The 12 international and national racers vying for top honors in the 2015 Alaska Challenge have their work cut out for them this year. The race, set for July 21-27, starts with a demanding time trial in Anchorage and culminates with a massive hill climb up Hatcher Pass.
“You can have people who maybe do great on the flats, but when they hit Hatcher, the race starts all over again,” said Beth Edmands-Merritt, chief executive officer for Challenge Alaska, which puts on the race. “It will be an exciting finish.”
The Alaska Challenge, sponsored by several leading businesses and operated by the nonprofit Challenge Alaska, covers some 240 miles and offers thousands in prize money. As such, it’s attracted some of the most competitive athletes in the world.
“This is our 28th running of the race,” Edmands-Merritt said, noting that the race has 10 men entered and two women. The field is not as large as in 2013, due to this being a Paralympic qualification year with the UCI World Road Championships being held in Spain at the same time as The Alaska Challenge. Still, Edmands-Merritt said, the race offers some of the stiffest competition to be found in the sport of handcycling.
The race will be held in eight stages. In past years, the race consisted of seven stages, but this year, organizers decided to create a spectator-friendly criterium stage, which will be Stage 2, held on the first day of racing, July 21. The first stage, a time trial, will begin at Lake Hood and finish in Kincaid Park, then athletes will have a short break while moving their bikes to Cuddy Family Park, where a closed course criterium will take place.
Then the athletes move north to Fairbanks, where the race first originated. Cyclists will work their way south again, in roughly 50-mile stages, to Palmer, for that final epic climb at Hatcher Pass.
This year’s roster includes athletes from one nation – Scotland – and eight states. Muffy Davis, a three-time-gold-medalist from the 2012 London Paralympic Games, will be making her first attempt at The Alaska Challenge.
Local Alaskans racing this year include Mike O’Neill and Edwin Jones, both of Anchorage; Andrew Kurka from Palmer is a U.S. Paralympic Ski Team Member who made his debut at the Sochi Paralympics; and Larry Coutermarsh of North Pole, who holds the unique distinction of being the only racer to compete in all but the first The Alaska Challenge since it’s inception nearly 30 years ago.
Edmands-Merritt is particularly happy that Alaskans will be able to race with such talented competition from outside. “The Alaskan racers have mentioned to me the importance of this opportunity to rub elbows with these elite men and women handcycle racers,” she said. “They learn so much from one another.” ◆