Cyclists are gearing up for the 26th Annual Kluane Chilkat International Bike Relay on Saturday. The race association expects roughly twelve hundred riders. Two years ago the race was cancelled on account of unexpected snow, and last year riders battled strong headwinds, but race organizers are optimistic about this year’s forecast.
The Kluane Chilkat International Bike Relay got its start in 1993. Haines resident Thom Ely had just made a bi-fjordal expansion of Sockeye cycles from Haines to Skagway the year before.
“I went to our tourism director Susan Bell and proposed we run a bike race from Haines Junction down to Haines,” Ely said.
He modeled the race on the Klondike relay, a popular road race that runs from Skagway to Whitehorse. This relay starts in the Yukon and fishes 148 miles and one international border later in Haines.
“From Haines Junction down to Haines is one of the most beautiful pieces of scenery on the road and elsewhere in the world, so I thought it would be fun to have a bike race down the highway,” he said.
The tourism director was enthusiastic. So with the help of Pat and Mary Egan, a Haines Junction couple, the got the relay rolling. They didn’t know what to expect, but 160 people showed up.
“In those days people were on mountain bikes and in their Carhartts and toting coolers with them and all kinds of things,” Ely remembered.
These days there’s more performance gear and fewer mountain bikes. It’s evolved into a road race where some competitors are chasing fast times through the pass. The fastest times were clocked in 2002 when a four-man team crossed the finish line in five hours, fifty-five minutes and fifty-five seconds. But Ely says that any rider who can make it twenty miles at their own pace can participate.
“That’s what’s fun is seeing families out there and kids and groups of moms. All different configurations of groups of riders,” he said.
Over the years he’s ridden every leg of the race at least once. Riders can go solo or ride on two, four, or eight person teams.
“You can’t take it to seriously,” he said.
“But it’s fun just to get that team camaraderie together and have a great time.”
Ely retired this year and sold the business to long-time manager Dustin Craney and his wife Katie, but he’s still riding on the Sockeye team.