Racing in Alaska isn’t for the faint of heart.
Athletes from around the world come here to compete in some of the most demanding races for any number of sports, including, increasingly, mountain biking.
This month, the 15th Soggy Bottom race took riders 109 miles from Hope to Cooper Landing and back on the Resurrection and Devil’s Pass trails.
Tyle Owens was one of those racers. In fact, the youngest to ever complete the trek. I caught up with him recently after another race around Tsalteshi Trails.
With a sizeable cheering section, Owens, 15 of Soldotna, finishes up another of the Thursday night races around Tsalteshi. After he’s had a few minutes to catch his breath, we meet and I find out he’s only been at this seriously for a few years.
“I’ve been racing for about three or four years now and I’ve always been into biking, but in the past two years, I’ve started really competitively racing.”
The trails here, and some of his fellow riders, have been good training for Owens. Check the weekly results and you’ll usually find his name near the top of the list. He says making the jump to such a major race like the Soggy Bottom was a little nerve-wracking.
“(I) got signed up for it, trained all summer. Then, race day, I’m like, ‘Oh, man, what have I done?’ I go, I crank out the first leg of it, felt great. Started the second leg, started to feel it. And then with Mike Crawford as my ghost rider, I just felt a lot better. A lot of moral support.”
Crawford’s is another name seen atop the leader boards at local races. He started helping to organize the weekly series here four years ago and has watched Owens get better each year.
“He was, like, 11 years old and doing great. Watching him year to year to year, now he’s consistently in the top five. There’s so much physicality of the upper body and it’s not just mashing down pedals with your legs. It’s so much technical skill and that’s one thing that Tyle is excellent at. Now that he’s built his engine, he’s become a much stronger rider.”
Building your engine, that’s biker talk for having the legs and the lungs to pedal yourself more than a hundred miles over roots and rocks, up and down hills that have goats thinking twice, and then living to tell the tale.
This race was done all on singletrack, so, basically, a hiking patch just wide enough to pedal a bike on. That can make for some tight maneuvers and at a pretty good clip. Owens says he just tries to slow things down out there.
“Just slow down and (think), ‘Oh, what if I went a little more to the right or a little more to the left? Will that be a faster way through it? Or what if I just crank a little harder here, slow it down just a touch here?' It’s just slowing it down, talking your way through it, can help you find faster ways.”
Owens finished the race in a little less than 11 hours and 40 minutes. His goal was to get across the line in 12 hours. And even though the Soggy Bottom is a pretty big-time race, you get the sense that, to Owens, it’s one more off the list. There are lots more races to come.
“Really, just being out on a bike is so much fun. It’s one of those things, you look back after a day of riding and you just appreciate what you did.”
And a quick note for any gear heads, Owens rides a Trek Remedy, full suspension 29"er. It has his full endorsement.