June 20, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 24

Walsh leads Haines riders in bike relay

A new generation of novice and rookie riders from Haines made its mark at Saturday’s 21st Kluane-Chilkat International Bike Relay.

Women\'s solo champion Jenn Walsh of Haines took the first-place ribbon among women solo riders at the 21st annual Kluane-Chilkat International Bike Relay Saturday. Relay official Judy Ewald is at left.

Jenn Walsh, 34, placed first among women solo riders and posted the best time from Haines, 6:58:11. Walsh topped veteran riders Chip and Heather Lende, who competed on a two-person team, by 14 seconds.

“I can’t believe I did it. I’m seriously not a road biker,” said Walsh, who trained on a stationary bike in her kitchen and only a few months ago got her first racing bike. Brandie Stickler of Haines, Walsh’s training partner, finished third among solo women in 7:52:11.

“Two out of the top three (solo) women were from Haines. That’s pretty huge,” Walsh said.

Stickler, 31, also said she was surprised to have done so well. She started slow and was only hoping to finish, she said. “I figured that I’m stubborn enough, that I could finish it, if it took me two years. (Now) I feel encouraged. I feel if I got serious about it, I’d be really good.”

Balmy weather and a strong tailwind pushed race leaders within three minutes of the 5:55 course record for the 148-mile event. The team of Whitehorse residents Jonah Clark and Dave Gonda won in 5:57:21, as Gonda nipped solo rider Brett Boniface of Cloverdale, B.C., by one-tenth of a second at the Fort Seward finish line.

Boniface, a 33-year-old policeman, rode about 25 mph for the course length. He and Gonda averaged up to 30 mph on flat terrain and 60 mph heading down from Haines Summit, he said. “(The tailwind) was definitely picking speeds up.”

Boniface went ahead of the lead pack of about 25 riders 50 miles into the race until Gonda caught him near the summit. The pair were on a record pace before hitting a cross-wind in Alaska, Boniface said. “We knew the record was going to be tough to beat at that point.”

Relay rookie Jason Rettinger, 38, of Haines, debuted on a four-person men’s team. Biking legs seven and eight, Rettinger finished sixth among more than 100 riders on four-person teams competing in the same section.

“I was really happy. If I knew it was going to be this much fun, I’d have been doing this years and years ago,” Rettinger said. He bought a racing bike in March and was riding up to 150 miles a week, including outside in the cold.

Chip Lende, a past local champion in the relay who competed with wife Heather on a two-person team during the first Kluane-Chilkat relay in 1993, said he was delighted to see the sport spreading to a younger generation.

“You’re seeing a lot of people doing endurance sports in Haines who weren’t here 20 years ago. People are realizing the biking here is one of our best-kept secrets. We have gorgeous scenery and not much traffic. It’s a great place to ride,” Lende said.

Judy Ewald, who helped organize the race, said the event’s most serious accident occurred when a rider crashed swerving to miss an opening car door and required a half-dozen stitches.

The race boosts local charities with about $4,000 cash, as groups volunteering to help are paid an honorarium. Local beneficiaries include Venturer Scouts, Hospice of Haines, Friends of the Library, the ambulance squad and Haines Friends of Recycling, Ewald said.

A listing of Haines teams in the relay will be published next week.