As rain fell, temperatures dipped to 3 degrees Celsius and fog as thick as mayonnaise shrouded the Haines summit, cyclists in the Kluane Chilkat International Bike Relay pushed onward.
Under these conditions, simply completing the 238-kilometre race from Haines Junction to Haines, Alaska, on Saturday was an accomplishment.
But for a handful of Whitehorse cyclists, crossing the finish line marked more than perseverance, it meant becoming a champion.
Whitehorse riders captured nine out of the race’s 11 divisions, two more than last year and five more than in 2010 and 2009.
Neither of the Yukon’s two defending solo winners from last year were able to repeat, but Whitehorse’s Nadele Flynn kept the women’s titles in the territory.
RELATED:See full results here.
“It was really good. Everybody got off to a really cold start,” said Flynn. “There were not-too-bad headwinds starting out, but they picked up in Leg 4. Fortunately there wasn’t any snow on the ground, like it had been forecasted.
“It was tough. A lot of people felt like quitting. It was pretty cold.”
It was Flynn’s first time winning the division, coming in with a time of nine hours, two minutes and 15 seconds. She won the two-person women’s division the last two years with riding partner Kerrie Paterson and captured the women’s title at the Yukon Road Race Championships in 2010.
“I didn’t have a lot of time for training this year, so I did a lot of short, intense stuff,” said Flynn. “It was worth sacrifice.”
Her win on Saturday didn’t come without incident. Flynn crossed the finish line with her right knee bloody with road rash sustained after a minor collision on Leg 4.
“I just bumped wheels - it happens in races sometimes,” said Flynn. “I haven’t had a lot of crashes in biking - this was only my second one - and it wasn’t that bad.
“It’s funny: I was more worried about getting my bike patched up than myself patched up.
“It was a pretty quick recovery. A lot of people came with their cars, made sure I was OK, if I needed medical attention. I think the adrenaline was going.”
Taking second was Whitehorse’s Trena Irving, last year’s solo women’s champ, with a time of 10:26:02, two-and-a-half hours up from Ontario’s Laurine Goerzen in third.
The fastest time on the day was produced by the Whitehorse team of Jonah Clark and James Minifie in the two-person men’s category, cruising in at 7:40:37.
Like so many riders in Haines, Clark and Minifie had some gripes to share, but no regrets.
“The first part was horrible because there was lots of rain and super cold,” said Clark, who rode Legs 1 to 4. “My arms were super numb and my hands didn’t work properly. I had to grab my gear-shifter with the opposite hand to shift.
“It was probably the toughest conditions I’ve ever ridden in in this race. And the second half was brutally windy.”
Minifie also had it bad, riding much of the second half of the race alone after getting dropped by the group he was riding in.
“You get caught out on your own on the second half and it’s just a time trial until the end,” said Minifie, who placed second in the two-person mixed category last year.
Clark, who was on the winning four-person men’s team last year and has twice won the solo men’s division, knew the riders weren’t the only ones suffering in the crummy weather.
“It’s bad riding weather, but it’s also bad standing-around-volunteering weather,” said Clark.
“I’d rather be riding in it than standing around in it,” added Minifie.
Whitehorse’s Stephen Ball, last year’s solo men’s winner, rode the entire race with Langley, B.C.‘s Brett Boniface. In the end, Boniface pulled away on the final stretch to win the solo men’s division with a time of 7:40:37.
“I’ve really never faced wind like that before,” said Boniface, a first-time competitor in the race. “That last 20 kilometres coming into town you’re pedaling as hard as you can and you’re only going 25 kilometres an hour. It was a lot of fun.
“I’d recommend to any of the guys down south to come up and try this… Everything was top-notch.”
“It was really, really cold - I think that was the biggest thing,” said Ball. “It was just a really hard day. It was a totally different day to last year - nice weather and a tail wind. This year we had bad weather and a headwind pretty much the whole way. It was a tough ride.
“Right now, I’m wondering why I do this,” he added.
Ball, a former national team rider in his native New Zealand, produced a time of 7:41:15, more than an hour and a half slower than his winning time last year.
