Sidewalk Singletrack

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Reminisces, words by Lael Wilcox.  This story was originally written for the Dirt Rag Literature Contest.

Under the dull orange glow of sodium lights the urban snowscape is flat and calm. In the dark season, only the clock indicates morning. I feather the brakes all the way down the neighborhood hill– the kind of hill a four year old learns to ride a bike on. It’s January and I’ve been doing this for a month. A fresh layer of snow covers slick ice. Focused, I anticipate falling. I’ve already taken a couple of spills this year as my back tire loses traction and slides out, or I turn too quickly or a pile of snow redirects my front tire. Just around the corner from the house, I’m already five minutes late. Subtle brake control is beyond the ability of my mittened claw hands, but this time I come to a stop at the bottom of the hill before turning left. Made it.

Exiting the neighborhood, I pedal toward a narrow gap in the fence, a natural corridor created by alternating snowfall and pedestrian use. Fresh snow blankets a month of frozen accumulation, and my daily passage ensures that this path remains rideable. On four-inch tires I can casually ride through some fresh snow, but six heavy inches are hard to ride. Fortunately, the walkers travel no matter how much it snows and some boots have shuffled through already. I nose my tire over loose piles and try to stay afloat. In these conditions the hazards of falling are laughable– the entire world is padded– although a faceful of snow isn’t welcome at 7 AM. The front tire washes, the rear tires spins and I punch a boot through the adjacent bank to remain upright. Today, more pedestrians and cyclists will groom this route and by dinner is will be a perfectly rideable single-track. Connecting the sleepy neighborhood to Midtown Anchorage, this is my portal between worlds. Still straddling the toptube, I shuffle the bike through to the other side.

I cross the boulevard and ride onto the sidewalk, the zone for misfits. Each passing windshield provides a glimpse of the driver. Those whose windows are still painted with frost, except for the requisite peephole, are like me– always late. Fully defrosted windows with operable wipers signal a prudent character, a complete breakfast, and some kind of fantastic job, most likely. I’m a math tutor and I pounded some dry wheat toast on my way out the door. A herd of traffic ambles past, each driver cradling a steaming cup of coffee, and each vehicle sharing its voice. Conservative talk radio wanders out of a rusty Ford; somewhere, Gotye is on repeat and Adele is “Rolling in the Deep” really early in the morning. Some of them check me out as we wait at the stoplight. People in cars feel entitled to stare. If you meet their gaze, they abruptly look ahead and pretend like you don’t exist. This is a really long light and we ignore each other for another two minutes. The signal turns green.

The crosswalk is a mess. I loft the front wheel over and over; every lane of traffic that I cross features a pair of icy ruts, like a giant washboard, and the orange display flashes “Don’t Walk” even before I start. Riding on a tightrope, my right knee draws outward to compensate for momentary imbalance. Looking back across six lanes, I lift my bike over an encrusted berm and am back onto the sidewalk– misfit but safe.

Every road loses a lane in the winter. Snow and ice obscure traffic paint and four lanes are reduced to three, three to two, two to one, and narrow roads nearly become tunnels. Drivers closely follow each other’s rutted tracks, afraid to change lanes. Winter lasts for six months and people have places to be every day. They don’t slow down for the weather and the city doesn’t do much to make the roads safe, even in a winter of record snowfall. Everyone has studded tires, if not also a big truck. With an average speed of 5 mph, I can’t expect to ride with this crowd in these conditions. Winter in Anchorage is the only place I routinely ride the sidewalk.

For several blocks I lay down first tracks on the sidewalk, running against traffic on Benson Boulevard. Secret shortcuts across boot-packed singletrack and empty parking lots speed up the trip. I bump across the lawn of a giant oil company on a path that leads over a snow pile and drops me into a plowed parking lot. A well-worn trail passes the busy exit of the McDonald’s drive-thru window as moose feed on the trees outside the restaurant– just passing-thru like the rest of us. In winter, Anchorage becomes a maze and commuting is a game of connecting the dots, requiring deliberate route planning based upon changing conditions. Every morning, I dial 844 for automated local weather conditions before leaving home. Every morning is different.

