15 Years of Kluane Cycling Celebration
15 Years of Kluane Cycling Celebration
By Dave Ringle
June 16th marked the 15th annual Kluane to Chilkat International Bike Relay, a 148 mile, 8 leg ride from Haines Junction, Yukon, to Haines, Alaska. From its humble beginnings in 1993 when 36 teams and 140 riders competed, the event has grown to a 250 team, 1200 rider celebration of cycling. The winning team from Whitehorse, , finished the race in six hours and twelve minutes, finishing 15 seconds ahead of team Bring Back the Draft from Fairbanks. The team name was a pun on new rules that prohibited aerobars, disk wheels, and special bike equipment and required more “drafting” where cyclists rode together.
The first year of Kluane was far different than the current day event. The 140 riders had little cycling experience, rode mainly mountain bikes, and did not even know where the checkpoints were located. One eight-person team watched the start, left for the Chilkat Bakery, and did not know the first checkpoint was only 13 miles up the road. Their rider arrived with the lead group and no one was there to start leg 2. The next year their team name was “We Stop for Doughnuts.”
The winning 4 person male team in the first relay was three middle school students and one adult on mountain bikes. They finished in 12th place overall with a time around 9 hours and 40 minutes. The adult rider rode legs 3 and 4 in cotton shorts and t-shirt amidst rain and a few snow showers as well as vicious headwinds. Pulled off the bike at the end of leg 4, he spent a half hour in a RCMP car warming up before he could catch up with his team.
The race grew from 140 riders the first year to 400 riders the second year to over 700 the third year. Finally in the fourth year, good weather allowed racers to lower the course record from 7 1/2 hours to 6 hours and 24 minutes. Then the race needed to start in split shifts with the eight person teams starting after the two and four person teams. A soloist category was later added.
The relay’s unique format that allow teams of eight, four, two, or solo riders to compete on the same course allows people of all fitness levels to participate at a level of their comfort. The top ten percent of the riders can be extremely competitive with finishing times near six hours. Other recreational teams can use the event to overcome disabilities, improve their health, and enjoy an exciting day with friends.
The relay is run by a volunteer board composed of both Canadians and Americans from Whitehorse, Haines Junction, Haines, and Juneau. Over 300 volunteers record times at each of the eight checkpoints, and provide information for both the competitive riders who compare their efforts and recreational riders who seek personal best times. Cooperation with the RCMP and Yukon Department of Transportation closes the Haines Highway for up to three hours while riders begin their relay in mass starts at the base of a six mile hill climb.
All riders get to witness the initial surge up the hill of the elite 1, 2 and 4 person teams, while the recreational riders steadily climb the beginning hill at a more leisurely pace. The first forty miles are quite hectic. Riders are closely bunched and large packs form. Support vehicles jockey to get their riders to checkpoints, provide support of water, food, and occasional maintenance. It is not uncommon for a rider with a flat tire to borrow a spare wheel from another team. During the fifth year of the Kluane, two teams were riding together leading in the final leg when one rider flatted. The Juneau rider stopped and had his teammate provide his competition with a spare wheel. The two teams continued on into Haines where a sprint finished decided the winner of the relay.
Cyclists travel through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Beginning on the edge of Kluane National Park, passing rock glaciers, mountain lakes, swans, an occasional bear, it follows the Tatshenshini International Wilderness Boundary and traverses a long alpine pass. The relay then descends from 3300 feet to sea level through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
The weather is unpredictable, and riders must prepare for everything from snow to 80 degree temperatures to 25-30 mph headwinds in the final stretch along the Chilkat River. Some years have seen riders cooling themselves in mountain streams; other years have seen riders requiring first aid for hypothermia. Crossing the US Canadian border has also been a challenge for both logistical and safety reasons. The US customs is at the bottom on a long hill making stopping a high speed bicycle difficult. Close cooperation with customs officials has made continuing the race with fewer inconveniences possible.
The relay has been a breeding ground for serious cycling on many different levels. One Juneau rider was an avid mountain biker who joined the relay to have a great time. As his team became more serious, they bought road bikes and competed in the eight person division. Soon they were looking to ride longer distances. After winning the eight person division, he organized several teams in the four person division. Eventually his team won the race overall, yet the competition wasn’t the only reason to join the event. This year they rode with five teams of riders with varying experience all riding together. The new riders loved the experience and the veteran riders enjoyed a great party on the road.
Some of the best stories finish the race long after the winning team. Several teams have included riders with various disabilities, including some who need to ride tandems, custom recumbent and three wheeled bicycles, even a hand powered cycle. Both Outdoor Recreation and Community Access of Juneau and Yukon Association for Community Living have sponsored teams of riders for the event. One rider suffering the effects of polio rides a hand powered cycle each year and seeks to raise money and promote awareness of the ongoing battle against the disease.
Several soloists don’t race competitively but share amazing stories. Hal finished this year’s race solo, riding 148 miles in under 12 hours. That feat is amazing, more so because on his fiftieth birthday Hal rushed to the doctor thinking he was having a heart attack. Doctors told him he had blocked arteries and needed to lose weight. Uncomfortable with the side-effects of medication, he decided to improve his diet and get fit. Cycling became his way to prolong his life. Now he exercises daily, watches what he eats and is totallir,y jazzed at getting his fix of riding for health’s sake.
That is the original goal of the event. While the lead teams get more and more competitive, and rules are changed to comply with the rules of competitive cycling, the vast majority of participants in the Kluane to Chilkat International Bike Relay enjoy a wonderful event in stunning scenery that promotes healthy and active lifestyles.