SKWENTA — As darkness settled over the Alaska Range Sunday night, the cyclists at the front of the Iditarod Trail Invitational were once again racing at faster-than-husky pace toward the tiny Interior community of McGrath.
Warm weather meant pools of water in many places along the Iditarod Trail, but beneath it there was mostly ice or rock-hard snow. With the winds calm and the temperature near 40 degrees, cyclists stripped to their jerseys and spun north at speeds of better than 15 mph.
Gray skies sometimes spit hard raindrops even as a brightening horizon to the south promised an improvement in the weather.
Momentarily stopped on the Yentna River, Jeff Oatley, a former winner of the Invitational-short for 350 miles to McGrath and the record holder for the Invitational-long for 1,000 miles to Nome, said the pace was almost too fast for him.
“We need some snow,” he said.
A grinder not a road racer, Oatley was battling to keep up with the lead pack of rookie Tyson Flaharty from Fairbanks, Tim Berntson from Anchorage, Charly Tri from Minnesota and two-time, 350-winner Jay Petervary from Idaho.
The four leaders averaged almost 16 mph on the first 90 miles of trail.
“It’s the quickest anyone’s ever been here,” Petervary said as he ducked into the Skwentna Roadhouse just before 8:15 p.m. He stayed only minutes before beating it out the door.
“You taking off already?” asked lodge owner Cindi Herman.
“I’ll miss you Jay,” said Tri.
Head games begin
“I’m going to take a bivvy (bivouac),” Petervary said.
Other racers gathered around a table in the kitchen chuckled. Camping out along the trail requires time to pull out a sleeping bag and pad, plus more time to repack it. Better to grab a nap in a checkpoint than spend the time. Nobody really believed Petervary and after he left there was some joking about his competitiveness.
The Invitational is a pretty laid back race. There is no prize money, but the winners does earn a bit of fame among a growing group of endurance riders. The Invitational is not for the faint of heart. It crosses some of the wildest country in North America. The combination of big, empty real estate and temperatures that can dip 40-degrees-below zero scare off most lower-48 cyclists.
This year is an anomaly. The race started out in the warm and the weather is forecast to stay that way for days. It was 36 degrees here Sunday night. Snow remains knee deep in the woods, but where snowmachines — the main form of travel in the region — have packed it down it has turned to ice.
The main trail of the Iditarod is an ice rut going up the Yentna, though there is packed snow off to either side. Nearly everyone is riding studded tires and sticking to the rut because it is fastest. Still some have reported scary stretches of slippery trail.
Heather Best, the women’s leader, was sporting a snow burn — the winter version of road rash — on her right elbow where she went down. She was riding fast down a slick hill on hard trail near the Little Susitna River not long after the race start and simply got bucked off the bike, she said. Best pulled into this checkpoint not long after he husband, Oatley, left.
Oatley himself came in the door just as Petevary was going out. Oatley looked around the lodge and told the gang at the table, “you guys better get going instead of sitting around eating.”
No rest for the weary
The others didn’t linger long. Minutes after Oatley spoke, they were out the door with Tri joking he was going to go check out Petervary’s bivvy.
“He might bivvy,” Oatley said as he sat down to grab a bite to eat, “but it will be about 30 hours from now.”
Petervary and Berntson, a two-time Invitational runner-up, were pre-race favorites for this year’s competition, but Bernston said the 30-year-old Flaharty, a former national level Nordic skier, might be the man to watch.
“He’s a dark horse to win the race,” Bernston said.
The Invitational is a notoriously two-face race. Weather dictates.
With an icy trail this year, it took the leader racers slightly more than six hours to reach this checkpoint. With deep snow in 2012, the cyclists pushed most of the the way from Knik . It took lead cyclist Peter Basinger, a five-time champ, about 55 hours.
There were runners in front of him. The lead runner this year is already more then 50 miles behind.
The 2016 Invitational is shaping up as what Basinger calls a race for the “speedsuit crowd. An Anchorage native son now teaching school in Utah and out of the race this year with an injury, Basinger has been watching the weather on the internet and predicted this sort of chase.
The fastest time to McGrath is 1 day, 18 hours, and 32 minutes. The record set by Anchorage’s John Lackey only last year was expected to stand for years, but racers are on pace to beat it.
Whether this continues will depend on what is ahead as the race climbs toward Rainy Pass. There are rumors of deeper snow as the trail heads into the mountains. Snow could slow things down, but Mark Torkelson, who runs this lodge with Herman and knows the surrounding trails well, was predicting the snow that fell days ago will probably already have set up hard despite the warm weather. There is still plenty of cold in the ground.
This is central Alaska in February even if it feels like Southeast Alaska in April.