In May, I rode the Texas Stampede and while on the ride I spoke to a few Seattle rando-pals about London Edinburgh London (LEL), which I had gotten into by lottery.
“Oh, you’d be crazy to ride LEL”, they said, “It rains the entire time.”
“How do you feel about wind?… and rain?”
“What? LEL? Too spendy, and rainy and then there’s the wind. Did I mention the rain?”
All this, from the Seattle folks, all of whom NEVER ride without fenders. They KNOW rain. And they were going to skip LEL because of the cold, rain and wind?
I rethought it. I dislike riding in the rain (I prefer snow), but will do it, of course if necessary, but a few other logistical issues kept plaguing me. So when SFR rando-pal Tom H. told me that Max P. wanted to get into LEL, but hadn’t won the Lottery, I decided then that my spot was going to Max. And it did. Max rode a great LEL, but his is another story.
Since I was out for LEL, I cast about for something else to do. Drewski casually said, “Why not come to Alaska for the Big Wild Ride?” Hmmm. Not a bad idea. The dates are good, the scenery will be spectacular, and some rando-friends from all over the US were already signed up.
I’m in. SFR ended up with a large group heading to AK: Kitty, myself, Drew, Ken, Tim M., Larry, Carl, Masa, Toshi, and Tim W. all made the trip up to the great north. Plus, Lois and Bill, Dan and Pam, Vinnie, Bill O. and a host of others I hadn’t seen since PBP 2011 were in the mix. This was going to be a grand ride.
A few of us were on the same flight. We arrive in AK and the next morning build our bikes and get the kinks out with a short ride around town. We are to meet everyone at Speedway Cycles for a bike check and a meet and greet from Kevin Turinsky – the RBA in Anchorage.
The next day we are to meet down at the train station, for a ride to Whittier and then a ferry ride across Prince William Sound to Valdez where the ride starts. We all have 3 dropbags (one per night) another bag for our final day or so in Valdez (jettisoning regular clothing) a sleeping bag that is moving down the road with us, and then fresh clothes again for when we finish in Anchorage. Frankly I couldn’t keep it straight. It was a bit too much for me, but it all worked out.
We hop on the train and Kitty and I are goofing off with Dan and Pam from Texas. We watch the glaciers roll by, big waterways with large alluvial fans of silt washed down from the mountains. Everyone has their cameras ready to take pictures of the scenery and, of course to spot wildlife. We arrive in Whittier and have time for lunch.
There is a camera crew working on a documentary of the ride and will be along throughout, taking pics and short movie clips to piece together a story about this epic ride. Greg, the main man at On The Road Productions, is also a foodie and he is a fount of info on where to eat in Alaska. He can tell you where the best food is in the state. He tells us to go to this small café in Whittier. It does not disappoint. Crab chowder and an Alaskan IPA – yum.
The ferry ride is long, but so worthwhile. Rando-pals get time to catch up, Vinnie sleeps, (he had flown in to Anchorage after doing 2 back to back 1200ks in Europe) others nap in the sunshine, while the glaciers and mountains slip past. We see whales and basically enjoy ourselves as if on a cruise. This is not your typical start.
The sun was out. It was warm.
Everyone was in T-shirts and shorts. Sandals! Sunglasses!
Not a cloud in the sky.
This is, after all, Alaska.
Should have been:
Cold. Wet, overcast. Windy.
Grey. No views of mountains and glaciers.
People bundled up in wool and scarves and mittens
Yes, in July.
Valdez is a small town and is a huge gateway to the outdoor world. Prince William Sound (Exxon Valdez occurred here) is a large deep-water port and is a jumping off place for sea-kayaking, fishing and in the winter, heli-skiing, and dog-sledding among other things. It’s a pretty cool place, but Greg tells us, not much in the way of good food.
We are here a day and a half, and the time goes by slowly, because there is so much daylight. It’s still bright light out at 10PM. By 11:30 the light is starting to fade and by 12:30 AM it is finally dark. But that only lasts about 3 hours; by 3:30 the light is increasing again and by 4:00 it’s light enough to turn off headlamps. When we want to sleep, Kitty and I close the extra heavy curtains that block out the sun.
