The Fireweed400 is Alaska's biggest bike race (LINK). Held every July about the time fireweed the plant is in bloom, the event offers several different distances and categories, the most noteworthy, the 400-mile event. Four-hundred-mile riders start at Sheep Mountain Lodge, about a two hour drive northeast of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway, and ride east to the Richardson Highway, where they turn south and go to Valdez, then turn around and do it again in reverse.
The most popular Fireweed event, however, is the 200-mile relay event. In this race, riders can group up in teams of 2, 3, or 4, and ride point-to-point from Sheep Mountain Lodge to Valdez.
Kellie (LINK) asked me about doing the Fireweed, and after some initial hesitancy on my part, I signed on.
One of my biggest concerns about this event, was that aside from the mileage, the rider covers a lot of climazones, including Thompson Pass and Valdez. The area, which is reknowed for getting buried by an average of 25+ feet of snow a year, gets just a little bit of rain too as one could imagine; and the flats on the Glenn and Richardson highways get swept with powerful headwinds. All this could make for a pretty unpleasant 200 miles in the wrong conditions.
Such was not the case this year.
The big drama, was that somehow we both managed to independently oversleep out alarms Saturday morning. Kellie had a pretty good excuse, having earned her pilots license the night before; me, I don't know, I guess I was still just tired from the road trip the week before.
We had planned to meet at 4:30 am. When I awoke a bit after 5:30, I realized I had set the alarm for 3:45 pm...ooops. I felt terrible, thinking Kellie must have been fuming, but was surprised when I looked at my phone and didn't see any missed calls or text messages.
Turns out, I woke her up.
Fortunately, there were multiple start waves, and while we missed the one we should have been in at 7, we were by no means the first people to miss their wave.
Kellie started us off, leaving the start in the 8:15 wave, riding 27 miles to the first aid station, on what was probably the hilliest section of the course.
This was a rude wake up call for her as she had not had a lot of time on the bike in the past two weeks, but she did well.
I drove along, and we transferred. I hopped on for the next leg to Glenallen.
Since neither of us had competitive ambitions, we opted to have Kellie do two apx 25-mile legs and one 50, while I did two apx 50-mile legs, at my request. My thought was that I tend to do better after a while in the saddle, so less transition and sitting around in the car would be more comfortable, even though the pulls would be longer.
My first pull was a little over 40 miles long on mostly flat ground. The last 10 (to make 50) of it were closed to riding due to construction. I ripped the pull hard, crushing the 40-something miles in 2 hours, in what was easily the fastest 40-mile TT I have ever ridden. The headwind was ever so slight, and the whole time I wished for a true TT bike with taller gearing as I was riding near the top of mine at high revs.
Kellie took back over for a 23-mile pull out of Glenallen. She absolutely crushed this leg, and she was done faster than I'd hoped!
Then came my turn to suffer. I pulled 50 miles from here. The first 10 were a smash fest, but it was really hot and I began to cook.
As I struck mile 10 I felt my handlebars growing and realized I was dehydrating in the heat.
Just about then, I hit the headwind: it was so fierce, that even though the road in this sections goes gradually downhill, it didn't matter. It felt like someone had opened a spigot on my side and my power was pouring out.
Though heat stopped being an issue, I quickly began to feel a bonk coming. Apparently I didn't charge back up enough on the rest, and I powered down an energy bar.
Kellie was giving me bottle hand ups every 15 miles or so in this section since one of my cages busted, but I was relieved as it let me carry a bit less and meant my water was cold (we had an ice chest in the car).
I would have been OK to pull a bit further into Thomson Pass, but Kellie took back over after I hit my 50.
Kellie too struggled with the vicious headwind, taking on the remainder of the Pass. To make matters worse, as she crested the Pass, there was a thick fog. The good news, motorists were well aware of all the bikers on the road. In fact, in 200 miles, I did not see a single driver, part of the race or not, do anything unpleasant.
Anyway, I was feeling really bad at this point, as it seemed like Kellie was having to do a lot of the hardest pulls. I met her at the top, and she stopped to put on a jacket. She told me though, that she wanted to go the whole way to Valdez, and finish the race out (I had offered to pull that last 13/14 miles from the end of Keystone to town, expecting yet another headwind.
As she dropped over the edge of the pass though, she escaped the clouds, and ripped the descent, then tore through Keystone Canyon, which was freshly re-paved last summer, woo-hooing the whole way.
The last section to town was a bit of a grind for her, and with 2 miles to go to the finish, I sped ahead in the car, hopped on my bike, and rode back down the road to ride the last mile into the finish with her.
We were stoked. I can't say enough good things about this event. It was hard, sure, but extremely well run and I was really impressed. The weather is a real crapshoot, and had it been raining, I think we might have bailed, but in the conditions we had, it was worth every penny.
|Kellie pulling over Tahetna Pass, maybe?|
|The Suby made a good support vehicle. While one of us was out riding, the other would drive up the road a ways, stop, wait for the rider to pass by and yell support or pass up food or water, then drive along a bit further.|
|Not long into her third pull, climbing Thompson.|
|A rider emerges from a murky fog.|
|My favorite shot of the day: KO flying down Thompson toward Valdez.|
|Bridal Veil Falls in Keystone Canyon.|
|Lake Louise Boat Launch was busy.|
|"Team Late Start"|
|Ending our recovery spin with Tok Thai, overlooking Tazlina Lake. Not bad.|