“I walked off the Alaska Airlines jet and into the tiny Kodiak, Alaska airport on a classically rainy day in May with a wide grin on my face. For as transient as I’ve been over the past five years—calling Maine, Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont all home—there is something both bittersweet and utterly lovely about landing at an airport that imbues that nostalgic feeling. As I waited in the cluttered baggage claim area I giggled to myself at the familiarity of all manner of luggage rolling out on the baggage carousel. Everything from rifle bags and tackle boxes, to coolers with red and white stickers emblazoned with “FROZEN” stickers to standard-issued Coast Guard bags arrived before my REI duffle and bike bag. I wheeled them out to my friend’s waiting truck thinking to myself: ‘Now the adventure starts.'”
Continue reading for the rest of Gretchen Powers‘ recap about her experience riding in Kodiak Crab Festival‘s Pasagshak to Kodiak Bike Race, which is quite possibly the smallest organized bike race in the US…
Backtracking a few weeks, I was looking at my packed photo shoot schedule when I realized that my time in Alaska would overlap with the famous Kodiak Crab Festival weekend. When I called Kodiak home, I regularly signed up for the Crab Festival’s Pillar Mountain Run, a 9-mile running race that takes you up and over a mountain close to town, while looking at the folks who registered for the Pasagshak to Kodiak Bike Race in awe: 41 miles from the end of the road back into town including some sizeable climbs seemed impossible to me at the time. In the ensuing years since I left the island, I have put more time and energy into cycling and have logged a handful of 50-mile gravel races and so I thought to myself, “Why not give it a try!?”
After landing on the island I signed up for what might be the country’s smallest road bike race with equal parts excitement and trepidation as I handed over $30 cash to the Teen Center where registration takes place. This small-town race has drawn anywhere from a mere four entries to a record-setting turnout last year of 23 racers and all of the proceeds go right back into the town.
Registering was the easy part. Finding a bike bag to borrow to get my bike to Alaska was trickier as this race fell the same weekend as Unbound, the largest gravel race of the season, and the majority of my cyclist, bike-bag-owning friends were heading to Kansas. Luckily my friend Sam owns a bag that doesn’t require the disassembly of the handlebars (which made packing a bike for the first time just a wee bit easier) and she gave me a hand while assuring me that it wasn’t as scary as it looks. The derailleur is about as hard to spell as it is to disassemble and reassemble in my beginners’ eyes, so I was full of angst despite Sam’s support.
Once I landed in Kodiak though, I was on my own. I put on a brave face and in the basement of my friend’s house next to their Xtratuff collection and miscellaneous fishing gear, I put all the pieces back together. The effort went about as smoothly as could be expected: my hands were nearly covered in chain grease by the time I was finished, my Di2 shifting did NOT want to reconnect and I only cried once while convinced the derailleur was out to get me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of myself as I was when I got on my bike to take it for a test ride. That is until I made it halfway down the block with a noisy chain and I went looking for my chain lube before realizing that TSA hadn’t re-zippered the outside pocket and my brand new bottle of chain-quieting magic was lost in the underbelly of an airplane somewhere between Burlington, Vermont and the island of Kodiak.
When I texted my sister and fellow cyclist and photographer Dominique to say “AHH I lost my chain lube” her initial reaction was “Easy fix” until I reminded her that I was on an island with one stoplight off the coast of Alaska. There is a small bike shop on the island but because of Crab Fest weekend, it was closed. I texted everyone I knew who owned a bike to see if anyone had some and after being offered lube for all manner of things, I lucked out and someone found a bottle in their garage. If there’s a single thing I miss about life on Kodiak (besides the breathtaking scenery) it’s the community and the way folks look out for each other. Text threads and phone calls can find you just about anything you might need when the store falls short and anything you can’t find, you can usually find a way to do without.
