Through bugs, wind and wrecks, just keep on pedalin'

Heather Lende

HAINES -- It rained last night and is still raining and that is a fine thing, because here in Southeast -- even the drier northern tip -- we are cloud-loving people. We get a little anxious when the sun shines too much. Also this rain is a good reason to take one more day off after the bike race and my calves are thanking me.

A week ago, the 17th annual Kluane to Chilkat International Bike Relay attracted about 1,100 cyclists, more than 200 eight, four, and two person teams and about 49 solo riders who made the 148-mile ride from Haines Junction, Yukon Territory, high up on the other side of the Chilkat Pass, south and down along the river to tidewater in Haines.

The race record is five hours and 55 minutes. This year the winners, a duo from Fairbanks, arrived on the Fort Seward Parade Grounds in six hours, 46 minutes and change. The slowest finishers were two 60-something guys from Alberta in about 12 and a half hours.

My husband and I have been involved with the race since the beginning. That's why I haven't been awake at midnight on the summer solstice in years.

After cycling hard, or volunteering at the finish line -- or both (and a warm bowl of chowder and a cold beer) -- I fall asleep. I've had the same holiday routine forever it seems.

Well, sort of. Four years ago I had a bad wreck training for the race. I was run over by a truck. (Nuts, but true; enough said.) It took me two years to buy a new bike. The good news is that time helps you forget. Now, the medevac, the nursing home, all of it, don't seem so scary.

This year, our four-person team camped in Haines Junction the night before the race. We set up tents in a quiet meadow three miles from the start. Beyond the pink fireweed, blue lupine, and yellow butter and egg, snow-creased mountains rose straight up.

In the pictures we didn't take of the postcard scene, all you'd see is a blur of flailing arms and slapping hands. We didn't admire the view either.

My husband and I dove in the musty tent and zipped it up tight. Thousands, perhaps millions, of mosquitoes buzzed at the edges. In the morning, we covered ourselves with bug spray and head nets and wondered out loud how anyone could live in the Yukon. Our partner had a clunky stove and wanted to make oatmeal for his son, our fourth rider. They battled the bugs in the parking lot while we brewed coffee with a mini camp stove in the old Suburban's front seat.

Then a woman with a lot of pink skin pulled in nearby and let two big dogs out of her car. She waved and walked cheerfully down the trail. She had no head net. She had bare arms. The cloud of blood-sucking insects parted.

Maybe there is a pill Yukoners take that keeps bugs at bay.

Our teammates piled in, slapping and scratching, and we all dressed gymnastically and discretly.

After running around to the back of the car to fill a water bottle, I wished out loud for a breeze.

I was rewarded with a strong headwind that increased all the way to Haines.

Usually that is no fun, but for me the wind proved a kind of blessing. I had been worried that my old instinct for racing would be gone from fear of a crash.

It didn't help that my husband was in the only real wreck of the day. A mile from his checkpoint a rider in their swift-pedaling pack caught another cyclist's wheel and fell. My husband ran into her and flipped end over end, breaking his nose, smashing his shoulder and snapping his shifter cable.

He finished the leg, wobbling on crunchy gears, blood gushing down his face, smiling.

It was his Marlon Brando "On The Waterfront" moment. "Oh man," one friend said later, "It doesn't get any better than that."

Well, it sure was unsettling for me.

After climbing up to the summit I rode the steepest downhill section to just above Canada customs, about 40 miles from home. In past years, I've hit 50 miles an hour on the long ramp-like roadway. This year I was afraid I'd chicken out and use my brakes before that happened. But thanks to the wind, there was little coasting. I had to pedal the whole way.

I had a good race. I don't mean we won or anything like that; we were about an hour and a half behind the top teams. What I mean is that I learned that in cycling, as in life, there will be mosquitoes and there will be wind and that sometimes you crash and sometimes you roll -- but the main thing is to keep pedaling.

I have also learned there is real satisfaction in surviving the worst, or at least the worst for now.

Heather Lende lives, writes and keeps on pedalin' in Haines.