Thursday, August 1, 2013

My Big Wild Ride (Alaska 1200k), Part 1: The Gathering Storm

(Update: I've made a movie of this event that can be found here.)

I'm not quite sure where to start.  The beginning, but where is that?  Maybe in 2005, when, looking for a change of athletic pace, I bought a bike, not having ridden one since I was a kid.  A week or two later, my first ride with a touring club, a 40-miler through the rolling hills of northern Virginia, felt like a monumental victory over the unfathomable forces of nature.  I still remember, toward the end, encountering a road that seemed to rise into the clouds -- the Snickersville Turnpike.  Improbably, I clawed my way to the top, and on my next few rides with the club, I asked other riders about it, confident that it must be legendary in the area.  "Sure, pretty road!" they'd say.  "Pavement's a little rough but it has nice shade in the summertime." No whispered words about having their souls crushed.

Three months later, having fought through a few 50- and 60-milers, I made the leap to my first century ride.  At the time, it seemed a distance too immense for comprehension: 100 miles.  On a bicycle.  I remember having dinner with a friend's family that evening and, by way of apology for being unable to carry on a conversation or even use a fork competently, explaining what I'd done earlier in the day.  Their unspoken reactions were transparent: "Geez!  But why?"  It's what cyclists did, I thought.  The culmination of a year or even a cycling career.  The apex.

Over the next few years, though, I came to see that a century is just a threshold beyond which greater adventures await.  In training for a series of Ironman races, my club would do a couple of mere training rides each season that were even longer, and those often were bookended by swims and runs.  A century was just another distance, albeit a nice round one with a catchy name.  Indeed, in the next few years, I found that many of my favorite rides were exceedingly mountainous treks of about 125 miles: Mountains of Misery, in Blacksburg, VA, and the Diabolical Double, in Garrett County, MD, being just two.  

Amidst my growing ambitions, a counterintuitive trend emerged: longer distances weren't more painful than shorter ones, at least psychologically.  Quite the contrary, in many ways they were liberating.  I found that, the shorter the ride, the less I enjoyed it for its own merits and just thought of it as a training exercise to be completed as quickly as possible.  Shorter rides were mere tasks, boxes to be checked on the training agenda, and subconsciously I'd continuously query whether a given ride was done yet.  Conversely, when I rolled out on a 125-mile challenge ride with 15,000 feet of climbing, the finish line seemed distant to the point of being hypothetical.  It forced me to live in the moment and to enjoy the process -- the pocket-sized victories viewed from summits in the sky.  These ambitious rides weren't in service of a larger goal, but instead were the goals themselves, and their own rewards.

Then, a few years back, my buddy Max, a fellow triathlete and a comparable aficionado of masochistic endurance challenges suggested that I join him for a local randonneuring event, a 200k brevet with the D.C. Randonneurs.  The unsupported, noncompetitive event was a first for me.  It took place on one of those frigid, clammy March days for which the mid-Atlantic is known, and the course was gorgeous and relentlessly hilly in equal measure.  Including a few miles added due to wrong turns, we finished in about 11 hours, and I think I ate an entire pizza afterward before collapsing into bed with the intention to sleep until summertime.  I completed a couple more 200k brevets in succeeding years, each time at the end thinking that I couldn't imagine pedaling a mile further.  

Then, in 2011, Max, who'd managed to complete at least one 600k brevet, announced that he'd registered to ride the inaugural Big Wild Ride 1200k later in the summer.  I had no words.  Even as one known to his friends for deriving joy from adversity, I simply could not contemplate how someone might hope to complete such an event, or why one might be tempted to try.  I was impressed as heck with his audacity, but not even a small part of me found allure in the prospect.  It seemed to redefine excess, and I preferred my insanity with a splash of self-preservation and a twist of common sense.  Such an undertaking had no discernible place in a reality-based world.  Unfortunately, his attempt to prove me wrong was tragically derailed early on when he struck a large rock in the road during the ride's first night; the inconceivable remained just so.

The Fingerlakes in summertime.  Tolerable.
In 2012, in an effort to ramp up my cycling volume to prepare for the inaugural Ironman Mont Tremblant later in the year, I decided to stretch my limits on the brevet front.  First came a 300k brevet in Frederick, MD, in early May.  The heat was simply indecent, and there was no shade to be found amongst the cornfields and extended climbs.  My friend and I finished in 14 hours or so, but for the last few hours we were running on fumes and greasy roadhouse food.  Undaunted, in June, we headed to the Ontario, NY for a 400k with the Randonneurs of Western New York.  That incredible journey started with 5 hours of cold rain and ended 18 hours later with a midnight spin along the shore of Lake Erie, with moonlight twinkling on the breaking waves.  It was just magical, and in my weakness, I thought, yeah, I could do more of this.

