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Fairbanks to Anchorage, bike break down and kind people

Posted by Fin on 19 August 2009

Firstly I need to thank Alex for most of these photos, my point and shoot doesn't quite compare with the SLR - cheers mate - they really capture what a mad but amazing week this has been.

It was sad saying goodbye to Leeann in Fairbanks - she had been so good to us (and me again) and fed us wonderful meals (halibut kebabs freshly caught down at the Kenai by Maureen - thanks Maureen!!). We really hope Leeann and Randy come over to Europe to visit one day. We arrived as strangers and left as firm friends. Thanks Leeann and Randy - this won't be the last time we meet!

It took us a good hour to cycle from the northern end of Fairbanks, through the city on the bike trail to the westside where we met the George Parks Highway, the only road going through the spine of Alaska for 400 miles connecting the two largest cities Anchorage and Fairbanks. It also runs past Denali National Park and I was looking forward to seeing the mountains in all their glory again.

The road from Fairbanks to Nenana went uphill for miles - I had forgotten how far, so we trudged on to the top and slowly made our way towards Healy. We past the turn off for the Stampede Trail, the road made famous by Christopher McCandless in the book "In to the Wild". In Healy we met Karey Larson and her five year old son Finn. Karey was originally from New Orleans but had moved up to the tiny town of Talkeetna south of Denali about 14 years ago. She was on her way back from the Fair at Fairbanks where she had been selling her famous spinach bread and had stopped off for a night in Healy to break up the journey. We chatted for a while and she said she was going to her friend Ann Marie's house for the night and that she might know somewhere for us to camp. Ann Marie and her husband Ted run a fabulous B and B just off the main road in Healy a few miles from Denali National Park called Aspen Haus ( After less than two minutes of knowing us and finding out that we had cycled from Prudhoe and were on our way to Panama she promptly offered to put us up in one of her spare guest cabins. I thanked her sincerely for her kind offer and explained we couldn't afford the $120 tariff upon which she stated that it was for free - she wanted to help two strangers on their epic journey. As if this wasn't enough she then fed us a wonderful meal of homebaked scones and bread and deli meats and then made us a packed lunch for the following day. Amazing - thanks Ann Marie and Ted!

The next morning Alex and I packed up the bikes and headed towards Denali. Unfortunatelty, the weather was terrible, rain and strong winds and clouds covered the whole Denali Range. This made it tough to cycle against the howling head wind and even harder to film in the rain. We did our best and went inside the park to film as much as we could. There were hardly any tourists inside the Wilderness Access Centre where you get your permit to camp and enter the park so it seemed very empty compared to my last visit. The rangers explained they were winding down as the season was ending and they had curtailed the number of buses that enter the park. After some filming and a stop for a muffin and coffee, we pedalled on out of the park towards Cantwell where I knew the views of the mountains were better than from inside the park (ironic but true). I feared we still would not see anything due to the weather and sadly I was right - the same look out points where I had seen fabulous views of mount McKinley before were obscured by cloud and rain. According to locals, this is what Denali is like for 90% of the year so I guess I was very fortuante to see the mountain last time. I felt bad for Alex that he hadn't been able to witness the splendour of Denali. He vowed to come back and climb McKinley one day.....he can do that on his own!

Not long after cycling down towards Cantwell, suddenly my cranks and pedals ceased and everything jammed on the bike. I was on the hard shoulder of the busy highway and fear shot through me as I came to a sudden halt and struggled to unclip my cleats from the pedals. I just unclipped intime before the bike fell over on the ground. I looked behind to see the chain trailing along the asphalt - it had snapped in half. Alex and I wheeled the bikes to a slightly safer point away from the road and then set about replacing the broken chain. Upon closer inspection we discovered that the entire front gear derailleur had broken in half. This is the part that moves the chain from one of the chain rings on the front to the other using the gear shifters on the handlebars to enable you to pedal easier on different gradients. The alloy had fractured and broken the part into two pieces - I wondered how on earth this had happened and can only think a hairline fracture may have been caused when my bike fell down in the storm on night 7 on the Dalton. Anyway, the part was useless now so we removed it and refitted a new chain. The plan was to cycle without any front gears the 250 miles to Anchorage and wait to fix the bike there, as there was only one small town (Talkeetna pop 1000) on the way and it was unlikely there would be any bike shops or mechanics there.

After many miles, it became apparent that I was really struggling. Only having the rear gears made it difficult to manage the variations in gradient. On top of the rains storms and wind it was tough work. The new chain was also too long so didn't catch on the sprockets so every other pedal stroke the chain slipped and skipped.

After several hours, we heard a beep on the horn as a car passed us and pulled up ahead of us on the highway outside Cantwell. It was Karey and Finn on the way back to Talkeetna! "Everything alright?". We explained what had happened and she immedietly offered to take us and put the bikes on her bike rack, to Talkeetna where she thought there may be a chance of fixing my bike. Alex and I thought about it for a while and then decided that it would take us a long time to reach Anchorage as I couldn't pedal very well so decided to take Karey up on the offer. We stopped to film at various points down the road but the weather was so bad that there was not much to see until we reached the turn off the George Parks Highway to Talkeetna, about 100 miles north of Anchorage. The small town of Talkeetna is 14 miles at the end of the spur road where three rivers meet, the Talkeetna, Susitna and Chulitna rivers. The locals objected to plans for the highway to run alongside Talkeetna so won a battle for the town to remain 14 miles away at the end of a dead end road. For hundreds of years mountaineers have used Talkeetna as a staging post to climb Mount McKinley. It is a pretty town, with old pubs and restaurants with a very organic and sustainable vibe. Karey introduced us to her husband Ross who is an expert local iron sculpturer - too modest to show us his collection, Karey showed us some of his pieces, from wood burning stoves to mirrors and ornaments - beautifully crafted, I found myself wondering where he got his creativity and inspiration from. Ross told me his father used to be a theatre stage designer and building things has been in his blood. He had hand built their homestead in the middle of a forest too. I realise now that to live all year round in Alaska you need to be a 'jack of all trades', someone who can put their hand to anything and build, fix and maintain anything. I don't think I would last here through the winter even though I wish I could. I can't even fix my own bike!