“I gave it my best shot so I’m happy,” said Ball. “I couldn’t have gone any harder. It’s always nice to win, but I couldn’t have given anything extra.
“(Boniface) deserved to win this; he was riding really strong.”
Whitehorse’s Matt Burdenie cycled to fifth place with a time of 8:20:45.
The only Whitehorse team in the two-person women’s division took the top spot. Natasha Dunmall and Christine Kirk outpaced two Vancouver teams and two Juneau teams with a time of 9:51:42 for the win. During the race, Dunmall began questioning her own motives for racing in such conditions.
“I had the conversation with myself whilst peddling into a wall of wind with frozen feet, as to why I thought it would be fun to ride in four degrees and rain,” said Dunmall in an email to the News. “However, on the drive back to Whitehorse, you can’t help but reminisce about the race and how many people, often complete strangers, support and cheer you on as you go by. “
Placing first in the two-person mixed were Whitehorse’s Paul Burbidge and Stephani Martinek from Collingwood, Ontario, posting a time of 8:13:16.
“He promised me sun,” said Martinek, a first-time rider in the race. “When I was going through the fog and couldn’t see anything, I was like, ‘What about the sun?’ But when you’re riding, it’s fine.
“I wish I could have seen the scenery because I hear it’s so beautiful. It was obvious cold and windy, but it was fun.”
The winners of the four-person men’s division are used to racing in cold weather. The winning team featured athletes from the Yukon Elite Squad cross-country ski team.
“We’re not really cyclists, but we do train occasionally on the bike,” said team anchor Knute Johnsgaard. “So we try to get out once a week before the relay, sort of get in shape. We haven’t been riding too much other than that.”
Johnsgaard and teammates Ray Sabo, John Parry and David Greer are a triple threat, also winning top spots at the Haeckel Hill running race in May.
“Lots of running, lots of roller skiing, lots of weight training and a little bit of cycling,” said Johnsgaard.
The Yukon Elite Squad were not the only skiers leaving their competition in the dust.
Deb Higgins, Tammy Reis, Aisha Montgomery and Leslie Doran, who are all members of Whitehorse’s Cougars ski team, won the four-person women’s team with a time of 9:04:13.
“We do lots of things together; we ski and run and bike and do all kinds of things together,” said Higgins. “This is really an amazing group of women.”
The Cougar clowder plan to defend their title next year - hopefully in nicer weather.
“We just came to have fun and (winning) is just a bonus,” said Higgins.
There were plenty of Alaskan teams vying for the top spot in the four-person mixed division, but there, too, Whitehorse was superior. Jean-Paul Molgat, Laura Salmon, Jonathan Kerr and Jenny George narrowly took first, just 25 seconds up from second-place’s Kiwi and the Canucks team, also from Whitehorse.
“This is a reincarnation of a team that rode eight years ago, I think,” said Molgat. “Two that were supposed to ride with us couldn’t, so we had some replacements. But we obviously picked some good replacements.”
Molgat, Salmon and Kerr placed third in the division last year with a different rider than George.
In this case, it was acceptable to say the winning eight-person women’s team had the best racks in town. It said so on their T-shirts.
Team Klondike Rib - Best Racks in Town, won the division with more than 45 minutes to spare. The team, which included captain Lori Muir, Terri Cairns, Heather Pilsworth, Megan Phillips, Andrea Rodger, Deborah Forsgren, Kendra Thomson and Pascale Gabrielson, also won last year, but under a different team name.
“We’re a competitive team, but we just have fun,” said Muir. “I don’t know what it is. We’re all athletic and competitive women - we enjoy winning.
“The weather was really tough this year. Our times are slower than last year.”
Klondike Rib was the second fastest eight-person team overall, about 12 minutes behind the top finishing eight-person mixed team, Whitehorse’s No Brakes. On board No Brakes were Harrison Kwok, Alana Martinson, Dave Medill, Jonas Fiechter, Conrad Medill, Brent Ristau, and Don Duplisse.
The only divisions not won by Whitehorse teams were the solo men’s and the eight-person men’s division, the only team in the division being Juneau’s Winded Spare Tires.
Like last year, the relay reached its capacity of 1,200 cyclists.
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