Cycling across Alaska –  Andy Heading – 10th October 2016   

Andy, a very wiry, tough photographer/journalist, preceded his talk with a short history of the Alaskan Klondike gold-rush in the late 19th Century.  Three Swedish gentlemen, strolling along a beach, found several large gold nuggets, which began what became the ‘Great Klondike Gold Rush.’  Within a year of the event a small town of 30,000 inhabitants had established itself.  They all lived there in the fond hope of making a quick fortune.  The atmosphere was of a distinctly Wild West character, and included individuals such as Wyatt Earp.  Some made fortunes, others made and then lost a fortune, and most were disappointed.

Nome became the main settlement. In 1925 an outbreak of diphtheria occurred and the need for appropriate vaccines was urgently required.  The intervening 1,000 miles of frozen outback necessitated the setting up of dog-sled relays to bring these.  After the outbreak was cleared up a commemorative dog-sled race was set up.  Today, entries from all over the world compete in this and it has become a major event.

This is the point when Andy and his partner, John, responded to a widening of the race to include cyclists, covering essentially the same route.  The event was described as ‘Impossible’ and so it nearly turned out to be.  Every hazard faced by the dog-teams was faced by the cyclists, only more so.  The cyclists were much slower than the dog teams and they had to push their bikes through thick snow for 400 of the 1,000 miles.

Before attempting the trip, bikes especially designed and made for them in Sheffield were supplied.  The tyres were far wider and studded with spikes!  They started training in earnest around the Peak District, finishing up finally over much rougher terrain in South Africa.

To add to his difficulties Andy had a a very bad accident, which nearly killed him, but he recovered and they pushed on with their plans.  All the food, bedding and other equipment had to be carried by them.  Some of the food included very high calorie diets developed by NASA. In spite of consuming 8-9,000 calories per day he still lost 28lbs during the trip.

It was imperative they stuck to the course route, as at every 100 miles a rescue cabin allowed them to rest and shelter.  The rest of the time they slept under the stars.  They were not troubled by wolves, but moose could be trickier and had been known to charge dog-teams causing big trouble and deaths.

The lowest temperature they experienced was -41°C.  Frostbite was obviously a major consideration as it could cause injury or even death.  When particularly cold and tired they experienced hallucinations; in one case a snowdrift appeared to be a stalking polar bear.  Probably the greatest fear was having an accident, for no help would be forthcoming if they had an injury.

At the last checkpoint they realized they had barely 20 miles to the finish in Nome!  Only 40 of the original starters finished.

You might think that would be the last of that madcap scheme – but not a bit of it.  They repeated the exercise on two successive years.  It seems their times improved.

I personally prefer a 4-star hotel with bar service, but there you are.  Each to his own.