Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Running the gauntlet

Date: Aug. 29
Mileage: 51.1
August mileage: 904.5
Temperature upon departure: 57
Rainfall: .04"

It's exciting, setting out to ride a bunch of 50-mile days in a row. But I am becoming a bit tired of the ride out the road, so today I put together a tripod route to mix it up a bit - North Douglas and back, Thane and back, Lemon Creek and back.

The Thane spur is my favorite road route in Juneau. However, I'm pretty sure I can count the number of times I have ridden it this summer on one hand. There's only one reason for this: The Gauntlet. Now, I have ridden Moab's Slickrock Trail. I have descended a muddy Resurrection Pass with no brakes. And I can say that no ride I've tried is as scary - or dangerous - as downtown Juneau on a five-cruise-ship summer day.

It's downright exhilarating in a what-just-happened-back-there kind of way. Hundreds of starry-eyed pedestrians who have spent days being herded around a boat and stuffed with food spill out onto the sidewalks. Most of them think they have landed in Downtown Disney, a magical place where there are no cars, no traffic laws, and everybody understands their right-of-way is absolute as they weave from jewelry store to jewelry store. The problem is, Juneau is not Downtown Disney. There are actually quite a few cars, cars that eventually get tired of slamming on the brakes for clueless walkers and idling in the street as crossing guards let herds of responsible tourists stream past. The drivers eventually decide they're going to do whatever it takes to get through.

As a cyclist, I'm in the middle of it all, dodging tourists even as I'm being dodged by fed-up drivers. If I keep my speed above 20 mph, the cars will stick behind me, but no one can know what is going to spill out from the walls of people surrounding us. It's like the Red Sea has parted and any second it's going to close in on us. Not knowing where or when this may happen only makes us move faster, which in turn increases the likelihood of certain death should the tourist sea topple into the street at the wrong time. I'm especially lucky to be on a little bike; no one sees me.

But it's such a thrill, when I finally break free of a long line of cars and sprint into the narrow corridor between tourists and road, fingers hovering above the brake levers, palms pressed lightly on the handlebars, ready to swerve sharply at a millisecond's notice as I pedal against the ebb and flow of erratic traffic. At the end of The Gauntlet, my reward is five miles of badly cracked, rolling pavement that practically dangles over the narrow precipice between the steep mountainside and the shore. I love it.

As I pedalled back toward my second run through The Gauntlet today, I stopped for a short break on the Sheep Creek bridge. Below me, a gathering crowd of salmon splashed and struggled against the current, bodies flailing and colliding as they fought to gain a few inches upstream. The effort seemed so futile, and yet so intriguing. It made perfect sense to me.