And so it was that I agreed to join Max in the summer of 2013 for the second running of the Big Wild Ride 1200k.  It would be the focus of the spring and summer, and hopefully the adventure of a lifetime.  This spring, my 200k, 300k, and 400k qualification requirements went off without a hitch.   The 600k proved more troublesome; due to personal conflicts, I couldn't join the brevets hosted by the local chapters in late May and early June, which was especially problematic in that the BWR required that riders qualify by June 21.  Kevin, the RBA for the Alaska Randonneurs, graciously allowed me to qualify using a 600k permanent, ridden on my own, merely 3 weeks before the 1200k.  This was a little nuts insofar as it meant that my first 600k and 1200k would be ridden only 21 days apart, but I survived the 600k and was optimistic as I boarded the plane for Anchorage.  After all, I reasoned, it was just a little more pedaling and eating, and a lot more chamois cream; what's the big deal?  Famous last words.


The ride was slated to start on Sunday night, and Saturday was dedicated to getting to Valdez from Anchorage.  I therefore flew into Anchorage on Thursday afternoon via Alaska Air, somehow managing to pay only $20 for my bike.  Upon reaching town, I built up my bike and Max took me on a tour of the Coastal Trail, a local cycling and running Mecca.  It was an immaculate day, mid 70's, sunny and crisp, with air that seemed more appropriate to a mountain resort than a city.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

I couldn't believe that just that morning I'd been in D.C., where the temperatures were predicted to reach the high 90s and the humidity was unspeakable.  

With the 4-hour time change, bedtime came early, but the next day brought more exploring, first an easy 30-minute run around Anchorage, and then a real treat: a ride down the Seward Highway southeast of Anchorage.  This was the road we'd take on Saturday to the ferry in Whittier, and it stood on its own as one of the most gorgeous stretches of tarmac I'd ever traveled.  The contrast of the sheer cliffs on the left with the water and snowcapped peaks on the right was like nothing I'd ever seen.  What a treat.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

STAND in the place where you (wanna) live!  At least in July.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

Vogue!  Just over the railing is a great waterfall.
Our appetites for Alaskan cycling whetted, Max and I headed to the Big Wild Ride meet-n-greet at a local bike shop.  You could definitely tell it was an Alaskan shop, with lots of fat-tire bikes and other nods to survival over speed.  Surprisingly, of the 45-odd registered riders, only one was from Alaska.  D.C., in contrast, was very well represented, with 6 or 7 riders.  Riders hailed from shores as distant as New Zealand, England, and Japan.

About 1/3 of the crowd!  I'd know most of their names pretty soon.
With bike inspections on the menu, there was a wide variety of randonneuring setups on display, from classic steel:

Boulder Bicycle.

... to carbon (complete with disc brakes!)

... to titanium and carbon

... and recumbents.

And then, last but sure as heck not least, there was this understated little number:

Cervelo P5.  No bar tape.  Holy crap.
I'm a triathlete.  I know me some tri bike.  And that, my friends, is some serious, bleeding-edge tri bike.  Man alive.  My own tri bike is comparable; I rode it successfully in a 12-hour TT last summer and a 300k earlier this year, and Breyers couldn't make enough ice cream to tempt me to try to ride it 750 miles straight.  I figured there were two possibilities: the owner was a RAAM vet who was planning to swat the course aside like one of Alaska's notorious mosquitos, or he'd somehow gotten terribly lost.  As it turned out, Scott, its owner, was a very down-to-earth guy with reasonable ambitions who simply had but one bike available.  That's the best of all possible reasons, but even so: good grief, man.  My neck ached in sympathy.


The ride would end in Anchorage, but it would start in Valdez, a mountain-ringed port town a full day's journey to the east.  

We'd turn that frown upside down!  (Sorry)
Saturday's plan, therefore, called for us to travel (by car in our case; by coastal train in others') from Anchorage (A) to Whittier (B), and then to take a 6-hour ferry across Prince William Sound to Valdez (C):

The drive to Whittier was a 2-hour jaunt down Seward Highway, the coastal road we'd biked the previous afternoon, and once more it lived up to its billing, offering everything from seascapes to glaciers and verdant hillsides that looked straight out of Ireland.  My only disappointment was a suspicion that the ride itself couldn't possibly measure up to the pre game.