I spent my first few days on Kodiak Island warming up by riding the other sections of the Kodiak road system. While I didn’t finish it I was proud I was able to clock 75ish of the total 98 miles of main roads on the island and enjoyed getting to ride the island in both dreadfully cold and rainy and gorgeous sunny conditions. If you get the chance to make it to Kodiak with a bike, I highly recommend you ride the pass to Anton Larsen Bay for a really fun and gorgeous gravel ride. I flew my drone to get a few photos of myself, taking “selfie” to another level. If you want to check out some routes, Lael Wilcox came to Kodiak in 2020 as part of her “Lael Rides Alaska” personal challenge and you can find her Kodiak routes HERE on Komoot.
I’ve ridden a road bike for much of my life, using it as a cross-training tool during my years as a competitive cross-country skier and collegiate rower, but it wasn’t until I bought my first gravel bike in June of 2022 that I really started discovering all the things my body is capable of. While I’m comfortably middle-of-the-pack in most competitions I enter, I know I’m not alone in finding joy and motivation in participating in something I’m not sure if I can finish. There are so many races across the country, just like this little one on Kodiak, that are challenging, attainable, affordable, and super fun to enter.
On race day, my friends drove me and my bike to the startline located at the mouth of the Pasagshak River out on the far end of the road. They pointed out new potholes and ruts in the road as we drove the course in reverse. My nerves bubbled as I felt simultaneously out of my depth as an amateur cyclist and excited to tackle a course that I wouldn’t have dreamt of completing three years ago when I called Kodiak home.
I lined up next to nineteen other riders and as we stood there shivering a bit in the frosty morning air I looked around at my competition. I was impressed by the variety of cyclists who had shown up to participate. There were riders of all ages and abilities, in all types of kit, from gym shorts and tech tees to cotton hoodies atop road, gravel, mountain, and even tandem bicycles. I felt a smidge overdressed in my Rapha bibs and clip-in pedals but I quickly reminded myself that it didn’t matter what we were wearing or what bike we were riding; we were all there to do the same thing and hopefully have a blast in the meantime. When the clock struck 9am, there was a very mellow rollout, and by the time the clouds parted and we hit the sunshine I was feeling significantly more confident.
Right before we took off I tossed my DSLR at my friend Alyssa and said “Good luck! Feel free to snap some pics if you feel like it!” She impressed the heck out of me with some of the images she captured while she and her partner leap-frogged me for a while before setting up the tiniest aid station with the snacks I’d left in the car for me about 15 miles from the finish, a welcome and delightful surprise.
Riding the roads on my bike that I had driven so many times put a smile on my face that couldn’t be wiped off all day. It was special to have a new perspective on familiar views. While the road hugged the winding coastline back into the town of Kodiak I took in the snow-capped peaks, squinted against the sun reflecting off the ocean, and kept pushing my legs to carry me faster and faster over each rise and fall of the ocean-side road.
This past year has been a challenge physically and psychologically as I’ve struggled with some undiagnosed health issues that have been impacting my ability to perform athletically. The day of the race was the first day in ages when I felt like I could keep putting in more and more effort. The last ten miles of the race were my fastest, allowing me to make up wild amounts of time on other racers. I felt like I was flying on my way to the finish line and got my first QOM ever on the final climb. I crossed the line as the fourth female in a field of nine and felt over the moon to have had such a fun three hours on the bike.
I called up my friend Jess who I’ve recently encouraged to get off the Peloton and onto a gravel bike and said “You’re never going to guess what I did today!”
I could hear her rolling her eyes through the line before answering “I don’t know Gretchen, half the time you call me you’re on the side of a mountain or in the middle of an epic adventure or on an airplane.” (We shared our first gravel ride together recently, and it was the BEST). She’s been my biggest cheerleader when it comes to signing up for races last minute or hopping on planes in pursuit of happiness, and she was stoked for me to regale her with tales of this latest adventure.
While it feels simple to me to say “heck yes” to wild adventures, it’s even better to have friends who remind you just how far you’ve come and can reflect back to you the progress you’ve made and how proud of you they are. If you’re like me and find that you love pushing your limits, challenging yourself, and trying something new I highly recommend saying “heck yes” yourself to the next intimidating thing that comes across your desk. Sign up for that local race, go to a challenging group ride, and bring your bike with you on your next trip. You’d be surprised what you can accomplish when you set your mind to it. And before you ask, no, I saw no bears during my time on the island and I’m sure glad for that.