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A beautifully brutal race

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Canadian Lindsay Gauld on the Tatina River coming into Rohn.

FAIRBANKS — Is it possible a truly  nice guy can win the human-powered Iditarod Trail Invitational — the hardest and one of the most potentially dangerous races in the triumvirate of beautifully brutal competitions staged along Alaska’s most famous trail wilderness trail every winter?

The eyes of fat-bike cyclist Kevin Breitenbach, the 2014 Invitational champ and 2015 runner-up, reflect his contemplation as he sits in a coffee shop near the University of Alaska here and ponders this question. Breitenbach edged out Anchorage’s Tim Berntson by 21 minutes to win two years ago.

The year before that, Berntson finished second some 34 minutes behind Idaho’s Jay Petervary.

A three time winner of the White Mountains 100 in the high-country north of this Interior city, a three-time winner of the Susitna 100 in the big valley between the Alaska and Talkeetna range mountains north of Anchorage, and the 2015 winner of the 100-mile Soggy Bottom mountain bike race along the state’s famed Resurrection Pass Trail on the Kenai Peninsula, Berntson has won just about every Alaska ultra there is to win but the Invitational.

And he might have had a much better shot at the Invitational in 2013 if he hadn’t stopped to wait on Breitenbach after the latter broke down in the rolling, brush-covered hills of what used to be the Farewell Burn.

“I blew out my tire through the Burn (and) couldn’t get the tire unseated,” Breitenbach recalled. “I decided to walk the bike for a while to loosen the bead and get out of the wind. I walked several miles.”

When he finally stopped, he realized he’d forgotten his bike pump back at the first stop. It was going to be impossible to fix a tire without a pump to inflate it. So Breitenbach dumped his bike and started retracing his steps back along the trail.

“Tim passed me in the mean time,” Breitenbach said. Breitenbach told Berntson what had happened.

“I found him (later) waiting for me at my bike with my tire off,” Breitenbach said.

Berntson wanted to make sure Breitenbach was going to be able to ride into the village of Nikolai, the second-to-last checkpoint in the 350-mile competition over the Alaska Range to the tiny Interior city of McGrath. Not all Invitational competitors are so accommodating.

There is a sense of shared danger and camaraderie that generally leads everyone in the race to watch out for the physical health of others along the trail. But not everyone takes the same view on breakdowns. A lot of racers, maybe most, would have viewed Breitenbach’s  mechanical as clearly non-life-threatening, and then tried to gap him.

Breitenbach himself admits he isn’t sure he’d have done what Berntson did.

“I have a hard time waiting,” he confessed.

He’s not alone. It’s not that past winners of the Invitational are bad guys. The race has never had a competitor as ruthless as defrocked Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong; much of which might have to do with the Invitational offering nothing in the way of price money and little in the way of prestige outside of Alaska.

But the people at the front of the Invitational are usually in it to win or exhaust themselves trying, and the race has had its darker moments. There have been one or two accusations of cheating,  and there was a year that one very fit racer slowed way down to nurse an ailing fellow competitor to the finish only to have the latter regroup enough to finish in a tie.

That was bad enough, but things got a little ugly when a pair of national equipment sponsors for the ailing rider promoted him as the “winner” without mentioning the tie. And all of this blew up in the days before the Invitational became the pedal-to-the-metal competition it has become over the course of the last two years.

With temperatures mild enough racers are able to push themselves to the limit without worrying about death from hypothermia if they crack, the whole character of the race has changed.

No lackey Lakey

Last year, Anchorage’s John Lackey attacked the Invitational field from the get go and pedaled the 350 miles to McGrath in a don’t-rest-until-you-get-there time of 1 day, 18 hours, 32 minutes. Lackey slashed 10 hours off the old record and in the process blew away the fastest time a dog time has ever run the same distance in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Lackey beat the dogs by eight hours. Breitenbach bested them by five hours. And two other cyclists proved themselves faster than a speeding Alaska husky. But it took a bit of weather-related luck. All of the fat-tire cyclists benefited from an undeniably good bike track. The trail wasn’t quite a sidewalk, but it was more like a mountain-bike trail than a dog trail.

That the Iditarod dog race moved its starting line to Fairbanks to find snow about said it all. The regular dog route up the Yentna and Skwentna Rivers to Puntilla Lake, then over Rainy Pass and down through the Dalzell Gorge to Rohn, and finally on across the new Post River Burn into the regrown, old Farewell Bun on the way to Nikolai and McGrath had so little snow-cover mushers were afraid to tackle it.