Past the public library, I turn onto the C Street sidewalk. Several years ago the city put up signs to indicate a bicycle route. This morning it is a frozen sculpture of a dried-out creek bed, strewn with the jetsom and flotsam of a recently plowed roadway. I scan for tire prints hoping to piggy-back another rider’s route, but there aren’t any. The walkway is peppered with frozen cobbles and boulders and even as I try to pick a rideable path, a firm-looking mound melts under my weight. Guessing my way through, I give some gas and hope. The front tire pushes through like a sled. I lean back and weight the rear tire, but it still spins. I put a foot down.

Alongside the ironic white snow bike I unscrew plastic valve caps and dab the stem with my mitten. Even in the cold air, the tube’s exhalations smell like canned tuna. The tire sidewalls nearly fold over themselves with my weight. I tighten my core and propel the bike forward, grinding until I pick up speed. It works! I roll up to the next red light, grinning. This three mile stretch, a signed bicycle route, is stunted with seven major lights. Even so, I’m getting somewhere, and I have somewhere to be.

Unzipping several inches of my parka, moist air steams in front of my frozen face and a trickle of sweat runs down my spine. I pull my Buff up to my eyes and suck frozen air through its fibers. Within several minutes, each inhalation is joined by water, condensation formed as my breath meets the cold air. Soon, the wool is frozen and a white beard grows around my face– the Buff holds its shape. If I was planning to be out much longer I’d be more careful not to sweat so much, but mittened children march along on sidewalks, which means I’m close.

Other teachers are running the short distance from their cars to the school doors like desperate urbanites in a rainstorm with newpapers over their head. Casually rolling my bike into the school, warm with energy, I smile at them. The bell rings and millions of squeaky boots storm the hallways for another day of cat and mouse. It is my job to be a diligent math cat to dozens of remedial math mice.

At the last bell of the day, the streets are dark once again. I zip into my fur-lined sledding boots and knee-length parka, pull the Buff over my head, buckle my snowboarding helmet and decorate the ensemble with a reflective construction vest. I mop up the puddle of water under my bike and roll out the door, emerging on the streets like a neon hobo power ranger. Riding out of the parking lot, a teacher rolls down his window and asks if I am training for that big race that they do with these bikes. No, I’m just riding home I tell him. I have somewhere to be. 

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A year ago, Lael and I were riding through a winter of record snowfall in Anchorage, AK on our Pugsleys.  The title to this story was inspired by this post, and our daily travels through the organic urban snowscape.

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Correspondence: Notes on a Stealth Fatty

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Hmmm, how long has it been, only a few weeks since I picked up the necromancer pug but it’s been an honest blast. I genuinely feel these bikes should be the absolute standard for off-roading, be it touring or park ratting. The bike is really well balanced and carries it’s weight well when riding technical single track and has stunning stability on “off the back of the saddle” descents. There’s definitely a re-learning curve with accepting the tire pressures that get the most out of the bike.  The psi’s are definitely different in regard to what you are riding.  This brings me to the tubeless.

Jeff and Nick, thanks. Y’all did a stunning job. I’ve ridden this bike with absolute negligence and disregard with no burps or flats. Really, I’ve riddled the tires with a whole lot of goatheads and ridden it damned hard on and off road at 2psi, and the tires are still attached to the rims. Which does pose a complication as the larry is a liability. It’s been hot and tacky out and i’ve really been pushing the bike on the local trail systems– the Larry really will break loose. The nate is stunning, the Larry, it’s gotta, gunna go eventually. I hope before me, ha ha.

I just wanted to let y’all know how much I appreciate the effort 2 wheel drive put into getting me on this bike. I dig it. I’ve attached some pics documenting some of the finer moments since getting the pugs.


Jeremy is “over the handlebars for New Mexico”, which is our way of saying that he likes it here and he goes over the bars a lot.  A recent transplant from Texas and everywhere, he makes the most of this rugged and beautiful state and rides like it doesn’t hurt when you crash.  I wonder if Jeremy has really ridden down to 2psi?  He’s a little guy and when the snow is soft it’s easy to let it all out, so it’s possible, but 4psi may be more likely.  Hey Jeremy, I’ve got an extra Nate tire if you stop through ABQ sometime soon.

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Photos: Cass Gilbert and Jeremy Gray

Also, check out my “Fatbiking Micro-Adventure in New Mexico” on the Adventure Cycling Blog, and my older post about commuting and touring on a fatbike.

