Everything’s Bigger in Alaska, Including Jason Soza’s Passion For Cycling and His Zwift Community

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Jason Soza

It’s good to be a cyclist in Alaska, especially when you enjoy the LONG DARK winter months with your virtual cycling community.

Just the thought of the US’ 49th state is enough to conjure up images of majestic mountains, soaring eagles, and beautiful landscapes. Many of us also are at least vaguely aware that it’s a land of extremes.

 

Still, unless you’ve lived here or have done your Alaska homework, it’s “extreme” in the same sense that the universe is “infinite” in that it’s nearly impossible to wrap your head around it.

 

At least for Alaska, I can throw some comparisons out there to give something to compare to (you’re on your own for figuring out the universe!):

Alaska is Grand in Many Ways

  • If you were to travel from the easternmost side of Alaska to the westernmost, it would be roughly like traveling across what we call the “Lower 48”—all of the other states in the contiguous US—from Jacksonville, FL, on the Atlantic coast to San Francisco, CA on the Pacific coast. That’s about 2,700 miles.
  • You could fit nearly 550 of the smallest state in the US, Rhode Island, within the area covered by Alaska. Just for fun, you could also include 10,700 Liechtensteins in Alaska!
  • The record high temperature in Alaska is 100F (38C), while the record low is -80F (-62C).
  • The year’s shortest day ranges from a very reasonable 7 hours in the far south to a point above the Arctic Circle, where the sun will set in November, not to be seen again until January. The longest days of the year are pretty much just an inverse of that!
  • We’re home to the tallest point in North America, Denali, the third tallest point in all of the Americas.
  • Lastly, things are just bigger here. We have the biggest bears in the world, the Kodiak brown bear, our state fish is the largest salmon in the world, the King salmon, and, well, a family in Alaska has set numerous world records for largest vegetables, like a nearly 20-pound carrot.

Cycling in Alaska is Unique, Incredible, Challenging, and Impossible

Given all that, what’s it like to ride a bicycle in Alaska? I honestly can’t speak for everyone about the cycling experience here. Still, I bet all Alaskans on bikes would agree that it’s unique and incredible, challenging, and sometimes impossible for many reasons.

 

I’m into cycling for the smooth-ish pavement and speed, so I stick to the road system, but you can imagine that gravel, mountain, and fat-tire bikes are super popular in Alaska. I admire those who take on the thousands of incredible trails around the state and who take their big tires into the snow and ice season!

 

One last fact about Alaska—it’s around 1,400 miles long, from the south to the north. Imagine traveling from Phoenix, Arizona, in the hot, arid Southwestern desert, to Seattle, WA, in the lush, forested, and rainy Pacific Northwest. That’s about the same distance, and you can see how different those landscapes, ecologies, and weather patterns are.

 

The same applies here in Alaska. The differences are enormous, from temperate rainforests in the south to barren, frozen plains in the north, and everything in between.

bike leaning against guardrail in Alaska

You Can Only Get to my City by Boat, Plane or Birth Canal

So for me, I’m way down in the Southeastern Panhandle of the state in Juneau, which is also the capital. There are no roads in or out of our town of 30,000 people. The saying goes, you can only get here by “boat, plane, or birth canal.”

 

We have the Pacific Ocean-fed Gastineau Channel to gaze out on – a range of mountains separating us from the Canadian border a dozen miles or so to the east. The weather can be so gray and depressing that you feel guilty if you don’t go outside and do something epic on anything resembling a sunny day.

 

Given our relatively southern latitude, we don’t see as much of the winter darkness or extreme cold as our friends farther north, and, because of this, I often refer to this region of the state as the “tropical part.” That said, it’s still definitely Alaska.

Cycling in Alaska is Stunning Amazement

A day out on the roads here in Juneau can bring with it most everything I associate with our state in one stunning view. I’ll see forests and mountains, oceans and glaciers, and all sorts of wildlife.  From bald eagles overhead, porcupine, deer, and marmots along the roadside, and otters, seals, and whales out in the channel. It’s simply amazing, and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.

