June 20, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 24

Writer gives view of race from dead last

Freelance writer Eileen McIver pedaled a leg on The Rolling Papers, the Chilkat Valley News-sponsored team that finished last in Saturday’s Kluane-Chilkat International Bike Relay. This is her account.

Eileen McIver of Haines, in last place during relay leg 5, just ahead of the race “sweep rig.”

Cheering for teammates was by far the best part of my experience riding the Kluane to Chilkat bike relay.

We played a trumpet and a boom box. We danced. We sang to “The Name Game,” the 1960s novelty hit with lyrics that go, “Shirley, Shirley, bo Birley Bonana fanna fo Firley, Fee fy mo Mirley, Shirley!”

None of it helped.

By the third mile of Leg 5, I’d moved my team solidly into last place.

A ground squirrel ran beside me for a while, then pulled into an insurmountable lead.

Some Canadian guys finished No. 1. We were No. 277.

The numbers only tell part of this sad story.

At a “captain’s meeting” in Haines Junction the night before the race, I was expecting a light pep talk by a race organizer in a gymnasium, followed by riders throwing their hands into a pile and yelling, “Go team.”

Instead, we filed into what appeared to be a college lecture hall where a slow-talking man in a bulletproof vest walked us through a slideshow presentation consisting of all sorts of complicated maps and arrows.

An out-of-shape rookie teammate whispered to me: “Oh my god. This is gonna be the worst experience of my life.”

Almost all the cars in the parking lot were equipped with bike racks holding intimidatingly lightweight bikes with super skinny tires. I had heard that Yukoners were tough, but those bikes said it all.

We sought comfort at the Frosty-Freeze, where I scarfed a mushroom Swiss burger, fries, and a swirly ice-cream cone, and a teammate downed a bowl of “poutine,” a Canadian dish that causes obesity in a single serving.

Camped out at Kathleen Lake I tried to sleep but it didn’t work, due partly to an idea that a yoga mat and the quilt from my bed would keep me comfortable, and also because daylight at 1 a.m. freaks me out. My sister, also on our team, entertained a fantasy that we would be murdered.

A funnel of mosquitoes hovering over the tent hypnotized me into slumber. Two hours later I awoke in the back seat of my car at the starting line, looking at teams of riders in fluorescent body suits and ones imprinted with skeletons.

Our first rider finished among the first half of the racers in the “recreational” division, encouraging as our team captain described our potential as “sub-recreational.” After that, it went, as they say, all downhill.

Team after team passed us: a team with Haines fifth-graders, a team with a wheelchair rider. Then, most crushing of all, the “sweep rig” – a truck that follows the last-place rider and warns approaching traffic that they’re on the tail of a bike race – came into view.

The rig was six riders back when I started my leg. I felt fine for the first few miles, but everyone else must have felt better. They whizzed past. Despite my team’s support, I started to fade.

What I fantasized was the “1K to Finish Line” sign on closer inspection read: “Watch for snowplows approaching in your lane.” I was barely halfway done. My sunblock and mosquito repellent mixed into a burning paste that ran into my eyes. A bee ricocheted off my wrist, landed on my ear and stung me.

I began feeling guilt for consuming the Saturday of the people in the sweep rig, forced to go even slower than I. I started thinking I should have spent more time on my bike before the race and less practicing on my unicycle.

I may have blacked out at my finish, but apparently it went okay. By the time I handed off to a pregnant teammate, the next-to-last-place team was way out of sight.

Due to a massive tailwind, we finished ahead of the mandatory restart at the beginning of the relay’s final leg. And I won a pretty, red lantern.

Better start training for next year.