Saturday morning, dark and just below freezing we roll our fatbikes onto the Anchorage streets. It’s forty degrees warmer than last week and much easier to breathe. We pedal eight miles to Kincaid Park to the start of the Frosty Bottom 50 mile bicycle race. By the time we get there, we’re both visibly steaming and I’m soaked in sweat under my down jacket. I strip down to a sweatshirt for the ride.
The parking lot is dotted with fatbikes and riders pedaling circles, making shadows under streetlights and headlamps. Nearly three hundred riders line the start at nine, over half compete in the 25 mile race. The others will turn around after 25 and ride back to the start. The sun won’t come up for over an hour. The darkness and the snow and the monster bikes and the calm make me feel like I’m part of some secret society from the future. Who are these people and why are we congregating in the dark?
It’s a neutral start on the top of a hill. Once we roll down, we’re free to cruise. On the descent, an old timer wedges his bike in between me and the next guy. His handlebars lever under mine and nearly knock me down. Nerves make me holler at him and I immediately feel like a jerk for hollering.
300 fatbikes coast the snow packed hill. At the base a lady asks if she can pass and we pick up the pace together. It’s my first bike race ever. My strategy is to ride as fast and as long as I can and see what happens. I’m already breathing heavily and hacking up phlegm when Nick passes me a couple of miles in. He asks after my tire pressure, wishes me luck, tells me he loves me and cruises on to catch the front pack. My legs and lungs are already hot, but I’m feeling good and up to it. I’m back and forth with a few guys, climbing out of the saddle to sprint as it’s the only way to keep the pace I’ve set.
We ride the Coastal Trail for nine miles. Built in the 1980s, the trail hugs the Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet. On a clear day, views from the trail scan over ice crusted mudflats to Mount Susitna. Locally known as the Sleeping Lady, the mountain is named for a mythical sleeping beauty waiting for her lover to return. My grandmother’s ashes are scattered over Su. It’s one of my favorite landscapes in the world. This morning is overcast and I see little beyond the trail.
We turn in from the coast at the Westchester Lagoon. Created in the 1970s it is a waterfowl sanctuary in the heart of Anchorage. While I was growing up, we fed the ducks in the summer and learned to skate in the winter. Currently, the municipality maintains burn barrels on the weekends. Skaters skate snow or shine.
On the neck of the lagoon, a woman pulls up behind me. She calls out “Who is that?” and pulls up beside me. I turn to face her: “I’m Lael and you probably don’t know me.” She’s old, but slickly equipped. She asks me if my Sorel boots are a fashion statement. I tell her they’re all I’ve got. She laughs, says her daughter would love to ride in those and cruises past with her man pacing behind her. I feel a little tickled, so I sprint past the couple on a straightaway. They catch me down the way and I’m alone again.
At the lagoon, the Coastal Trail diverges. One path leads another two miles to downtown Anchorage. The other becomes the Chester Creek Trail, my home turf. I have run this four mile section of the race hundreds of times. Following the creek, the trail passes urban parks every half mile. As kids, we’d have picnics and play on the rickety towering rocket ship at Valley of the Moon Park. Getting off the night shift in high school summers, I’d pass out in the fields at Woodside Park for afternoon naps. I swam in Goose Lake, got swimmer’s itch and swam there again. I grew up on this trail and know every turn. I push past the off-shoot path to my parents’ house and pass a couple of guys climbing an overpass.
I pass on the climbs and they pass me back on the flats. A man easily twice my size with an orange backpack and a giant Salsa Mukluk pulls up alongside and tells me “It’s a long race” and drops me. I sprint ahead of him on the next hill. He returns to say “It’s a tough one. It’s a really long race.” and tries to drop me again. I’m breathing hard and riding faster than I ever have, but give it a little more juice because I don’t want to stew in this guy’s wake. I turn to him and say “Well, we’d better get going then” and push ahead.
It’s a whole lot of back and forth on the Tour of Anchorage Trail leading to Service High School. In the summer, these woods is a bear haunted swamp and mosquito haven. In the winter, it is characteristically ten degrees colder than anywhere else in town and hosts the most scenic and thrilling fatbike single-track in Anchorage. For the Frosty Bottom, we stick to the wide multi-use trail. The 25 miler ends at the Service Parking Lot. All of the riders around me pull into the lot and into a cheering crowd and I realize I’m riding a different race.
