The whole endeavor, to hear Al Newman tell it, was stupid. Really, really stupid.
What compels a 73-year-old man from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to forgo a comfy retirement in twilight, and instead ride his bike for a few fleeting hours across an icy tundra half a world away?
Blame a reckless inner spirit-the same one that drove him to forge his own path in the first place. “To be an entrepreneur, you have to be willing to take calculated risks,” he says.
And to spend your New Year’s holiday cycling in Antarctica, as Newman did, after endless rejections from practically every expedition company on the frozen continent because they don’t really handle those kinds of requests, you need to reckon with the hazards. Like getting stranded in Antarctica in January, because Antarctica in January-when it’s summer, no less!-is prone to the kinds of devastating snow storms that can halt air travel and strand visitors for weeks on end.
These are the kind of risks, stupid as they are, that thrill Newman. That eat at him. That urge him to uproot his life and chase outlandish ideas for as long as he needs to, and burn as many resources as required, because success isn’t as sweet without the threat of catastrophe thrown in. Why wouldn’t he drop everything-including gobs of dough-to indulge in, as he calls it, “unacceptable behavior”?
You either get it or you don’t.
“When people ask me why I do this, I don’t answer,” Newman says. “Because if they’re asking, then they’ll never understand.”
It started with a couple of coins. In 1960, the Denver Mint misprinted a batch of pennies and mistakenly sent them to Michigan, where a crafty young Newman and his brother, Chuck, wrangled up some of the copper pieces and figured out how to flip them for 10 cents each to collectors. Thanks to a well-placed ad in Numismatic News, the Newman brothers-teenagers at the time-turned a nifty profit, the equivalent of $30,000 today. And so began an entrepreneurial streak.
The Newmans founded more than a dozen Michigan-based companies after their first enterprise, including ReCellular, which recycled and refurbished used cell phones; Astrotype, which developed the first computerized word processor; and Rent-a-Byte, the first store in America where customers could rent computers. Though Newman “retired” in 2010, he still mentors aspiring entrepreneurs and sits on the boards of several nonprofits, including A Brighter Way, which helps former prisoners return to society.
For as much time as Newman has spent in boardrooms all his life, however, he’s been a mainstay in gyms, fields, and the outdoors for just as long. In high school, he lettered in football, basketball, and baseball. As an adult, he took his local softball team to national competitions. And for several decades, Newman has excelled in a demanding sport relatively unknown in the mainstream: orienteering, where you race against others through the wilderness with a map and a compass. He actually became a national champion in the sport and still enters 20 competitions a year all over the country.
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With success so many other endeavors, it’s surprising that Newman is making headlines for fantastic achievements in a sport he doesn’t practice much.
Like all kids, Newman rode his bicycle around town as a boy, but lost touch as he grew up and found other athletic pursuits. He didn’t even have his own bike when a friend invited him on a cycling tour of China in 1982, when the country began opening up to American tourists.
The sightseeing trip didn’t just open his eyes to a world beyond Ann Arbor. More importantly, the trek kicked off a personal quest-even if it took Newman a couple more decades to realize it.
Most people don’t get out of bed and declare their intention to ride from coast to coast. But Newman isn’t most people. On one random morning in 2009, despite his status as only a casual cyclist who logged 1,500 miles a year, he woke up and felt an urge to see America from his saddle. “God,” he said to his wife, Roddy. “I’d really like to ride my bike across the country.”
To test his mettle and see if he was up to the task, Newman immediately went for a 50-mile jaunt. “Nope,” he joked to Roddy upon returning from the ride exhausted. “Can’t be done.”
But a little failure never keeps a good businessman down, so Newman spent a few months building up his speed and endurance before embarking upon a 49-day trip with Crossroads Cycling, an adventure touring company, that May.
Newman was one of 25 cyclists to begin in Los Angeles, but by the time he reached Boston 3,415 miles later-after traversing deserts in triple-digit temperatures, climbing gorgeous but grueling mountains in the Midwest, and dodging pesky potholes on shaky Northeastern roads-he was just one of nine riders to finish the feat.
Did the journey suck at times? Of course, says Newman. “But it was a wonderful way to see the country.”
Despite surviving the cross-country campaign, Newman had technically only trudged his way through 14 states on the tour. He wanted more. So he upped the ante and decided to tackle the other 36.
Over the next decade, Newman took any opportunity to check a new state off his list, from linking up with riders on a Maine-to-Florida leg to interrupting peaceful vacations just for the hell of it. Take the time he and Roddy were hiking in Sedona, Arizona, for example.
With his mad mission in mind, he asked his wife if he could head to the Four Corners region six hours away, just to ride between Utah and Colorado. “I drove back thinking, ‘What is wrong with you?’” Newman says. “This is unacceptable behavior. This is nuts!”
