The reflective crossing-guard vest and orange hat peeking out beneath his helmet made him unmistakable. Steve Clark was that guy pedaling between Cable and Hayward, Wis., last week, looking like a vagabond out there weathering the elements on his bicycle.
Those that stopped to take his picture could have heard his story. A closer glance revealed he was toting a pair of original Fischer RCS skis and skate poles along his left side.
Clark, 54, completed his 10th American Birkebeiner 50-kilometer race on Saturday. He rode more than 100 miles from his farm in Cushing, Wis., and once in Cable on Friday, he camped near the start.
The manager for Transit for Livable Communities, a $25 million dollar walking and bicycling program in the Twin Cities, Clark has an apartment in Minneapolis. He rides his bike or runs most days to work – eight miles each way.
He doesn’t need to manpower a 65-pound commuter bike to get to the Birkie or any of the other races he does in Minnesota and Wisconsin. But he does, partially because his wife teased him about not doing so a few years ago.
“It’s not like she has a thing against cars,” Clark said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “She’s like, ‘You’re kind of going against your values when you’re [driving] to all these places to race.’ … It was more like, ‘Maybe you should stop racing. Maybe you need different priorities.’ ”
Clark spun her words into motivation. For the last three years, he has biked to most sporting events, which inevitably led to more time away from the family, he said. But he carried a message and lived up to his ideals in remaining 99 percent car-free.
This year marked his first trip to the Birkie by bike. Because of a late start two days before, Clark wasn’t able to wax his skis and opted to leave the iron at home to avoid extra weight. He figured he could buy one at a thrift store somewhere along the way.
A few miles south of Hayward on Thursday, he rode around for three hours trying to find his friends’ cabin. When he finally rolled in around 9 p.m., Clark took advantage of running water and a shower. The next day, he hopped back on his bike and headed 30 miles north to Cable. He stopped slightly over halfway to get his skis waxed at the RiverBrook Bike & Ski shop in Seeley.
Clark figured he saved enough in gas money to justify doing so. (Note: Upon hearing about Clark’s journey, RiverBrook recently offered Clark a complimentary World Championship Wax Service for next year’s Birkie.)
He proceeded approximately 10 miles north toward the Cable Union Airport at Telemark Lodge, where he set up a tent nearby and bunkered down with a couple of sleeping bags and pads. It was a ritual he had done for years, and he said the fresh air gave him a good night’s rest.
Despite consuming lots of fruit and omega-3 fatty acids before the race, Clark said he felt the wear of the 100-plus mile ride on Saturday. Go figure.
He wasn’t overly pleased with his time, just shy of 3 hours and 20 minutes, and hoped to break three hours in the future – maybe next year.
“The Birkie sort of is a culmination of the skiing season for me,” Clark said. “You really want to have your best time, and the biking did seem like it would compromise the race, and it did. There’s no doubt about it that I was pretty tired at the start line.”
He and his son Danny had biked about 70 miles to Minnesota’s 58 k Mora Vasaloppet in the past, which didn’t seem too bad, Clark said. But the Birkie involved a longer and hillier trek across state highways with massive logging trucks occasionally giving Clark a jolt.
Other than their alarming speed and draft, Clark said his ride was pretty smooth as he rotated an easier gear to power a Dynohub generator. That illuminated lights on his bike throughout the day, making him more visible to surprised drivers.
“I’m kind of an unusual sight,” Clark said. “I can’t believe how many people stopped their car further up and took pictures. I had more people taking pictures of me biking to the Birkie than when I was in my wedding.”
“They weren’t just people that were going to the Birkebeiner, they were people who were clearly not skiers,” he added. “So that was cool.”
Almost as soon as he’d finished the Birkie, Clark kept moving and hopped on a bus back to Cable. There, he loaded up his bike and rode down to Hayward, where he ate a hearty meal of blueberry soup. Around 6 p.m., he hit the road once more and finally arrived at his cabin in Cushing at 2:30 a.m. Sunday.
Before leaving town, Clark talked to some people about his journey and began to toy with the idea of making and selling ski racks for bikes.
“The guy said, ‘Steve, I hate to break it to you but there’s not going to be too many people that want to do it and there’s not going to be a market for it,’ ” Clark said.
He didn’t give up, reasoning he could tweak the rack to hold a gun for hunting or even a shovel for work. People didn’t need to live in cities to commute by bike, and Clark already met a few he inspired to ride their bikes to nearby races. If nothing else, it was a good way to warm up.
Pedaling to the Birkie was particularly fun, he said.
“I hope it will be a tradition,” Clark said. “Maybe next year people will join me.”
Upon arriving back in Cushing, he immediately cleaned his cabin and prepared for his next trip. He was scheduled to fly to Mexico later that morning.
Due at the airport by 9 a.m., Clark decided to forgo sleep at 4:30 a.m. and kept himself awake for the 1 ½ hour drive south. Alone in his pickup truck, he fell asleep at the wheel and opened his eyes to witness one of the most terrifying moments of his life.
Flying off the road, he soared through and somehow avoided several trees. He emerged unhurt and caused no other accidents, but totaled his truck and missed his flight.
Shaken and grateful to avoid injury and harming others, Clark collected his thoughts on Monday during a 30-mile ride back to Minneapolis. He had planned to compete in the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon in Urique, Mexico, on Sunday, just a week after the Birkie.
It was to be his first ultra after completing his first marathon last year. Clark anticipated running nearly 50 miles through North America’s deepest canyon in Vibram FiveFingers, barefoot sports shoes.
He considered flying out Wednesday.
“After the going off the road I felt awful knowing that I could have died or worse, killed someone else,” Clark wrote in an email. “I made a decision not to do the race in Mexico … Family members were very concerned about my state of mind and it was hard to argue with them that I had made sound judgments, because clearly getting into a truck being that tired was very poor judgment.”
He remembered the tow-truck driver shaking his head in disbelief as he looked at the various trees, posts and railings that Clark avoided.
“I walked away with no harm to my body… none whatsoever,” Clark wrote. “So my epiphany was it was truly getting in the truck that was the problem. I felt good skiing. I felt good biking. And I continued to feel good as I was biking back to my apartment.”
He realized it wasn’t the excessive exercise that led to the crash, but rather a poor decision to drive without rest. The body has its limitations, especially after riding more than 100 miles each way to the Birkie and sandwiching a 31-mile ski race in between.
Not keen on an unhappy ending, Clark said he was in good condition after the race.
He had lost about three pounds over the trip, which was reasonable. The homemade gorp, goo and maple syrup plus some muffins and cookies along the way helped power him along.
He also claimed to be healthier than ever. A biker since his days as a paperboy, Clark downplayed his athletic background.
“I do feel that I’m not a great athlete,” he said. “I wasn’t a great athlete in high school, but I truly believe that today I’m in better shape that I ever have in my life. I feel like I will continue to get in better shape and it’s kind of a nice feeling. … Clean living.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.