Racing to not Race: Dawson, Whitehorse, and the Yukon

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From my perch outside the ice cream shop in Dawson City, the main street paralleling the swift and grand Yukon River was quiet at ten o’clock. Tourist buses had been arriving into town every hour or so all day, keeping a steady flow of foot traffic through the streets. Each hour seemed to be the same pattern: bus arrives, tour guide starts making announcements to 40-50 elderly tourists who pour out into the street. 2 hours later the bus reloads and they are gone. It’s pretty easy to distinguish who came by bus from those who are in Dawson for other reasons.

The town of Dawson City in Yukon Territory was established as a center of commerce for gold miners in the area (lots of gold-rich terrain around the Yukon River I hear), and when the highly productive mines in the area started slowing down, the town developed into a tourist destination for those curious to experience the Northern Yukon and try their hand and gold panning. Entering Dawson from the quiet beauty of the Top of the World Highway, my first observation was how touristy it was. I tend to avoid ‘tourist destinations’ in my travels, and try to remain on the fringe of them when needing to pass through. At first glance Dawson would be a town for a quick re-supply of food, getting on the internet for a bit, then pushing on. Once the last of the tourist buses had departed for the evening, I began noticing another layer of the local culture. It’s quite interesting to see what happens in various tourist places once the dust clears from big buses and the people who actually live there get off of work to meet up. There were quite a few young travelers and seasonal workers milling around town, the adjoining park, and the bars. All the people who I’d noticed behind the counters were now in front of the bar counter. It’s a small enough town that there are only a few places where locals go, and a large enough younger culture to keep the bars busy.I met a cool woman at the ice cream shop who was a big endurance athlete, in town for work. Over a beer, she told me about a bike race happening in 5 days, 350 miles South of Dawson in the city of Whitehorse where I was headed next anyway…

It’s been an interesting challenge coming into each new town, trying to learn how best to find people with which to connect as quickly and smoothly as possible. If there’s a bike shop in town, I always go there first to see where that might lead. If not, I just try to find where the locals go and hang around there to meet people. The larger the town, the more I like to have a way in to meeting people. Hearing about a bike race in Whitehorse populated mostly by locals, it would be a great way to do it. In typical do-it-all mentality that has been my modus operandi thus far, I picked up supplies and went for it.

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The next 4 days of riding would be long but only moderate intensity given my quick look at the topography and distances. Maps don’t tell you about wind patterns though. Stupid maps. Since I was a teenager in Boston, I’ve believed there was a wind spirit that chooses which way the wind will blow,.. and she hates me. It’s silly but it often feels like no matter which direction I turn, the wind often adjusts to face off with me. These four days were no exception. Pedaling intensely every day, often on downhill grades even, took it’s toll. During the second wind-filled day I was finally pushed to my limit of frustration. It occurred to me to brake a rule of bike touring I’ve lived by thus far, to never listen to music while I ride. It’s always felt like the elements and environment while riding is and should continue to be interesting enough on its own to  not need the distraction of music. But I was at wit’s end and was open to anything that would raise my spirits. Putting on an extra funky track, it was amazing to notice how quickly my energy shifted.

I rocked out and pedaled to the beat while pedaling and the earphones managed to lower the volume of wind whizzing by my ears as well. I realized the power music had to alter my experience while riding, but with that power would come great responsibility. Plugging in seems to instantly disconnect my awareness of the natural elements, especially the subtle ones. I must be careful not to abuse this tool as I ride on.

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I did make it to Whitehorse despite the winds. A friend had put me in touch with a local named Jonah to get info about the race, turns out Jonah owns a great bike shop here, Icicle Sport, and his wife was organizing the race I came for! Without hesitation (and without even speaking with me first), Jonah offered me a place to stay and shower. He and Monika have been enormously kind, especially taking me in the night before a major race they were organizing! They have given me food, shelter, beer, and great conversation. Jonah even let me ride his bikes during the race (people don’t just lend out their nice mountain bikes in my experience). I feel like I’ve been welcomed into the nerve center of the bike scene here in Whitehorse, and it’s a wonderful community.

On the morning of the race, we woke up hitting the ground running. I tried to help however I could. Gathering stuff to bring to the event, we arrived and set up some mosquito tents, rain shelters and the likes.

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I’d never done a 24-hour mountain bike race before, so had to learn how it worked. For this race: teams send out one member at a time to ride the 7.5 mile loop as quickly as possible, and winners are those who complete the most amount of laps within 24 hours. Competitive teams of 2 have to be pretty serious as you get less than an hour of rest between laps, continuously for 24 hours. Racers were awarded an extra lap for their team if they rode a lap totally nude. Another bonus lap was given for riding this technical trail on an old tandem bike. Obviously given the rules, more than one nude tandem ride occurred.

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Given my last minute entry into this race, I was able to be added to just one team: “The Douchebags who Signed up too Late”. Our team had 2 people on it. The Douchebags were not a competitive team. In fact, I’m just not a racer in general. I love riding hard and fast but don’t really like trying to be faster than other people. I ended up riding 7 laps before I fell victim to too many saddle sores. Needless to say we won no prizes. The prize for me was meeting so many wonderful and interesting people in a 24 hour period. I met a guy who was a professional dog sled racer (has won the Iditarod) who told me all about his passion and love for dogs. Even when owning up to 60 dogs at a time he is still shattered any time he loses one. Another man teaches mountain biking to at-risk youth and flies propellor gliders into canyons. A woman I met on the trail is paid by the city to build mountain bike trails with a crew. Yep. She gets to make bike trails for a living, then ride them. Everyone I met was so kind, open and warm. Time here in Whitehorse has carried so much of the connection I’ve been missing during sections of my journey so far.

Limited by my aching saddle ‘area’ and with 12 hours left before the end of the race, I needed to figure out what to do with myself. Still working with how to give myself to people without spending money, it occurred to me that the racers may appreciate getting some sports massage. Within an hour of thinking this, an announcement was made that a guy was offering free massage to racers in a nearby tent. Perfectly, I approached him right as he was completing his shift at the race, and he offered to leave his massage table for me to use for the duration of the race. I gave short sessions to people for a couple of hours at around midnight between laps.

It took giving these sessions to realize how long it’s been since I’ve physically touched anyone, therapeutically or not. It’s one thing to meet people while on the road and make connections quickly, but such a different thing to touch. I didn’t know how much I was missing it, and now feel how important it will be for me to keep ‘in touch’ as I travel despite its challenges.

One Response

  1. tucker
    | Reply

    tuning in while i recuperate from 2 weeks on a festival site. new reading materials!

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