Riding the Fireweed

By Troy Henkels

Not so long ago I distinctly remember a close friend that works in the bike industry and lives in Minneapolis say something about “Lance”.  I’d never head of the guy.  He was appalled.  He enthusiastically told me all about Lance, and then I started watching the Tour de France.  That was a lot of years ago.  Finally in 2006 I got the bug and decided to buy a road bike.  I have ridden bikes all my life.  I grew up in Iowa and as a kid explored every gravel road within 20 miles of my Dads apple orchard, on an old 10 speed that he bought for me at a garage sale.  When I left home the 10 speed came with me and I then graduated to a Fisher Montare when I moved to Alaska in 1991.  So, finally in 2006 I got with the program and bought a road bike.

My interest in road biking wasn’t so much to race, but to just ride. I really like being out on the open road fully exposed to the elements.  But, there was this race, and it seemed like a pretty good challenge.  It was a 400 mile race across some of the most beautiful landscapes in the Alaska, from Eureka to Valdez.  Well, 400 miles is a long way.  And my better judgment told me I ought to enter the 200 mile version of the same race for the first year and maybe the second year step up to the 400 miler.  Heck, I hadn’t even ridden a road bike since I was 12 years old!

So I bought a discontinued Klein Q Pro, bought all the riding gear, and signed up for the 200 mile race.  I didn’t know much about Pelotons and I had never been on a group ride, so I figured I better enter the non-drafting division and play it safe.  I knew there was no way I could hang with a group of riders with the lack of road riding experience that I had.

Well, springtime in Alaska is like winter in the lower 48 States.  So I really didn’t get in many training rides that spring.  It’s sometimes June before we have dry roads.  By then, I was training for my first marathon, so who had time to do long rides?  I was busy doing long runs.  Well, I finished the marathon two weeks before the Fireweed.  So, then I started riding.  I got in some good 40-50 mile training rides, which seemed like enough to me.  I had a few friends that are serious riders and they sort of cringed at my training regiment or lack thereof.  While they were keeping track of cadence, watts, heart rate, speed, and torque, I was just riding, having the time of my life.  Seemed this biking thing on roads was way more fun than running on roads.

Well, race day finally showed up and I drove the hour and a half into the mountains to where the race started.   I arrived shortly after 5am and the actual race start wasn’t until 8am.  I stood around shivering for about 10 minutes when one of the officials told me that if I was in the non-drafting division I could start with any of the other divisions that were starting every half hour leading up to the main drafters departure at 8am.  It made sense to me, I was craving the ride alone and I was only racing the clock, so why not start early.  I reasoned the sooner I started the sooner it would be over.  So, I got on my bike and left with the next group.

In this race you can have a support vehicle, so, you don’t have to haul any gear or food.  One of the things that turned me off of the 400 mile race was the rule that says the support vehicle has to be with you at all times.  What?  I just want to ride the open road, WITHOUT cars!  That helped seal my decision to do the 200 miler.  None the less, my friend Jan volunteered to be my road crew.  We worked out that she would drive ahead about 20 miles and wait for me.  Watch me pass, see if I needed anything, and then go another 20 or so miles.  This allowed me the freedom I wanted to have the open road and her, the solitude she was looking for in a weekend out of the city.  This plan worked perfectly, all the way down to the one flat I had during the entire race.  I had just passed her when I flatted out.  She pulled up just as I had the new tube in, pulled out the floor pump and I was back on the road.  Throughout the course the sandwiches she handed me as I flew past were just the ticket.

A thing about Alaska weather, it sucks.  Starting out it was chilly but the sun came out for about 40 minutes and lit up the landscape for as far as you could see.  Then it started raining, and continued to rain for most of the race.  Not just a sprinkle but at times a heavy downpour.  I just put my head down, turned up the Ipod and kept pedaling.  Hours and miles went by in a blur.  One thing was for certain; I was having a good ride, or better put, a fun ride.  I didn’t care about winning or competition, I was just glad to be pedaling through some pristine mountain country in a downpour.  And I was cold.  But, my riding shoes had not seen enough miles to really be broken in, so I was glad my feet were numb to the point of feeling like blocks of wood.  I knew if I could feel my feet I would be in agony from the new shoes.

The route slowly, over a lot of miles climbs up Thompson Pass just north of Valdez.  In the rain, I hit the top and started the 20 mile decent into Valdez.  No one had caught me yet from any division and I had slowly started passing several 400 mile riders that had started a few hours before me.   I was in awe that they would double my mileage by the end of their race.

With little fanfare I crossed the finish line in 10 hours and 27 minutes, and a smile on my face.  My first real road race had not only been fun, but it had been relatively painless, and it was over.  I went straight to the hotel and the hot tub.  After an hour in the hot tub I felt warm again and headed back to the finish line to watch all the other divisions finish.   The most fun was watching the drafters in the sprint finish.  They completed the course in a little under an hour faster than me.   Later that night when they posted the times, I was astonished to learn I had won the non-drafting division!  The second place finisher was only 8 minutes behind me.   It’s always a good race when you can have fun riding and in the end win.

For more information on the Fireweed 400, see