Two Wisconsin teens in search of adventure in July 1973 rode their 10-speed bikes from Antigo, Wisconsin through Minnesota, to the Canadian border and back. Fifty years later, they reprised the 900-mile ride. As Jan Larson tells us they had to make a few adjustments, and had a new purpose.
Mark Blaskey was 18, and Nick Schmelter, 16, when the friends spent nine hot summer days and mosquito-infested nights pedaling through the Wisconsin and Minnesota Northwoods.
Blaskey rode his Rally Super Course that cost him $149. Nick, his trusty Big Schwinn. Everything they needed, Schmelter said, they carried with them.
“We had paniers and packs and sleeping bags and we used tube tents, you know, basically a plastic tube you strung a string between,” said Schmelter. “You tied that to trees or whatever you could find, and you sort of slept in that open-ended, which didn’t help for the mosquitoes.”
After departing from the Blaskey family’s driveway in Antigo, the teens racked up 140 miles on their first day before stopping to camp. Blaskey recalled that it was a rough night.
“At night we were being devoured by mosquitoes and I said, ‘Nick, are you sleeping at all?'” said Blaskey laughing. “So, we got up and rode four miles in the dark on Hwy. 13 to a little motel in Park Falls that cost us $3.50.”
Averaging nearly 100 miles a day, the two completed the journey with nary a mishap – well, nearly, says Blaskey.
“We’d ridden the whole way. We were 15 miles from home,” said Blaskey. “We hadn’t had a flat tire and I was getting cocky and just doing kind of a Serpentine route down a very quiet country road – and ran over a board with a nail in.”
The two did make it home. In the fall, Blaskey left for UW-Madison. Schmelter stuck around to finish high school before his own UW-Madison college years.
The two drifted apart … until 2020, when COVID found Schmelter holed up and looking for connection.
“I was Googling past friends and I remembered the bike trip that we took in ‘73,” said Schmelter. “I Googled Mark Blaskey and I found his website.”
Schmelter, now 66, and Blaskey, now 68, reconnected over the trip and life.
As the 50th anniversary of the ride approached, Blaskey suggested a reunion ride. When they realized cancer had killed multiple loved ones, they decided to turn the ride into a fundraiser for cancer research. Blaskey contacted his alma mater and worked with the Carbone Cancer Center to set a goal and launch a website, Shifting Gears for 50 Years: Golden Anniversary Ride for Cancer, for donations.
Fifty years older, the two modified their cycling plans. They rode the same route and stopped in the same places. But their team grew. Joining them on the 2023 ride was a friend, Andrea Kubishak, who drove a support motorhome, and Mark’s wife, Emily Blaskey, who handled logistics.
“One of the things that I think is so great about this (ride) is this renewed friendship,” said Emily Blaskey. “I sort of want to be a fly on the wall – on a rolling wall – watching these two.”
The cycling team rolled into Antigo, Wisconsin on July 17, 2023, completing a second 900-mile ride to the Canadian border and back – and this time, without any flat tires.
The ride, they said, made a difference for them. Schmelter said they hope it will make a difference for others, too.
“What better way to make this worthwhile and meaningful than to do it for funding,” said Schmelter. “We’ll put a small dent in the cancer research, but it’s a dent that we’ll be proud of.”