Thursday, 6 February 2014

Alaska’s Big Wild Ride

Back in July, I travelled all the way to Alaska for the Big Wild Ride 1200k. Have to say, this was my favourite 1200k to date. The Big Wild Ride has to be among the crème de la crème of twelve-hundy’s. Big thanks to Kevin & his crew for organising this fantastic event.

The following article also appeared in Audax Australia’s Checkpoint Magazine No.58 – Summer 2014.


It is midnight local time. The sun is still up and I have just landed in Anchorage, Alaska after a 26 hour flight, which is about a week quicker, and a whole load less exhausting than the annual migration of the Kūaka (Godwit). Connect to the Airport WiFi, you have new mail…
“… when the recent local black bear, grizzly bear, and forest fire news began to gain momentum these past few weeks, we focused our attention on the one thing we could do with the BWR2013 to minimize the course's objective hazards, making the ride safer and more enjoyable for all the riders.”
And online links to follow:
A bear killed a 64-year-old Fairbanks man late Thursday”
“A three-mile stretch of Crow Pass Trail has been closed to hikers after a "brown bear charging incident" over the weekend.”
Not exactly the most reassuring news at the start of my five week visit to “Bear Country”! Did I really need to waste my money on the return ticket?


Prince William Sound, Alaska

Cruising on Prince William Sound

The Big Wild Ride is neither an out and back, nor a loop. The journey from Anchorage to the starting town of Valdez via the Alaska Railroad and Marine Highway was nothing short of spectacular! This provided a chance to meet the riders I would see over the next 1200km and observe the scenery and marine - glaciers, icebergs, whales, sea lions, seals, purpoises, orca, sea otters - spotted along the way.

Whale's Tail, Prince William Sound

Valdez, Alaska

Day One: Valdez to Delta Junction (436km)

It was a balmy 21 degrees at 11:59pm with the light more dim than dark. The snow-capped mountain tops were clearly visible despite the street lights shining.

Big Wild Ride Start, Mountain Sky Hotel, Valdez, Alaska

The first 10km was flat with a bunch of 44 riders gently getting into the ride, at times at only 20km/h. This was a bit relaxed for my fresh legs. I moved forward, presuming a small bunch would follow. Surprisingly I found myself at the front, but progress was good and I didn’t feel like I was burning any matches. I was soon joined by Damon Taffe and Scott Griffith on Cervelo P5. A little more flat riding before the 855m climb over Thompson Pass. Scott’s time-trial bike had received a bit of attention from other riders before the start. It was here for the simple reason that it was the only bicycle he owned. I was trying to hold onto his wheel when he led out at over 40km/h and I was in the unusual position of being near the front over a major climb.

Sky at Dawn (Photo: Damon Taffe)

Riding through dawn (Photo: Damon Taffe)

The sun was already rising at 3:10am but at 9 degrees it was a tad chilly as we rolled down Thompson Pass. All my layers were now on. I had obviously acclimatised to the warm summer in Alaska, following sub-zero winter night training back in Kiwiland! My legs still felt good, but I was feeling mentally tired and lost a bit of pace through these early hours, although I was soon into the second control at Tonsina Lodge (133km) where a magnificent breakfast had been organised. This was a true testament to how Kevin, and his organising crew had worked with the lodges along the route to provide services to the riders. I wish I was feeling hungry. It all sure looked good, but I skipped the early breakfast and headed back out on the road.

Riders riding North, past the Wrangell-St Elias Mountains (Photo: Damon Taffe)

Taking in the views of the of the Wrangell-St Elias mountains to our right, we pushed on to Glenallen (191km). I had a large group of riders for company, including Craig Mathews, Kelly Smith, and Tim Wouldenberg. Craig Mathew’s ride almost came to an early demise when his derailleur snapped in two up a short pinch a few kilometres short of Glenallen. Meanwhile, Tim was riding strongly on his recumbent and doing a great job rolling back to draft riders back into the pack, that usually being me - thanks Tim!!

With few roads, and nowhere to ride but North we proceeded toward the 4th control at the Sourdough Roadhouse (243km) where we had to wait an hour or so while the status of road construction ahead was confirmed. This allowed plenty of time to eat and rest before 61km to the next ice-cream at Paxson Lodge (304km).

Summit Lake (Photo: Damon Taffe)

Travel got a lot steeper, with a bit of climbing up to Summit Lake. Tim and I were riding together a bit here, but were spreading when it either pitched up, or down. In Tim, I had finally met my match on the descents as he flew by on his recumbent and I didn't see him again before sharing moose (actually Caribou) stories at Delta Junction.
“I also don't trust Caribou anymore. They're out there, on the tundra, waiting... Something's going down. I'm right about this.”
― Joss Whedon
As I cruised along a road that was surely longer and straighter than any road in Aotearoa, I was pushing hard, head down trying to get into Delta Junction before midnight. And things suddenly got a little interesting. I looked up, and there was a large beast starring me down, on its hind legs and displaying its antlers threateningly. I slammed my brakes and backed off very carefully. I was in for a bit of a delay as the Caribou found the grass at the edge of the road to its liking, in between displaying its antlers if I tried to advance forwards.