 

How many places in the world can you ride along and watch salmon get plucked from the water by an eagle and carried to a tree? Or get roped into an impromptu race with a deer?

Cycling in Alaska Can Be a Bear

I haven’t had the fortune—good and, or bad—of directly encountering a bear, but there have been times when I know they were around. I recently participated in an individual time trial in the spring of 2021, our local cycling club’s first post-pandemic group event. The finish line was just past a small climb.

 

As I approached the crest, I stood and gave it all I had left over the top to shave off as much time as possible. After I’d coasted a bit, caught my breath, and returned to the finish line, my wife casually asked, “So did you see the bear?”

 

I said I hadn’t, and she let me know that she thought that was why I was sprinting! Apparently, it crossed the road at the finishing cones just after I’d gone past. Phew.

The race in this video also happened this past year, in summer 2021. Remember that guilt I mentioned if you don’t do something epic on a sunny day here? This individual time trial was on the same day as our local annual marathon and half-marathon.

 

There were so many people outside living the Juneau sunshine dream! This video shows what I’m talking about when I say riding here is everything “Alaska.” You get the water, a glacier, forests, and on cue, a bald eagle makes a cameo in the final minutes. I find myself re-watching this video on dreary days, reminding myself of what it can be.

You Have to Ride Every Road in my City to do a Century

In September 2020, having done my first metric century ride that summer, I decided to check off my first imperial century. Without doing laps on a single stretch of road, riding 100+ miles ends up taking you on all of Juneau’s major streets.

 

I had dreams of riding to the end of every major road, but time got the best of me, and I came up about 40 miles short (completing that route is on my list for 2022). My ride still ended up being around 101.5mi, had 5.3k feet of elevation gain, took 6.5 hours with stops along the way, and I lucked out with a gorgeous, sunny day.

 

For those of you doing the Ironman here in 2022, the bike route is two out-and-back laps from the lake where the swim course is to what we call the “end of the road.”

Winter Comes Early to Alaska

Sadly, especially for a road cyclist, all good things come to an end. I took what would be my last outdoor ride of 2021 on October 17th. I started my ride a little before 5 pm, it was 40F (4C), and clouds were just rolling in.

 

It was still fairly bright out, and I thought I would go on my favorite 40k course for an easy ride. Well, over the 1.5 hours of that ride, the temperature dropped to 33F (0.5C), the clouds rolled in, the sun set, frost formed on the road, and despite wearing “warm” shoe covers and thermal socks, my toes went numb.

 

But it was all 100% worth it. It felt good to rinse off my bike one last time, clean the chain, re-lube it, and hang the bike on the wall till next year.

Thankfully, So Does the Virtual Cycling Season

Now, I can focus on indoor cycling to get me through the winter. I’ve had an on/off relationship with cycling all my life. I’d grown up riding from as early of an age as I can remember, but as a young adult, that changed.

 

I had sparks of interest over the years, but work, travel, life, and Juneau’s rainy weather always found ways of dousing them. The pandemic finally pushed my cycling relationship status very firmly into “on” mode. Once I started riding regularly in the spring and summer of 2020, I was genuinely worried about how I’d continue through the off-season.

 

My wife is an incredible athlete who wanted to get back into cycling, and in her infinite wisdom, she saw this coming. We ordered a Peloton for the house with the money we’d saved from not eating out or traveling.

 

What a new world it opened up!  I was fascinated with the instructor-led rides and the opportunity to step up my knowledge of the sport. Before that, I had no idea what FTP was other than “file transfer protocol.”  

 

I eventually found myself drawn to the scenic free rides, Peloton’s basic video simulations of riding in various places worldwide. I missed the feeling of riding outside with gears rather than a resistance knob.

Zwift Opened Up a New World

It wasn’t long before I read about this thing called Zwift and, well, the rest is history. After briefly looking into how I could hack the Peloton bike to run it, I decided I needed to put the dumb trainer we had laying around the garage to good use and started building my indoor setup.

