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Near record Iditarod

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Phil Hofstetter on the Iditarod Trail near Sullivan Creek south of Nikolai

Strange how it is that paradigm shifts redefine the possible. Up until a couple years ago, it was thought that if someone covered the 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome along the Iditarod Trail on a fat bike in under 20 days it was a major accomplishment.

Colorado’s Mike Curiak made the journey in 15 days, 1 hour and 15 minutes in 2010 to set a record for the toughest Iditarod that stood for a dozen years. Over the course of the Iditasport Impossible and Iditarod Trail Invitational races that followed, the winner’s average time to reach the finish line on the Bering Sea was 21 days.

A few times, cyclists made it in 17 days and change. A few times the pace was so slow runners beat the cyclists. One of the cyclists who did manage to join the 17-day club  was Nome’s own Phil Hofstetter, whose cycling career started on a junker ridden around the summer dusty streets of the Bering Sea city the one-time New Yorker came to call home. In 2010 at the age of 37, he pedaled to Nome in 17 days, 9 hours and 30 minutes to win the Invitational long.

(There is also an Invitational short which goes a mere 350 miles from Knik up and over the Alaska Range to the tiny Interior community of McGrath. The most popular of the Invitational’s human-powered wilderness races, it was this year won by Anchorage fat-tire cyclist Tim Berntson in a time of 1 day, 23 hours and 45 minutes. The short has also been redefined as a faster-than-an-Iditarod-sled-dog race in recent years thanks to better bikes and stronger cyclists.)

Hofstetter on Friday reached Nome in a time of 11 days, 5 hours and 15 minutes. It is the third-best Invitational time on record and might well have been a new record but for the 24 hours Hofstetter spent sitting in the small, Bering Sea coastal village of Koyuk, population 330, waiting for an airplane to deliver a new chain from the nearest bike shop in Anchorage hundreds of miles away.

It wasn’t Hofstetter’s only mechanical problem, either. He somehow also broke a crank outside of Galena on the Yukon River, about 600 miles into the ride. It was from there Hofstetter called fellow Iditarod racer Jeff Oatley back home in Fairbanks at 2 a.m. to ask for advice on what to do.

One of the most helpful people anyone will ever meet, Oatley promised to help get Hofstetter a new crank flown out the next day. Galena has one of the busiest airports along the Yukon River. Oatley also told Hofsetter to get moving.

“He told me, ‘You might be on record pace,'” Hofstetter said by phone from his Nome home on Friday. “He said I already looked to be ahead of his pace at that point by a couple hours.”

Oatley just happens to be the one who redefined the Invitational to Nome when he set the still standing record of 10 days, 2 hours and 53 minutes in 2014. The time was so fast it would have won every Iditarod dog race prior to 1995. How much that ride changed things is probably evidenced as much by what happened last year as what Hofstetter did this year.

In 2015, Oatley and Idaho’s Jay Petervary paced the race to Nome in 15 days, 6 hours and 29 minutes despite temperatures that fell to 40- or 50-degrees below zero. Cursing the extreme cold just like everyone else that year, Hofstetter finished 17 hours back in second.

There is no good data available on the rolling resistance of bike tires in extreme cold or the losses in drive train efficiency. But everyone who has ridden in the depths of this extreme climate says it is as if the bike tires are made of stone and the gears are full of sand.

“Without a question, you can feel it,” Hofstetter said. “It was so miserable last year.”

He later looked at satellite tracking data that sometimes showed everyone traveling at a meager 2 or 3 mph even in flat stretches of the trail. Hofstetter this year averaged better than 5.5 mph when he was moving on the trail. He burned up only 6 days, 23 hours pushing the pedals. The rest of the time he was stopped. He was never really uncomfortable.

The edema that has plagued him the past when his feet have swollen to the size of cantaloupes never developed. He credited a nutritionist friend at the Norton Sound Health Corporation, where Hofstetter is an audiologist, with advising him to eat more protein which apparently solved the problem.

“This year I didn’t have any of that,” he said. “(And) the temperatures were so good. I am absolutely not going to complain about global warming. I had a great ride.”

Not that it was without issues, however, some physical and some psychological.

“As soon as a I thought about it (breaking the record), nature decided ‘I’m going to teach you a lesson,'” Hofstetter said. “It was just miserable” going from Shaktoolik for 50 miles across the ice of Norton Bay to Koyuk.

First there was an ugly mix of sastrugi — rock hard, wind-eroded snow — mixed with drifts of soft snow atop the ice.

“I’m just grinding through that crap,” the usually mildly spoken Hofstetter said, and then the chain on his bike broke and kept breaking. Every time it broke, Hofstetter would fix it, and every time he replaced a broken link, the chain got shorter.

Links were actually splitting in half, he said, adding “I don’t understand it.”

By the time he finally reached Koyuk, the many-time-repaired chain was so short all he had was high gear, which was often impossible to power down the trail given the conditions.

“I was bummed,” Hofstetter said. “I was feeling so good and then…. That was demoralizing. That was a hard one for me.”

So, too, all the time he spent alone on the trail this year. Last year, despite the brutal cold, Hofstetter often around himself around other cyclists on the trail to Nome. This year, he was basically riding as a time trialist for the last half of the race.

“I was very much alone out there, and I felt it,” he said. “I was very alone, (except) Jeff’s sort of in the background watching me on the (satellite) tracker.”

Through it all, Hofstetter just kept pushing on. An experienced veteran of the trail now, he knows travel on the Idiatrod is as as easy and as difficult as simply pushing on until you reach the next checkpoint. He did say he was slowed on the last stretch along the coast by continuing worries about the drive train on his bike.

The Fatback Corvus itself was great, but Hofstetter kept worrying he might break another chain and have to deal with that again. He pushed the bike up and over the Little McKinley, the aptly named summit on the peninsula the trail crosses between Elim and Golovin, and up the climbs in the Topkok Hills between White Mountain and Nome.

“I was fearful of my drive train,” he said.

He left the Topkoks to pedal into the middle of the legendary Nome-Golovin snowmachine race.

After days on the trail sometimes seeing no one, Hofstetter said, “I had machines flying at me at 100 mph. I knew of some them coming through though.”

A few slowed down long enough to exchange words, and then Hofstetter picked up the pace toward the buildings on the uplands behind the golden sands that made Nome famous.

It was good to be home, he said.

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3 replies »

  1. Hi Craig.

    I definitely don’t believe the bike version is the “toughest” race! Going alone is easy. Taking care of 15 other souls that can’t take care of themselves while you’re doing it, is VERY hard and extremely demanding, physically and mentally. Add in mandatory rests and long-game strategies and the mushers win for toughness, no contest.

    I think the “record” paces on bikes are just a function of the conditions. It’s just physics. Of course it’s faster to ride a snowless, frozen trail that it is to ride a snowy, boggy one. They lucked out with good weather and had an easy ride. And compare the trail now to what it was in the ’80s – it’s practically a superhighway this time of year these days. “Records” for this kind of race are pretty meaningless.

    The bikers want to brag that they are faster than the dogs, but that’s a silly boast. Chain a drag-sled behind them and see how the physics of friction works…hell, just make them take care of fifteen dogs while they’re traveling and they’ll quickly learn they aren’t as strong as they think they are.

    Like

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