Cyclists were supposed to mark the 25 anniversary of the Kluane-Chilkat International Bike Relay last weekend.
But, for the first time ever, the nearly 150-mile race from the Yukon to Haines was canceled when snow and slush compromised the safety of the course.
Four of the about 1,300 people registered braved the highly unusual summer snowstorm to complete the entire race. And, they did it on one wheel.
Staying near the starting line in Haines Junction in the Yukon, racers woke up to snow and slush covering the ground and roads Saturday morning. In the middle of June.
Chip Lende is on the race’s board.
“It was funny, I woke up about 2 a.m. and after hearing the rain pouring down on the hotel roof all night. Woke up at 2 a.m. and it was dead quiet,” Lende said. “I thought ‘oh good, the storm has passed and it’s going to be beautiful.’”
But, that wasn’t the case.
“My wife looked out the window and said ‘my god, Chip, it’s snowing.’ And I looked out and it was just a couple inches of slush covering everything,” Lende said. “By 5 a.m. Alaska time, it was about 5 inches of slush.”
It wasn’t an easy decision for the board to make, Lende said.
“It was a very tough decision for the board,” Lende said. “It was like having a wedding. You’ve done all this planning and then you have to cancel it. It was very discouraging for everybody.”
But for safety reasons, it was clear it was the right call.
“It was completely obvious that we had to cancel the race there,” Lende said. “It was all for safety issues. Both for driving, for the participants, the biking, the volunteers that would have to be manning the stations in that horrendous weather, we just couldn’t do it.”
But along the highway, heading back to Haines, a tire track in the snow on the side of the road indicated someone hadn’t given up.
A four-person unicycle team decided to do the race anyway.
“There were times when we were like ‘oh my gosh, what have we gotten ourselves into?’” said Ben Richardson at the finish line in Haines. Eventually the snow and rain let up.
“You know, it broke,” Richardson said. “The weather broke for us. And I had my first little stint with some dry pavement and that felt amazing. We just kept on plugging away, you know?”
The team, Uniquest Yukon, peddled into Haines after about 13 hours alternating riders between the unicycle and support car.
Richardson, Ned Rozbicki, Nathan Hoover and Jim Sowers left the starting line in Haines Junction a little early Saturday.
At that point, they didn’t know the race had been called off.
“We found out the race was officially canceled at checkpoint two,” Rozbicki said.
He says despite the cold and snow, they decided to keep going. Rozbiki points to Hoover and Sowers.
“These guys are unicycle dignitaries by the way. Nathan is one of the only people in the world who’d pedaled on all seven continents,” Rozbiki said. “As far as we know the first to do it. And Jim has done epic trips around the world as well.”
Despite all that experience, the two said Saturday’s adventure was “epic.”
There is no official unicycle category in the race. Rozbiki said after proving it can be done, they’d like to see one added next year.
“Our humble request of the committee that runs this fine race is not that they send us all the prizes and ribbons,” Rozbiki said. But rather just that they include a uni category in the future.”
That’s something the board could consider, Lende said.
“Well, you know this is a year of firsts,” he said. “We never thought we’d have to cancel the race. And, just like years and years ago we never thought someone would be foolish enough to solo the whole thing, now we realize that there are unicyclists that want to do it, so we’ll have to discuss that.”
Race coordinator Mike Kramer agreed, it’s a discussion worth having.
He said summer snow is not something organizers will worry about in the future.
“I think we’ll move forward with fair confidence that we shouldn’t have to worry about snow every year for the bike relay,” Kramer said.
Lende and Kramer said they were not able to refund participants entry fees, as everything was already paid for.
“If we chose to refund the money, this would probably have been the last time we put on a race,” Lende said. “It would financially cripple us so we couldn’t do it next year.”
As for whether next year will be a re-do of the 25th anniversary race, that’s something Kramer said is still under consideration.