Max Huffman’s Alaska Randonneurs 2012 Solstice 600K

D.C. Randonneurs own Max Huffman last month ventured again to Alaska with brother Sam, where they attempted the Alaska Randonneurs Solstice 600K. Max was successful, though Sam had to stop mid-way because of a sore knee.

Five miles west of Tok, 11:30 pm. Yes, 11:30 p.m.!

Max has written a terrific story of the event. Alaska is pretty far away to go for a brevet, but Max takes us there in great style.

A Pocket Adventure: The 2012 Alaska Randonneurs Solstice 600
by Max Huffman
June 2012

My brother Sam and I returned this summer to join the Alaska Randonneurs for another ride. I needed to erase the memory of my failed attempt at the 2011 Big Wild Ride Grand Randonnee. Sam also abandoned that ride, in his case to get me to a hospital. Blood is thicker than Perpetuum.

Me, bikes, Roger and Joy’s foot in background, in Delta Junction.

I’m a casual randonneur, but I have been at it long enough to have ridden with several different clubs. There is no randonneur I don’t like, and there is no randonneur I like better than those I’ve come to know in Alaska. Kevin, Tom, and Joy put on the friendliest imaginable ride. Roger and Ted were tremendous riding companions. I reported on the Alaska Randonneurs 600K in 2009. After last weekend’s ride, this report updates – and corrects – that one. (Ed. note: see Max’s 2009 story here.)

We met for breakfast and introductions at 5:30 Saturday at the Gakona Lodge. This shows the huge work Kevin has put in upgrading these rides – in 2009, Kevin’s first 600K as RBA, we gathered in a dirt pull-out at the junction between Highways 1 and 4. Don’t get me wrong – that had tremendous charm. I’ve since enjoyed reciting the tale of meeting some random group at a highway pull-out and spending the next 36 hours riding with them. But a breakfast buffet at the lodge, away from the bugs, is a very civilized way to start an adventure.

One thing about the Solstice 600: this route is elegant. If you picked up a map and looked for a natural route, your eyes would gravitate toward this triangle of roads in central Alaska that makes a perfect 600K. But it is a psychological challenge. I like to break my rides up into segments – rather than planning to ride 200 kilometers, I plan to ride 15 miles to the next major highway crossing. 138 miles – the distance between the first and second turns – is a large number to swallow. Kevin, Tom, and Joy made that much easier.

The open road in Alaska.

First, there are intermediate controls – Gakona Lodge, Dot Lake, and Chistochina – that are not technically necessary for routing purposes. One doesn’t cut corners in central Alaska. But the controls gave us manageable intermediate goals. Second, Kevin correctly emphasizes that brevets are self-supported, but he still keeps a close watch. Just when Sam and I worried that in the heat our three bottles would be insufficient to make the 61 miles from Delta Junction to Dot Lake, Kevin appeared road-side with a jug. Apparently that issue has arisen before.

The route is almost entirely unique. It shares about 1/3 of its mileage with the Big Wild Ride 1200K, so if you’ve done that, or are doing that next year, you will know the Richardson Highway. But on the BWR you encounter that road in the semi-dark of night, while on the Solstice 600 you see it in the full glory of day. And you won’t find yourself on the remaining 235 miles – all of it beautiful scenery and great riding – unless you set up your own tour.

By the afternoon we definitely noticed the heat. In 2009 we were thrilled to get any sun at all. I heard last year was quite different. And indeed, on Saturday temperatures reached the low 80s. That’s not hot by D.C. standards, but I’m a guy who joined Pete Dusel’s Western New York 400K for fear of the weather on the D.C. Randonneurs’ ride; Sam comes from predictably cool Oregon; and most Alaska Randonneurs seem to base out of Anchorage, which rarely sees the high 70s.

Sam with bikes outside the Black Rapids Lodge.

Even Roger, from Tucson, acknowledged some discomfort. We were slow-roasted from 8 am to 8 pm, minus a brief hail-storm. Long daylight means a longer period of intense sun; low spruce forests and extreme road cuts (which protect drivers from moose, and vice versa) means no shade.

Sam’s troublesome right knee went far south half-way through and he reluctantly abandoned. Roger was well ahead and Ted was sticking to his well-planned itinerary, leaving me alone about 20 miles short of Dot Lake. I hurried to the control, had a nice chat with Tom, Joy, and a group parked next to them who were having much more, er, fun than was I. I left Dot Lake at 9:11 with 47 miles to Tok plus one more to Young’s Motel, hoping to beat the darkness (the sun finally set at 11:49). 200 miles and 15 hours – that’s about when my body and brain usually say “uncle.”

But fortunately they make things for that problem, and you can buy them at any gas station counter. (Does anybody else wonder why TdF pros so frequently get caught doping? Don’t they know WADA hasn’t yet banned 5 Hour Energy?) I embarked on a caffeine and folic acid-fueled rampage east into the twilight.

