This was the day. Actually, THE should be capitalized. In all of my planning, I knew this day would be the hardest, the crux move, so to speak. I wasn’t all that concerned about the first day…I’ve ridden….okay, maybe I haven’t ridden 322 miles straight, but I was really confident that it wouldn’t be a problem. I was right…32.5 hours on the road with no sleep breaks. Just good times both on and off the bike. But to wake up 4 hours later and ride another 200 miles? Can’t say I’ve ever even contemplated that before. So, here we were…5:15am, on the road, with the goal of reaching Cantwell sometime that night. I knew that after completing today, the last two days would be easy in comparison (125 and 110 miles, respectively, on very easy terrain).
We had a nice 50 mile flat warm up to Fairbanks. The roads slowly transitioned from 2-lane highway to busier, 4-6 lane highway as we got closer to our destination. Roland noted a MacDonald’s on our left about 35 miles into the ride, so we stopped for breakfast. We were definitely cutting it close to the control closing times, but didn’t give it too much thought (after the 600k mark, the closing times start getting stretched out to eventually give the rider 10 additional hours). The sky was slightly overcast, the temperatures moderate, and there was absolutely nothing to look at other than the highway and suburban sprawl of North Pole and then Fairbanks.
We finally arrived at the Fairbanks control with a couple hours to spare. Saw a few other riders there; Hiroshi from Japan who had blown out two tires and was trying to get to the local bikes shop to buy new ones, Chris Hanson was taking a nap in one of the support vehicles before hitting the road again. It was too easy to get dragged into conversations and spend too much time at the control. But soon enough, we were on our way, ready to hit the two major climbs of the day.
The next two climbs caught me a bit by surprise. It’s hard to look at a route profile that spans 750 miles across the width of your computer screen and know exactly how steep a climb is. Well, these were steeper than anticipated. Each climb was about 1000 feet over a couple miles…the first was the harder one, but the weather was clearing up. We finally reached the top and started down the rollercoaster descent on the other side. The views from the top were expansive, to say the least, and quite enjoyable.
Huh? Were’s Roland? He had disappeared from my rear view mirror. Slow down….stop…wait…no Roland. This area was much too remote to just leave, so I started riding back up the climb. There was Roland, fixing a flat…much better than the alternative. So officially, I rode one bonus mile, a bonus climb to boot! But you don’t leave your partner…
At the bottom, we pulled over to have a snack. Imagine my suprise when Bob pulls up in his car and asks if we need anything. I look at my umpteenth bar, and ask “Got anything interesting to eat?” “I’ve got wheat thins…and chocolate chip cookies…” Sold…I stuffed my bar back into my bag and sat down to enjoy the gourmet dining.
“Wait, I can make you some coffee.” This was getting better.
“I’ve got some peanut butter here, but no knife.” No worries, we can dip. This was phenonemal! We all hung out, enjoying the cool morning air, good food and good company. We were delighted to hear that Bob was assigned to SAG duty for the back of the pack. He would be accompanying us for the rest of the ride! Awesome!
We started up the second climb, refreshed. The summit approached quickly, and then we bombed down the other side through the rolling countryside to Nenana, our next control.
In Nenana, we met up with several riders. Ryan was cruising along with his iPod blasting. Brennan was feeling pretty good, Hiroshi arrived in good time. Pretty soon, we all set off for the gentle climb up to Healy, the next overnight control.
We all leapfrogged each other for awhile. It was overcast and cool, perfect riding weather! As the climbing got a bit steeper, Brennan led the charge, Ryan and Roland carried on without me, and I headed up solo with Hiroshi close behind. A light rain started, so I stopped to put rain gear on in Bob’s car, and enjoyed an apple (it’s amazing how enjoyable the simple things in life can be on these advantures). Somewhere outside of Nenana, my Garmin 800 had stopped working, so I was left to navigating Healy with the cue sheet. I think it was around 9pm when I arrived…definitely later than anticipated.
The Healy control had pizza, another perfect randonneuring food! I dried off, exchanged stuff in my drop bag, and slowly got myself together to push on towards Cantwell. Roland and I left together, and swore loudly as we climbed the short but steep climb out of Healy!
Of all of the sections, this one was undoubtedly the most difficult. After the initial climb, the first 15 miles went by without issue. It was a long descent down a canyon, dropping down to the river below. It was a blast, my Surefire light lit the way, and I wished it was light out as it appeared to be gorgeous scenery.
Soon enough, though, I reached the entrance to Denali State Park, with its commercial “lodges” and tourist traps, and we began the long climb up to Cantwell. I had a few issues during this stretch. First, the 18-wheeler trucks were out in force, with their bright lights that pierced the gloom (I guess they really need to see when they are going to hit a moose). Most were going the other direction, but the oncoming truck lights were very bright and disruptive.
The other thing that I finally realized was that my own lights were mesmerizing me! I’ve never had that happen! The Supernova light was mounted above and behind the Surefire light, and it was reflecting off of the housing of the Surefire light. Also, the Surefire light was so bright, that the glare off the wet road was disturbing. I stopped many times to adjust the light angles and tried different combinations of running the lights. As we approached Cantwell, I finally figured it out and was able to ride the last seven miles in a straight line.
We stopped for my quickest control stop to date…five minutes! Get the card signed, get a cupcake and get to the hotel for a shower and a couple pieces of pizza (I stowed them in my back from Healy). It was 2:30am, we were about three hours later than expected, but the room was large, the showers hot, the beds comfortable. We set the alarm for 7am knowing that the next two days would be easy!