Pushing your bike 175 miles – in Alaska

Posted on May 11, 2008 by


AS Christian Cullinane admitted, it was no place to have the pedal fall off your bike. With temperatures touching minus 30C and the white wilderness of Alaska stretching as far as the eye could see, there was nothing for it but to push. Which he did for 175 miles.

The Iditarod Trail Invitational Race, held in the middle of winter from Knik Lake to McGrath, a 350-mile route out north west of Anchorage heading towards Nome, is billed as the ultimate endurance test for runners, skiers and cyclists. It is contested by the super-fit, the over-adventurous and those verging on the crazy.

Its website describes it as “the world’s longest ultramarathon and the least supported” and there’s obviously a reason for that. Possibly something to do with the fear of collapsing with exhaustion out in the middle of nowhere with only gale force winds and swirling snow storms for company.

Although to be fair, no one has died during the eight years of the race, a good few have not finished as they started, if they finished at all. Frostbite has claimed various appendages and only this year the leader of the foot race, a woman incidentally, was discovered wandering blind after the bitter cold damaged her eyes. Evacuated to hospital, she recovered, but it was a close call.

All this is a world away, a continent at least, from Christian Cullinane’s day job as commercial director of the consultancy arm of QinetiQ, the defence technology company based in Malvern.

From his office window, he can see hills, but these are molehills compared with the Kuskokwim Mountains of the Central Alaskan Range, which, as the Anchorage Daily News warns, represent “the powerful and untamed environment of wilderness Alaska.”

Cycling over them in mid-winter equates with putting your head in a lion’s mouth or walking a tightrope over Niagra Falls. It’s something best left to others.

But for Christian it’s completely in character. An extreme sports enthusiast, the 36-year-old married father of three gets going when even the tough shudder to a halt.

What do you do if your pedal breaks in the middle of any icy wilderness? Christian Cullinane started walking...
What do you do if your pedal breaks in the middle of any icy wilderness? Christian Cullinane started walking…

A schoolboy rugby player for Harlequins, he got his first taste for what are called “adventure” sports at school in Surrey.

His favourite two at present are ultra running and adventure racing. The former are extra long foot races – “I never do less than 100 mile events these days,” he replied, throwaway – while the latter involve mountain biking, running, kayaking and even rope work across ravines. In New Zealand, he took part in, and completed, a six day non-stop adventure race.

“Yes, I was a bit tired,” he said. “But it’s what you train for.

“What’s the attraction? Because I love the adventure’ aspect. It’s a challenge to be completed.”

With a degree of understatement, he said: “I think it’s fair to say everything did not go to plan on the Iditarod Invitational. But then if it does where’s the adventure in that? I went to Alaska for an adventure and I certainly got one.”

The “not going to plan” bit involved one of the pedals breaking off his bike around the halfway stage, somewhere in the bleak emptiness between Rohn and Bison Camp, and there was no way of mending it. That’s when push came to shove.

Although this was not so much a disaster as it may appear, because from soon after the start Christian had difficulty cycling through the powdery snow.

The problem was the thinness of the tyres, something he had worried about before the race. All the other riders had ultra-fat 4ins tyres, but the thickest Christian could fit to his machine were 2.5ins and that meant they kept bedding in.

“In those conditions it became less exhausting to push the bike than to ride it,” he explained.

“I think in the first 130 miles I must have pushed at least half the time. I got to consider the bike as some sort of mechanical mule or even a wheelbarrow. In fact, by the end I only rode about 70-80 miles in total. The rest I walked using the bike as a trolley cum snowplough. It was tough, because I didn’t actually train’ for walking at all.”

Forty-four people set off from Knik for McGrath on February 24 and only 28 made it all the way to the finish, over the Alaska ridges and across the desolate Farewell Burn.

“Most of the racers came from overseas or outside’ looking for adventure,” wrote the Anchorage reporter. “They all got it. Winners or losers, they all suffered. Some endured and triumphed. Others went home beaten to lick their wounds, tell their tales and perhaps even vow to return and try again.

“The Iditarod Trail can lead people to do some serious soul searching and asks the ultimate question.”

Like why am I here!

l As a spin-off from his participation in the Iditarod Invitational Trail Race, Christian Cullinane raised £1,200 for Winston’s Wish, the national child bereavement charity. Anyone wanting to add to that can do so through his website http://www.cool-biker.com and read even more about his remarkable adventure.

Posted in: Ultracycling, USA