Frontiers Header- Alaska from space. Winter Issue 112

Winter Biking- A Possibly Crazy Alaska Tradition

Fairbanks District Office Writer-Editor Craig McCaa riding through the deep snow. Photo by Seth Beaufreault.

Today’s winter bicyclists benefit from specialized gear, including bicycle frames that fit oversized tires for riding through deep or soft snow.Early on Sunday, Mar. 27, about 65 intrepid souls will cross the starting line of the second White Mountains 100, a 100-mile human-powered endurance race that loops over the ridges and through the valleys of the one-million-acre White Mountains National Recreation Area north of Fairbanks. The BLM issues a permit for this race event.

Roughly a third of the racers – those not skiing or running – will be on bicycles. Bikes are a conveyance not often associated with winter transportation in Alaska, but for more than 100 years, bicycles have held a steady, though unheralded, role in how Alaskans move across snow and ice.

The White Mountain 100 race’s co-founder, Ed Plumb, said that when he and Ann Farris decided to establish a new human-powered endurance race in the Interior, it seemed natural to include bicyclists. “We just wanted to include as many people as possible,” Plumb explains.

That doesn’t mean that Plumb, an avid skier and veteran of many frigid backcountry ski trips, necessarily sees the attraction of winter biking himself. “It seems like it would be really cold sitting on a bike,” he says with a laugh.

Endurance racers who participate in Plumb and Farris’ race – or in similar Alaska races like the Iditarod Trail Invitational, the Susitna 100, and the Sheep Mountain 150 – represent the hard-core fringe of a winter biking scene that today largely focuses on recreation and fitness.

What most people don’t know is that the bicycle’s roots in Alaska date back at least as far as the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. That year brought thousands of gold seekers to Alaska soon after a bicycling craze hit the nation. Some of those newcomers saw packed winter trails left by dogs, horses, and foot traffic, and thought, “Why couldn’t we ride bicycles on those trails?”

Jeff Oatley, winner of last year’s White Mountains 100 Race, leads the race across frozen Fossil Creek, approximately 42 miles from the finish. Photo by Craig McCaaSoon “wheels,” as many people called bicycles at the time, and their riders, were riding the trails across Alaska and the Yukon.

In “Wheels on Ice: Bicycling in Alaska, 1898-1908,” historian Terrence Cole noted the advantages of bicycles in those days. Long before the invention of snowmachines, bicycles were relatively inexpensive, sturdy, and easy to repair. And, at the end of a long and tiring day of travel, there were no sled dogs or horses to feed and care for.

What the h--- are you going to do with the wheel, he asked. Going to Nome, I said. He called Harry Smith and John Nelson, proprietors of the hotel, and some other oldtimers. He said this brother of mine is going to try to go to Nome on a bicycle. He’s crazy, they all said. We will have to put him on the wood-pile until he comes out of it.

— Reaction of Edward R. Jesson’s brother and friends when learning he intended to ride a bicycle from Dawson to Nome during the winter of 1900. From Terrence Cole’s “Wheels on Ice: Bicycling in Alaska,1898-1908.”
Under the right conditions, a bicycle was a fast way to cover ground during Alaska winters. Gold Rush-era bicycle riders often outpaced dog teams on the trail. In good weather, bicyclists could easily ride between the roadhouses on major winter trails in a day.

Today, with more advanced equipment, bicycling remains much faster than other human-powered options – at least on a well-packed trail. In last year’s White Mountains 100 endurance race, conditions favored the bikers, who grabbed the top six places before the first skier finished the course. The winner, Jeff Oatley of Fairbanks, powered his bike at an average pace of slightly over eight miles per hour over a 100-mile course, with nearly 8,000 feet of elevation gain.

Oatley says the speed and efficiency of winter biking – plus a lifelong love of riding bicycles – is a large part of what draws him to the sport.

