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Buck Benson of Grand Marais plans to make a 6,800-mile, 4½-month bicycle trip through South America starting July 29. (Buck Benson photo)

Grand Marais man to cycle the Andes

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Most days this summer, Buck Benson of Grand Marais gets out for a little bicycle ride. Fifty miles. Sixty miles. Seventy-five miles.

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Benson, 62, is in training. In two weeks, he’ll depart for South America to do a mountain-bike ride that will take him from the equator to the southern tip of the continent — more than 6,800 miles over 4½ months through the Andes at altitudes at times exceeding 16,000 feet. He’s one of just 21 riders from around the world, including only two Americans, making the trip.

“It’s a wonderful way to see a country, on a bicycle,” said Benson, who owns Buck’s Hardware Hank in Grand Marais. “It means it’s going to be slower. You’re going to see and smell and hear everything from ground zero. And you meet more people this way.”

This is no lark for Benson, who has logged lots of time over the years trail-running, mountain-climbing, sea-kayaking and cross-country skiing. He has reached the summit of Alaska’s 20,320-foot Mount McKinley (Denali) and 23,800-foot Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, as well as Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro.

He has completed at least a dozen Superior 50-mile Trail Races along the North Shore, he said, along with regular marathons. Last year, he and friend Brian Bennett of Grand Marais rode bikes 375 miles from Mount Ranier in Washington to Crater Lake in Oregon. In 2012, he and Bennett rode 444 miles from Tennessee to Mississippi along the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Benson joined fellow Grand Marais resident Lonnie Dupre to kayak a portion of Greenland’s coast during Dupre’s circumnavigation of the island from 1997 to 2001.

Although he still runs, Benson said that long-distance biking is more forgiving than long-distance running. He completed his last Superior 50-mile Trail Race two years ago, and his body felt it more than it once did.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I should get on my bike,’ ” he said.

Benson will make the Andes ride with the support of a group called Bike-Dreams, which transports riders’ gear, arranges hotel rooms for about 50 nights, cooks meals and offers medical and bike-mechanic services. Until he discovered Bike-Dreams, Benson and Bennett had been exploring the idea of buying a van in South America and arranging for drivers.

“That got too complicated,” Benson said. “That’s when Bike-Dreams came into play… A lot of things you worry about are kind of covered for you.”

The Netherlands-based firm charges $13,475 for riders who take part in the entire 136-day trip. Bennett and his wife, Deb Bennett, will join the group for the final six weeks of the ride.

Brian Bennett says the trip fits Benson well.

“He just loves to be on a bicycle and travel,” Bennett said. “He’s good at picking out something and getting it done… He’s fun to travel with. He’s very outgoing as far as making contacts with people.”

Leaving his business behind for 4½ months is not a small consideration, but Benson isn’t letting that dissuade him from committing to the trip.

“It’s a little bit daunting,” he said. “At first, it didn’t even click in that I shouldn’t do it, that my responsibilities should stop me. I was open to it, and I still am.”

He’s feeling fit and ready to ride, but he knows riding at elevation will be challenging. He’ll start from Quito at about 9,900 feet and climb to 12,000 and 13,000 feet in Ecuador. In Peru, he’ll climb five passes more than 13,000 feet high, including one of 16,100 feet.

“I’ve been in altitude before,” Benson said. “You just take your time and go.”

The group will average about 62 miles of riding a day on days it rides. The trip will include 28 days of rest and 108 days of riding. About 70 percent of the riding will be on paved roads, but riders also will encounter sand and loose rocks on other roads. Benson has a cyclo-cross bike he likes to ride, but Bike-Dreams officials said a mountain bike would be required on this ride, so Benson acquired one this summer.

He hopes this trek will yield the same kind of experience that many of his other travels have.

“I think just being in those cultures and meeting people in those cultures, you always get a different perspective on your life,” Benson said. “It’s good to do that. Oftentimes, you look at how you live your life and say, ‘Hey, there’s another way to do all this.’ ”

For more information

* Buck Benson will be posting updates on his South American bicycle ride on his blog at buckbenson.org.

* For more information on Bike-Dreams’ Andes Trail ride, go to bike-dreams.com.

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