In the fall of 2019, I learned of a 150km Gran Fondo that started in Inuvik, NT, riding all the way north (on the most northern road in Canada) for 150km to the edge of the Arctic Ocean in Tuktoyaktuk. Another friend of mine was also keen to do the ride, so we both signed up.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2020 and the world is going through some troubling times with Covid-19. Like all events, the ride was cancelled.
This far north, the communities are spread apart and can be pretty remote. There may only be one way in or out and that passage may be a river, which in the winter is an ice road. When Covid came along, the Territory shut down pretty quickly as a precautionary measure to minimize the possible spread to outlying communities. By the end of May 2020, there were zero cases of Covid in the Northwest Territories and many safety protocols were put in place. Still, out of safety concerns, the race was cancelled.
With the race officially cancelled and my friend soon to move away to the East Coast of Canada, we decided we only had this one chance to do the ride, if we could do it safely.
I reached out to some people I knew in the community of Tuktoyaktuk and also spoke with their Senior Administrative Officer, asking if it would be possible for 2 cyclists to enter the Hamlet (just to ride out, not visit any buildings). They agreed that it would be fine, seeing as how we'd be wearing masks and we would be doing the ride in reverse — the original race event started in Inuvik and ended in Tuktoyaktuk — but to reduce even more risk, we would get a drive up to Tuktoyaktuk to start, immediately leaving the town on our journey south, ending in our warm beds.
By May 31st, the weather in Inuvik was warming up. It was still cold, hovering around 8 or 9 Celsius being a bit warmer in the sun. At that time of year we were already receiving more than the usual amount of sunlight. We were closing in on 24hrs of sun at that point.
I put on all of my merino layers, a hat and gloves setting out on the drive north to Tuktoyaktuk.
I was doing that ride with my friend Brad Wade, who was a teacher in Inuvik at the time. Brad is another crazy cyclist dude, but there is something a little different about him. You would probably never guess, but Brad has only one lung. You'd never know because he's always up for any type of adventure and never misses a beat. So for this adventure, it was extra cool, because I would be filming Brad on this ride as part of a short bio film that I am doing on him.
I'm glad I had my merino layers, because when we got out of the vehicle to load the bikes, the temperature was -10 degrees with the windchill. Granted, we were in the Arctic and on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, but I was thinking the temperature would be similar to Inuvik. Wrong!
We grabbed a few quick photos and headed out of town. It was on this first stretch of road that we learned what the gravel road would be like. Gravel I can do. I personally have lots of experience after the 205km races in Italy for the Eroica, which is all gravel. This was different. I was riding Brad's new Kona Unit which had mountain bike tires, while Brad rode his Specialized which he'd ridden all over Canada and the USA. The gravel road was infinitely better for me with the wide tires, so I can't imagine how much more challenging it was for Brad with skinnies on.
The gravel, was more like a rock garden, with an assortment of round and oval rocks. This road is actually a highway called the Inuvik-Tuk Highway or ITH. Everything is built on top of the permafrost because the ground this far north is frozen. The highway has many different layers of rock, dirt and other materials layered to create the highway. This topmost layer seemed like it was newly laid and in some places the round stones would shift around when the bike rolled over them. It felt like riding on beach sand with your wheels easily flying out from under you.
At times, if you ended up having to stop and put your foot down, the rocks under your foot would force the rocks underneath to slide out. If you were at the side of the road it would be easy to start a mini avalanche and slide down the side.
The wind was a big factor. Hoping for a tail wind would make this day easier, but without it the day was a very long slog. I looked up the wind after the ride and it was upwards of 30kph. Within the first 39km I remember Brad mentioning how demotivated he felt with the combination of the headwind and the road conditions. We were just moving so slowly making difficult to maintain any speed.
This trip sapped every ounce of energy I had. Conversations between Brad and I ceased as we both just focused on getting through the day.
30km, slowly turned into 40, then 40 into 50. Time practically stopped. When we started the ride, the sun was high up in the sky. Nearly 5 hours later, we were only closing in on 70 or 80km and the sun was in the exact same spot. We both couldn't believe how quickly the time was passing. With close to 24hrs of sunlight at that time, using the sun to gauge time is useless.
I never really thought about hills before that ride, thinking it's practically flat. Nope, wrong again! There were some pretty big hills to climb and no matter the gearing it was still such a pain with the sloppy gravel underneath.
I had stopped eating by km 80, because my stomach just couldn't handle any food. It was a terrible feeling. I had not done any serious prep before that ride and actually didn't even have my own bike around at that point. As we continued to ride, pretty much the only thing we said to each other was 'Never again!'.
For perspective, the landscape on that ride was just a lot of brown and white. It was simply bland and monotonous. I remember having such a hard time looking around, because everything just looked the same. There was nothing to judge progress or see how far you've come, no trees, nothing.
That same route is absolutely breathtaking during the summer and fall normally. It is simply a matter of timing and with the early spring thaw, nothing looks good that time of year. This photo is the same area in the summer.
When we finally reached the sign marker to say we were 30km away from Inuvik, we stopped for a rest. I remember just being achy all over and having this growing pain in my gut. I was starving, but I couldn't eat a thing. I laid my bike down on the side of the road and when I turned around, Brad was laying on the side of the road. It just looked like he was dead.
His chest was rising and falling, so that was a good sign. I know first hand he's as hard as they come and it had been a momentous challenge up to that point. I remember thinking to myself at that exact moment: "Mike, get your camera! Mike! Get it! Listen to me! Get the shot!" but, truth be told, I was too tired and dejected. I'm not sure how, but I struggled to get these shots and even somehow managed a timed shot of the two of us looking completely beaten.
Fortunately for us, after that last sign marker, we started on the downhill section. All our hard work had paid off. It was still no easy feat to finish the remainder of the ride, but we got back to town. Somehow Brad managed to convince me to ride through and then out of town on the opposite side just so we could end at the 'Welcome to Inuvik' town sign. I only said yes because he called his wife and she picked us up from there.
Having ridden the 205km long course at the Eroica Chianti in Italy multiple times — which is a vintage bike race all on gravel roads on bikes from the 1980s—I can honestly say that this ride in the far North was so much harder. It was not just the distance or the conditions, but also the mental game. Nothing changed, not the scenery, not the sun (well it moves, but it's always up in the sky, not really in the big arc we're accustomed to). There were no trees above the tree line, which made it feel so desolate.
I've thought about doing it again one day, but one word keeps flashing through my mind whenever I think about it. "NO".