“I ski a little bit, but pretty much only if I know the trail will be so soft that riding will not be possible, “Oatley says. “That’s pretty rare around here. I think the advancement of ‘snow bikes’ over the last 10 years or so has made it so that biking is the more efficient option most of the time in the Interior. If you’re on a trail that has been put in by a snowmachine (and set up at all) a bike is a faster way to travel.”

Biking to Fairbanks through the Teikhell Canyon in the early 1900s. Photo by Phinney S. Hunt, Alaska Museum at Rasmussen CenterKlondike-era “wheels,” considered technological marvels in their day, were a far cry from modern performance bikes, with their titanium frames, disc brakes, and hi-tech lubricants. Yet the frontier wheelmen, for whom the bicycle held pragmatic appeal as a useful means of winter transportation, would find much in common with another group of winter bikers – those Alaskans who commute by bicycle year-round.

The appeals of winter bike commuting – whether it’s the calories burned or the gasoline saved – have never captivated large numbers of the state’s residents, but every sizeable community in Alaska probably has at least a few diehards who refuse to put their bikes away when the snow starts falling. In Fairbanks, bicyclists’ blinking tail lights can be seen flashing through the ice fog even when it’s 20 or 30 degrees F. below zero.

Whether they do it for commuting or recreation, those who choose to ride bicycles through Alaska winters must contend with frequent questions about their sanity. But a two-hour trail ride or a 30-minute commute at 10 below zero doesn’t seem nearly as extreme when you consider what it must have been like to ride over a thousand miles from Dawson to Nome on a single-speed bike such as Edward Jesson – and at least three other men – did during the winter of 1900. Then again, everyone thought Jesson was crazy.

— Craig McCaa

The downhill runs were like the best kind of mountain biking, smooth and flowing with a few blissful “big airs” over the snowmobile moguls. . . . The trail itself spiraled downward, winding through the spruce forest on tight and challenging winter ‘singletrack.’ It, like most of the rest of the course, was truly fun biking, the kind that makes you wonder why everyone doesn’t just go out and buy a fat bike and move to Fairbanks. But then I’d hit another open area of overflow, and the cold wind would needle into my skin, and I’d remember that, oh yeah, this is Alaska — a hard place that doesn’t easily forgive complacency.

— 2010 White Mountains 100 participant Jill Homer, from
her blog “Jill Outside” (

Visit the White Mountains National Recreation Area Website

Winter biking

Where to go:

With 240 miles of groomed trails, winter biking in the White Mountains National Recreation Area is limited only by your fitness, gear, and time. For a mellow introduction, ride seven miles into Lees Cabin on the Wickersham Creek Trail, which leaves from milepost 28 Elliott Highway. This well-used route, which follows a ridge top with only a few hills, is free of the creek crossings and overflow ice that can make for challenging conditions on other White Mountains trails.

Late in the season, when temperatures warm, the Colorado Creek Cabin makes for another fairly easy overnight destination. The cabin is 14 miles from the trailhead at milepost 57 Elliott Highway.

What you need:

Under good conditions, winter bicycling requires little more than a well-maintained mountain bike and the proper clothing. In loose or deeper snow, extra-wide rims and tires, together with lower tire pressure, keep your wheels from sinking in as far, allowing you to ride more easily. Some winter bicyclists take this a step farther by using custom bike frames that allow them to mount special tires nearly as wide as those on off-road motorcycles. Studded bike tires make traversing icy patches much safer.

Many riders use pogies, oversized mittens that fit over your handlebars, while others prefer warm mittens or gloves. Battery-powered headlights allow motorists to see you in the dark and let you see down the trail during the long winter nights.

Riding in cold temperatures also requires a few modifications to your bike’s components, including lubricants that don’t stiffen as much in the cold. A bicycle shop can help you prepare your bike.

Lastly, you’ll want to carry emergency gear and tools, and for longer trips, food, clothing and equipment for an overnight stay. For this you’ll need a small pack, bike bag or panniers.