The Fulda Challenge crew on 18 mountain bikes take off from Second and Broadway on Feb. 4.

McHales take lead past Skagway to land of nuggets

Dawson City couple first Canadian team to win Fulda Challenge

Story and Photos by Jeff Brady

The conditions could not have been more perfect for a bike ride to the summit – in February. Light snow and no wind were welcome signs to those who had heard about sub-zero temperatures and 40 mph north winds that hit Skagway a week before.
For Dawson City’s Greg and Denise McHale, it was just another day in the North, their home turf for the Fulda Extreme Arctic Challenge, and Team Canada would ride that northern advantage all the way home.
The teams arrived in Skagway on the ferry from Haines the night of Feb. 3. Tourism Director Buckwheat Donanhue directed a double line of black Fulda-decaled Toyotas to their stopping points – hotels for the press cars, the WP&YR parking lot for the team cars. Teams set up their tents for the night and then headed to the depot for a sumptuous buffet catered by the Haven. The Europeans raved about the meat loaf. Others looked at pictures on a Swiss journalists’ computer, and then listened to Donahue belt out “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”
Organizers said the atmosphere in Skagway was great, and they may hold more events here next year. “Everything is perfect so far,” said race director Holger Bergold, “The conditions are ideal. This is a great background.”
The McHales were humble about their great start. As a team they were in first place after two days with second place finishes in the Whitehorse truck pull, and first place finishes for men and women in the snowshoe-mountain run on the Haines pass earlier that day. They followed a cross-country ski trail to the top of a ridge, ditched their snowshoes, ran along the ridge, and then came down another, steeper slope.
“We just started out fast and didn’t stop,” Greg said. “It was longer than we thought it was going to be.... It was really nice the way they laid it out, but it was very steep at the top.”
“It’s our kind of event,” added Denise. “The snowshoeing helped.”
The Dawson couple said training on their home turf should continue to help them in more of the winter endurance events, but they said it was early and “the other athletes are really good.”

Tourism Director Buckwheat Donahue greets the long line of Fulda vehicles at the ferry terminal Feb. 3.

Next test was the Klondike Highway summit.
The day dawned with a light snowfall. The 18 Trek mountain bikes were unloaded on Broadway by Thom Ely of Sockeye Cycle, who had a wrench handy to make adjustments.
“When you are shifting, plan ahead for slippage (on the snow),” Ely cautioned racers during a briefing. “And for you Brits, the brakes are reverse of what you’re used to, so use both.”
Bergold said there were five to eight centimeters of new snow on top with a temperature of minus-10C. He told racers to obey normal traffic rules, and give way to snow plows and trucks. For the press brigade, he asked them to “pay attention” and give cyclists two-to-three meters of space when passing a cyclist.

Sockeye Cycle's Thom Ely makes and adjustment to Greg McHale's bike

They were off at 8:30 a.m. sharp, with a small crowd of about 15 downtown workers in addition to the large press gathering to see them off.
Although racers were told to stay to the right, many tracks zig-zagged their way up the middle of the snoway roadway.
Timo de Boer of the Netherlands led the pack up the mountain, but he started to struggle close to the Moore Creek bridge, and Greg McHale and Alex Lang of Germany Toyota pulled ahead. McHale continued to push it and opened up a 200-meter lead over Lang within sight of the summit. After the summit, McHale didn’t let up, because he knew Lang might be able to catch him. He was the first racer into Fraser at 1:55.
“I slipped a little bit on the downhill part but maintained my speed,” Greg McHale said. “I feel okay, just a little tight in the quads.”
Ely, who picked up bikes as they came in, said 1:40 would have been a good time in summer, so McHale’s feat was impressive.
McHale and Lang, who finished five minutes later, posed for pictures with the cameras, and then McHale jumped in his car to change clothes before his wife came in.
In third place overall was the top woman, Orietta Calliari of Italy. Timo de Boer took fourth, and then came Sandra Janisch of Germany Toyota and Denise McHale with a time of 2:25.
“My feet are like two blocks of ice,” Denise said, putting her feet down as she slowed to the finish line. She got a big hug from her husband, who kissed her ice-caked eyebrows, and told her they still had the overall lead.
Each man and woman receives nine points for a win, and then their scores are combined for the team standings.
“It’s still a long race,” Denise said, as she warmed her feet for several minutes in her car’s heater.

Greg passes the summit sign, and two racers approach Moore Creek bridge.

They drove off that afternoon to Carcross, where Greg would take fourth in a car handling event, and Denise would finish eighth. And that night in Whitehorse, they would finish fourth in the railroad handcar timed race.
But by the sixth event, a skidoo race, they were back in form. Denise would post the best female time – she also would win the hovercraft event on the Braeburn airstrip, and the half marathon at the Arcitc Circle on the Dempster Highway. Greg’s only other win came in the hovercraft event, but he would place second in three other events, and never lower than fifth.
By the time they reached Dawson for the final day of competition on Sunday, they were 18 points ahead in the team standings, but the Austrian team of Gitti Koeck and Christian Meier had closed. Koeck won the women’s ice climb, while Denise took seventh, but Greg’s second place finish to Switzerland’s Heinz Loosli kept the team 13 points ahead going into the
final event, an ATV race on the Yukon River ice.
The Dawson couple played it safe with Greg placing fifth and Denise sixth, good enough for the team title. The couple each won a $5,000 gold nugget, and Greg also won 1,500 Euros for the top male. Koeck got the same for the top female finisher, and Denise McHale tied for second with the Netherlands’ Corinne van Dijkhizen. They split second and third prize money, 1500 Euros total.

Greg McHale crosses the finish line in first place at Fraser.

“It was a long week to say the least, but overall a really valuable experience,” Denise wrote in an email early this week. “Greg did very well. I had some really great events and some really poor events, but luckily they evened each other out.”
“Tire changing is a not exactly my specialty,” she noted, adding that she is still trying to figure out the techniqe for pushing a rail handcar.
The McHales were happy to have northerners rooting for them along the route, which gave them extra incentive and support.