The first winter I lived in Palmer, a new friend texted his friend, my then-boss. “OK if I steal Alli for a day?” he wrote.
It was March of 2017, and it was a particularly lovely Tuesday to ride fat bikes to Knik Glacier. My friend wanted to introduce me to my new big backyard.
Since that inaugural ride, I’ve gone a dozen more times. Every year it’s the early-to-mid-February version of Christmas when the texts and Facebook alerts start flying: The glacier’s in.
This means that sections of the river are frozen enough on the Knik River Road access side to ride the 10 or so miles out to the glacial lake and explore the bergs. Motorized access is available year-round from the Jim Creek side but is double the distance.
I wrote about this trip to the glacier in 2019. At the time, I was impressed by how many people were getting those texts and Facebook alerts and flocking in droves to the glacier.
Then 2020 happened, and then this year. Already, swarms of fat-tire cyclists are making the pilgrimage out to the glacier. I see them with mixed feelings, both wishing it was just a little less popular but also knowing what an incredible, world-class destination it is. Who am I, a visitor myself, to hog the view?
But one thing I have started to notice is the number of people riding who appear to be in pain.
I am all for accomplishing big things. What I wonder about is if people know before they go that the ride to and from Knik Glacier is a big thing.
Last year I saw women in matching tutus as though dressed for a footrace, walking their bikes and unable or unwilling to acknowledge me passing or to smile. They were grimacing.
They were at least 3 miles away — on the ride to the glacier. I could almost feel how their day had gone, starting from the trailhead, all pumped up and in great spirits, to riding, riding and more riding to where I saw them, trudging forward.
Last weekend I saw two solo men stopped with their bikes on the side of the trail in single-digit temperatures, bikes pointed toward the glacier, indicating they hadn’t arrived yet.
Each looked slightly apologetic as I passed on my return trip. Each seemed to be waiting. Sure enough, a quarter-mile for one and maybe a half-mile for the other, their pals were walking their bikes grimly forward.
I’m guilty of being the Pied Piper to a lesser-prepared group of cyclists, cheerily luring them toward the ice face even as it was clear the way forward was getting to be much more grueling than fun. My best friend, visiting from out of state, saw the awe-inspiring face of the glacier after 10 miles of riding and loudly declared she’d be willing to exchange sex acts for a snowmachine ride back to the car.
I share all of this to drive home the point that the ride to the glacier is not an off-the-couch, one-off type of activity. I will tell anyone who will listen that even though it’s billed as flat — and it is — it can be grueling. Twenty or so miles on a fat bike is, for normal people anyway, a lot of riding.
Think of it as the difference between walking on flat pavement versus hiking. I don’t know how this works exactly, but miles shrink on flat pavement and expand on hiking trails. Maybe that’s pseudoscience, but it’s my lived experience so I am sticking with it.
Similarly, it takes at least three times the effort and time to push forward on a fat bike versus a road bike. And that’s in good conditions.
The real spirit-breaker isn’t the pedaling, though. It’s where the bike seat meets the bum.
You know that feeling after your first bike ride of spring? After you’ve so gleefully pedaled around Anchorage or wherever you live, smelling the fresh scents and feeling so free and unburdened of winter layers in the warming spring air? Then you get home and sit down, and slowly let out a scream.
You might not remember this because it’s unpleasant. Selective memory is part of what gets me back on my bike every year.
This feeling gets a lot more real on the ride to the glacier. Padded bike shorts buy you a mile, maybe. What really counts are the hours you’ve spent in the saddle prior to the ride.
This leads me to a conclusion: if Knik Glacier is on your bucket list — and it should be — be sure you research and log appropriate miles on a fat bike prior to going.
Also, treat it as a backcountry destination, because it is one. Pack extra everything. Add your tutus if you’ve got everything else down, but this isn’t a casual outing.
The purpose of this is not to dissuade anyone who is motivated to make the trek, but to make sure you are realistic about your ability before you go. Decide what you need to do to prepare, fill in that gap, and then go. Your butt will thank you.