mountains of Peru. The highest pass of the trip was 15,900 feet; that day was tough but very memorable. I also really enjoyed my visit to the Casa de Ciclistas in Trujillo, Peru. The guy who runs it is a former cycling champion of Peru who has a passion for cycling. For the past 2 decades, some 2,000 cyclists from all around the world have come through his doors. He is one of these people who have an open-door policy for cyclists. I met all sorts of people along the way and won't forget the gestures of hospitality, whether it was a place to fill my water bottle, eat a local treat or have a place to set my tent up for the night.

REI Blog: What were your biggest physical challenges?
Matt: The first week in Alaska was one of the most challenging weeks of the whole trip, because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. People asked me if I trained. I was cyclist before, and I'd ride around Chicago a lot but never with 50 pounds of stuff on my bike. As for hills, there are none in Chicago. So when I got to Alaska and had to go over my first mountain pass, it was really challenging. It ended up not being a very high mountain pass, especially compared to those in South America, but because of my inexperience cycling mountains it was challenging. Little by little, though, I started to enjoy these challenges.

REI Blog: Were your biggest challenges physical or mental?
Matt: In the end, it was all about keeping myself motivated. I'd ask myself why I was doing this in the first place. There were times of tedium and repetition, but I wanted to stick it out.

At the equatorREI Blog: Any scary incidents?
Matt: There were some close calls, and many times I wish drivers would have given me more than a few inches of clearance. I never actually had a collision or got bumped. Plenty of dogs chased after me though. One dog in Bolivia actually bit one of my panniers and tore it open. Better my pannier than my leg, I suppose. Fortunately, everything stayed in the bag and I was able to stitch it back up and be on my way.

REI Blog: How have your experiences helped you at REI?
Matt: Having had this great experience outdoors, I just try to convey that to customers somehow and get them excited about trips or adventures they may be planning. It's funny, but I usually don't mention my trip. Most people come by REI to ride for recreation, commuting or errands. But if people are interested in touring, I'm happy to share.

REI Blog: Any future riding plans?
Matt: I don't think I would do another 21-month-long trip, but I would like to go back to some of the places I saw on the trip. There's always that dirt road that is kind of heading up into the mountains and you don't know where it's going to and would like to find out. I'd like to go back to places in the U.S. like Utah or Colorado and explore and be able to make loops without worrying about getting to a specific end point.

For more on his journey, read Matt's blog or  his interview in the DePaul University student newspaper.

Reminder: You can join a live Q&A session with Matt on Thursday, Jan. 12, at 6pm Eastern time (3pm Pacific) on the REI Facebook page or on Twitter using the #REIbikeride hashtag. Or, when you're in the Chicago area, come say hi to Matt sometime in the action-sports department of the REI Northbrook store.

All photos courtesy of Matt Kelly.

Posted on at 12:21 PM

Tagged: Argentina, Cycling, alaska, bicycle and touring

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This is the coolest thing ive ever seen! Mad Props to You Matt! Assuming you tracked it, what did this cost you? Would you Do it again?

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