When Newman finally hit his last state in 2017 (Rhode Island), naturally it was time to raise the stakes. “After I did all 50, I started to wonder, ‘What’s the next really stupid goal?”
Turns out he was well on his way to accomplishing it. By 2017, Newman had already ridden on five continents: There was the China tour, a day-long Amsterdam bike trip on business, a visit to see his son in Australia, an epic ride through the Andes alongside Roddy, and of course, the great U.S. challenge.
Next came Africa. That May, Newman and nine other riders conquered the continent over three and a half weeks-including eight days just to cross the Kalahari Desert-and faced a slew of formidable foes along the way: scorching heat, biting cold, washboard roads, vicious storms, and one precarious rendezvous with a deadly black mamba snake.
“If you’re bitten by one of those, you’ve got about 30 minutes until you’re no longer with us,” Newman says. “Its head was up and ready to strike. I missed the bite by maybe six inches.”
Danger be damned, Newman made it back from Africa in one piece, with one continent left to go. Now if only someone would let him actually get there.
Antarctica is the most remote piece of land on the planet-a very big piece of land, at 5.4 million square miles, but lonely all the same. The giant slab of ice isn’t terribly accessible to tourists, and of the continent’s few adventure operators that plan excursions-mostly polar cruises, climbing ascents, and skiing descents-virtually none offers any bicycling tours. Newman knows. He called them all.
“I tried every way I could to get somebody to allow me to ride a bike in Antarctica,” he says. “And they all told me it can’t be done. I needed a permit, and they wouldn’t allow it.”
Newman isn’t used to admitting defeat, but he was rapidly running out of options and feared his grand experiment would ultimately fall short. At the eleventh hour, however, a friend in the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs tipped Newman to Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE), which provides air transportation and guided experiences for travelers.
To Newman’s surprise, ALE was game. “Just know you’ll be riding alone,” the organization cautioned.
That was all he needed to hear. His odyssey was back on.
On New Year’s Eve 2018, Newman flew from Detroit to Punta Arenas, Chile, with stops in Dallas and Santiago in between. ALE transports all passengers from Punta Arenas to the Ellsworth Mountains in West Antarctica (a six-hour flight) on an Ilyushin IL-76 freighter, a monster of an aircraft that was originally designed to carry cargo to the U.S.S.R. but is now used in emergency evacuations and disaster relief efforts-and, of course, to schlep a handful of thrillseekers to a place so far it might as well be the moon.
Even after landing in Chile, Newman wasn’t sure he’d make it to Antarctica on time, if at all. After a briefing with ALE, he learned that the weather there had recently been so nasty that some travelers had been waiting in Punta Arenas for a week just to fly over. But officials determined that they’d have a small window to get on-and off-the continent before the next storm came.
“What have I gotten myself into?”Newman wondered.
Nevertheless, it was go time. On January 3, 2019, Newman boarded the beastly IL-76, built to withstand wicked weather, and landed later that morning on a blue-ice runway at ALE’s Union Glacier Camp. The temperature was a balmy 5 degrees Fahrenheit with only minimal winds-perfect riding conditions, as it turned out. And though Newman thought he’d be going solo, an ALE guide named Tony ended up joining him for the journey.
Newman, draped in his trusty blue and yellow University of Michigan jacket (one of three layers), hopped on his Salsa Fat Bike and pedaled into the flat, white unknown in front of him.
Don’t ask him how far, fast, or long he rode, because he doesn’t know. “We didn’t have a Garmin, so I had no idea where I was going,” he says. But the scenery-“pure, pristine, and extreme”-was stunning, if not occasionally confusing. “There’s a real depth perception problem out there. I thought a glacier in the distance was a mile away, but it was actually 23.”
Before he knew it, Newman scrambled back to the IL-76, which had to take off to beat the looming blizzard. His two wheels barely spent two hours on Antarctica’s surface, but that was enough. After a lifetime of making big bets and brash moves, he had completed his craziest crusade yet at the age of 73.
“I’m not sure I grasped it,” he says, “but quite honestly, I don’t view it as some great accomplishment.”
If Newman wasn’t especially wowed by his triumph, two of his fellow passengers on the plane back to Punta Arenas were. Days before Newman’s ride, American endurance athlete Colin O’Brady and British Army Captain Louis Rudd became the first two explorers ever to ski across Antarctica alone. (O’Brady beat Rudd by three days.)
“O’Brady stood up and announced to everyone [on the plane] that I’m a ‘legend,’” says Newman. “That was beyond me. I don’t know why those two guys were so impressed with what I did. For God’s sake, what they did is out of category!”
Newman doesn’t know what’s next-cycling in outer space, perhaps?-but rest assured that whatever wild target he sets, he’ll take any steps necessary to hit the bullseye. And that, he says, is the key to riding in all 50 states, or on all seven continents, or daring to do anything great: You have to really want it.
“Anyone can do this,” says Newman. “You just need the resources, the time, and the desire.”
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