Lael’s globe of adventure

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She carries a globe of adventure and has taught me more than anyone how to let go, give up, and go!  She’s the one that gives away clothing and books like she never cared about them; and in a moment, they’re of so little importance that they never existed.  It’s smart not to clutter your mind with such trivialities.  She likes strong simple bikes that don’t fuss, and she rides them.  She rides more than you or any of your friends, and wore out both of the rims on her Surly Long Haul Trucker this past year.  She rebuilt her front wheel just as the old Rhyno Lite rim bulged outward with 45 psi.

She’s the same age as I, for a month.  Yesterday was her birthday and I remembered on the 17th, forgot on the 18th, and remembered in the middle of the night– technically, it was the 19th already and I was sleeping by a river without internet or a way to connect with Corsica.  I presume she’s cycling and hiking along Corsica’s mountainous spine, or lazing along it’s azure coastline and having a good time of it.

She will drink more water than any other human and will pee on every road shoulder– on top of Boreas Pass, on the Knik Glacier, or in a snowbank on the Coastal Trail.  When the weather gets bad, she burrows deeper in a sleeping bag leaving me to sweat the details that don’t need sweating.  She never gets tired or sore on the bike and she never rides beyond her limits.  If you don’t call it “mountain biking” she loves it, and riding to work through six inches of snow at 7 AM is just another day.  And then she rides home, and runs to yoga in six inches of snow, and runs home from there.  And with nothing to prove she will out-run, out-ride and outlive most of us.  That’s Lael.

Happy birthday!  See you in a month for the Colorado Trail.

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Kick, kick, and the Colorado Trail.  Below is Lael’s second day of “mountain biking” on the Monarch Crest Trail, a diversion from the dirt roads of the Great Divide Route.

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Consider this a virtual birthday party by leaving a comment celebrating Lael and wishing her a happy birthday, even if you don’t know her in person.  In a month, we’ll be lucky to see photos of Lael riding her bike above treeline on the Colorado Trail.  In a month, I’ll be lucky to be riding with her.  Here’s to another year of acting like kids and riding bikes.

Globes of adventure, like “globes of boredom” from John Steinbeck’s Log From the Sea of Cortez.


Where sleeping monsters lie: Knik Glacier

20120326-091129.jpgKnik, not like Nick; the k is not silent. About ten miles up the Knik River Road is a bridge across Hunter Creek. From there, it’s about 8 miles on snowmachine trails along the floodplain to the foot of the glacier, where iceforms dwarf cyclists in icy blue shadows and light. The trail is well traveled and frozen through the morning, and we approach the ice within an hour and a half of departure. Like an icy Bryce Canyon, we explore slots and cracks to their end, climbing over frozen bridges and saddles, and through towering corridors. Sliding across glassy refrozen meltwater and down the sides of giant ice marbles, we are kids in an absurd moonscape. A sunny day in the middle of nowhere full of childlike wonder–the best bike ride ever.


The final bend, a different place
no hubbub, no wind, not cold.
A space frozen, but not unmoving;
Shhh– sleeping monsters in momentary grace.

Cyclops, a Yeti, the Lochness and a puddle of melt;
A boy’s club of scary faces and stalactites for teeth.

It’s a wax museum or a monster’s graveyard
Joints are frozen, but the eyes are wide
They’re here, but no worry
Eyes like a hawk but
The teeth are fiction– just icicles20120327-085401.jpg20120327-085426.jpg20120327-085451.jpg20120327-085544.jpg20120327-085818.jpg20120327-085854.jpg20120327-085947.jpg20120327-090005.jpg20120327-090754.jpg

Retracing our tracks, we gain momentum from the imperceptible dowstream slope and the glee of an afternoon well-wasted. Lael rides her Pugsley with new gold VP pedals, Tamra rides my purple Puglsey with Nate, and I ride a borrowed Salsa Mukluk 3. Lael finds a moose leg on the trail and is insistant that we take it home, exhibiting it’s uses as a prosthesis and a kickstand; Tamra draws the short straw and straps it to her rack.20120327-091919.jpg20120327-091949.jpg20120327-092040.jpg20120327-092107.jpg20120327-092137.jpg20120327-092206.jpg
The Knik River floodplain is colored pink in this rendering. We rode from the wide braided section left of center, up to the big white glacier on the right. A nice ride; eight easy miles each way, if snow conditions are favorable.20120327-093337.jpg

Ride at night


Light til 9, but we still ride in the dark. A group of eight met in the Jodphur parking lot at Kincaid for some sinuous singletrack, some of which is groomed by Herculean riders pulling a worn automobile tire. Lights, bikes, fat tires and friends; Fatbacks, Mukluks and Pugsleys.

