Ice Bikers Follow Frozen Trail of Gold Rush

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"The people up here are generally very accommodating and friendly," Vallely said. "They understand the harshness of their environment and are always willing to lend a hand in whatever way possible, be it a meal, a floor to sleep on, or even just a friendly word of encouragement."

The team is also receiving local wisdom, such as advice from a couple who fed them when they unexpectedly turned up at their remote cabin. "In Alaska you yell when you arrive on someone's property," the locals advised them, "or you're liable to get shot, boy!"

"They do think we're mad," Vallely said when asked about the response the team gets when approaching on their bikes.

Travails of the Trail

Typically, the team bunks for the night in a remote cabin or camps out. Thus far, their experience has been a frigid one.

During the early weeks of the trip, daytime temperatures rarely reached 0 F (minus 17C), Vallely reported. At night they have dropped to minus 40 F (minus 40C). "The cold has been our consistent companion and definitely taxes us each day," he said. "When it drops to minus 40 things start to take on a serious tone."

Nothing is more serious for the team than taking care of their bikes on the trail—they're a long way from any repair facilities. Freewheels have been flushed of grease so the palls don't bind up, suspension forks were replaced with rigid ones, and special double-wide rims were installed to allow them to ride on snow at low tire pressures.

Even with the precautions and adaptations, however, the cold has had an effect on the team AND their equipment. "Our tires tend to deflate at night from the cold and we've had two pumps literally explode as we tried to pump them up," Vallely said. "The cold does weird things."

Freezing temperatures can be a bit of help, however. They solidify snow and provide a better riding surface, especially where new snow covers dog-sled trails the cyclists had hoped would be broken for them.

"So far…the trail has given us everything from blazing fast glare ice to knee-deep, post-holing hell!" Vallely said. It's also given them a river that, once solidly frozen in gold rush days, is currently patchy and requires extreme care and even overland detours.

Despite the obstacles, Vallely reports that they have been able to actually ride their bikes rather than push them. He estimated they've been in the saddle for perhaps 75 percent of the way, though perhaps only 50 percent of the time, as riding is faster than pushing. It's essential that they stay on the bikes, and pedaling, if they are to make it to Nome before spring thaws make their route impassible.

Thus far time has not been on their side. The team is moving at a bit less than half their anticipated speed, which promotes both respect for those who came before them, and a bit of healthy skepticism.

"Max Hirschberg was a champion cyclist before he headed to Nome and it took him two and a half months to travel the trail," Vallely said. "Ed Jesson, on the other hand, learned to ride a bike the week before he left Dawson and managed the journey in just over a month! This is incredible—possibly too incredible."

"Obviously things have changed," Vallely said. "There was much more traffic on the trail when he traveled, but this speed has stunned us. It's possible, I guess, but we're a little suspicious."

The team is currently on their final river section, and nearing the Bering Sea coast. In a matter of days they will "portage" some 160 km from the village of Kaltag on the Yukon River to the community of Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast. Then they will begin their final leg along the coastal sea ice and tundra to finish in Nome. Check back at NationalGeographic.com for an update at the conclusion of the "Bikes on Ice" adventure.

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