It was on this stretch that I first noticed the hills. I reported in 2009 something about “trivial” and “climbing.” The terrain on the Solstice 600 is not hard. But there is nothing trivial about the foothills on the north side of the Alaska Range, coming after the Black Rapids Lodge (miles 100-120), with several long climbs in the 5-6% range. The rollers between Dot Lake and Tok (miles 203-250) might be called trivial if they didn’t appear 15 hours or more into the day and if I wasn’t remembering my own prior description of this stretch as being “mostly downhill”.

The hills we encountered on Sunday, south of Mentasta on the Tok Cut-off (miles 300-345), were much more substantial than I had recalled. And that one short steep climb coming right at the very end – but by that point I was numb. Hard, no. But there’s nothing trivial about riding this far in a state with these kinds of mountains. (See video of this section here.)

Mountains over Summit Lake.

Kevin, Tom and Joy had arranged pizza at Young’s Motel in Tok. Roger had arrived and Sam was there; we ate, chatted, and generally unwound. Sam had found us a room just down the road. My one flat came on that short commute! I hit the sack at 12:45 and snapped awake three hours later, just after the 3:30 sunrise.

I hope I never forget the three hours from 5 to 8 Sunday morning on the Tok Cut-off, riding southwest toward the Wrangell Mountains. The temperature had cooled to the low 50s. The sun rose high behind me. The highway stretched ahead bordered by fireweed and white spruce. Mountains rose in front of me. And nobody disturbed me. I saw one massive raptor of an unknown variety low in the trees to my right.

The terrain there is rolling hills and the road surface is the best of the ride. My mind landed on a Dwight Yoakam song: “I’m a thousand miles from nowhere. Time doesn’t matter to me. I’m a thousand miles from nowhere, and there’s no place I’d rather be.” Close, but Yoakam’s lyrics evoke something stark – a desert, high plains, even the black spruce forest I would encounter 75 miles further south. I was a thousand miles from nowhere, but unlike Dwight I was surrounded by incomparable majesty. (See video of this section here).

Let me make one last correction to the 2009 report. I wrote that “no one place has a monopoly on beauty.” I take it back, and with apologies; Alaska may indeed have that market cornered. Sam tells me the Icefields Parkway on the Rocky Mountain 1200 is on par, but until I ride it I won’t believe it. And I’ve seen a lot else, much of it nice, some of it incredible, but nothing to compete with the scenery on this ride when the sky is clear.

Alaska wasn’t done with us yet. The wind! It would be unfair not to mention the tailwind through Fort Greeley early Saturday afternoon (miles 120-140 of the ride), but we paid for it. We first got socked about 20 miles after Delta Junction, a 30-minute-or-so blast that brought with it a brief hailstorm. Things quieted down until that night on the flats leading into Tok when we felt the tail end of a distant storm that had provided a great light-show.

And on Sunday I learned a randonneuring lesson to remember: ride when the riding is good. I started early enough to enjoy six or so hours of beautiful cool sunshine before spending the last three and a half hours feeling like I was playing offensive line. Roger and Ted left Tok later than I and encountered the wind at the same time – i.e., with more miles ahead of them. Had any of us started earlier – perhaps not sleeping at all – the second day might have gone much better.

I learned a few other things. I spent some time talking to Kevin, who is a former mountaineering guide and knows Alaskan geography better than most. He has become an expert in this part of Alaska, and his rides introduce us to what he knows. Gakona Lodge is wonderful, historic and quaint, set on the shores of the Copper River. Paxson Lodge, at the Denali Highway junction, is the real Alaska.

Paxson Lodge, Mile 59 of the route.

Black Rapids Lodge is a marvelous timber-frame building sheathed in slate shingles, situated in an idyllic location looking across the Delta River to the Alaska Range.

The remarkable Black Rapids Lodge.

The service at the lunch counter in Delta Junction is tremendous. Mentasta Lodge has friendly service and makes the best breakfast I’ve had north of Gakona.

Trusty rental steed at the Mentasta Lodge. Best breakfast north of Gakona.

Posty’s Store, the Chistochina control, is a marvelous local grocery with good coffee and a selection of microwave delicacies — I went with pizza – and outdoor seating.

This ride is a pocket adventure. Kevin puts this on for $60. Not wanting pay the airline trolls for safe bike passage, I rented a nicely equipped Trek from Chain Reaction Cycles for $50 per day (brought my own saddle and pedals, of course); the shop even swapped the stem to help me hit my desired measurements.

It takes 48 hours from leaving Anchorage to returning; add another 24 to get to and from your door if you (like Roger, Sam, and I did) fly in from out of state. But I challenge you to name a ride, even a grand randonnee, that is this kind of big. Evidence? This is my first ride carrying bear spray in my jersey pocket. Maybe there’s no t-shirt (though do yourself a favor and check out the whimsically perfect “Moose of Flanders” Alaska Randonneurs jersey), but for a busy randonneur’s summer epic it would be hard to beat.

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