Breast Cancer Awareness Month is upon us, and nothing says "awareness" like a couple of fit, 20-something men riding their bicycles roughly 7,000 miles (from Anchorage, Alaska to Cartegena, Colombia), wearing jerseys bearing the logo of the HERS Breast Cancer Foundation (HBCF). HBCF is a charity based in Fremont, Calif. that was formed in 1998 to "support all women healing from breast cancer by providing post-surgical products and services regardless of financial status." Those fit, 20-something men are Neil Walsky, 25, and Jesse Frechione, 23, both of Anchorage, Alaska.
In "The Bicycle Diaries," I profiled Neil and Jesse, their mission and their motivation. Among other things, I noted that Neil and Jesse are biking specifically in honor of Neil's mom, who was successfully treated for breast cancer in 2011, but that they also are biking in support of the HBCF, which helped Neil's mom when she was struggling with the after-effects of her treatment. More than a month into their ride, and in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, I am providing an update on their journey:
At 5 a.m. on Aug. 23, 2012, Neil and Jesse bid their families goodbye in the chilly rain of Anchorage, Alaska to no fanfare other than Jesse's repeatedly tipping over as he struggled to acclimate to his brand new clip-in-pedals (note to would-be bikers: do not try out new gear on the day you set off to ride 7,000 miles). Within the next six hours, Jesse was hit by a car (sustaining no serious injuries) and blew out a tire. Notwithstanding such inauspicious beginnings, our young heroes went on to cover more than 200 miles in over the next 48 hours and close to 2,000 miles before making it to San Francisco four weeks later.
As Neil and Jesse wound their way from Anchorage through Canada's Yukon Territory, then back through Haines, Alaska and onto the "Lower 48" via Bellingham, Wash., they covered more miles in a matter of days than they had ridden in their entire lives. As they struggled to find their "bike legs," they became closely acquainted with ibuprofen and developed the sort of routine that perhaps only another 20-something man might be able to follow:
Each riding day (roughly five out of seven), they would begin with a lumberjack's breakfast of eggs, pancakes, peanut butter, and hot coffee. They would then ride the nearly empty highways for 30 to 40 miles before stopping at whatever roadside stand they happened upon for a hearty lunch of burgers and more hot coffee. After lunch, they would ride another 40 to 50 miles until they found a diner or convenience store to purchase food for supper.
As Neil and Jesse approached the Canadian border from Alaska, they met up with Neil's mom and biked with her for about 150 miles; Jesse's mom joined them as well, driving alongside of them in her car. Shortly thereafter, Neil and Jesse made friends with a lone bike rider from the United Kingdom and rode with him for the rest of the Yukon leg of their trip until they reached the ferry back to Alaska.
Throughout Alaska and the Yukon Territory, Neil and Jesse slept outside, despite sub-freezing nighttime temperatures. On the bright side, the days were largely sunny, there were no run-ins with grizzlies, and they found that their planned route was workable. Unfortunately, when Neil and Jesse reached Washington State, they discovered that their planned route needed serious tweaking: The Interstate 5 did not allow bike riders. As a result, throughout Washington and much of Oregon, Neil and Jesse often found themselves biking mountain routes on dirt and gravel, at least until they arrived in Portland, at which point they made their way to the coast, toasting their discovery thereof with shots of Jaegermeister, which is not unusual for a couple of 20-something guys.
Also not unusual for a couple of 20-something guys? Getting a surprise visit from a friend who wants to join in the adventure. Once in Portland, Neil and Jesse got a surprise visit from their friend, Mike Price, 26. Mike had grown up playing hockey with Neil and works as an engineer in the gas and oil industry. Upon finding himself in between gigs, Mike spontaneously decided to take the red eye from Alaska. Once in Portland, Mike purchased a bike at REI and joined Neil and Jesse for an 80-mile day. Hooked by the adrenaline and his friends' enthusiasm, and inspired by his own grandmother's having recently marked 33 years as a breast cancer survivor, Mike decided to soldier on through to San Francisco. He made it to Santa Cruz (approximately 900 miles of riding altogether) before he got called back to work. He is back in Anchorage now as Neil and Jesse continue their travels.
Along Neil and Jesse's travels, even as they biked through the wilderness, they were never far from reminders of why they were doing what they were doing: Signposts of breast cancer seemed to pop up at the most unexpected of times. At one point, Neil and Jesse gave chase to a mugger who had made off with a woman's iPhone. They couldn't catch the guy, but it turned out that the woman was a breast cancer survivor. Outside of an old abandoned mining town on the Alaska Highway (Silver City), Neil and Jesse found themselves in the dark of night without a safe place to sleep when they came upon the Kluane Bed and Breakfast... only to find that it was closed. The proprietors were kind enough to allow Neil and Jesse to camp on the property, and in the morning brought breakfast to Neil and Jesse. It turned out that the Kluane was closed due to a death in the family... due to cancer. Upon learning that Neil and Jesse were riding to raise money for the HERS Breast Cancer Foundation, the family made a generous donation.
On Sept. 29, Neil and Jesse were in Fremont, Calif. to attend the HERS Breast Cancer Foundation Annual KEEP ABREAST 5k walk and 5k/10k run. They participated in the 5k walk and were hosted in a manner fit for kings by the woman who handles the HBCF website: Neil and Jesse stayed with Lisa Stambaugh and her husband while they were in the San Francisco area. Meeting their "honorary moms" at the HBCF and being presented with their HBCF jerseys was arguably the highlight of this leg of their trip.
Throughout October, Neil and Jesse will be traveling down the California coast. So far, their California leg has been marked by the open arms of welcoming hosts, the comfort of beautiful surroundings (check their Facebook page for the amazing photos) and delicious food and drink: In the Napa Valley, they paid a visit to the St. Helena winery, but they also found that the milkshakes there were memorable. In Geyserville, it was the pizza was memorable. In Calistoga, it was the barbeque. When they cross the border into Mexico and make their way through Central America and South America, things promise to get a bit less comfortable since neither of them speaks Spanish (although they are planning to meet up, and ride with, Isaac Bean, 29, Neil's cousin, who is fluent in Spanish).
You can follow Neil and Jesse's progress by clicking on this link, which tracks Neil and Jesse's progress via satellite (cool!).
To Sponsor the Cyclists, click on this this link.
To hear Neil tell of his reasons for making the trip, check out this short video. It's worth watching, as will be the coverage of their journey. Stay tuned.
For more by Lauren Cahn, click here.
For more on breast cancer, click here.