It takes a special person to decide to spend enough time on a bicycle seat to ride 400 miles. It takes a truly exceptional one to do so in less than a day. Such are the men and women who complete the Fireweed 400, Alaska’s longest bicycle race.
Every July since 2003, cyclists have had the opportunity to compete in Fireweed 400 races that begin at Sheep Mountain Lodge on the Glenn Highway. While the 400 mile length gives the race its name, other races include time trial, solo and team relay events with lengths of 50, 100 and 200 miles. All start at the Lodge. The 50 and 100 mile races return to Sheep Mountain for the finish. The 200 mile race ends in Valdez, and the town is the turnaround point for the 400 mile race which then returns to Sheep Mountain Lodge.
The route of the Fireweed 400 travels two of the very few highways in Alaska. Sheep Mountain Lodge, on the Glenn Highway, is about 115 miles from Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. The turnaround point, the small town of Valdez at the end of the Richardson Highway, is famous as the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline and as namesake of the Exxon Valdez which went aground and caused one of America’s largest oil spills. Along the way the route passes through several small communities ranging in population from under 10 to 525 (Glennallen). Along the Richardson Highway riders will also be able to catch glimpses of the Pipeline as it completes its 800 mile length.
Those who ride the entire 400 miles, just 9 men and one woman in 2010, climb over 28,000 feet along the way. Two main passes are included in this incredible amount of uphill: Eureka Summit at 3,322 feet and Turnagain Pass at 2,678 feet. Even the 50-mile riders grind their way up over 3,000 feet of hills. Those riding 100 miles pedal up over 4,400 feet.
Riders have the opportunity to see a variety of wildlife along the route, including brown and black bears, porcupines, moose, caribou, snowshoe hares, a variety of birds, and possibly even wolves, coyotes or wolverines. (I’ve driven this road many times and have seen all of the above except wolves.) The race’s website (www.fireweed400.com/index) features a great 2005 bear encounter story by Tom Johnson. The story also highlights some of the difficulties of competing in this race.
So just how long does it take a cyclist to complete this race? The 400 mile distance is the largest Race Across America (RAAM) qualifying race, and it attracts racers from around the world. The 2010 included riders from across the United States, Italy and Ontario, Canada. The 2010 winner, Bryce Walsh, finished in 22 hours, 29 minutes, 2 seconds. The only woman in the race, Carolina van den Bulk finished in 28:31:59. After just over 31 hours all 14 riders had crossed the finish line. The men’s race record is held by Jeff Oatley who won in 2006 with a time of 19:56:32. Janice Tower holds the women’s record with a time of 25:17:18 in 2003. Finish times for all riders in 2010 as well as in past years can be found on the ride’s web site.
While only 10 racers completed the 400 mile race (as well as a four-person relay team of two men and two women), over 800 more started the other distances in 2010, with 500 in the individual 200 mile ride. Riders ranged in age from 15 to 80 years and covered the spectrum of competitiveness. Race organizers declare that everyone is welcome, from the Fat Tire non-competitive to the RAAM Qualifying 400 soloists.
So, is your interest piqued? Check out the website for more details and to keep posted on next year’s race. On the seat of a bicycle – what a way to see Alaska!