Briton pauses in Anchorage on global bike quest for kids' charity

Posted: Sunday, September 05, 2004

ANCHORAGE Alastair Humphreys sat in a respectable downtown Anchorage cafe wearing a wrinkled yellow T-shirt and faded shorts, sunglasses tucked cozily atop his scruffy blond hair.

One arm sported a grimy watch, the other beaded bracelets from street kids in Colombia. He talked about his bicycle trip around the world in a singsong English accent, his arms waving as he described riding through Africa, where his light skin kept him on display.

''I stopped and had a cup of tea and 200 people I actually counted them were staring at me in silence. It was unnerving. And I wasn't doing anything more exciting than drinking tea.''

Three years ago, Humphreys loaded up his bicycle, Rita, with more than 40 pounds of supplies and headed out of Yorkshire, England, for his ''hopeless, unrealistic'' dream of bicycling around the world.

He was 24 and newly graduated from the University of Edinburgh, with additional teacher training at Oxford University. Tired of being ''under the thumb,'' he ditched career opportunities to follow a life of adventure. His parents were skeptical. Since Humphreys had previously biked and traveled around Pakistan, Mexico, Spain and South Africa, they worried he might turn into one of those ''bums'' who wander aimlessly through foreign countries.

''But I knew if I didn't do it then, I would never be able to do it,'' Humphreys said.

To add meaning to the endeavor, he arranged to ride for Hope and Homes for Children, an organization providing families for children orphaned by war and such disasters as AIDS and genocide. He has raised about $30,000, he said.

His travel budget comes solely from the $11,000 he saved while attending university.

Because he spent most of his preparation time rounding up the sponsors who donated some of his supplies, he began the ride in ''the worst shape of my life.'' After the first 80-mile day, he was hurting.

That was only the beginning. Through Budapest and Syria, Ethiopia and Malawi, Santiago and Colombia, Humphreys endured heat and rain, windstorms and threats of bandits.

He got stuck in patches of mountain mud, suffered a snapped bike frame in the middle of the desert, politely excused himself from an offering of Malawian mice cooked on a stick and went weeks without a shower.

By the time he reached Anchorage in late August, Humphreys had biked 28,000 miles and sweated through 44 countries and five continents.

He started out in England in 2001 with plans of swinging over to the Mideast, only to have his route altered by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, which he didn't find out about for an ''astonishing'' five days. He veered over to Africa, then hit South America, Mexico, United States and Canada before finally ending up in Alaska.

Holed up in Anchorage for a week, Humphreys busily scrounged until he found a company, CP Ships, to give him free passage to Japan, where he'll nab a ride to Siberia. From there, he'll ride across Asia, the last part of the trip, which he figures will take about two more years.

His friend Dave Elliott, who accompanied him through parts of Canada and Alaska, will continue along.

Pedaling 70 to 100 miles a day through unfamiliar and harsh environments takes its toll. There were hundreds of times Humphreys wanted to quit, he said. But the emotional stresses weighed heaviest, the solitary weeks of talking to no one beyond a casual ''Hello there'' or ''Where you headed?''

To keep himself going, he adopted what he called a goldfish mentality of narrowing down the picture to a single moment. He also made up rules: He wasn't allowed to quit in the evening or when it was raining. When he woke to sunshine, he felt rejuvenated enough to push on.

''I've seen so many things, and in such extremes,'' he said. ''Life is so unbelievably hard for so many people. Yet they have such spirit.''

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