The full photo diary for this leg can be viewed here
Self pity is pretty undignified even at the best of times, yet over the past twelve days I have found myself slipping perilously close to it. The touring cyclist is a product of his environment; we are wet when it rains, hot when the sun shines and cold when the clouds come over. Our house is the world and our bedroom the small single tent that we slip into after a day in the saddle. When the environment changes, the rhythm of our lives change accordingly, yet when our bodies change the topography remains a constant. Humans are clever creatures, we can adapt to most climatic conditions (within reason) and when on a bike will somehow find a way to the top of the highest passes and across the most unforgiving road surfaces. But what happens when the well oiled bond between mind and body breaks down and the game ceases to be fun, becoming instead a gruelling push towards some far off and seemingly irrational goal?
My 12 days riding from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks were some of the finest of my life. The subsequent 12 day leg from Fairbanks to Whitehorse was rewarding in a totally different way. Yes, the Saint Elias mountains of the Yukon are blessed with a vast beauty indescribable to those bought up on the pokey wonder of the English lake District, and yes, twilight riding through vast valleys surrounded by snow dusted peaks rendered supernatural by a eery Alpen glow, is close to the stuff of fantasy. But such highs have been thoroughly earned on the 620 mile slog from Fairbanks. In the 488 miles before Fairbanks I learnt about myself, since then I have been learning more of the intricacies of the art of cycle touring. Having Justin with me on this leg has enhanced this learning yet I fear possibly also led me away from feelings of ore and wonder to a mindset akin to trench warfare.
Fairbanks to the charming Yukon capital of Whitehorse was not a battle with topography for we only climbed 19,332 feet, it was more a humbling at the hands of weather and an internal psychological fight with ourselves. That we had each other to aid our reflections on hardship undoubtedly aided the learning and often enabled us to laugh at the situation. Some times I know I would have wallowed more without Justin, sometimes less. Yet no matter what the dynamics of our psychological interplay it is a fact that it has been great having Justin there to laugh at and with. When I look back at my photos from the leg my memories of how we felt do not always ally with the broad smiles that plaster our faces… this can only be good. Having someone else going through a challenging experience with you serves the twin purpose of confirming your own discomfort while affirming your sanity.
Struggles through hot headwinds and cold rainy days led us to a sodden crossing into Canada. The previous days had been a countdown to the moment we crossed our first border of the tour. The actual event itself was predictably a massive anticlimax; the weather remained as shit in Canada as it was in Alaska and what of our surroundings the low clouds permitted us to see were as similarly uninspiring as the majority of the road out of Fairbanks. But the renewed hopes and freshness of a new country would soon surface as our first full day in the Yukon bought back some blue skies and the awesome Saint Elias mountains welcomed us into their bossom. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves riding into a perfect evening surrounded by glowing beauty and with renewed gusto. It is good to be in a new country. Canada seems more put together than Alaska; the settlements feel more like places than ad hoc collections of buildings and the people more outwardly comforting and less raw.
Our first few days riding in Canada would frequently be punctuated by exclamations of ‘I love Canada!’ This does not mean that it has been plain sailing. We have battled strong headwinds out of the initially underwhelming but ultimately stunning Kluane lake, hard rain on our final day into Whitehorse, but mostly ourselves and our respective bodies. Some days I find myself feeling strong and able to power up hills at will, yet others are a genuine struggle. Justin and I quickly realised that our thoughts and attitude over the first 15 or 20 miles of the day do not necessarily persist into the rest of it. A few times we’d be stopped up after a morning session complaining of fatigue and mental disconnection with the task. While wolfing down as many pop tarts as our rations would allow we’d confirm each others hopes of a short day and some rest, yet hours later we’d still find ourselves cycling at 10pm with over 60 miles on the dial. Mostly we’d get stronger and more attuned as the day went on, but sometimes this would not happen and we’d have to force ourselves to push the days miles. If we had been solo I am sure that we would both have been more inclined towards rest. But when Justin was suffering with fatigue I could feel at my best and vice a versa; we would never know what our minds and bodies would bring to the party the next day. Determined to push onwards towards the holy grail of Whitehorse we cycled on average 51 miles a day for 12 days without a day off. In there were a few 65 milers but also a couple of 30 miles, although admittedly one of these was the final day into Whitehorse.
I have found myself chasing miles, something that I maintained I’d always try to avoid. But the road out of Fairbanks to the head of the Cassiar Highway takes us east while we want to be heading south. The winter is at our backs and our only escape route is south, so the motivation for getting road under the wheels is to reach the point where we’ll start making good ground in this direction. We constantly find ourselves studying the same maps over and over, assessing where we have been and where we are heading. Once we start seeing our position sink southwards I am sure that my near desperation for miles will subside and once again I will find myself stopping to smell more of the roses. But make no mistake, on the road into Whitehorse Justin and I have undeniably benefitted from each others desire to get south. Through subconsciously pushing each other to limits we may otherwise not have breached, we have ultimately learnt valuable lessons about ourselves and realities of the tour.
As we rode into Whitehorse three days ago my tank was empty, the rain was pelting down and small hills just kept appearing out of the gloom. Just ten miles from the city centre another ascent loomed and I could feel the urge to break down in tears surge up within me. Up until this point I had felt no desire to cry any tears other than those of joy, but now I was tired and my guard dropped by our proximity to the goal that had driven us for the previous 12 days. But I refused to let these tears flow, I will not cry out of self-pity for I have made the choice to be here and do this. Would I rather be miserable in the cold rain on the bike or nice and warm in a London office pursuing a career for which I have no passion? The answer is a no brainer. Everyday is different on the bike, even in those times of misery I know perfectly well that I may wake up the next morning to pure clean blue skies and crystal sharp air; there is an unending optimism with which self-pity has no place. I have chosen to sacrifice comfort for hope and in doing so have no right to feel sorry for myself.
I always knew that karma would catch up with me and I always figured that the journey south would be 80% hard work and sacrifice and 20% pure paradise. The ride from Fairbanks to Whitehorse has rudely reintroduced these tenants to me. Although ultimately enjoyable, the last 12 days have introduced a different type of challenge from that I faced out of Anchorage, in Fairbanks and on the Dalton Highway. Yet my thirst for adventure remains untarnished and as Justin and I prepare to part ways I am looking forward to the upcoming episodes more than ever.