Sunday, April 05, 2009

Iditarod 2009 Part 2

It's beautiful and sunny in England at the moment and, due to my lack of other working bikes, I've been bulldozering around on the Pug. It was the North Downs yesterday for dusty trails and the constant accompaniment of people's muttered comments. Usually I'd be able to make out only a single word, "tyres", in the middle of whatever else they had to say. It's all good, though. Riding fully rigid (ok, fat tyre's worth of suspension) and flat pedals is helping me to flow with the trail.

Back to the story...

When I got up at Shell Lake, I notice a couple of changes to my physical conditions. First, my eye had sorted itself out - maybe it just needed some real sleep. Second my toes had come up in big yellow blisters. I knew that these weren't like normal blisters, but put some Compeed patches on anyway. They probably wouldn't do any harm and have always helped me with real blisters.

Patched up, it was a quick trip to the freezing outhouse (Puntilla has the best outhouse, but more on that later) before Rob and I set off for Winterlake Lodge. The lady at the bar had given us some directions the night before but all I could remember was that we would end up at some homesteader's place if we went wrong and it would cost us miles. You can probably see where this is going.

A funny thing about riding with Rob was that I warmed up much quicker than he did. So we set off together, and let our individual paces run their course - me leaving him behind for a few hours, then him catching me later in the day. The terrain was more flat tundra and straight lines but the trail conditions were pretty rideable so I set my mind to "mulling" and watched the relatively fresh bike tracks in front of me. Eventually, the trail split and I followed the tracks to the left.

The riding conditions got worse and I was having to use speed to keep me afloat on the narrow track of a snow-machine ski. It was exhausting and as I saw a "Private Property" sign, I began to wonder if it was all in vain. With tyre tracks still ahead of me, I decided to continue and find out where I'd get to. If I turned round now, I still wouldn't know which way was correct. When I saw a bike ahead, it seemed like good news until I could make out that it was heading straight towards me. This was the route to the homesteaders and some other racers had been there. So we set off back, a drop in the 350-mile ocean of the whole trail.

I saw Rob again as I backtracked and he was getting warmer but still not on a pace that we'd ride together so I plugged on alone. A few hours later, I came to another branch. This time I was going to make a decision not just unthinkingly follow the tyres. Checking my GPS, one direction was clearly right. As I wandered up the trail a bit (GPS can't tell which way you're facing unless you are moving) I saw promising looking tyre-tracks to confirm my decision. Before resuming, I paused for chocolate coffee beans and a wee break. The latter is not a simple thing in bib shorts and bib longs. You have to unhook them from your shoulders and still end up crouched over during the act. I still think it's worth it for the riding comfort, but it feels silly every time you have to go.

As I faffed, Rob caught me up. The cleat had come loose on his shoes so he couldn't unclip. We rode together for a bit but eventually his pedal troubles caused him to fall back. I knew it wasn't far to the checkpoint now and it was a great to joy to see across the last frozen lake up to the Winterlake Lodge. Such a joy, that I stopped to take the photo below (you'll have to look pretty close to see the buildings). And Rob nearly ran into the back of my. He'd snuck up with his sneaky gears as I was spinning out.

Lunch at Winterlake was amazing. Some kind of black bean plate with fried eggs - so good. And this was the first re-supply drop. I opened up my bag to see what Billy had packed for me. Lots of quaker oats bars, peanut butter ritz crackers, some soups and curries, hand-warmers, and a condom. Nice work Billy.

I wanted to make it to Puntilla that night so the stop at Winterlake was short. Just enough time to make sure Rob had his shoes sorted out and get my head together. I'd seen John Ross again and, I'll admit it - I wanted to beat the other English singlespeed rider. The next section of trail was even better than coming into Shell Lake. It twisted and flowed, and I twisted and flowed with it. I pumped the bike over little jumps, drifted round corners with both wheels sliding and one foot out. It took the slightest amounts of subtle braking to keep things going but the rewards were like riding the switchbacks at Afan. Fun and grins, and why can't this last forever? The last part of this section is (I think) known as the steps and got to the point where I was finding the trail steep for the conditions. I wonder at how a dog team can ever cope with this. All too soon it was over, though, and down onto a frozen lake. I saw Cory on his skis - I'd gained 10 minutes back on him pretty quickly which should have been a clue but I couldn't help asking how he'd enjoyed that last bit. Apparently, it's tough for skiers.

And then I saw the trail that took us up off the lake... So steep that it would take hands and feet to get up. It was maybe 12 feet up and I know I'm not that strong at anything but riding, so I stripped all my gear off the bike and threw it to the top. Then, bike on back, I climbed up the wobbly steep trail. I reloaded, had a snack and it was straight back to pushing. All the height I'd lost on the fun stuff would have be regained as we were heading for the Alaska Range. The pushing was a case of shoving the bike forwards, putting on the brakes, walking up to the bars, and shoving again. Repeat until the hill is over. I wasn't going to be catching Cory again for a while.

When the trail levelled out, the views into the mountains were spectacular. The sun shone down and the perfect air was a beautiful place to be. When I caught sight of John Ross off to the side of the trail, I was glad of someone to share it with. Just as I slowed down Rob nearly ran into the back of me. Once again, he'd snuck up on a flat bit of trail. The three of us were just happy and privileged to be out there. John even claimed to have given up on racing for position. The competitive streak in me told me two things... (1) Good, maybe that's my chance to beat him (2) He's a racer, he'll be back on it later.

Regardless, the three of us rode more-or-less together towards Puntilla. There was more of the narrow stuff, but this time John and I were floundering. There seemed to be even less grip and putting a foot down off the trail would result in sinking to knee or even thigh level. My riding was a bit slapstick, but it was still getting me closer.

The final hours into Puntilla were horrible. The twists of the trail were frustrating me again and I was mentally done for the day - walking sections that didn't need walking just because I was fried. Again, over-reliance on GPS made it worse. I could tell that I was at 90deg from where I wanted to go and the stupid damn trail wasn't going there. The drive to finish was there, though, and I kept moving however low I felt. As day turned to night, I got closer and closer. When I finally saw a head-torch bobbing around near the checkpoint I was ready to drop through the door. Fortunately, I composed myself at least a little before saying hi to the collection of racers inside...

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