The sidewalk dropping fast and straight out of the Chugach Mountains atop a winter's accumulation of snow was a testament to how snowmachines can be the best thing that ever happened to Alaska.
If you're a four-season cyclist in Alaska, you invariably end up riding snowmachine trails everywhere, singing the praises of the machines at the same time you curse the infernal mechanical beasts.
Paddle track machines ridden by an incompetent with a twitching thumb can destroy a trail for everyone. A trail sled with a shallow-lug track ridden by a skilled rider can, on the other hand, leave in its wake the best of trails for all who follow.
This was one of those.
A pair of bandits on old trail sleds had run straight and true up into Chugach State Park on snow softened by the sun, then turned and carefully retraced their trail coming out.
No track spinning to dig holes. No weaving side to side to dig troughs. No paddle-track debris to litter the trail.
What they left was a straight, smooth, 12-inch-wide track that overnight froze into something approaching a mountain-bike luge run.
The joys and the dangers of such a perfect trail would be summed up by a downhill run pumped up by an adrenalin rush of brakes that don't quite work. But that's getting ahead of the story.
I stumbled on the trail, half by accident, half by design at the end of a long bike push.
The push began as a ride on snow that hadn't set up well enough overnight in most places to support 2.7-inch mountain bike tires.
On a fat-tired bike with 3.7-inch Surly Endomorph tires that squish out to four inches at low pressure, it probably would have been a go. My featherweight neighbor, Mike Sterling, can almost ride his Surly Pugsley atop powder on those tires.
Other riders with limited resources for gear make trade-offs. One of mine has been to fund premium parts for the full-suspension mountain bike of summer and scrimp on the mountain bike of winter.
So instead of building a legitimate fat bike for the snowy trails, an old beater of a steel-frame winter bike with the biggest tires it can take makes do. In this case, the tires weren't big enough -- but that was the lesser problem.
If you can't ride the bike, you can always push it.
If you can ride it, on the other hand, it's a good idea to be able to stop it.
When soft snow accumulates on the trails, braking isn't an issue. You can't get going fast enough to need brakes. But where you can go fast, brakes are always a good idea.
I am partial to what mountain-bikers call v-brakes. These are simply two long levers to which are attached brake pads. A cable pulls the levers together when you squeeze the lever. The pads grab the rim of the bike.
V-brakes are simple, easy-to-maintain, light, durable and cheap.
Did I mention light and cheap?
Those are the two reasons they're on the winter bike. Cheap is often good. Light is good because winter biking invariably involves some pushing, and pushing a light bike is easier.
In winter, though, there is one small problem with v-brakes -- or any other rim brakes. Sometimes they don't work.
The high-tech alternative to the v-brake is the disc brake, much like those on fancy race cars. Top disc brakes are almost as light as v-brakes, and can cost about 10 times as much.
Cheaper disc brakes are available, but they weigh significantly more. And remember the prophetic words of bike designer Keith Bontrager as they apply to technology: "Light, durable, cheap; pick two."
To go light and durable with disc brakes on the winter bike requires abandoning cheap, so I have stuck with v-brakes. This has made for some scary moments but no broken bones or concussions.
Remember the perfect snowmobile trail? Though the 12-inch-wide track is as hard as concrete, the snow to either side is not. Hike on it, and you'll break through over your knee. Roll a bike wheel on it, and it immediately drops in hub-deep.
Know what happens to a speeding bike when the front tire suddenly drops hub-deep in snow?
Suffice to say, the bike stops immediately, but the rider does not. This would be fine if humans could fly. Sadly we cannot.
So there I am, rocketing downhill on the 12-inch-wide trail at 25 or 30 mph, thinking that if the front tire of the bike goes off either side the results are going to be ugly.
Slowing down would be wise.
Squeezing the brakes works somewhat, but physics are working against the v-brake. The brake pads stop the rim with friction.
Friction generates heat. Heat warms the rim which then spins into snow. Snow melts. The rim picks up drops of water. The drops of water cool and freeze as fast as the rim rotates back to the brake pads.
Pretty soon, the rim has a microscopic sheath of ice.
Have any cyclists out there found a brake-pad compound that works well on ice? I haven't.
Disc brakes, of course, largely avoid the icing problem because the discs are near the center of the wheel and thus up out of the snow. This I am pondering while squeezing the brake levers as hard as humanly possible while the bike, ignorant of my effort, continues rocketing down the trail.
Fortunately, in the end, the trail saves me.
As long as you don't lose your nerve, you can go as fast as a bicycle will go on a surface this smooth and never fall. I hung on until the trail leveled out, and it became possible to ease to a halt, illustrating the fact that if one only rides a winter bike on level trails not much of a brake is required.
If I was living in Bethel, I'd stick with v-brakes. But here, I'm giving in to the appropriate technology for our mountain trails and going shopping for a set of winter discs.
I don't expect to find them cheap, though there are some out there that would qualify as fairly inexpensive and durable.
I'll accept that. At this point, a little extra weight doesn't seem a bad price to pay for a big jump in performance:
Light, durable, cheap, functional; pick three.
Outdoors editor Craig Medred is an opinion columnist. Find him online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.