Sunday, May 29, 2022

A Spectacular Day on the Bike - The Denali Bottom Gravel Race

post by Corrine

Race day started early, too early. 

I woke at 3:30 a.m. to the sound of something knocking against my cabin window. Was it sleeting? Or snowing? But the weather called for clear skies. I finally got up and saw a robin fighting its image in the window. I went back to sleep but that darn robin came back every 20 minutes to fight itself again, waking me up. Oh well, lack of sleep wasn’t enough to ruin one of the most spectacular days on a bike that I was about to have.

I had been in a funk the past week. I was having some FOMO from missing the Grand Depart of the Cross-Washington (XWA) Bikepacking Race, even though it was the right choice for me. From Facebook posts about the race it seemed like everybody was having great Type 2 fun. I’m planning to time trial the race in June, but it won’t be the same as being on the course with other racers. 

And work had been very stressful. Between complex patient issues, lack of enough clinical support, an inefficient EMR, and all the other frustrations with modern medicine and insurance, I had been feeling burned out.

A nice trip would have helped, and I had a four-day weekend over Memorial Day weekend, but Eric and I couldn’t come up with any fun plans. Trails we wanted to do were still too wet or snow-covered and there was too much snow in the mountains even in Southcentral for any extended road trip.

Photo by Carlene Van Tol

Then I remembered the Denali Bottom Gravel Race, which has happened Memorial Day weekend on the Denali Highway for the past several years. The Denali Highway is a 135-mile mostly gravel road that runs between Paxson and Cantwell through the Alaska Range. It’s considered one of the most scenic roads in the world. 

This year’s race had an out-and-back format with either 60- or 120-mile distances, both starting from Maclaren River Lodge. For the 120-mile race, you headed west for 20 miles up and over Maclaren Summit and down to Tangle Lakes, turn around and head back up and over Maclaren Summit again and back to the lodge. You then head east for 40 more miles to the Clearwater Mountain Lodge before turning around and heading back to Maclaren to finish for a total of over 7500 feet of climbing. 

The weather forecast looked perfect. Sunny and not too windy with highs near 60F.The last two years the race was held in cold and snowy and rainy conditions. This year looked to be perfect. I needed to do a long bike ride anyway this weekend in preparation for my XWA attempt, so why not participate in a race? I signed up online and then tried to get a room at one of the lodges. No luck, so I would just have to camp. But then the next morning Maclaren River Lodge emailed to say they had a cancellation, so I even had a warm bed to sleep in the night before. Everything was shaping up perfectly!

Maclaren River Lodge 

I had a beautiful drive down on Friday, passing several moose along the Richardson Highway and having to stop twice to let caribou cross the road. The sky was crystal clear, and the Alaska Range was out in all its glory. The Denali Highway was in great shape. Most of it was still encased in winter with lots of snow on the landscape and the temperature rising only to 40F at the high point in the middle of the afternoon. But it was sunny and there was barely any wind. I couldn’t wait to ride my bike.

About 45 riders came out for the race this year. Normally there have been more, but the race director, Carlos, thought the bad weather the past two years scared a lot of people away. There was an option for “recreational” riders to start an hour early. Both Alisabeth, a friend from Fairbanks who won the women’s race the year prior, and I decided to start early just so we could be done earlier to get back home. (It’s a 4.5-hour drive from Fairbanks, and I planned to drive home after the race). 

7:45 AM pre-race meeting

Seven of us took off at 8 AM charging the five miles up to Maclaren Summit. We soon spread out and I was riding alone for most of the race, which was fine by me. And since it was an out-an-back in both directions, I got to see lots of the riders several times. So, I never really felt alone.

Mike, from Anchorage, passes me by early on

I’ve been across the Denali Highway many times on bike and by car. But I think this race day was the best day ever. It was spectacular! Clear with no haze and barely a cloud in the sky. The mountains were incredible the entire day. I had never seen it like this. It was hard not to stop and take photos, but, hey, this was a race. So, I settled for just taking photos while biking and hoping that my hand was steady enough. 

This was one of two times that I actually stopped to get a photo

Physically, I had a good day on the bike, too. I felt strong and was mostly able to power up all the hills. I only took a few quick stops to pee and change layers. I mostly just kept riding and enjoying the scenery with a big smile on my face. It was truly an amazing day on a bike!

The night before, one of the racers from Fairbanks asked me what my goals were. I hadn’t really thought much about it except that I wanted to finish and ride strong. I told her that I thought I could ride the course in 10 hours, so I made that a goal. Looking at the math, I also thought that I could get back to the lodge at 40 miles before getting passed by the lead racers who started an hour after me. 

Getting passed by the lead group of racers - but not until mile 47 of the race!

I ended up with a finish time around 9 hours and 50 minutes, and I made it back to the lodge and even 7 miles further before the lead pack of riders passed me. So, I surpassed both of my goals! I also think I finished second out of the four women who did the 120-mile distance. Not bad for an old lady! 

I had the race I wanted, and I felt good and enjoyed myself all day. And I got to enjoy amazing Alaska scenery. This day was just what I needed to get out of my funk. Not even a pesky robin could ruin it. 

122 miles with 7600 feet elevation gain. Not a bad day on the bike!

Sunday, May 22, 2022

The Best Laid Plans. . .


I am not in Washington.

I was supposed to be starting the Cross Washington Race (XWA) today but instead I’m writing this blog post from home in Fairbanks. XWA is a 750-mile bikepacking race that traverses the state of Washington from west to east on mostly gravel roads and trails. 

This year I felt woefully undertrained. We had a long winter (even by Fairbanks standards), and I didn’t really start doing much biking until mid-March. We had so much snow this year and, if it wasn’t snowing, it was windy or bitterly cold. And sometimes all three together, which didn’t make for good biking. I did a lot of skiing, but my bike fitness had much to be desired. Despite being out of shape, I still wanted to do the race.  