They made a lot of noise about the risks to “the dogs,” but the dogs don’t really care whether they’re running on frozen ground, ice or snow. It’s the people behind riding on a piece of equipment designed to slide over smooth winter white, not bounce over rocks, roots and stumps or go skidding wildly sideways on ice, who are in danger when the trail is bare.

What is a nightmare for a rider on a sled, though, is something of a blessing for someone on a bike with fat, cushy four-inch wide tires that dampen the blows inflicted by frozen rubble, rocks and roots while rolling even faster and easier than on packed snow — let alone soft snow.

Soft snow, which is kind to mushers,  is the bane of Invitational cyclists. In 2012, the race started out in a snowstorm that ended up dumping a couple feet of white fluff on the Susitna and Yentna Rivers. Fat bikers pushed and pushed and then pushed some more.

Tough people quit. Stubborn people pushed on. A pair of runners led the race into and then over the Alaska Range. It was an unprecedented feat. Eventually,  five-time Invitational champ Peter Basinger, an Anchorage kid who grew up and moved to Utah, caught them and went on to win a sixth Invitational in six days, 15 hours. Two other hard pedaling  cyclists were behind him.

Runners Geoff Roes from Juneau and Pennsylvanian Tim Hewitt, an Invitational legend, finished only hours off the pace. Meanwhile, badly frozen Lindsay Gauld, a 64-year-old, former Canadian Olympic cyclist, was being flown out of the remote Rohn checkpoint, which is nothing more than a one-room log cabin and an airstrip in the heart of the Terra Cotta Mountains just beyond halfway along the race route.

Frostbite had so ballooned Gauld’s face he couldn’t see out of his right eye. His nose was an ugly shade of purple. And his knees were sore and swollen from the days of a pushing a heavily laden bike through deep snow before the weather decided to punish him in another way and turned bitterly cold.

Gauld didn’t want to quit, but he didn’t have much choice. His frost damaged hands weren’t working well. He ended up losing part of a finger to cold, but he came back to finish in the race’s top-20 the next year, an impressive showing for the race’s oldest entrant.

The toughest race in North America?

The Invitational, Breitenbach said, sitting in the warm and bustling Alaska Coffee Roasting Co. shop here, “is a bucket list thing.”

Bucket list, indeed. More people have reached the top of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest summit, than have completed the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and more people have completed the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race than have finished the Invitational.

In that snow-challenged year of 2012, only 18 out of the starting field of 50 Invitational competitors made it to McGrath.  Nobody pushed on for Nome. Nobody.

In the entire history of the race, only 72 Invitational cyclists and runners have gone the full 1,000 miles from Knik to the Iditarod’s burled arch in Nome, and eight of those people were named Tim Hewitt. Take out the others who’ve gone multiple times to Nome — Phil Hoftstetter, who happens to live there; Basinger, Petervary, Mike Curiak from Colorado and Jeff Oatley from Fairbanks, who rode to the finish in a startling 10 days 2 hours and 53 minutes in 2014, and the members of the 1,000-mile club shrink to a few dozen.

The distance is almost too much. There is a good reason that before the Invitational began, its predecessor, the Iditasport, called the 1,000 version of the race the “Iditasport Impossible.” The race to McGrath was simply called the “Iditasport Extreme.”

It is extreme enough that by the time most people reach that outpost of 350 people next to an airstrip along the Kuskokwim River, they’ve had enough and are ready to go home. This is arguably the hardest race in the world to finish, and it is harder to win.

It is so hard, not to mention potentially dangerous, that it scares off some competitors. Breitenbach thinks that’s probably a good thing because the Iditarod Trail is deceptive in the way the West Buttress of Mount Denali (formerly Mount McKinley but still North America’s highest peak) is deceptive.

Technically, the 20,322-foot mountain is little more than a walk-up, but the weather can turn it from walk-up to death trap in a matter of hours. Over the past 100 years, more than 120 people have died on McKinley. No one has died in any of the Iditarod Trail races, although there have been close calls in all of them.

Those who’ve spent a lot of time on the trail regularly express fears that someday someone will die. A fatality seems most likely in the Iron Dog snowmachine race, which goes 2,000 miles from Big Lake to Nome and then back to Fairbanks in the Interior.

