A Long Ride to Valdez
Racing in the Fireweed Bicycle Race
by Anne Sanders
Each July, for the last thirteen years, bikers from across the world have been lining up at Sheep Mountain Lodge in Glacier View, Alaska, and readying themselves for a 50, 100, 200, or 400 mile jaunt along the Glenn and Richardson Highways. The Fireweed began as a 400 mile bike race from Sheep Mountain Lodge to Valdez, Alaska, and back, with the option to compete solo or in a relay. The race is now one of the largest qualifiers for the Race Across America (RAAM). Over the years alternate distances have been added. The Fireweed 200, a one way trip from Sheep Mountain to Valdez, also gives bikers the opportunity to race individually or in a relay. My family decided the 200 mile relay challenge was a good fit for our abilities, so we began organizing.
A member of Pink Fire bikes up hill near Sheep Mountain Lodge | Credit: Cecil Sanders There were so many family members who were interested in racing, we formed two teams of four. I was teamed with my sister, my father, and great-uncle. Since my sister and I decided to wear a pair of matching pink shirts and pink bandanas, we called ourselves Pink Fire. The other team was composed of my grandpa, two of my uncles, and my uncle’s brother-in-law. My grandpa was in charge of creating a name for their team, and in the spirit of having so much family involved he named their team, Relatives Oh My. The race began on a sunny Saturday morning in the second week of July. There were multiple start times, so teams were able to start earlier or later in the morning depending on their preference. Relatives Oh My was confident they would be the faster team. My grandpa taunted Pink Fire saying, “We should pass you losers about halfway through the race.” They decided to give us a head start and chose the later start time. The members of Pink Fire were worried that Relatives Oh My’s assessment wasn’t far from the truth, so we chose to start an hour earlier. We powered down the pavement with a strong start, and were determined to not let them pass us the entire day. It was a great day for riding a bike. The skies were clear, there was only a slight breeze, and the air temperature was nice and mild. The Fireweed is one of the most aptly named races I’ve ever known of. In almost every photo taken along the race the flaming pink of fireweed can be seen. A prettier setting for a fun day of racing couldn’t have been possible.
Riding toward Thompson Pass | Credit: Cecil Sanders Early on in the race, at one of the aid stations, I remember distinctly looking up and seeing a lone biker heading in the opposite direction towards Sheep Mountain Lodge. It was then I remembered that the racers competing in the Fireweed 400 had started the day before and were making their way to their finish line at Sheep Mountain Lodge. This biker was the first 400 mile racer I had seen, so he was undoubtedly the leader. He was smiling and waving, looking at all the people at the aid station as if to say, “Hello! Here I am. I’m in the lead.” Just from looking at him I could have never guessed he had spent the last twenty plus hours biking solo through some of the toughest terrain in Alaska. Our strategy for Pink Fire was to move through the course with short distances between rider changes so each biker would be as strong and fast as possible. We would change every five to six miles, which gave each of us a chance to get in a fast groove but not so long that we would start to slow from fatigue. There was only one time I felt this strategy fell apart. Approximately midway through the course is the town of Glennallen where racers turn south off the Glenn highway onto the Richardson Highway heading towards Valdez. Leading into Glennallen is a long straight stretch that gradually goes downhill. My turn was up, and I agreed with the others that we could wait to do a bike change till I reached Glennallen, which was about twelve miles away. All downhill. Easy, I thought. Well, I thought wrong. Whatever downhill there was could hardly be noticed because there was a slight head wind. I found myself pedaling like crazy, afraid I would lose momentum, and wishing I had spent more than two weeks training for the race. Thankfully, my sister, Lindsey, and I are about the same size and made the smart decision to rent a road bike, rather than using our mountain bikes, for the race together. It made a huge difference, but when my twelve miles were up, I was never so happy to be off a bike.
A foggy ride through Thompson Pass | Credit: Cecil Sanders On the stretch from Glennallen to Valdez is a section that is one of the main reasons this race can be so daunting—Thompson Pass. The elevation gain to the top of the pass at 2,805 feet is steady and the weather is unpredictable. Our distances between transitions dropped to one to two miles, which helped Pink Fire stay ahead of Relatives Oh My, who were closing the distance on us. We knew that if we made it to the top without being passed we would most likely be able to maintain our lead during the sharp descent into Valdez. It was my great-uncle who made the final push to the top of Thompson Pass. Neither Lindsey or I wanted to bike the long, steep downhill out of the pass, so my dad was happy to oblige.
Pink Fire (4 on the left) and Relatives Oh My (4 on the right) at the finish line | Credit: Cecil Sanders During the final stretch to the finish line it ended up being my turn to ride. I rode to the end just as I had the whole race, as if Relatives Oh My was right on my tail. As it turned out, they didn’t show up for another forty minutes. They reached the finish line just as Pink Fire was sitting down to a meal of hamburgers and salmon provided by the race organizers. Relatives Oh My couldn’t believe they’d been beat to the finish line. My grandfather especially couldn’t believe he’d lost to a team called Pink Fire composed of his brother, his son-in-law, and his two inexperienced granddaughters. We all had a good laugh, and ended the day proud to have finished and happy we had decided 200 miles was long enough for us. By Anne Sanders
If you are looking for another fun outing with the family, check out this kayak trip in Resurrection Bay!