Caribou, preferring the grass on the edge of the road to Delta Junction

With the excitement over, it was a gentle roll into Delta Junction for a few hours' sleep on my Thermarest in the High School Gym.

Day Two: Delta Junction to Healy (334km)

I woke feeling a bit drowsy as I scoffed some breakfast made by the helpful vollies (thankyou), before heading out in a small group. Not being a noted morning person at the best of times, alertness was a bit of a struggle. Tim kindly gave me some of his spare caffeine pills. These were helpful, although I personally prefer my caffeine presented via freshly roasted beans and an espresso machine.

The snow-capped Alaskan Range glows over the Tanana River

City of North Pole, Alaska

Santa Claus House, North Pole

The ambient light enabled great views of the Alaskan Range, and local wildlife with Elk, Moose and a Mink all sighted. With the benefit of a tailwind I found myself in a large bunch riding through North Pole (563km) and down to Fairbanks (593km). I was a bit slow at organising eating, ice cream and resupply at Safeway, and it took the rest of the day to catch up again.

There were a few more hills out of Fairbanks as we crossed the Alaskan Range for the second time. I was lamenting my lack of climbing performance with two other riders, before it suddenly clicked and hot and thirsty I arrived at the Skinny Dicks Halfway Inn (637km) - one of the ummm, more cultural bars. After a thirst quenching Ale and some potato chips shared with Steve Atkins, and against the advice of a few doubters who were unconvinced of both the nutritional and hydration benefits of the Ale, I rode on to the next ice-cream control at Nenana with the after burners on.

I soon caught up to the group I lost at Fairbanks, which was now almost one hundred miles behind us. I thought I would finally be able to drop in for some drafting, after a long solo slog into the wind -- only for them to turn off to a mountain lodge 100m later for dinner. Whilst I was invited, I wasn't mentally ready to eat just then and headed on toward Healy.

Approaching Healy (765km), Scott caught up with me and we rode together for the third late evening in a row. We were soon bouncing along a long stretch of road construction, with the road covered in rocks rather than gravel. Surprisingly, there were both signs "Double Fines while workers present" and a speed limit of 65mph. As a truck came by in the opposite direction and sent a rock flying past my right ear lobe, I finally understood why every vehicle in Alaska has a cracked windshield.

Day 3: Healy to Talkeetna (269km)

Tim rides towards the snow covered Denali

Shortly before turning toward Talkeetna, I had my only mechanical, with my front derailleur bolt becoming loose. It felt like a cable break, so I rode on in the inner ring before realising what was really up and securely fastening it just before arriving at the Swiss Alaskan Inn (1030km).

This was a very comfortable overnight control, where I was greeted by Tom Parker, whom I had met a fortnight earlier when he was marshalling at the Fireweed Ultra Race. Quite promptly I was enjoying a couple of, ummm, well, er recovery drinks with Tim, who was well settled in by the time I arrived and dinner was soon on the way. A 10 hour layover was about double the most time I had ever spent at a control in a randonneuring event.

We spent much of the morning riding toward Denali, North America’s highest peak and past Denali National Park to Hurricane Gulch (885km) and Mary’s McKinley View Lodge (948km) where Tim and a few others arrived moments after me - just in time for lunch. We enjoyed an Ale while arguing that hot foot was the only ailment shared by both recumbent and upright riders alike, and surely an Ale is the only known cure?

Naturally, after lunch Tim and I had the after burners on as we rode on to Talkeetna. As with the past 400km on the George Parks Highway avoiding rumble strips was an annoyance, covering most of the wide shoulder of the road. As oncoming traffic approached it was vital to use the mirror to check for tailing traffic and when to bounce on the rumble strips, which were the only downside amongst the awe inspiring scenery.

Day 4: Talkeetna to Anchorage (190km)

After a few days out in the wild, the final morning was less memorable as I rode toward civilisation, with breakfast inhaled enroute at the McDonald's inside a Walmart at Wasilla (1148km). A short section of freeway shoulder riding led to the most complex routing of the ride through an assortment of quiet roads and cycle ways through Eagle River and onto Anchorage (1212km). This complexity was a relative thing… there were more than two turns on this section.

I finished strongly and was feeling remarkably fresh considering that I was at the end of a 1200k and much of the previous 84h54m on the saddle.



Wrapping Up

During The Big Wild Ride I saw more wild life, had more sleep, and drank more beer than in the previous three 1200k rides I had ridden. It was also the most scenic, and my quickest 1200k to date.

A big thanks to Kevin Turinsky for organising this memorable ride, and to his dedicated crew of volunteers that helped it all happen!  And for my fellow randonneuring brethren that I met on the ride - maybe we’ll ride together again soon.


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