Photo: Tim Bernston on his way to ITI victory
UPDATE: Tim Bernston arrived in McGrath at 1:45 p.m. on March 1 to win the Invitational. He became only the fourth cyclist to complete the 350-mile race in under two days.
NIKOLAI — As dawn lightened the pale blue skies over this village on the north slope of the Alaska Range Monday, tired Anchorage cyclist Tim Berntson appeared on the verge of winning the toughest of Alaska’s Iditarod events.
After some 300 miles of pedaling across the Susitna River valley, up the ice-hard Yentna River, over a snowy Rainy Pass and across the dusty remains of the 92,000-acre Turquoise Lake wildfire, the 44-year-old Bernston needed only hold pace for another 50 miles to win the human-powered Iditarod Trail Invitational for the first time.
He also appeared on the verge of becoming only the fourth person in history to pedal a fat bike the 350 miles from Kink to McGrath along the Iditarod Trail through some of the wildest country in North America in less than two days. The previous three members of this club accomplished the feat last year when everyone agreed conditions were near ideal for a wilderness fat-bike race.
Conditions were less than ideal this year, but a stubborn Berntson battled through. He and 30-year-old Tyson Flaharty from Fairbanks moved to the front of the race at Finger Lake as the trail began the tough climbing into the mountains on the way to 3,160-foot Rainy Pass.
A race that had been on record pace early ran into hard going there. Snow started falling and moose punched so many holes in the snowy trail it was tough to ride. Racers thought conditions might improve when they left Puntilla Lake for the normally windswept alpine benches that lead up to the Pass.
But the benches were shockingly deep in snow this year. Sometimes knee deep in rough, crunchy snow, cyclists spent more time bike pushing than riding.
“There was a lot of postholing,” Flaharty said. “We were wallowing. We might have ridden six miles out of 20.”
It did get better below the top of the Pass on the north side, and the duo led the race into Rohn, a lone, log cabin the very heart of the range. They rested there for a couple hours, and then Bernston took off.
The real race begins
“We got up at the same time,” said Flaharty, an Invitational rookie. “He was just more ready to go.”
Flaharty would never see Berntson again. As Berntson sat at the kitchen table of Nick Petruska in the village grabbing a quick bite of food and a Coke on Monday morning, Flaharty was still out in the wind pounding the swamps to the south.
Bernston would be gone from the village before the younger man rolled in and accepted that his chance for victory had passed.
“He could blow up,” Flaharty said as he lingered over an egg souffle and bacon. “But he seems to know himself pretty well.”
When Berntson came into town in the dim light of morning with an LED light shining bright on the handlebar of his bike, he was moving so fast along the road to the dump that someone might have mistaken his means of transportation for a snowmachine, the norm here.
Over breakfast, Berntson said this year’s Invitational, which started fast only to get tough, turned fast again leaving Rohn. The trail north from there was rough in many places, but it was mostly snowless. All in all, he assessed it as a great mountain-bike track.
For an Iditarod fat-bike cyclist, Berntson said, it was almost too good. Pushed by a tailwind on some of the rocky downhills in the Turquoise Burn, he said, he was hitting speeds that made him consider the consequences of a crash.
“Coming through there with that tailwind, it was a little scary,” he said. “I kind of wished I had a helmet.”
Most Invitational competitors forego helmets in favor of good warm hats. Helmets don’t seem all that necessary when the odds are crashes will come at low speed and often in soft snow.
The snow, unfortunately, wasn’t soft this year. Or at least it wasn’t soft for the race. It had been soft in weeks previous and then frozen so solid it stayed frozen even when air temperatures, if not wet bulb temperatures, climbed above freezing.
Bernston, who admitted he’d expected smooth trail out of Rohn as is generally the norm, described the trail into as “70 miles of bumps from Iron Dog (the first of the winter’s Big Three of Iditarod events) and twelve-hundred moose that then froze.”
Many were pondering how the competitors in the race that comes next — the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race — will handle it.
“It was rough,” Flahary said. “It didn’t look like someplace you’d want to go on a dogsled.”
Along with rough, it was also warm. Many Invitational competitors said they never unpacked their serious, cold weather gear.
Temperatures in past races have dropped to 40 degrees below zero, but there was nothing like that this year. Temperatures near or above freezing made the race pretty easy on everyone, admitted Flaharty, who grew up in frozen Fairbanks but didn’t seem to be missing Fairbanks-style cold in the least.
As Berntson dressed to leave here for the finish line in McGrath, where he was expected before 2 p.m. today, he looked more like someone preparing for an April road ride in Anchorage than a fat-bike ride on the fabled Iditarod Trail.
Bernston was making no outright predictions on his finishing time.
“Sometime between now and 7 or 8 o’clock tonight,” he said, but it was pretty clear he hoped to break two hours and join a very select group of fat-bike cyclists.
And he wasn’t waiting for anyone.
“Where’s your partner?” Oline Petruska, Nick’s wife asked Berntson over breakfast.
“I have zero partners in this race,” he said. “I have lots of friends but zero partners.”
Flaharty, a national caliber Nordic skier in an early life, fully understood. He tried to catch Berntson, he said, but couldn’t hang with him on marginal trail where Bernston was able to ride while Flaharty, a slightly heavier ride, had to keep pushing.
It was good to have someone to travel with during much of the race, Flaharty said, noting that taking turns in the lead made things easier. But he recognized a race is about winning.
Winning is something Berntson clearly wants to accomplish in the Invitational, and this looks to be his year.