Somewhere in the frozen wilds north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, former Canadian Olympian Lindsay Gauld is dreaming of the Iditarod Trail (ITI).
Before a global pandemic changed everything, this was to be the year in which the now 72-year-old cyclist from the Munich Summer Olympics planned to set a record in one of North America’s toughest winter competitions, the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational.
At his age, it wasn’t about the Manitoba “living legend” being first to the finish line. Athletes competing in ultra-endurance events might peak late – a peer-reviewed study by Swiss scientists pegged the time of top performance at 39.1 years on average for men – but by their mid-40s, the vast majority are on a downhill slide.
And by age 50, nearly all are over the hill with Davide Rebellin possibly being the exception who makes the rule. The near 50-year-old Italian has managed to hang onto a job as a professional cyclist although he has fallen down the professional tiers from a World Tour team to a Pro Continental team to a Continental team where CyclingTips reports “he’s more than twice the age of the next oldest rider.”
Rebellin’s present team – Work Service Marchiol Vega – is what would be described as a minor-league squad full of riders trying to work their way up to the big leagues. Rebellin remains competitive at that level, but he’s a long way from the rider he was when he won a silver medal in the road race at the 2008 Bejing Olympics only to lose it when he was found to have been doping.
When it comes to speed, Gauld is past the age at which even doping can help a man keep up with younger competitors, but then there are other records to chase.
Gauld was hoping and fully expecting to become the oldest competitor to finish this race across the vast wilderness between the long-abandoned community of Knik at the head of Cook Inlet and the old Athabascan trading site of McGrath on the far side of the Alaska Range mountains.
Never give up
The first time Gauld tried to pedal from Knik to McGrath, he got his ass kicked.
The year was 2012 and the then 64-year-old cyclist, speed skater and cross-country skier – the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame categorized Gauld as a “multi-sport athlete” at his induction way back in 1997 – had shown up in Alaska after months of training hard for a bike race.
What he got instead was something far different. A snowstorm roaring into the Susitna-Yentna River drainage on the south slope of the Alaska Range just as the ITI started buried the area in a couple of feet of snow.
The Iditarod Trail, for a time, simply disappeared from view. What was to have been a bike race deteriorated into a push-a-thon with bikers lined out behind the lead pusher at the front searching with his or her feet to find the trail beneath the snow.
It was easy to find. If you were knee- to thigh-deep in snow, you were on it. If you went in up to your waist, you’d wandered off.
Snowmachines traveling the Yentna River eventually created a visible trail, but it wasn’t remotely rideable. For the first 85 miles of the race to the outpost community of Skwentna, the cyclists in the competition open to skiers and runners as well did nothing but push, and from there to the top of Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range about 165 miles in, there was very, very little riding.
Some tough people grew frustrated and quit. Others kept pushing north on deteriorating feet. On the long climb from the Happy River to Puntilla Lake on the south side of the Range, the slightly built Gauld confessed he hadn’t trained nearly enough for the challenge of pushing a gear-heavy bike through the snow.
Trail conditions were so bad that runners turned post-holing hikers Tim Hewitt and Geoff Roes led the race up and over the mountains – an unprecedented event in ITI history – and looked for a time like they might win the race, a near unimaginable outcome in a competition long dominated by fat-tire cyclists.
Not until the bottom fell out of the thermometer did things revert to normal.
A good trail
Temperatures of 30- to 40-degrees below zero turned snowmachine-disturbed snow into concrete, and the cyclists had a good trail to ride. But the cold brought a new problem – frostbite.
A naturally thin man like Gauld was genetically handicapped in dealing with such conditions, and his equipment wasn’t quite up to what was needed to deal with this sort of weather extreme.
By the time Gauld reached the Rohn checkpoint, a one-room log cabin in the shadows of the Terra Cotta and Teocalli mountains near the confluence of the Tatina and South Fork Kuskokwim River, his face was so swollen by frostbite he couldn’t see out of his right eye.
His nose was an ugly shade of purple. His frost-nipped fingers were barely working. (He’d eventually lose part of one to frostbite). And his knees were swollen and sore from the days of pushing a heavily laden bike through deep snow.
Better trail beckoned ahead, but given Gauld’s physical condition, he didn’t have much choice but to abandon his rookie ITI and wait for a single-engine plane to arrive at the short Rohn airstrip to haul him back to the comfort and safety of civilization.
It was a disappointing end to the race, but Gauld’s spirit remained unbroken.
He returned to the race in 2013 to finish among the top-20, an impressive showing for the oldest entrant in that competition. Gauld was by then looking to better that performance, but life intervened.
When he started thinking about a return to Alaska in February of last year, he revealed that he’d hoped to “be back sooner, but my wife was dealing with cancer and my role in life changed. Thankfully, after eight chemo(therapy) regimens she had stem-cell therapy, and she’s now cancer-free. I get to play a little longer.”
He promptly set his sights on becoming the oldest ever to complete the ITI in 2021.
And then once more – life.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 shook the world, first with its appearance in China in epidemic proportions and then with a quick jump to global pandemic status. Within a matter of weeks, people around the world went from making future travel plans to trying to sort out how long they could hide in isolation from SARS-CoV-2.
It didn’t take Gauld long to realize he wouldn’t be doing the 2021 ITI – if there was a 2021 ITI.
There is. It departs Knik on Sunday to follow a course that largely avoids contact with anyone. Instead of going to McGrath, it is going to Rohn and turning around to return to a finish line near Wasilla.
It will pass through no Alaska villages. Athletes arriving from out of state are being required to pass a test showing them COVID-free within 72 hours of their departure for the 49th state. Everyone is being tested 72 hours prior to the race start, and again just before the start of the race.
Anyone testing positive is out. Four lodges along the trail have agreed to help provide racer support. It is still unclear how many of the 51 people who entered will show up on the starting line.
Gauld will definitely not be among them.
“Coming from Canada would have been challenging,” he messaged. “I have deferred my entry till next year. I think out and back would have been fun as you would get to race and spectate at the same time, although it might be discouraging to see how far behind the leaders I would be.”
But he seems to have accepted his race now is more against time than other human competitors even if he’s not slowing down all that much in his battle with the former.
Forced out of the ITI by COVID, he left Tuesday on his own adventure to include what he calls his “inland Bering Sea.”
“I am…going on a bike camping trip of about 425 kilometers (265 miles),” he messaged before he left. “Going alone, but I plan for three nights and a friend is doing an out and back and meeting me on the third night.
“I am doing a snowmobile route northwest across Lake Winnipeg on the second day so that will be me inland Bering Sea.”
Measuring 258 miles from north to south, Winnipeg is the 11th largest freshwater lake in the world. Temperatures there were mild when Gauld left, but he was getting a taste of Alaska today with the thermometer pushing toward zero and the winds gusting to near 30 mph.
Temperatures to the north of Alaska’s largest city in the Yentna River basin on up into the Alaska Range were warmer than that, but the National Weather Service had issued a “winter weather advisory” for the weekend that threatened shades of 2012.
“Snow may linger all the way through Saturday night, but is expected to lighten up by Saturday evening,” the forecast says. But the winds on Sunday are forecast to gust to 35 mph, which is likely to have any new snow blowing all over the place, which can leave the route north a frustrating mix of blown-bare patches of ice and unrideable drifts.
It might turn out the COVID-lockout did one old man a favor.