Monday, August 5, 2013

A Few Rides in Alaska

Not participating in the Big Wild Ride did not make the Alaska trip entirely a bust.  In addition to being a ride groupie (see "BWR from the Sidelines") I did get maybe 200 good miles in Alaska, including some new stretches of road or trail.  In the interest of readability, I'll limit this post to "pre-BWR rides." Reports on two rides from the weekend after following. (Where available, ride data in hyperlinked sub-headings.)

Coastal Trail

On Thursday evening before the BWR, Damon and I spun south from M__'s house to join the Coastal Trail.  We followed that path from Westchester Lagoon past Earthquake Park, the airport, Point Woronzof, and much of the way to Kincaid before turning to retrace our steps.  Instead of returning via E Street we climbed the hill north of the lagoon and followed the Park Strip back east to M__'s.  20 fairly unremarkable miles, though I did see one bull moose sporting an impressive rack.

Westchester Lagoon, facing the Chugach Mountains to the east.
View of Mt. Susitna -- "The Sleeping Lady" -- facing south and west from Point Woronzof.
Damon has a good video of the Coastal Trail at RememberingJaron near the top of his first post re: the Big Wild Ride.

Assessment of the Coastal Trail: it makes a better run than a ride, but it is a marvelous public resource.  I returned to it both by foot and by bike later in the trip.

Seward Highway

On Friday we parked the car at Rabbit Creek and Old Seward Highway.  That is an intersection I know well.  In high school on the blue Cannondale (see it rebuilt, a la Sam, in the picture to the right) my normal ride used to either descend Rabbit Creek before heading south along the Old Seward, then new Seward, Highways -- or, if riding from M__'s south Anchorage home, follow the Old Seward past Potter Marsh to join the Seward Highway at the Potter weigh station.  D__ and I headed straight south with the water to the right and the Chugach Range to the left.  After stopping for a photo at Beluga Point we continued to the log-construction Indian House at Indian -- again, a familiar sight, and my normal turn-around for the rides from M__'s.  Circa 1990 the bartender at the Indian House was willing to refill my water bottles.  We had no need on this ride so didn't ask.

Beluga Point, with the Kenai Peninsula across Turnagain Arm to the south.
Heading back we encountered a headwind and paid somewhat for the easy 22 mph spin we had on the way out.  The views heading back are not quite as magnificent; instead of seeing Turnagain Arm taper and end in a thicket of mountains you see the water broaden as it joins Cook Inlet and the mountains fall away.  We stopped at the McHugh Creek picnic area and trailhead to view the end of McHugh Creek as it falls from the cliff.  And while riding up the ocean side of Potter Marsh on the return we caught our first view of McKinley for the trip, faint and far away.

Potter Marsh.  Not Mt. McKinley!
Again, Damon's videos of this stretch are very much worth a look.

An interesting realization hit me as I was cruising past Potter Marsh headed back north to the car.  It went something like this:  this is as good as it will ever be.  I was feeling strong and enjoying the extraordinary weather, scenery, camaraderie, and anticipation of the upcoming 1200K, and I understood then that sport simply will never be more enjoyable than it was at that moment.  That meant not just that the riding was great but also that any quiet aspirations I've been harboring of becoming a serious or a competitive athlete are pipe dreams better suited to a younger man.  The realization was in equal parts liberating and depressing -- or, perhaps, seeing what happened to my cycling aspirations a few days later, foreboding.

Thompson Pass Descent

The Big Wild Ride was scheduled to begin at midnight rather than the originally planned 6 pm with the result that we would be making the uber-scenic Thompson Pass ascent after dark.  With a day to kill and a car to kill it with, we addressed that problem on Sunday by driving to the Worthington Glacier parking area for a picnic and returning half of the way to the hotel by bicycle.  We announced our intention to G__, the ride documentarian, who asked to join us to film the descent.  G__ also brought a third rider, this one astride a recumbent.

Worthington Glacier -- taken while *not* carb loading for the Thompson Pass Descent.
It was during our picnic at Worthington Glacier that the reality of my not starting the BWR finally set in.  I was for the third meal unable to eat anything, and drinking was approximately as futile.  That did little to dampen my enthusiasm for a blistering descent with views across the mountains and into Prince William Sound.  Driving up and coasting down -- I felt like a mountain biker (excuse the oxymoron).

Few to no cars shared the road with us, so there was nothing keeping us from simply letting it go.  After the initial steep descent I engaged the pedals just enough to keep the speed over some flats before entering Keystone Canyon, where we zoomed past several waterfalls.  We stopped not long after G__ filmed us passing Horsetail Falls, on the west side of the highway not far uphill from its better-known sibling Bridleveil Falls (picture below).

Once again, Damon's report is the best source for enjoying this one.  His videos from the descent -- well, everybody should have that kind of magic at least once in his/her life.

