Annual cycling tradition just doesn’t get any better in Alaska
The back road from Hana on the eastern tip of Maui to the bustling urban center of Kihei starts out on smooth pavement, but turns rough as Alaska’s Denali Highway not far past the grave of the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. It’s only a lane and a half wide and hugs the mountainside above the Pacific Ocean, and though it can be dicey, it is nowhere near as intimidating as driving the Copper River Highway back in the day when the late Gov. Wally Hickel was trying to punch a road south from Chitina to Cordova.
That is, of course, all history now. There was a landslide across the road in 2001 and geological experts concluded the cliffs along Wood Canyon would slide again. Bureaucrats took that as an excuse to abandon the road, and since then the state hasn’t had a governor with the courage to tell them to reopen it.
Hawaii seems somewhat better off in this regard. A landslide also closed the back road from Hana, which connects the South Hana and Piilani highways to wrap around the island’s dry side, in 2006. When talk of abandoning it began, some Hawaiian lawmakers had the courage to say that was nonsense, and the road was reopened.
But this is not about the failings of Alaska politicians. No, this is about how I’ve come to celebrate my April birthday over the past decade.
I get on a bike and ride.
Fifty-five was supposed to put me at the 10,023-foot summit of Maui’s Haleakala Volcano. Bicycling down the Haleakala volcano is a major tourist activity in Maui. For $89, the Haleakala Bike Co. will rent you a bike, fit you with a serious downhill helmet, drive you 6,500 feet from Haiku to the boundary of Haleakala National Park, and drop you off for a 23-mile bike ride that snakes through 29 big switchbacks on the way back to where the trip began.
I decided to ride up from Hana via the Piilani, which about triples the distance. It would have been fine if I’d taken enough fluids and eaten enough along the way and maybe not started pounding out mile after mile at a 25-mph tempo when the rough and potholed Piilani became smooth, fast pavement near something called “Virginia’s Place.”
Needless to say, too little nourishment and too much effort in the heat of Hawaii resulted in one big bonk on Haleakala. A little more than halfway to the top, I pulled to the side of the road, collapsed into a ditch and called for a ride. It was one of the happiest moments of my life when Robbie arrived to save me from more torture.
So last year, I elected to ride from home to Hope then back to Girdwood for birthday dinner. Comparing the two rides, all I can say is that Alaska clearly trumps Hawaii for cycling.
We can start with the weather. It’s still a little chilly in Southcentral in April, but you can always counteract it by putting on clothes. All you can do about heat is sweat and sweat until you’re as dried out as a prune and feeling about the same. Besides, the heat and I have never gotten on particularly well. I sun-stroked several times as a child, and every bad bonk I can remember as an adult came in the heat.
Second, while the scenery on the arid side of Maui is nice, the view along Turnagain Arm is downright spectacular. People tend to forget this when they’ve lived here for years. Maybe they should get on bikes and slow down enough to notice things again. The scenery along this fiord between the snow-capped Chugach and Kenai mountains is world-class spectacular, even without the frequent Dall sheep, beluga, moose and even grizzly bear sitings.
Third, Turnagain Pass is a pretty easy climb, and the high-speed run down the other side to the Hope Cutoff (or to the Placer-Portage-Twentymile rivers delta going the other way) is grit-your-teeth-and-go fun. The only so-so part of the ride is the 18 miles from the Seward Highway to the old mining town on the south side of Turnagain Arm. The undulating Hope Road, hemmed in by forest, gets a little old before you’re done with it, but it’s not bad.
Fourth, the New Orleans-style pepper steak to end the day at the Double Musky in Girdwood is seriously tasty food. This ain’t no wimpy “nouvelle cuisine” nonsense to leave you wondering if you’ve really eaten. This isn’t the kind of thing you eat when in training and trying to cut weight. It’s the kind of food cyclists gorge themselves on during the Tour de France.
And hey, if there’s a risk of the beef being tainted with performance-enhancing drugs as former Tour champ Alberto Contador claims his was, I’m not going to complain. Just thinking about it now is enough to make me want to do the Hope ride again, but for variety this year I’m thinking about maybe going north to Talkeetna for birthday dinner at the Wildflower Cafe. Between the glowing reviews I’ve heard of the place, and its 25 microbrews on tap, it sounds like the perfect place to rehydrate and wait for the designated driver to join me with the sag wagon.