We spend time by going to a small museum of Alaskan Natural History, which is good, and by shopping. Kitty and I each score a new pair of clogs! You betcha, opportunistic shopping, but worthy. And we eat. A lot. Greg recommends the Thai in town, which is good. Of course, we are eating salmon like it’s the last thing on the planet. Yum. And halibut. But the wine selections are not up to snuff. Somehow, we manage.
Ride Day 1 – Valdez to Delta Junction, 270 miles
We lounge all of the first day, because the ride is starting at midnight. By 9:00 PM, most of us are stir crazy. We have packed, unpacked, rearranged and repacked all of our dropbags. We have checked our bikes, and we have eaten a bunch of food. We have put our feet up. We are ready to get this ride underway.
So we do. We depart at 11:59 PM under a full moon. There are 47 of us, and our red taillights and blinkies flash as we head out of town and up the canyon towards Thompson Pass. Everyone is in good spirits, flying along. The camera guys go ahead of us, stop and take pictures and then zoom ahead of us again. The canyon and road up to Thompson Pass is long, but not very steep, so riders settle into their climbing pace and move on up the road. With a full moon over the mountains the view from the top is lovely.
About 10-15 minutes of light rain greets me as I head down the pass, but it is over and soon the roads dry out. It is the only time during the entire ride the roads will be wet. Drew is faster than me on the uphills, but I zip past him on the down. We meet up at the second control where a full breakfast is waiting for us at a roadhouse. Most everyone is scarfing down a meal, but I kept it light, wanting mostly coffee and toast.
We move forward as the sun rises in the sky. It is sunny and warm. I brought clothing for cold, but the entire ride had daytime highs in the high 70’s, and only a little spit of rain on the first night. I guess I am glad I had my fenders and rain gear (I carried it the entire route) as they were a great insurance policy.
The group is thinning out, groups finding people of similar-paces to ride with and pacelines are forming. I am in one that is moving a bit too quick for me, but I decide to ride it out as long as I can. The wind is picking up and there is safety in numbers.
The day wears on. I am not too sleepy, the sun is still high in the sky at 4:00PM. We have been stopped at a roadhouse (with killer pie and sourdough bread), because of a road problem, that turned out to not be a problem. Tim has had a flat and we wait for him to fix it. Off again, the climbs are increasing in size and length but it could be that we are getting tired. The wind is still strong and what keeps the ride interesting is the fact that A). We are riding our bikes in Alaska! And B.) the scenery is unbelievable. Every once in a while we shout that out, “WE ARE RIDING OUR BIKES IN ALASKA!
And we can see for miles and miles.
The Alaska Range, and later on,
We see so many spectacular mountains that it almost becomes mundane…but it not quite.
Drew is beginning to fade. He’s not eating and is losing power. We stop at the final control before our sleep stop in Delta Junction and he is a hurtin unit. We eat again, and try and get him to eat something to power up for the last section before bed. Bill Olsen has done this ride before and he gives us commentary on what’s next. “A huge hill”, he remembers, then some rollers and then down into Delta Junction. Drew goes into the bathroom and throws up, feels better and we move on.
Along the way we spy a few moose cows with their calves, which was lovely. While moose can be aggressive, they look docile and kindly. A caribou was also grazing by the side of the road. No bear in sight. Drew drug himself up the last hill and we glided down into Delta Junction.
Cameraman Greg was there with some of the “best Thai food in Alaska”. I can’t remember where it came from, but the town wasn’t on our route. I happily chow it down, take a shower and relax into my sleeping bag for a 2-hour sleep, shutting my eyes after 25 hours. I am out cold.
Day 2 – Delta Junction to Healy, 202 miles
Up at 4:00m out by 5:00, Drew and I depart Delta Junction, heading to Healy via Fairbanks. Drew is a bit behind me and I plug into music. The beat picks up my cadence and I am sailing along on flattish roads that will take us to Fairbanks. Another lovely AM and I cruise past a few groups of randos who are moving along, but at a slower pace than me. I wait for Drew at the control and we head out together.
