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A Day At The Races

A Day At The Races

On the counter-intuitive thrill of dog-powered biking
By Katharine Sandiford
Oct 10
2017
From the September 2017 Issue

When I was ten years old, I would leash up our miniature poodles Jake and Sophie, and jump on my skateboard. Pulled by their lithe, fluffy black bodies, I’d zoom along Ottawa’s bike paths feeling like laws—both municipal and natural—were being broken. I went on to try poodle-powered propulsion with rollerblades and, later, my ten-speed bike. That is, until the front wheel swallowed up one of the leashes and sent me over the handlebars into a bed of tulips.

Nearly 30 years later, I betray my better judgment and sign up for a bikejoring race—the inaugural event kicking off the tenth summer season of the Dog Powered Sports Association of the Yukon.

Bikejoring is the freak cousin of skijoring—itself a fringe sport. But both are slowly catching on here as Yukoners learn to combine their passion for pooches with their mountain biking and Nordic skiing obsessions. In skijoring, one to three harnessed dogs pull you on skis down packed trails. Bikejoring is the same thing, only replace the skis with a complex mechanical vehicle with spinning toothy metal parts, and swap out the smooth snowy trail for a woodsy path made of roots, sand, puddles and potholes. I wonder why I’m not wearing a kevlar crash suit.

Cars are wedging in around me as I unpack my gear near the starting line. There’s a mix of rust-bucket sled-dog trucks and sporty, roof-racked hatchbacks. Dogs, tied to trees and bumpers, are yelping and whining. Though most are of the husky variety, there is a range of pets there too, including a teacup-sized Chihuahua mix and larger dogs like an Australian Koolie. I’m there with my two Alaskan Husky pets Jib and Fancy. They’re high-octane sled dogs that live to pull me on my skis or kicksled through the snow.

It’s drizzling rain and 20 racers gather around a water-blotched map taped to a dirty hatchback. Most are in slick athletic garb but a few in the crowd are still wearing their dog-yard outfits: stained Carhartt jeans and flannel shirts. Though the tone here is low-key, friendly and non-competitive, the yelps and howls rattle my heart and tighten my chest as visions of the tulip bed dance in my head. Robert Siefke, a tall scruffy musher and one of the race organizers, is going over the rules. “Shout ‘Trail’ when you want to pass and the other team should pull over and stop to the right,” he says in his German accent. The thought of a bikejor pile-up flashes before me: flailing, snarling dogs, a tangled web of ropes, bent bicycles and my bruised, misshapen body ensnared within.

There are three races today: a two-dog two-mile bikejor, a one-dog one-mile bikejor, and a one-dog one-mile canicross race. (Canicross is running with lines attached to a harnessed dog.) I’ve signed up for the two-mile bikejor and, if I survive that, the one-mile running race.

Adam Robinson is vice-president of DPSAY and, after handing out all the bibs, he’s going to do all three races himself today. His partner Cynthia Corriveau is signed up for them all too. Right now, she’s busy filling up a large plastic kiddie pool for the dogs to cool down between races. Robinson and Corriveau own a small recreational team of six sled dogs. They really are the Yukon’s power-couple of bikejoring. When they’re not racing, the couple spends their summer weekends on backcountry bikejor camping trips, where—with up to three dogs apiece—they take gear-laden mountain bikes into the alpine trails around Whitehorse.

As I’m psyching myself up to start the race, Robinson notices I’ve got the dogs attached to a skijor belt around my waist. “Clip them to your bike’s head tube,” he says, pointing to the notch right under my handlebars. That way, the force of the pulling is on the bike rather than the body. (Like many other competitors here, he also runs his lines off a white length of PVC tubing to prevent them from catching in the front wheel.) Has he ever been in an accident? “Once,” Robinson laughs. “The dog went one way around a tree, I went the other way and I just slingshot back.” It obviously did little to discourage him from hopping back up on the saddle.

The yelping intensifies as the dog teams line up for the staggered start. Jib and Fancy are like bucking broncos leaping skyward. “Three, two, one…” yells the timer. “Go!” I blast out of the gate like a rocket. My two kibble-fuelled jets roar through the first mile. I’m barely pedalling. The second mile, the trail narrows and gets hilly, though the dogs’ energy has not waned. This must be what dirt biking feels like, though my machine is stuck in full-throttle with only the brakes to cut the speed.

We pass one team without even flinching. And another. No crashes. No tangles. No dog fights. Suddenly, I’m back in my 10-year old body behind my poodles Jake and Sophie and as we soar down the final stretch of trail, a smile cracks open my 40-year-old face.

Jib and Fancy nap contentedly under a bush as I pack up my gear. Seifke looks down at his clipboard and shouts to me, “You won.” And I laugh. I certainly did. Today is a reminder that a couple of dogs and a bike can teleport you back into your child self, lines and leashes be damned.