My path broadens to a freshly groomed nordic ski route, as wide as a two lane highway. l pass the Hilltop Ski Area where I learned to snowboard in junior high. In 1999 I made a deal with my parents to work off half of the cost of a $300 season pass in. Over the winter, I cleaned the house for thirty hours and snowboarded every weekend. I kept a tally on the side of the fridge and used the kitchen timer to make sure I cleaned for full square hours. I came up with this system on my own and at the time it seemed important. As a kid, I never would’ve imagined I’d be riding bike up here as a 27 year-old. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting younger ever year.
The ski path past Hilltop jets into a five mile rutted section of single-track. I’m running my tire pressures pretty high for efficiency on the multi-use trails. Handling the single-track is kind of bear and I take my time. Fortunately, I’m all alone and the narrow path is kind of a breather from the race fury. Before I know it, I’m shooting out of the woods and back onto a broad trail.
A long line of fat bikers come charging towards me. I’m confused and disoriented until I realize they’re on their way up the hill and I’m on my way down. It starts to snow heavy, wet flakes. The descent is thrilling. I can’t see a whole lot, but In a flash, I’m down the hill, past the lakes and creeks and rounding the lagoon once again. I feel strong and fast and I’m loving it. My legs and lungs feel hot and charged, but not wasted. Nine miles to go. I imagine the three substantial climbs ahead of me and push the pace. I don’t remember seeing anybody for miles.
I’m up and over Earthquake Park and even with Point Woronzof when I notice the snow is deeper and softer than my ride out. Accumulating over the past couple of hours, the extra inches totally change my ride. I get off my bike for the first time to let some pressure out of my tires. I don’t let enough out and wash out on a soft descent, falling into a deep snowbank. My entire left side is whitewashed with snow packed into my left pogie and creeping into my boot. I crawl out from under my bike, haul it back onto the trail and get pedaling.
Four miles from the finish the trail gets even softer and more rutted. I try to settle into the leaders’ abandoned tracks, but continuously slide out, noodling all over the trail. I start slowly catching riders. They don’t appear to be moving at all. Hunched over bodies stop to let out pressure. Some riders give up pedaling entirely to push their fatbikes for miles. Three miles out, my phone rings and I’m sure it’s Nick at the finish. I don’t answer, but instead commit to not getting frustrated and focus on staying in the saddle. I’m thrown a couple of times and let out a lot more pressure. At this point, I’m probably running my tires at 5 psi. It’s hard to believe this is a race. I see the orange backpack Mukluk man in the distance. He’s rolling super fat on 100 mm rims and aggressive 5″ tires. I ride his tracks for half a mile before passing him. “Wow, you’re back up.” he sputters.
The trail firms up for the last mile. Half of it is the final hill, our neutral start four hours ago. I hear orange backpack pull up behind me. His heavy breathing and woodchopping pedal stroke are unmistakable and prod me through the final half mile. All I hear is the word “pedal!” sounding over and over in my brain– my dulled mind hollering at my numb legs to push and spin. I try to stand and sprint, but lose traction on the climb, so I sit, grip my handlebars hard and mash the pedals to the top. I taste metal and blood and feel my heartbeat in my gums.
A few people milling around and half hearted clapping indicate the end. Nick meets me and I feel a little like I’m going to throw up. He’s shocked that I’m already finished saying I’ve never even ridden a road bike that fast. I’m just happy it’s over. We wait on a couple of friends to finish, Nick eats a couple of cookies and that’s that.
I raced for the hell of it and I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I thought I would. I liked being out there pushing myself for hours on end. It made my legs and lungs burn and my heart beat wildly. I rode all over my hometown. I rushed past spots I’ve visited hundreds of times full of memories and feelings and history. Cruising fast and alone under my own steam was empowering. I’m going back out this weekend for more.
The second race of the Abominable Snow series, locally referred to as ASS #2, takes place this Saturday at Kincaid Park. For the second Saturday in a row, I’ll ride my fatbike across town in the dark to meet other helmeted snowsuits and ride snowy circles. I’m looking forward to it.