Bike to Read

Bike to Read founders Mark Jirik and Nate Prescott at Bikefix (310 Lake St., Oak Park). (Jessica Zerby/RedEye )

It’s July 26 in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and Nate Prescott and Mark Jirik have a lot of work ahead of them. They’re nearly 4,000 miles from home—but a staggering 15,000 miles from their final destination, in Ushuaia, Argentina. On four wheels, the trek down the Pan-American Highway, a stretch of road from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of South America, would seem long—but on two, it’s nearly endless.

But that isn’t stopping Prescott and Jirik from trying. The avid cyclists and Oak Park natives have put everything aside (work, money, family, girlfriends) in the name of adventure, the type of adventure that most people wouldn’t consider humanly possible. And they’re risking it all for a good cause--raising money for the Erie Neighborhood House.

Prescott and Jirik first met as classmates at Oak Park and River Forest High School, and both attended the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. It was in Prescott’s time at the University of Illinois where he went on his first cross-country biking trip, the Illini 4000. He was a part of a small group of students who went on a summer cycling trip from New York City to San Francisco (roughly 4,000 miles), all while raising money for cancer research.

“This whole thing really started when Nate and I talked about taking some sort of adventure after we graduated,” said Jirik, who graduated in 2009 with a degree in landscape architecture. “But the timing just wasn’t right--we were sidelined doing real-world stuff.”

It wasn’t until several years later that they seriously considered the idea again. Prescott’s first inclination was, of course, to get back on the bike--and to do it all for charity.

“We came across this Pan-American Highway route on a few websites,” said Prescott, 26, who after some major assessments on everything from physical preparedness to financial standing, decided the route seemed like a “reasonable” adventure for the two.

“We both have girlfriends and family, but neither of us has kids or a mortgage,” said Jirik, 26. “It felt like the right thing to do. But it was also an opportunity to do some good.”

Prescott and Jirik also selected a charity, Erie Neighborhood House, a Lawndale-based organization that provides educational services to children of immigrant families. Prescott volunteered as a one-on-one tutor at Erie House shortly after college, as part of the T.E.A.M. Program (Tutoring to Educate for Aims and Motivation).

“It was such a productive environment,” said Prescott of his time at Erie House. “We would just like to raise a little money for them if we can.”

As soon as the pair committed to the route, the preparations for their "Bike to Read" adventure began. They spent almost a year preparing for their travels, including setting up their own website to raise funds for Erie House and making several stops at the local bike shop, Bikefix, where their one-of-a-kind bikes were built.

“We talked a lot about this ride they were doing, and decided that they would need a specific custom build,” said Curt Warner, the owner of Bikefix, who first met with Prescott and Jirik last fall.

Warner said the bikes he built are uniquely durable and extremely practical, with high spoke counts that make them virtually bomb and bullet-proof. So when Jirik’s bike was stolen just outside of Terrace, British Columbia, just a month after the pair's ride began, Warner felt their pain all the way back home in Oak Park.

“When I found out that one of those bikes was stolen, it was like someone cut off part of my body,” said Warner, who spent several days building the identical bikes. “There’s a special place in hell for bike thieves.”

Over in British Columbia, Prescott and Jirik were feeling stranded. With limited communication, resources and now transportation, there was little they could do.

“It was the last thing we expected,” said Jirik, who had parked his bike outside of his tent the night before. “I was broken.”

The pair ended up stopping into a local bike shop, where a mechanic overheard them telling their story of the stolen bike. He gave the men two options: either take a bus back to Vancouver and find a bike there, or try rebuilding the bike from spare parts they had around the shop. Jirik chose the latter.

“We were literally building this Frankenstein bike,” Jirik said. “It was crazy, but we thought it could work.”

Several days and $23 later, Prescott and Jirik were back on the trail. It was an unexpected expense for the two, who have been penny-pinching since they first decided to go on the trip and spend an estimated $10 a day, but it was much better than the alternative.

”That was so much better for me to be riding out on a bike than on a bus,” Jirik said.

The pair has a lot ahead of them—Patagonia and the Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia are some of the stops they are looking forward to most. In early October they made a pit stop in Chicago, to visit family and friends in the area and to get some much-needed relaxation.

“It’s so wonderful to be back, but I think I’m starting to get a little sick,” Jirik said. “I think it’s my body saying ‘Why aren’t you on a bike right now?’”

Jirik and Prescott return to the road on Thursday, picking up right where they left off on their route. The pair is estimating they have about a year left out on the road.

To follow Nate Prescott and Mark Jirik’s Bike to Read adventure, visit http://biketoread.org/.

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