Premier bicycle race returning to Valdez Saturday
If you ask Bob Voris what his job was in the very first Fireweed 400 back in 2003, he would tell you he had the loneliest job of the race - a turnaround official. The retired teacher from Eagle River said that after the start, he had to drive to Valdez to wait for those racers who would be turning around and heading back to Sheep Mountain.
At the time, only 15 racers tackled the 400-mile course. In an interview on KCHUs Coffee Break: Sports Edition, Voris remembered how he and a friend were able to make it through the race thanks to a special group of ladies.
“I was visited by a number of women from Valdez and I was very confused by this,” Voris said. “I thought my goodness, it’s a friendly community or I’m just better looking than I thought.”
He later found out the women were sent from the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau to keep him company.
That is one of many memories from the Fireweed 400, which this year heads into its tenth year. The 400-mile bike race from Sheep Mountain to Valdez is the largest in Alaska and is the biggest qualifier for Race Across America (RAAM). Each year, the race has grown in the number of entrants and features a number of smaller races – including relays – within its framework.
The idea of the Fireweed 400 came from current race director Peter Lekisch. In 1999, six Alaskans had participated in the Paris-Brest-Paris, a randonneuring event in France. In randonneuring, the participants don’t race for places. The only requirement is to finish the course in a slotted period of time. After the event, Lekisch, Voris, and two others were looking for a bigger challenge. So they entered the 2000 Race Across America. The 50 year-olds set a race record by completing the 3,000-mile course from Portland, Oregon, to Pensacola, Florida, in six days, 16 hours, and 42 minutes. That record stood for three years. A year later, Lekisch would become the first 60 year-old to complete the course.
After competing in the race, Lekisch thought it would be great to hold a RAAM qualifier in Alaska. The original plan was to create a race from Anchorage to Valdez. Officials deemed course unfit for racers. The roads from Anchorage to Valdez are not appropriate for racers, especially north of Palmer, Voris said.
“It’s narrow and windy. There’s been extensive road construction in that area for the last 10 years or more,” he said.
After drive from Anchorage to Valdez, they settled on Sheep Mountain as the starting point for the race.
The first race drew 124 competitors. The event has attracted as many as 800 racers from several different countries over the last decade. Other racers, such as record holder Jeff Oatley of Fairbanks and Ben Couturier of Eagle River, have gone on to compete in the Race Across America. Both racers finished fifth in their rookie years in the race. Couturier was 18 when he first competed. For a while, this gave Alaska the distinction of having the oldest and youngest finishers in RAAM history.
The name of the race is the Fireweed 400, but racers can compete in smaller courses. There are 50, 100, and 200-mile races for less extreme racers. The 200-mile race attracts the most racers each year. Voris credits Valdez hospitality for making the 200 the most popular portion of the race.
“There’s tremendous food at the finish line and festive atmosphere,” Voris said. “It’s probably one of the things that get Anchorage residents to visit Valdez in the summer more than anything else.”
This portion of the race wasn’t offered in the first race. The 200-mile race was created thanks to Pat Irwin. After riding to Valdez, he felt he had done enough in the race. So, he stayed in Valdez, took the first ferry back to Whittier, and headed back to Anchorage. He did it as a way to say thank you to his crew for following him along the road at 15 miles-per-hour Voris said.
This year’s race
About 650 racers have signed-up for this year’s event. Racers can compete individually in the time trial and fat tire categories or as a team in the relay category. Defending champions and Palmer-based Erik Christensen and Kristin Wolf headline this year’s field. Last year, Christensen won the men’s 400-mile time trial with a time of 23:42:29. Wolf won the women’s 400-mile time trial with a time of 25:34:25.
There are no serious modifications to this year’s race. The only minor change is to the finish line at Sheep Mountain. It has been moved to the bottom of the hill near the Sheep Mountain Lodge.
The race is slated to start this Friday, July 13 and end on Saturday, July 14. Valdez can catch most of the action near the Department of Transportation building on the Richardson Highway, where the 200-mile finish line is located. The 400-mile turnaround is located near Capt. Joe’s Gas Station.