I am hoping to see a friend I have who is currently living in Fairbanks. Linus is on an Alaskan journey too. He set out with his loaded down Surly Ogre to ride the Yukon and roads that are dirt that go to the edges of the state. Way out there. Along the way his stash of cash was lifted or dropped and he is in Fairbanks earning some more so he can get back to adventuring. We trade emails and I tell him I’ll call him when nearing town so we can meet up at our control. The odds of this actually working out aren’t great, but who knows?
Drew and I continue towards Fairbanks. It is breezy as we roll through Christmas, Alaska. We decide against taking out pictures with Santa, although Masa and Toshi, who are riding very quickly, do.
The route into Fairbanks is commercial, nothing to write home about, and as we near town I am struck by how flat it is. We’ve been riding rollers forever on the Richardson Highway, and here in one of AK’s largest town centers, the terrain is flat. Not to mention – hot. Seriously warm.
At the Safeway we chow down with others on the ride, check in with each other, share water and shoot the sh*t. I call Linus immediately and he doesn’t pick up. I shoot him an email too. I don’t hear from him. Ah well. Drew and I ready ourselves to depart Fairbanks.
The route out of town takes us up two hills, one is mild, the second is steeper and longer. Somewhere near the middle of the first my cell phone rings. It’s Linus! We chat for 10-15 minutes. He is well and is planning on spending the winter up in the Yukon. Brrrrrr. Pretty cool to come close to connecting while on this speed journey. We hang up and I continue on up the hill.
Drew tells me to go ahead, he is sleepy from yesterday’s sleepless long ride. I turn the music on again and get into riding the rollers, which are plenty. In Cali, there is a double century bike ride called the Terrible Two. After lunch on the TT, riders head to Skaggs Springs Road, which is filled with steep rollers that have riders crying for the mommies, because they are steep and it is typically well over 100 degrees. The hills give you some momentum but steepen at the crest, and I’m not strong enough to glide up and over them and into the next one. Instead, I scratch my way to the top, gulp a few breaths of air, get into my drops and make the most out of the downhill, until my bike slows down and I have to pedal again. The rollers here in Alaska are similar. I decide to attack each one, music blaring in my ears.
I am alone on this stretch and it gives me time to think. Frankly, the entire ride gives one time to think, but in particular, I get some things sorted out about my little company, Rivet, the future of my life and it’s trajectory (yep, I will continue to get old), and then proceed to cure cancer and end hunger, all while on the rollers singing back-up for Bruce Springsteen.
I catch up to Dan and Pam near the top of a long roller and I realize we are approaching a control. I’m toast from the previous work and hot! so I decide to join Dan, Pam and their merry band of randos for the next stretch. Lots of banter, an easy going pace and relaxation are on tap for this section. This group is wonderfully casual. We stop for a beer, eat some potato chips and hang. In Texas, on the Stampede, the entire group rode together like this audax style, and it’s easy to slide into the mix of randos making their way down the road.
Drew catches up to us at some point and we kick up our speed a notch. Horses to the barn we can smell the end of the day. He has taken a few naps on the side of the road – pulled mosquito netting over his helmet and head, and has curled up in a ball. The mozzies are a nuisance, but if you keep moving, they aren’t too bad. Drew gives himself over to some much needed zzzz’s, and the mozzies come in for their evening meal.
We hook up with a few more folks and finish the day off. The last 15 miles or so of road is under construction and is dirt. Mostly graded, but not in the best of shape. WooHoo! Mixed Terrain! We reach our control, a church, just before midnight, and drag ourselves in, take cold showers, eat and crash for 3.5 hours. Day 2, is over.
Day 3 – Healy to Talkeetna
Up at 4:00, out by 5:00, Drew and I depart alone. It’s roughly a 300k day, which feels short, and that alone tells you how weird this sport is. 180 miles is a short day? Whacked.
The route is a big arc, and basically there are about 3 turns to the whole route, which is 760 miles long. Ride up this road for 270 miles, turn right. Then ride another 200 miles and turn right again. Head to Anchorage.
We have made two of the right hand turns, and today, we head straight into Denali NP. Plenty of tour buses on the road, but the traffic isn’t too bad, we warm up pedaling with the Park on our right. There are lodges filled with tourists that beckon to us, but we skip them, heading instead down the road to our next control.