From sea to shining sea
Pretty much that whole expanse of water is a tidal zone.
Portage Glacier!  I think!  Maybe.  Or one of its friends.
July in Alaska is nothing like July in D.C.
Ireland or Alaska?
In Whittier, a desperately small port... settlement, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch at a seaside inn with a panoramic view overlooking Prince William Sound.  Max opted for an exotic reindeer stew; I contented myself with the fish tacos.

Our appetites sated, we joined the other randonneurs in loading our bikes aboard the ferry.

$200,000 worth of bikes strapped together.
We then settled in for one of the most amazing things I've ever experienced.  Whittier and Valdez -- and hence Prince William Sound between them -- have legendarily awful weather.   This day, though, one could not have imagined anything more perfect.  What's more, Prince William Sound is known as being a cruise destination because it's picturesque beyond description.  It was incredible to have such an experience folded into the ride logistics; the only challenge was figuring out what to photograph when everything seems like the most picturesque scene one's ever seen.

Max (L) and me (R) settling in for the ride.  I need a haircut.

A patriotic view of Whittier as we pull away.
Whittier fading into the distance.  Look at that sky!
That guy in the white shirt knows where it's at, photo-wise.
Glaciers and jagged peaks everywhere one looks.
This is my biggest smile.
It's gonna be a bright, bright, bright sunshiny day.
The forbidding mountain range to the north.
Even the clouds needed a nap on their way across the peaks.
And then this happened just off the bow:

Thar she blows!
Yup.  That there be a Humpback Whale.
As we rounded a rocky outcropping to the north, we came upon a beach colonized by sunbathing seals.

It's a tough life living basking by the emerald sea.
They'd also taken over a guidance buoy.
Here, kitty kitty!  No?  Fine, be that way.

We arrived in Valdez on a perfect Alaskan evening.  I say evening even though, as of 8:00 pm, it wouldn't be dark for another several hours.  After grabbing some food in the restaurant downstairs, we tried to bank as much sleep as possible; Sunday night, at the very least, we'd get none whatever.

I somehow managed about 11 hours' sleep and awoke at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday to confront the following dilemma: when an endurance event begins at midnight, what the heck do you do with your day?  The smartest answer almost certainly is "as little as possible," so Max and I immediately crossed it off our list and headed out for a ride.

Actually, it wasn't quite so insane.  The first 35 miles of the ride are some of the prettiest, with mountains, glaciers, and magnificent waterfalls on display.  There's also an epic 9-mile, 2700-foot climb to the top of Thompson Pass and an unmissable descent on the other side.  Unfortunately, given the midnight start, we'd visit this area under cover of darkness.  We therefore hit upon the perfect solution: we'd catch a lift to the top of the pass and ride down the 2700-foot descent back toward Valdez.  Not a pedal stroke of effort would be necessary!

On the way to the peak, we passed Bridleveil Falls, an incredible sight.  Its size is hard to convey.

Raindrops are fallin' on my head!
Here it is in motion:

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

And just past the falls was a canyon that seemed to stretch forever.

It was deeply hypnotic.
On the way to the summit, more summits!

The earth was cleaved in two.
And mountaintop lakes.

I could see for miles, miles, miles, miles...
We'd travel these roads again some 12 hours later.  In the meantime, though, we had the chance to descend down the south side of Thompson Pass.  Here's part of the thrill-ride.  Sorry for the camera shake -- things are bouncy when you're moving 50 mph!!!

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

Toward the bottom, we passed through the canyon shown above, which led us back past the falls.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

Man, what an appetizer. 

Upon returning to Valdez, I showered, looked over my bike, wrote a blog post about my last-minute thoughts, and tried to relax.  I also spoke for half an hour or so with a documentary film crew, Greg and Joe of Throwing Wrench, who'd be shadowing us through Alaska in the coming days.

It was nearly time to roll out like a Hobbit in search of my own personal Smaug.  Bilbo had Gandalf; I had bear spray.  Bring it on.

(This is Part 1 of a triptych.  Part 2 is here.)


  1. Wow! I appreciate your work and experience. These amazing clicks, videos and inspiring write up will forcing me to check out some adventurous ride. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.
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  2. Epic! Very inspiring, I love this line " I preferred my insanity with a splash of self-preservation and a twist of common sense"