After racing around the woods in circles, I raced the fifteen miles home in sub-zero temperatures for a midnight dinner.









A good breakfast; to the hills

20120218-223112.jpg20120218-233331.jpg20120218-223013.jpgFour teeth poorer but no less wise, Lael has been relegated to a liquid diet for a week. A full pot of coffee and a ginger-coconut-kale smoothie started the day. Add: one stack pancakes and bacon for me. Following, she went one way– to work, and I went another– uphill.

No more than a half-mile from home, I connect with the Campbell Creek Trail. Then, I link the Tour of Anchorage ski route, crossing the path of a Junior Dogsled Championship in action, to Moose Meadow Trail, Black Bear, and the South Gasline Trail. Successive trails become narrower and narrower, from wide groomed multi-use trails to wide singletrack, then a narrow trail that teases my front wheel into the adjacent banks. One benefit of winter singletrack is the soft cushion of snow to either side; no help in staying upright is that same magnetic sea of wheel-swallowing snow.

A steep, prolonged push up the Gasline Trail brings me to the Chugach State Park Prospect Heights Trailhead, and a parking lot full of Subarus with bumper stickers demanding that Tahoe remain blue, that Alaska remain wild, and Al Gore be elected president in 2000. These heights expose the city, the sea, and the far-off Alaska Range, where Denali and Foraker are in full glory. My prize, finally, is the Powerline Pass Trail which I find rideable at times; otherwise, it is a little too steep and a little too soft. The capacity of a fatbike is greatly diminished by the uphill grades. Fat tires may gain floatation, but in soft snow traction is at a premium without a much deeper tread than is available. Still, a wider rim and tire combination may help. The Nate tire at 5-6 psi worked admirably. Like walking uphill in snow, tires slip and snow slides.20120218-225032.jpg20120218-225105.jpg20120218-230011.jpg20120218-230031.jpg20120218-230041.jpg20120218-230053.jpg20120218-230127.jpg
My final efforts bring me to over 2200ft, within sight of Powerline Pass and well-exposed to wind and blowing snow. The last five miles had been little riding and a lot of pushing. Sweat on my brow, the ride home is chilling, and thrilling.
Powerline Pass is pictured above as the snowy saddle, left of center. The pass is easily acessible by bike in the summer, with a final, steep push to 3550ft. A steep descent to Indian is found on the other side.

Coastal Trail to Kincaid; mountains on all sides

20120109-220014.jpg More moose than people out on a beautiful Monday. Following significant snowfall over the last few days, skies cleared and temperatures dropped, exposing a glistening wonderland and snowy peaks, both near and far. The Knik Arm of Cook Inlet and the Chugach Range frame the city. Mt. Susitna– The Sleeping Lady– figures prominently on the horizon, as does the Tordrillo Range to the southwest and the Talkeetna Range to the northeast. The Alaska Range, including the disproportionately represented Mt. Foraker (17,400 ft) and Denali (20,327 ft) are visible one hundred miles to the north. The Coastal Trail is a nine mile section of trail connecting downtown Anchorage and Westchester Lagoon with Kincaid Park, a woodland park with an exceptional network of cross-country ski trails situated on the westernmost point of the Anchorage peninsula– Point Campbell. The Coastal Trail had been groomed since the snowfall, but was still soft and slow with no signs of snow bikes on the ride out to Kincaid. 20120109-203414.jpg20120109-203454.jpg20120109-203516.jpg20120109-203537.jpg20120109-214726.jpg20120109-214741.jpg20120109-215004.jpg

A brighter day than usual


A ride about town and a lingering sunrise a little after noon. Gaining less than two minutes of sun per day, but in a week it’ll be almost three, and then four and five and almost six. A truism fit for The Smiths: some days are brighter than others.

The bridges pictured are the Seward Highway, for which the Campbell Creek Trail has no official passage, dead-ending on either side of the highway. Unofficially, and with great enjoyment, one rides atop the frozen creek under four overpasses.