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Alumnus Redefines Extreme Cycling

North Park University Alumnus Matt Kelly

CHICAGO (January 8, 2010) – Matt Kelly is riding his bicycle up to 18,000 miles from Alaska to the Argentinean city considered the southernmost in the world, because he sat one cold January night in front of his computer reading blogs.

The websites were published by people who had pedaled trips of more than a year. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to do it, too,” he says.

Kelly, a 2006 graduate of North Park University who double majored in physics and math, is taking a holiday breather in Mexico City. The stop is sort of a homecoming, as he grew up in the sprawling city, the son of Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries Tom and Janice Kelly.

Kelly started last summer in a town called Deadhorse, along Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. He hopes to conclude his sojourn a year from now in the city of Ushuaia, considered the southernmost city in the world.

“Ideally I'll make it to the southern tip of Argentina, in Tierra del Fuego,” says Kelly, although he notes, “I try to focus on the journey itself, as the idea of so many thousand miles left can be overwhelming.”

There have been a number of times since starting out on June 30th that Kelly wondered about his decision. The questioning began almost from the very beginning, in Alaska.

“All of my previous biking could not have prepared me for the ruggedness of the road, most of which was unpaved,” Kelly says. “For the first 500 miles there were only two truck stops, so you have to take all your food with you, and that is heavy. I had no notion of what it meant to climb a couple thousand feet through a mountain pass, and I had to get used to the multitudinous amounts of mosquitoes.”

Bouts of cold and wet weather or illness have taken enjoyment out of parts of the trip. “These are the times when I question having set out to do this and whether it is all worth having left a more stable and predictable life and friends back home,” he says. “These have been the times I've told myself I'm flying back to Chicago the next time I get to an airport. Of course this has happened in the middle of nowhere, and then after a few days of self-pity, I feel pumped about the trip and want to keep on with it.”

Kelly says the sense of accomplishment has made the trip worthwhile, as have the people he has met along the way, including other cyclists. “Some were going in different directions than me, but several have a destination of somewhere in South America, I may well run into them again at some point. We keep in touch and offer each other tips about things on the road ahead.

Kelly’s love of cycling grew relatively recently. “While growing up I had a bike but it wasn't much more than a toy or a way to get around the neighborhood,” he says. “Once I moved to Chicago to go to North Park, I slowly began to ride around the city.”

It wasn’t until the summer prior to his senior year that Kelly embarked on his first extended trip, riding with friends from Chicago to Minneapolis and back again. He biked trips of several days in length after that.

Then he read the blogs that night in January 2008. “It is kind of hard to describe, but I became pretty consumed with the idea,” he says. “I knew I wouldn't be able to leave for another year and a half, so I had a lot of time to think about what I had just told myself I had to do, and to research the trip.”

Kelly, who had worked as a computer systems administrator since graduating, saved money to help fund his trip and has received assistance from friends and family. He has also depended a lot on the kindness of strangers he meets along the way. He initially applied for a grant to do aerial photography—a hobby he did at North Park by attaching a camera to a kite. (His photos are currently posted on flickr.)

“I didn't get the grant, but I soon realized it was for the better," says Kelly. "I didn't find that biking was the right setting for it, so I sent my equipment home.”

Kelly is maintaining a blog as he travels for others to follow his journey. Though he still has months to go and thousands of miles yet to bike, he already has plans for when he gets home: “Reconnect with friends and family, and eat some deep dish pizza.”