Valdez to Nowhere

Damon took the BWR start with 43 others at 11:59 p.m. while I did my best to sleep and to recover.  I had been granted a waiver from the closing times on the early controls for "mechanical reasons," so my plan, if I could recover, was to start riding in the morning and arrive very late (or early the next day) at the first overnight in Delta Junction, 270 miles up the road.  By morning my nausea had abated and at the very least I was unable to sleep longer, so M__ filled in the start time and signed my card and I headed north at 6 a.m.

This road was not new to me.  In 2011 Sam and I rode the first 70-or-so miles of the BWR before I wrecked.  We cruised the first 15 flat miles with a 29-rider peloton.  (An image of that peloton is the cover photo on the November 2011 American Randonneur Magazine.  Yes, that's my mug prominently displayed, riding second in the pace-line.)  Early ascending through Keystone Canyon is casual riding.

Bridleveil Falls, Keystone Canyon, 17 miles north of Valdez.
The climb gets serious at about mile 19, where it averages 270 feet per mile for 10 miles, or an average 5% grade.  That's not east coast hard, but neither is it east coast short -- after five miles at 5%, facing five more is a bleak prospect.  Thompson Pass is certainly one of the more substantial climbs in the Alaska Highway system.

It is also profoundly beautiful.  Off to the right (east) are dramatic vistas of ridge after ridge of craggy peaks.  To the left (west) the mountains rise immediately from the road-side with long and steep expanses of well-vegetated hillside and, even as late as July 22, a substantial remaining snow-pack.  Ahead the road snakes upward into a seemingly impenetrable range of mountains and behind it falls away, descending to parallel the churning silty Lowe River carrying melting glaciers into Prince William Sound.

Lowe River, Keystone Canyon, approximately 17 miles north of Valdez.
This morning's ride was from the start a futile effort to join a ride that had long since left me behind -- but with the sun up I will say I had the better of it on this stretch.

Proof, by the way, that I was checked out of this ride before it started:  I stopped mid-climb to change the wheel for some women who had been hoping to drive their bald-tired Subaru to Anchorage.

I topped out on Thompson Pass after 2.5 hours and snapped a photo that none of the official riders would be able to take:

The Gunnar at Thompson Pass.
And I descended into a head-wind to the first (technically, second) controle at Tsaina Lodge:

The Gunnar at Tsaina Lodge
This lodge, by the way, is a marvelous building sitting in the middle of nowhere.  Inside there is a beautiful bar/restaurant with picture windows facing across the Tiekel River and up the pass.

Picture of a picture of the Tiekel River.
I filled my bottles and rolled gamely for another 13 miles before coming to a rest on a small bridge over an unnamed creek.  And there I sat until M__ and B__ pulled up.  I loaded my bike and called it a ride. Between 2011 and 2013, I'm now 120 for 1500 miles in Big Wild Ride attempts!


sam said...

I thought we didn't make it to the control at Tsaina lodge in 2011; am I misremembering?

Looks like some beautiful riding nevertheless. With I was there.

Unknown said...

For all the obvious reasons, this one is worth a third go. I definitely wouldn't rule out a return trip down the line. Similar to your "good as it gets" observation, I think any future 1200ks I do will be relative letdowns after this.

Unknown said...

Btw, If I'm not mistaken, back when 1200ks were RAAM qualifiers, the RAAM cutoff was 65 hours. That's pretty quick. I think I could have done it here if I rode hard the first day, didn't take pictures, had no delay imposed by the organizers, and didn't act like a moron when I flatted, but it would not have been anything like easy. I think a 400-mile performance in a flat 24-hour race is much easier, although maybe I'm wrong.

sam said...

IMO the 1200K qualifier is a /lot/ easier than a 400-mile 24-hour. You would have had a 65-hour 1200 in the bag if not for the factors you mentioned. And this was your first 1200.

I don't know if they changed the rules on the 500-mile qualifiers, but I think it used to be you had to finish within 15% of the fastest non-RAAM-qualified rider. That strikes me as the easiest of the three.. Usually works out to a high-30 hour FC508 or RAO. And if you get lucky, it could be even slower than that.

Max said...

Tonsina is the one we didn't reach. Tsaina is where Veronica was signing cards, about mile 38. We just didn't leave the roadside (I assume the lodge was closed).

Another go, huh? MAYBE if I complete a couple others first. I'm not sure as it stands I can show my face in Alaska at all, let alone at a Randonneur event.

Qualifying: 400 miles and 65 hours both are much easier if you are not time-trialing it. After leaving the pace-line behind you pushed wind for, what, 600 miles? Sam can correct me, but if you show up at a ride like Last Chance where everybody is planning to break 70 hours your world will look much different.