Iron Dog officials preach safety, safety, safety, and now require racers to wear not only the latest in helmets but the latest in body armor. But high-speed collisions with immovable objects remain the greatest danger in sport. They are the reason motor sports have globally produced the highest number of fatalities over the past century.

The danger in the Invitational comes not from collisions, though collisions are known to happen, but from the weather. More than 100 years ago, Hudson Stuck, the Alaska legend who organized the first successful climb of Denali, observed that travel on the trail in the north at 50 degrees below zero “is all right as long as it’s all right.”

The observation that everything is “is all right as long as it’s all right” applies to so much of life in the Alaska wilderness in winter. Everything is all right as long as it is all right, but if something goes wrong, trouble can arrive almost instantaneously.

Iditarod mushers pinned down in bad weather  have a sled load of gear to protect themselves and a dog team to help. Cyclists and runners in the Invitational have only what they can carry, and often they carry little.

Winning the race, Breitenbach observers, is similar to finishing the race in that it is all about harboring resources so you don’t get in dangerous trouble along the trail and knowing how and where to use those resources to maximum advantage. Sometimes that means backing off when you really want to go hard.

I’ve made some dumb moves in races when I thought I had to prove I wasn’t the weak one out there,” he confessed.

Mr. Mom Breitenbach won’t have to worry about that this year. He’s sitting out this race and the reason why is pretty obvious when he gets up from his chair in the coffee shop to chase down year-old Sawyer, who has decided to launch his own endurance challenge through and around a midday crowd.

When Sawyer joined sister June, now 7, as part of the Breitenbach family, dad discovered that one-plus-one equals considerably more than two. He’s been juggling family responsibilities ever since, and that has cut seriously into his training time. And  training properly for any endurance competition takes a lot of time.

So Breitenbach will only sit and watch this year. It is obvious for whom he will be rooting.

“I think a nice guy can win the ITI,” he said, while conceding there is an advantage to the not quite so nice who, like wolves, can sense weakness and chose that moment to strike. Petervary is a two-time champ who has proven capable in that regard. With Lackey sitting out the race this year, Breitenbach thinks Petervary is the man to watched, followed by Berntson and Oatley, who is in some ways the perfect bookend for Berntson in the nice-guy competition.

Oatley won the race in 2009 and ever since has been consistently in the top five in the years he’s decided to contest the competition to McGrath. In 2012, he entered the Invitational largely to pace his wife, Heather Best, and they both bailed out when they got tired of pushing in the deep snow. In 2014, he took it easy to McGrath to save energy for what would be a record ride to Nome while Best set a women’s course record to McGrath. Oatley held back early again last year on the way to finishing alongside Petervary in Nome in a time of 15 days, 6 hours, 29 minutes.

Oatley is definitely a cyclist more about riding to find out about himself than riding to win races. He just finished pedaling his bike 1,000 miles from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, along the route of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race because he was curious as to what it would be like. There was no competition. He did it for fun.

Along with former champs Petervary and Oatley, and, of course, Berntson, Breitenbach said there are a couple other entrants in this year’s Invitational he thinks could contend: John Logar, an emergency room physician from West Virginia, who first attracted attention as an ultra runner Logar led Invitational runners and hikers into Nome in just under 24 days in 2014, and Tyson Flaharty from Fairbanks, a rookie with a good pedigree.

Logar got on a fat bike for his first wheeled Invitational last year and beat Petervary to McGrath. Logar ended up forth overall only about five hours behind Breitenbach in second, and Logar hadn’t even learned how to eat on the bike to keep himself fueled, Breitenbach said.

Flaharty, meanwhile, is a former world-class skier turned cyclist. The son of Dick Flaharty — an adventurer,  mountaineer and founder of the Fairbanks-based outdoor gear company Apocalypse Design — Tyson was a 2006 pick for the U.S. under-23 Nordic ski team. As a cyclist, he finished second in the White Mountains 100 in 2014, and Breitenbach said Tyson has been training hard this year.

No one really believes a rookie could win the Invitational, but then again nobody thought it possible to pedal to McGrath in under two days until last year when Lackey beat that mark by about 5 1/2 hours.

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CORRECTION: This story was edited on Feb. 20, 2016 to correct the spelling of John Logar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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