We pull in just as Carl, Julie and John Lee are pulling out. Larry is inside eating a huge breakfast. We opt for coffee and smoked salmon from one of the volunteers. He tells Drew and I about fishing and hunting and living off the bounty that is Alaska. It is great to sit in his camper, sip a cuppa joe and listen to his stories. Simple pleasures.
We take off and mosey down the road. Denali is hidden still behind a few other peaks, and we wait and ride, wondering when it will appear. We scoop up a few other randos and soon we are a group of four. We kick it up to attempt to catch Carl and Julie, and we do at the next control. Now we are a group of six, and we settle into a rhythm for the day, and it’s a fast rhythm.
At some point, Denali appears.
Completely clear. It is huge and grand and fantastic.
We stop to take pictures and to gawk at this mountain of snow and rock and dirt and myth.
At the next control, we eat some bison stew and then go into the café for lunch. A beer, views of the The Mountain and the camaraderie fill our bellies and souls. We take off again for Talkeetna. We move along quite briskly and soon we are on the outskirts of Talkeetna. Carl, Larry, Julie and John take off, leaving Drew, Ted and I to make our way into the control on our own.
We meet up with our cameraman, Greg and he wants to ride into Talkeetna with us. He has a GoPro mounted on his bike and so he rides along the last stretch into town. The section is on a bike path, it is fun and easy, but the best part is, it is early. Greg and I clown around a bit, working on “hand-ups”. He successfully gives me a PBR and it explodes when I open it!. We arrive at the control at 7:00 PM, which means, hot showers, food, a beer, and SLEEP! I say Hi to Masa and Toshi, who have been so far ahead of me throughout the ride, that they are leaving when I arrive. They will ride through the night and be among the first to finish.
There are some randos who can ride quickly and bank a lot of time (which means you are way ahead of schedule and have time to spare), and that gives them plenty of time to sleep, which means they’ll be refreshed come morning and can then hammer out another long distance. But I am not one of these people. I scratch along and get into the final control for the day and have time for 2.5 – 4 hours of sleep when I’m lucky, if all goes well.
So, when we pulled into Talkeetna at 7:00 with only 116 miles to go the next day, I was ecstatic. I am going to get me some SLEEP! Six Full hours! In a bed, no less. Heck, I don’t even get that much at home these days, it was heaven.
Day 4 – Talkeetna to Anchorage
The last 116 miles or so were by far the least interesting to me. Larry, Carl, Drew and I head out at about the same time and we meet up with rando’s from Pennsylvania and DC area. I had burned some matches the day before and I was pretty tired. No, really tired. Like it’s all I can do to go 10 mph hard. Larry is a bit ahead of all of us when a moose steps out into the street, and then crosses right in front of him. He misses the moose by about 8 feet or so. Bullwinkle vanishes into the woods.
Our group is moving along and after an espresso stop, Carl cranks it up and obliterates the group. Only a few hang on, but I am not one of them. That’s cool, I don’t need to kill myself on the last day. We roll into the Wasilla Walmart, and head to the McD’s there. Carl apologizes, but I tell him to take a life insurance policy out on his lungs and then drink the rest of his coffee.
Wasilla had a ton of traffic and fast moving too. Huge trucks, dualies, etc blew by us with impatient drivers at the wheel. We got off the main road onto the Glenn highway, a smaller parallel roadway that was very pleasant, and then got a bit turned around in Eagle Creek. Three main turns for the entire ride and when we are about 20 miles from the finish, we get lost. Go figure!
A bike path leads us into town and we arrive in Anchorage at 2:00 PM, to friends, food, beer and the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing one of these epic adventures. I have been asked whether or not I’ll do the ride again and the answer is no. I’m going out on top, like Seinfeld. It couldn’t have been any better.
Everything in Alaska is big.
Big glaciers, big mountains, big rivers, big sky, big animals, big fish, big mozzies, big trucks, but mostly, big hearts and generous people; this is what makes Alaska so special.
Many thanks to Masa, Greg, Kevin of Alaska Randonneurs, and Jerry for letting me steal photos to illustrate our ride.
AND many thanks to Carl, Drew, Larry, Clint, Julie, Ted, and Tim W. for riding together and often, dragging me around. Finally, to the remarkable Kitty G. for putting up with me throughout.