 

I haven’t looked back since, upgraded to a Wahoo Kickr, a dedicated Zwift-running computer, and a projector to view it all. (And fans. Lots of fans. Even when it’s cold in the garage!)

Then, I accidentally found something I hadn’t even realized I was missing yet, but it was the thing that got me hooked on Zwift. During my first several rides, just tooling through the different worlds, I kept noticing riders wearing jerseys that said “DIRT” on them.

The DIRT Zwift Team Opened Up a New Universe

Thinking about dirt and mud, I thought to myself, “Wow, Zwift must have a big mountain bike contingent. That’s neat!” Soon after, while scrolling through an unnamed giant social media platform that knows everything I say, do, and think, a funny thing happened: under “Groups Suggested for You Based on Your Interests,” I saw that same “DIRT” logo, accompanied by the text, “Dads Indoors Riding Trainers.” Aha!

 

So it wasn’t a mountain bike riding group, after all, rather a bunch of dads (like me) riding their bikes inside (like me) in Zwift (like me).

 

It was incredibly serendipitous because, during an average, non-pandemic fall and winter season here, I’d be playing ice hockey. That’s always been a significant source of social interaction, competition, and camaraderie to get through the doldrums.

 

It’s perfect because it’s indoors, meaning it’s not weather dependent, and having games scheduled as part of a team makes it hard to stay in and hibernate. It was discovering the DIRT community when I did make the transition to the dark months seamless. Suddenly, I had a group of like-minded DIRTS and MIRTS to share accomplishments, ride with, and race.

The DIRT Zwift Team is a Win/Win

I got into racing regularly and found myself riding whenever I could, watching my Strava-estimated FTP of under 200 watts bump up to 267 watts by the end of 2020.  It culminated in a late-December ride that started as just trying to catch up on miles I’d missed over the holidays.  It became a self-competitive mission to complete the Uber Pretzel, a 128lkm route in Zwift, and continued even after concluding that.  

 

I felt good, so I just kept going until I’d logged a little over 102.5 miles. My first indoor metric and imperial century ride, all done while catching up on my favorite Netflix shows as it snowed outside.

 

Not long after that, I officially joined my first organized cycling team, the DIRTy Diesels, to race in the Zwift Racing League.  I’ve kept getting more into it all. The competition and the DIRT family helped get me through what was otherwise a very long and especially dreary winter.

Conclusion - PR after PR on the Road and in my Life

As spring returned, the ice melted, and rain cleared the gravel off the roads.  I found that riding the same familiar routes was producing PR after PR. Indoor cycling had not only taken care of my mental health but remarkably improved all aspects of my cycling abilities too.

 

What a win/win! This past summer, I got to ride in my first real-life group races and could hang for the most part. I got to feel what drafting is like in real life, and well, I got to feel what getting dropped is like, also.

 

Of course, I want to improve so much, and now I have goals for this off-season. I will hit the roads even stronger next year.

That’s my experience riding in my little corner of Alaska. There are so many beautiful, wonderous places to ride around the world, and I consider myself lucky and thankful beyond words to live in one of them.

Your Thoughts?

Have you ever had the pleasure of cycling in Alaska?  What was it like?  Comment below!  Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.

 

For more great stories highlighting the extraordinary individuals of DIRT and virtual cycling check out the Community page on The ZOM.

About the Author: Jason Soza

Jason Soza is a 40-something-year-old who spent his childhood in southern California but has been in Alaska for nearly 30 years. He’s a husband to an awesome wife and father of a four-year-old boy who really, really likes it when dad rides through the volcano in Watopia. Being a dad, it’s inevitable that really terrible jokes are thought up during long rides, so Jason started the Pedal Faster Club. It’s a place to share live streams, videos, and of course, cycling-related dad jokes printed on stuff. The name comes from a mantra he repeats to himself in between mental hilarity, ”Pedal faster, pedal harder.” (It’s a cycle. Get it!?)

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