Karey cooked us homemade burgers - yum - and then Ross took me to meet Ralf about 5 miles down the road. It just so happened that in this tiny town in Alaska there is a small bike shop and mechanic - but not just any bike mechanic - Ralf Hoeppner is a highly experience cyclist with a massive workshop containing maybe 10-15 touring bikes - I couldn't believe my luck! He and his girfriend joined (the website for cycle tourers needing accomodation) last year and this year had over 15 requests for accomodation in Talkeetna from touring cyclists riding through Alaska. He set up his shop 3 months ago and has been busy serving the various cyclists that come through the area. It was 730pm but Ralf was happy to reopen to help me fix my bike. Recently the exact same Shimano XT front derailleur that had broken on my bike, bust on someone else's bike, so he had ordered in some SHRAM replacements - a more robust and stronger component. Ralf fitted the new part and fixed my old chain with new links. He then discovered why my rear gears were skipping. On two occasions bike mechanics at shops in Anchorage had attempted to correct this problem but to no avail. Ralf spotted that the hang drop out for the rear derailleur was bent, perhaps from a fall or from air transport. He bent it back into shape with a special tool and readjusted the cables - all fixed within an hour - thanks so much Ralf - I don't know how I would have cycled back to Anchorage without your help.

I cycled the 5 miles back to Karey and Ross's homestead and they put Alex and I up in the cabin in the middle of the forest, a short walk from their place. By now it was dark and we were scared of bears. Our fear was not helped when Ross proudly showed us the huge black bear paw print on the window of the cabin. I shot gunned the bed upstairs and poor Alex was left to sleep on the futon next to the paw print window! It felt amazing to be inside another gorgeous cabin - the fact that we hadn't slept in our tents for several days felt fantastic, especially as the offers of accomodation had been completely random and given by complete strangers just wanting to help us guys out. I haven't felt this level of generosity and hospitality anywhere else in the World. They say the Pacific Islanders are some of the most hospitable and kindest people on the planet - this is true, they are very kind and generous and put my life in Europe to shame, but often my experiences of living for many years in the South Pacific and Micronesia, left me feeling that some locals wanted something back in return (not all of course). But here in Alaska it is very different - What is amazing, is that the hospitality and kindness that is being offered is being done in the full knowledge that we, poor cyclists, can give nothing back. Random acts of kindess in the full knowledge that it is not possible for us to give anything physical or material in form, back to them. I wonder if it will be the same in the lower 48 - perhaps not but maybe we will be surprised.  But we are starting to realise that people up in Alaska are always willing to help people out whether it be complete strangers or their closest friend. We also are realising that they too, gain something from the impromptu meeting  - sharing stories, experiences, and feeling good offering support and kindess. Perhaps its a bit like that feeling at Christmas when you prefer to give than receive. Still, everytime a stranger gives us food or offers us accomodation, it leaves us feel a pang of guilt that we can't do anything for them. We just hope that the times we spend together remain fond memories for a long time - indeed, the lasting impression on me now is to ensure I ALWAYS show the same level of kindness and generosity to people that has been given to me.

The next day Karey, Ross and Finn took us to a newly opened bakery, where we met Sarah in the queue - she recognised our accents and said that she had had dinner with Ron and Barb in Anchorage the night before who had told them we were nearing Talkeetna and if she saw two unshaven smelly cyclists around town say hello from them! Random!! As we were still 100 miles from Anchorage. Karey then guided us around Talkeetna and we did some filming - the weather had cleared a little but the clouds still covered McKinley. We also interviewed Karey for the documentary. At lunch we reluctantly said our goodbyes and cycled off towards Wasilla. Thanks to Karey Ross and Finn, you have enriched our journey and lives tremendously! Please come and stay in Edinburgh one day! The 70 mile ride took us from the end of Denali State Park into the urban areas of Wasilla - home of Sarah Palin. We passed Capital Speedway and took amusment at the stock car racing - locals look at us like we were aliens...and gawped in disblief upon hearing the route and length of our journey - 'What??!! on a push bike??"

That night we cycled to MP31 where I had met up with deepeei previously and got the puncture. I remembered there was an area near a lake away from the highway that should be ok to camp. We started to set up camp only to be ravished by literally millions of mosquitos - the worst we had had yet. See video below. The rain continued to bucket down and we were glad to get inside our tents to shelter from the bites and rain. The next morning we cycled mainly on bike paths towards Anchorage. It felt surreal to be cycling back into town...again, but upon returning to Ron and Barb's house I felt I was home - it has become my second home and they have become amazing friends so it is great to see them again. That night we went to visit Nancy in hospital - she is doing so well and I am looking forward to visiting her again tonight. We intend to stay here one more day and then head down to Whittier to Prince William Sound to hop on the ferry over to Valdez. Finally, Alex and I can cycle together and share new experiences as a team.

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