To get the cobwebs out of TDR’s legs, let’s enjoy D.C. Randonneur Max Huffman’s story of his June 27-28, 600K ride with the Alaska Randonneurs. He rode with his brother Sam, a teammate of mine at the Oregon Randonneurs fleche in 2007. Also, be sure to check out RBA Kevin Turinsky’s photos and report at the Alaska Randonneurs site.
Randonneuring in Alaska (or, Six Cues to 600K)
By Max Huffman
July 8, 2009
With the impressive feats regularly described on this list-serv, I hesitate to record this minor personal triumph. But the Alaska 600K, which I rode June 27-28 with my brother Sam (an Oregon rando), was such a remarkable destination ride, I wanted to recommend it before anybody’s travel plans are set for next year!
Sam and I grew up in Alaska. We went there last week to visit home, to cycle through the long daylight hours, and to travel roads through the interior of the state that we had ignored when we were younger. I was not highly confident. Since I first joined the D.C. Randonneurs in 2007, longer brevets have presented me a substantial hurdle. I rationalized that even if I quit at the second turn (see the following paragraph), it would be my strongest ever ride.
The cue sheet had six cues, occupying one quarter of a page. That makes the route sound more complicated than it was. In fact, there are two turns on the Alaska 600K. Ride Highway 4 north, take a right on Highway 2, and take a second right on Highway 1. The end comes when you reach Highway 4 again.
The Richardson Highway runs from Valdez to Fairbanks, and the ride picks it up at Gakona Junction. For much of the 140 miles to Delta Junction, where it meets the Alaska Highway, the Richardson follows the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The first half of that leg winds through forests of black spruce, stunted by the harsh interior Alaskan climate; perma-frost bogs; countless lakes and streams; and meadows of lupine. We rode in a near-constant, sub-40-degree drizzle. Before the first control at Paxson Lake, 56 miles, in, four cars passed us.
After 75 miles the Richardson encounters the Alaska Range. Alaska Range mountains rise from close to sea level, and mountain passes are commensurately low. Our highest point on the ride was about 3200 feet, total elevation gain a trivial 13,000 feet, and no climb involved more than about 500 feet of elevation gain. Pedaling past Summit Lake, the mountains rose with their magnificent white mantle of snow – much of it fresh that week – and the burden of countless unnamed icefields draped over their shoulders and lying across their laps. And for a wonderful 20-mile stretch, the clouds lifted and the road surface dried.
On the descent from the pass, the wind stirred up by the mountains hit us with its full force. Pedaling hard down a 2 percent down-grade, we struggled to make 12 miles per hour. Buzz, a cyclist from Anchorage, showed his strength riding into that headwind, and soon was out of sight.
The wind let up, and we enjoyed some warmer weather on the short climbs over the next 20 miles. During this stretch Andy, riding a recumbent, passed us on a long straight-away through Fort Greely, an Army Base-cum-missile site. We arrived in Delta Junction, mile 138 on the ride, at about 4:30, and checked in with RBA Kevin Turinsky. At 5:30 we departed Delta Junction to the southeast following the sign reading “Tok” and “Canada.”
We rode this stretch with Buzz, settling into the quiet as the late afternoon turned to evening and the light traffic evaporated. This stretch of highway is mostly flat and mostly straight; the scenery uninterrupted interior Alaska taiga. Buzz flatted twice, the only two flats for the group on the entire ride. After 61 miles we reached the Dot Lake control, where Kevin and others waited. Andy was gone by the time we arrived at 9:30. The evening chill was setting in, and I was soaked through. But Tok was only 47 miles distant, and somebody had told us it was mostly downhill.
Moose come out at night. We saw three full grown cows, one with a calf, on the next stretch of road. The sun started to emerge and pink sky appeared to the north. (Recall that at that latitude, on June 27, sunset comes sometime around midnight.) Cars were nearly non-existent. We did not move fast. By the time we hit Tanacross, 12 miles short of Tok, all three of us were sleepy. Thankfully Buzz had planned to stay the night, and had a room in Tok he was willing to share.
We were awake at 6:30. A full sit-down breakfast with Buzz was a real treat. Kevin stopped in to check on us before heading to the second-to-last control at Chistochina. Sam and I followed Buzz out of town – Andy, who had stayed in Tok as well, was already gone – and Buzz set a monster pace for the first 15 miles. Before long, I and Sam independently decided to let Buzz go. We saw him and Andy again at Mentasta Lodge, where (once again to Sam’s chagrin) I insisted on a sit for a cup of coffee.
The last 200 kilometers on the Tok Cut-Off from Tok to Gakona Junction was the hilliest part of the loop. It was also the most dramatic scenery, though that is partly because the clouds had finally lifted and we could view the Wrangell mountains in all of their glory. (Amazingly, even with the sky clear, I could not see Russia in the distance.)
After Mentasta we flew through Nebesna (which comes at the bottom of the ride’s fastest descent) at about mile 300. I was by now riding mostly out of the saddle due to sores. We shed wet outer clothes and dried off in the sun, the temperatures finally reaching into the 60s. We caught up to Andy and Buzz in the hills south of Nebesna, and met them again, with Kevin, at the Chistochina control. The last 33 miles is mostly a blur. We climbed the steepest hills of the ride, which were mercifully short, and followed a low plateau through thin spruce forests, then took a quick descent in a hailstorm to the town of Gakona. We found the car at 5:30, 35 ½ hours after leaving it.
The group gathered at the bar at Gakona Lodge for a beer (Alaskan Pale Ale, of course) before splitting up. Kevin is a new RBA, for the first time permitted to hold a full series, and is extraordinarily energetic. This ride will be repeated, but he talked, too, of a possible 1200K sometime in the future. If he holds it, I hope I can qualify.