Finishing the Chena River to Ridge race. I was supposed to bike but switched to skis.

I wanted to see new country on a route that had already been vetted. I wanted to challenge myself. How far could I ride in a day? How little sleep could I get by on? And I wanted to meet more like-minded people who do these races. 

So, I watched several videos and got excited about the terrain I would be biking through and seeing. I joined the Facebook page for the event to keep up on what others were saying. And I compulsively checked weather forecasts and snow conditions. There was no good news there. This spring was very cool and moist in Washington. Rain almost every day. Snow and more snow in the mountains with 4 feet of snow falling the first week of May. People were posting about 25 miles of hike-a-bike. Others were posting about slippery, muddy singletrack on the Olympic Peninsula. I know that there is some suffering with doing multiday bikepacking races, but this really didn’t sound like fun for me. There must be more fun than suffering for me to want to do an event. I don’t want to just endure, I want to enjoy my journey, too. So, after a bit of soul searching plus checking my work schedule and flight schedules and checking with Eric, I decided to not join the Grand Depart and instead do my own Individual Time Trial (ITT) a month later. I immediately felt relief. (Although I still had a little FOMO about not starting with everybody). 

From the XWA Facebook page a week ago - this does not look fun

(Note: Most bikepacking races are done on routes that people can do whenever they want, even if they don’t want to race. People who want to race, track their rides using a GPS device, which is then posted on-line so others can watch their dot moving down the course. The organizers usually schedule a “Grand Depart,” a time when a large group of people doing the route start at the same time.)

Dot watching the XWA race at 6 PM Sunday night

Doing the race a month later would hopefully mean better trail conditions and would give me more time to get in shape. And it meant I didn’t have to taper the week that a friend of mine, Linda Gryczan, was coming to visit. I could ride with her without worrying about resting.

Linda is amazing. I met her through friends on Facebook while she was training for her Tour Divide race. We had a few exchanges about gear, prepping for the big event, and racing at an older age (Linda is 68 and I’m 63). I really wanted her to finish and be the oldest woman to race the Tour Divide. Unfortunately, after starting in the Grand Depart, she had some health issues and had to drop out in Helena. After recovering, she finished the route on her own. 

Linda started bikepacking way back in the 1970s before it was a thing. She would just take off on her 10-speed bike to see the country. She still loves biking everywhere and almost never drives. She guided bike tours for years for a living and still occasionally does that. She used to be a bike mechanic and had a mobile bike shop. Besides biking, she does advocacy work in her community and state. And she and her spouse take in  kids that need help, many of which have become “nieces and nephews” to them. Did I say that this woman is amazing? She makes the rest of us look like slackers.

Linda’s wife was doing a Holland America Cruise that ended in Fairbanks, so Linda reached out to me about cycling possibilities. I invited her to stay with me and told her I could be her tour guide while in town. Linda was up for anything and everything. Since I didn’t have to taper, we could ride our bikes as much as we wanted! We spent one day just cycling around town and then headed down to Denali National Park for the weekend. Unfortunately, the forecast called for very cool temps (highs no warmer than 40F) and there was still a lot of snow in the park, so we decided to get a hotel instead of camping. 

On Saturday, we did a little out and back on a new road out of Nenana that Eric had wanted to check out. It was a little boring and a little muddy, but Linda had great fun riding in new territory. We then checked out the Ferry Road which has a long 10-mile climb on gravel toward the GVEA wind turbines. We were good biking buddies. We both like long climbs and although I was a little faster on the uphills, Linda was the faster descender. We biked until we hit snow at about 2900 feet elevation. Then we put on all our layers and bombed back down. I wasn’t sure what this would mean for biking in Denali where the passes are above 3000 feet. 

Back at the car, we decided to check out the Denali Highway about 30 miles south of Denali National Park to see if the road was open. If we couldn’t bike in Denali National Park, this might be another option. The views off the Denali Highway are amazing and since the sun had come out, I wanted to show this area to Linda. 

Less than 20 miles in on the good gravel road, we heard a loud pop. Looking in my rearview mirror I saw that my back window was shattered. What the heck? The road was good and there was nobody around us. Had we somehow thrown up a rock? Didn’t seem likely. Had our bikes hit the window? No, the bikes were stable on the rear rack. The car otherwise seemed fine, but we decided to turn back. With the help of a kind man at the gas station in Cantwell, we taped up the window with cardboard and continued to our motel. Linda took it all in stride.

What the heck?!!

The next day we biked in Denali Park. A lot of Interior people make an annual pilgrimage to bike the park road before the buses start for the summer. It was a mediocre day in the park for me, compared to other trips, but Linda was in seventh heaven. Yes, it was cold, and we weren’t able to bike that far due to the Pretty Rocks landslide road closure, but the mountain was out for a while, and we saw lots of wildlife up close. We passed several moose on the road on our drive in. We also saw lots of ptarmigan, a bird that Linda had never seen before. And twice while biking we had to wait for grizzly bears to move off before continuing. It really was a good day on the bike especially since I wasn’t fussing about my upcoming race. 

Denali came out for a little while

Waiting a long time for the bear to leave the road so we can head back down from Sable Pass

I now have a month left before my own ITT attempt of the XWA. In solidarity with the Grand Depart racers, yesterday I went for a long bike ride with lots of climbing and some hike-a-bike through mud and snow. I’ll keep training over the next few weeks. I hope that I can stay motivated while on the course by myself. 

I did reach out to Scott at Trackleaders. He said he will turn the course back on when I do my ride, so if you want to watch my dot, you can. I plan to start June 26 at 7 AM. It might help me if you text or message me some encouragement along the way. That way I won’t feel quite so alone out there.