Saturday, July 20, 2013

Big Wild Ridin'! Start Your Engines

I'm in Alaska, preparing to set out on the 6-hour ferry ride from Whittier to Valdez, where the ride will start tomorrow night.  It has been amazing here so far: cool temps reaching highs near 70 and lows around 50, clean air, and rings of snow-capped peaks in every direction.  Yesterday morning I went for a 30-minute easy run on a bike trail along the coast, and then on an utterly amazing 30-mile spin along the Seward Highway.  It's quite a thing to be bombing down the road with cliffs on the left and ocean on the right, with mountains across the water.  It's easy to see why people choose to live here, although I understand that the winters are quite another matter.

Last night was the bike check and meet-n-greet.  There are about 50 riders -- a very sizeable field for an event like this.  Among the riders is a healthy D.C. contingent, maybe 7 or 8 total including me and Max, and they're universally friendly.  There's a guy from England, another couple of guys from Japan, and at least one triathlete on a tricked-out Cervelo P5.  He confessed that he was trying to figure out how to carry food on it.  Maybe not quite the weapon for this fight.  There was the usual assortment of recumbents, vintage steel with fenders and downtube shifters, and carbon racers.

I'm the youngest person riding, at a not-so-young 36.  Max is the only other person under 40.

The ride starts tomorrow night (Sunday night) at midnight local time (4:00 a.m. EST), which will be strange in many ways, not least because it is dusk at that time of night, and sunrise will be only a few hours later.  Unfortunately, the schedule has us riding the prettiest part of the course in those few hours of darkness; the schedule evolved to this form in order to ensure that riders wouldn't be in the truly remote, cell-signal-free region during the night.  It's safety over scenery in this instance, which is fair enough, though personally I'd prefer it the other way.

The ride is 1200k (750 miles), and the time cutoff is 90 hours -- that is, riders have until 6:00 p.m. on Day 4.  Most will take 85-89 hours for the trek, but our plan is a little more aggressive.  If all goes wells we plan to cover 3 legs of 400k (250 miles each).  That distance usually takes 18 hours or so.  Thus, each day we will ride from midnight until about 6:00 p.m., then sleep for a few hours before setting out at midnight for the next day.   The big picture is that we plan 3 legs and two snoozes; if we manage it, we'll likely finish under 70 hours, but a lot of things can go wrong in that period, even assuming one has no need for bear spray.  If we meet our goal, we'll finish around 8:00-10:00 local time on Wednesday night, which would be sometime after midnight on Thursday morning on the east coast.

I'm feelings pretty good about the ride.  Nervous, yes; but the nerves aren't due to the challenge of covering the distance.  I know that will be completely exhausting, of course, but like many things we'll take it mile by mile and get there eventually.  My nerves have to do with logistics -- what am I forgetting?  What might I need that I haven't thought of?  We'll have access to drop bags (equivalent to special needs) at about the 400k, 700k, and 1,000k points, but that means we have to guess what we might want or need.  That's difficult when I've done nothing like this before.   We're lucky in that the weather should be consistent and favorable, but you don't want to be caught off-guard.  If you shred a tire or fall off your bike in a remote region, it could be quite awhile before help arrives, and what is comfortable clothing while riding might be utterly inadequate if you're on the side of the road for hours, at night, in the rain.  That probably won't happen, but you have to plan for it anyway, or at least you should.

I'm also pretty worried about saddle and foot pain.  Toward the end of my 600k, my butt and feet were killing me, and this is twice as far.  Having two short sleep breaks should help, and I'm trying a lot of new/different things this ride in order to make life more comfortable, but I'm pretty sure I will have trouble sitting down toward the end of each day.  Maybe a new randonneuring saddle is in my future, but for now I'm dancing with the one who brought me, so to speak.

In all, I'm pretty excited.  A couple of years ago I thought events like this seemed completely absurd. I still do in many ways, but if 5,000 people can cover this distance at Paris-Brest-Paris every four years, then surely the challenge is surmountable.  At this distance the challenge is largely mental.  In all, though, I can't think of a better way to experience Alaska for the first time.  It'll certainly be memorable; one can't make it through an event like this without some colorful stories to tell.

I will do my best to tweet/post to FB status updates at least once a day, and there will be a full ride report afterward, come what may.  For now, I'm off to catch a ferry!