Saturday 28th February 2004, the culmination of several years of dreaming about this race. Just under 30 racers were congregated in the
car park at Knik Lake. There was a lot of eying up of other racers gear and a depressing feeling when looking at a few riders bikes that
looked as if they were loaded for a weekends jaunt in the Surrey Hills. By comparison my own set up looked cumbersome but not unusual.
With a huge sleeping bag strapped sideways onto the front rack next to a sleeping mat. Large saddle bag carrying extra clothing, frame
pack carrying pan, stove and more clothing. Handlebar bag stuffed with food, camera, GPS and a set of maps under the transparent holder.
I was ready to go.
Earth B and B
Earth B and B
The start was an unceremonious '3-2-1 go' at 2pm and a motley crew of racers entertained the spectators by falling this way and that on
the slick ice of Knik Lake. Funny though this must have seemed, only a few years ago a racer scratched at the end of the lake after a
couple of minutes racing when his sled fell apart, that makes for one very unhappy racer. At the end of the lake there is a short steep
climb which can just be ridden, beyond that there were twenty or so miles of groomed double track that enabled the bikes to build a lead
that was not to last for very long.
After a couple of hours the trail turned soft and that meant getting off the bike and pushing until it looked like it might be rideable
again, sometimes it was and more often than not it wasn't. The bikers had all clustered within a mile or so of each other and it wasn't
long before I caught up Carl, TransAlp partner and friend of some four years. Having had a knee op only a couple of months earlier I was
sceptical of his ability to survive the pushing, however his cycling ability and mental drive were beyond my own limits and I was
interested to see how we would compete.
Ahead of me at this point was Pete Basinger, biker and Idita veteran and one of the youngest competitors in the race. Also two of
the Matlock three, Andy Heading and Alan Sheldon, Aidan was struggling with narrow tyres somewhere behind. For these three I have
the greatest respect, Heading having ridden the 1100 miles to Nome a couple of years ago in some 26 days including around 350 miles
of pushing, endurance races don't get much harder than that, Sheldon and Leheup for being probably the most successful pair in the
history of MTB orienteering races in the UK, virtually unbeaten. I felt small but quietly capable, certain at this point I would
make McGrath, whether I would get there in time to make my flight home in 11 days was another matter.
The scale of all things Alsakan was becoming apparent, a small lake on the map could take an hour or more to cross. I think it was
on Flat Horn Lake and about half way to Luces, the first checkpoint, where weariness started to set in. At the far end of the lake
I could see a bright light slowly get brighter and then turn into a noise, I had stopped for some reason, probably to snack, when
the noise stopped and a voice said "look, over there, a biker". Now we had all heard tales of drunken locals tearing around on snow
machines and I was hoping this would be an innocent encounter. As two people approached they were full of enthusiasm and greeted me,
"hey, we've got a tent set up at the end of the lake and some coffee and food, we're just off to get some firewood". Now I knew there
was no planned stop here so it all seemed a bit strange, did the locals know we were coming and wanted to show Alaskan hospitality,
would it be like this every 20 miles to McGrath? It soon transpired that this was 'PJ', Red Bull rep in Alaska, who had supplied some
last minute sponsorship for the race. So with renewed energy I forged on up the lake expecting to see a small oasis at any moment.
It probably took an hour of riding through soft snow before I came upon the welcome of a log fire complete with Bagels and fresh,
oh so lovely, water. I even had my first ever Red Bull. This stop was a bonus, but it was a race so after 15 minutes I dragged myself
away from the comforting fire and into the darkness.
Eventually the trail dropped onto a corner of the Susitna river, up until now there had been little or no navigational decisions to be
made, now it was a case of straight on or turn right. Without looking at the map I found some tyre tracks heading right and assumed that
was to way to go, what I hadn't considered was that there were only a single set I could actually see, the other two sets would obviously
be close by, this was a messy intersection of trail after all. My deliberations had taken a few minutes and Carl appeared down on the
river next to me, without much thinking we both headed off together.
A short distance up the Susitna we forked left up the Yentna River although in the darkness this was not apparent, it was just a case
of follow the trail. All we knew about Luces Roadhouse was that we would see lights and couldn't miss it. Lights on the left or lights
on the right, I didn't know. I remember the river being wide, maybe a half mile with high banks and it went on for ever. 'Ever' was
later to be redefined, 'ever' at this point in time was merely a couple of hours. And so it was with much relief at 1:26am on Sunday
morning I arrived at Luces, the first checkpoint.
I had to push the bike up the steep bank and eventually dropped it outside the large wooden roadhouse. Inside there was warmth but
no sign of Basinger, Sheldon or Heading. From the corner appeared a lady who quietly welcomed us, we were duly signed in and told
we were second and third. This couldn't be right, Sheldon and Heading had not signed in, surely they wouldn't have ridden past,
where could they possibly have gone wrong, it wasn't until next afternoon we would find out.
I stopped for an hour, dried my boots, ate plates of spaghetti and drank hot chocolate and fizzy drinks. I had been moving pretty
much non stop for 12 hours with a loaded bike, that's a reasonable ride in any ones book. In that hour several more racers came in,
Tom and Tim the walkers, Roc and Rajko, biker and skier, Brent the biker, Roberto the walker and as Carl and I left, Aidan appeared,
he also had expected Sheldon and Heading to be up front.