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CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

From pole to pole, he's hitting the cycle

Dutchman Dirk Spits is making the 17,000-mile ride from Alaska to Argentina on a bike to make money for education and children's programs.

March 13, 2014|Chris Erskine
  • Dirk Spits, 32, is in the midst of a 17,000-mile bike ride for charity from Alaska to Argentina.
Dirk Spits, 32, is in the midst of a 17,000-mile bike ride for charity from… (99%Ride Foundation )

The golden March morning smells like a fistful of Easter lilies. But Dirk Spits — formerly of Amsterdam, currently of anywhere he parks his tent — is remembering a less serene moment: the day he fell asleep on his bike in his grinding bid to pedal from Alaska to Argentina.

"It was four days of bad weather from Olympia [Washington] to Castle Rock, some of it on Interstate 5," he remembers. "I hadn't had any food and I fell asleep…maybe three or four seconds. If there hadn't been that guardrail…."

That wasn't even the Dutch cyclist's worst day.

That came earlier, on the Alaska Highway in September, when a well-meaning local persuaded Spits to go another 30 miles to a campsite with a convenience store nearby. Spits was already pretty spent from logging 70 miles on the roly-polliest part of the desolate road.

But visions of a hot meal and a cold beer propelled him the extra 30 ticks. Once there, he found that the convenience store had burned down and snow was coming in sideways. Rushing to make a campsite, he almost froze.

One man. One bike. Seventeen thousand miles. On $6 a day Spits travels, camping along the way, so most of the money he's raising for children's charities can go to the kids, not motel rooms and cheeseburgers.

It's a beastly thing he's trying, from the frosty snowfields of Alaska to the very boot heel of Argentina, North Pole to South. With about a third of the trip now behind him, he was having breakfast in Los Angeles this week while explaining how the whole crazy adventure came to be.

"It all started with a girl," the flying Dutchman says, then goes on to describe how he'd tired of his management job and was looking for fresh challenges.

Two years ago, a woman in a bar mentioned someone taking a 14,000-mile bike trip.

"I knew I could top that," the bearded 32-year-old says.

By Christmas of 2012, he'd put together a support team made up of an old friend and the friend's girlfriend. They decided they wouldn't leave the Netherlands until they had pooled $20,000 for plane tickets, a support vehicle and a website. Within six months, they had crowd sourced the start-up money

By September, they were on their way to Prudhoe Bay, an frightfully late start considering the harsh Alaska autumns.

"Summer lasted a little bit longer, fortunately," Spits says.

Lanky like most cyclists, but strung together with a little more rawhide, Spits still lost 22 pounds in the first three weeks of the trip, even while adding muscle mass in the legs. Meals weren't a lot of help — oatmeal, white beans, pasta.

"On $6 a day, you can't afford much," Spits explains.

It's not exactly a chariot he's riding either — more like an overloaded shopping cart. Fully rigged, the 14-gear VSF TX400 weighs 110 pounds, on chunky 26-inch Kevlar tires (so far, only two flats). Though the frame is heavier, Spits chose steel because it could be welded if something snapped.

In seven weeks, faster than expected, he was in Vancouver. Next, he was glancing off Washington guard rails before heading into San Francisco, where Spits and his team took a monthlong Christmas break before hitting the Central Coast.

This past week, he and support team members Wouter van Eenbergen and Samantha Soekhoe have been in Los Angeles, speaking to philanthropic groups all over town. His U.S. visa expires soon, so he's heading into San Diego on Friday, then into Mexico, his beard growing longer with every mile, like a hairy odometer.

Rip Van Winkle explains it this way: A buddy back in Amsterdam bet him 100 Euros (about $140) that he couldn't keep the beard the entire trip, then another buddy joined in, and pretty soon Spits had another revenue stream going.

The trip is about the challenge, sure, but it's also about how much money he can raise for education and children's programs. At a major pit stop in Bolivia, he plans to teach the schoolchildren English and post the results on the website.

The novelty of the trip, besides carving a trail across two hemispheres, is that supporters can track how their money is making a difference.

He goes. We follow.

In many ways, Spits' trip has been a breeze until now, no malarial jungles, no highway thugs, only well-timed guardrails that hold him upright, along with the kindness of strangers, that balm of every itinerant traveler throughout human history.

A guy can ride that a long way, you know. Maybe even 17,000 miles.

To follow Spits' progress, go to http://www.99percentride.org

chris.erskine@latimes.com

Twitter: @erskinetimes

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