Alaska’s Fireweed bike race returns after hiatus, with One-Wheel Wonders along for the ride

The Fireweed road cycling race is being run this weekend after four years off.

Among the participants making the 200-mile ride from Sheep Mountain Lodge, near Matanuska Glacier, to Valdez is a group of unicyclists from Anchorage who go by the name of the One-Wheel Wonders.

“We’re not really like a formal group,” said Stolf Short, who helped form the team. “We’re just a bunch of buddies riding together. I’ve known some of the folks that I’ve been riding with for less than a year, but I feel like I’ve known them forever.”

The race has generally been run by traditional two-wheel cyclists, but after seeing an advertisement for the race on social media, Short thought it might be a fun thing to try with a unicycle. But doing 200 miles on his own would be too much of a strain.

“I’ve always wanted to do 100 miles and I know a couple of people who’ve done 100 miles, and so I reached out to some buddies to see if anybody was interested,” he said.

At first, about 10 people showed interest before the list was whittled down to the seven unicyclists who make up the current team.

“We’ve been training together, whether we’re riding mountain unicycles out on the singletrack trails around Anchorage or with a bigger unicycle on the paved paths,” Short said.

They’ve been training for this particular race on and off for the last four months, and some members have participated in cyclo-cross competitions in the past.

“I’m just excited to get out with some buddies and ride and camp and enjoy that camaraderie of a race,” Short said. “I really enjoy the way that people cheer each other on and I feel like I feed off of that enthusiasm, and I really like to give it back too.”

When he first posed the idea to participate in the Fireweed, he got some mixed responses.

“Some people very enthusiastically, instantly said ‘Yeah!’ and some folks were like, ‘Eh let’s talk about it,’” Short said. “We all kind of met eventually and talked about it. I think we’re all pretty pumped on the idea. Anybody who really wasn’t kind of fell to the wayside on this mission anyway.”

Race director and vice president Sarah Radonich has been on the board since 2014 and said they don’t restrict how groups run their relays, so they can swap out as often and however many times as they’d like — although they’re allowed to cross the finish line just one at a time.

“We’re all gonna try to do the last leg of it although we can’t cross the finish line together,” Short said. “We will all ride the last mile or two together and I think we’ll peel off and one person will cross through because I think that’s part of the race rules, but we’re all going to try to finish this thing together.”

Radonich was “totally stoked” when the group expressed interest in participating in the return of the race.

“I saw them at the Tour of Anchorage, and they climbed up the Sisson, which is a huge wall,” she said. “If you can unicycle up that in the middle of winter on snow, then you can absolutely do this on the road.”

The team’s tentative plan was to swap out every 5 to 10 miles, although in some sections they’ll have no choice but to ride for longer.

“With unicycles we’ll just go a lot slower even though our tires are a lot bigger than a road bike,” Short said. “It’s just a single revolution, and we’re kind of hoping overall to have our average speed be about 10 miles an hour.”

While that’s not very fast in the grand scheme of a 200-mile race, their focus is on safety more than speed.

Short took up unicycling during the pandemic, and has been enthralled with it in the three years since he started. He began riding cyclo-cross — featuring sort of all-terrain races — and met more riders.

Having fun is more important to him and the rest of the One-Wheel Wonders than how fast they can get to the finish line.

“We’re not really trying to compete for any time or anything like that,” he said. “We just kind of want to just do the thing.”

Rebirth of the race

Radonich had received a call from the organization’s director and president, Sara Wendling, around this time last year about preparing for the return of the race after Wendling’s father, Shawn Wendling, passed away.

“Her father was basically my board mentor,” Radonich said. “He really brought me on and tried to do a very solid transition with me. It was very important to her that the race continue, so we brought it back.”

The Fireweed race took place every year from 2002 to 2018 and was one of six races that served as a qualifier for the Race Across America competition. It previously had four categories that included 400-, 200-, 100- and 50-mile races. Radonich said the race might have returned sooner if not for the pandemic.

[Fireweed 400 bike race calls it quits after 16 years]

“I think we’re more interested in longer rides, so probably 200-plus,” Radonich said. “It’s very complicated to run at 50 or 100 that finish in different places. You have to have two sets of finish lines and essentially two sets of staff when they finish in two different places.”

Even though this year’s Fireweed isn’t a Race Across America qualifier, organizers still had a lot of interest from road cyclists from all over the country. This year’s race had a solo option, two-person teams, four-person teams and the open division that the One-Wheel Wonders are competing in.

“We have Fairbanks, North Pole, Tok, Skagway, Juneau, and then we have all over from the Midwest, California, Texas, and I think there’s some Wisconsin people,” Radonich said.

The race is also a fundraiser for youth cycling ventures. This year, it will donate funds to Mighty Bikes and G.R.I.T. (Girls Riding Into Tomorrow).

Roughly 400 people are registered for this year’s 200-mile race — an impressive return, considering in 2018, the last time the race was held, the Fireweed drew around 600 participants across all four categories.

“We love finishing in Valdez,” Radonich said. “They’ve been phenomenal in bringing this back. They have made everything so easy for us. They’re so easy to work with. They’ve done a lot to help us with permitting on their end, with logistics, and with signage. They’ve pretty much bent over backwards to help us bring this back.”

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