Photography: Laura Austin | Words: Matthew Beaudin
Winter is a season of recovery and preparation.
The days of waking in the warmth are ending. The simplicity of shorts and a jersey — the three-minute suiting up — have been replaced with the longer preparation. To be a cyclist now is to do the work it takes in the dark or the cold. Nothing is easy in the winter, but there’s a satisfaction in that. Ride hard enough and the cold becomes hot, legs become sharp. Effort, clothing, the edge between hot and cold. Café stops aren’t for simple pleasure in the sun now, but rather a treat looming in the rider’s head to get through the cold air and over the next hill. This is the season we find out who the real riders are.
This season’s Road collection was shot in Alaska on the Denali Highway and at the foot of the Worthington Glacier above Valdez. The Denali Highway is a 135-mile stretch of road, a bulk of it unpaved and rough, connecting two towns with a combined population of fewer than 300 people.
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One by one the men made their way out of the brush, bloodied up to the their elbows. Upon their trucks or trailers rested the racks of moose or caribou. Stained forearms were painted with the evidence hunts had gone to plan. It is fall in Alaska, America’s Last Frontier, upon the empty Denali Highway, a rough but rideable stretch of dirt road connecting two desolate towns with a combined population of 260.
The pavement runs out quickly giving way to wet brown-grey dirt. The change of season brings with it the reddening of the bushes that line the road and the tundra that works its way up the mountains. Fall is a visual symphony: brown to yellow and red, green then finally the white of the glaciers in the distance on guard like lighthouses above a red sea. The more we travelled the more we saw men emerging from the forests with their plunder. Hunting camps sprung up on the sides of the single road through the valleys as four women clad in their own kind of hunting attire rode through, their thin machines and legs in sharp contrast to the trucks and ATVs. Hunters waved and smiled. An uncommon sight.Continue Reading »
The vastness of this unknown frontier is its defining feature. Mountains that would tower above most in North America mind their own business in the far distance, looking perfectly within scale. Immense and frozen rivers of ice clog the narrow valleys. The tallest peak in North America, Denali, remains hidden under a cloak of clouds for days.
The state was purchased in 1867 for $7.2 million, or 2 cents for each acre. It was initially dubbed “Seward’s Folly” because of a perceived mistake by William H. Seward, the United States’ Secretary of State at the time. Fewer than 800,000 people live here, a state twice the size of Texas. For your average American, the state remains a rugged, untouchable enigma; it feels big, cold and hollow at just the mention of its name.
The riders aren’t in the wrong place to ride road bikes but they are out of context, as each craned neck from the natives makes that much clear. The climbs are mostly gentle and the corners long half-arcs. The road stitches its way through three of Alaska’s major river drainages in due time, and wonder is constant. It feels as though the riders are in a state of brilliant trespass.
A stop at mile 80 for bad coffee takes longer than anticipated when the rental van’s battery cables rattle loose. Rita, one of the riders, wiggles the wires under the hood, and there are signs of life. The café owner finds a 5/16 inch wrench and off the crew goes into the frontier again. The rain comes and soon the van’s acquired a flat tire. Fortunately more hunters appear to loan us the right size wrench, then the right size jack. And we continue. Eventually.
This is the kind of place where confirmation numbers for hotel bookings don’t exist, but rather first names are given instead. “My name is Violet,” one woman said when asked about a booking in the middle of nowhere. “I’ve been working here for 23 years.” And sure enough Violet was in the kitchen when we arrived long past dark. She unlocked the liquor store and sold us the last remaining bottle of Jack Daniels from a barren shelf.
Day two begins on the Denali Highway’s final 20 miles, paved and slithering through valleys so large one can see two storms in the distance and still be in sunlight. In the evening the women are riding under the outwash of the Worthington Glacier, above Valdez, a small harbor town at the abrupt edge of mountains and sea.
1100 miles of roadtrip and one flat later we’re back in Anchorage, the Last Frontier remaining just that: untouched, empty, and vast.
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If you have purchased a jersey this year and lost weight through riding, Rapha would like to offer you a 50% discount on your new size jersey.Learn more »