Update: Defending champ Tim Bernston leads the race into The Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge with two-time winner Jay Petervary and Neil Beltchenko close on his tail.
As dawn broke over the Alaska Range on Monday, a half-dozen of the heirs to the likes of the brothers Nollner – men who viewed brutally hard work as simply what a man does day in and day out to survive in the north – were down in the frozen, snow-covered swamps west of Finger Lake on the trudging climb toward Rainy Pass on the Iditarod Trail.
This was a year that bad trail had been expected to slow the competitors in the Iditarod Trail Invitational as they raced for the honor (there is no money) of victory in the grueling, 350-mile, human-powered ultramarathon, but there was no sign of that.
“They’re smokin’,” said Carl Dixon, the proprietor of Winterlake Lodge, who saw the race leaders only briefly when they stopped to eat and nap before pointing their fat-tired bikes down the big hill to Red Lake.
Dixon’s dogsled trail, which becomes the Iditarod Trail for a few brief weeks each winter, was a fast, winding luge run to the frozen surface of the lake where the hard work of the Invitational resumed again.
For the next 25 miles to The Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake, the trail works its ways up frozen, snow-covered beaver ponds that climb like terraces into the Alaska Range foothills where the route really begins to roller-coaster and meander.
GPS tracking devices, a 21st Century blessing and curse, now carried by racers showed riders sometimes pushing at less than 2 mph and at other times rolling at up to 7 or 8 mph. A given for fat-tired cyclists in the Invitational is that there will be pushing.
Some feared a lot of that this year because of reports of soft trail up the Yentna River and beyond, but reports from those on the trail is that the snowmobile track that is the “Iditarod Trail” was firm and generally could be ridden.
Dixon reported a dusting of new snow on the trail, but a temperature near 8 degrees. The cold generally helps the snow set up firm enough that almost any trail earlier put down by snowmobiles can be ridden on a four-inch wide tire with minimum air pressure.
The race leaders included a collection of locally well-known Alaska hardmen and some challengers from Outside.
Defending ITI champ Tim Berntson, a soft-spoken claims representative for the State Farm Insurance Co. when he isn’t crushing people in bike races, led the Invitational out of the Winterlake Lodge into the dark Sunday night, but Neil Beltchenko from Crested Butte, Colo., was right on his heels.
The editor of Bikepacker.com, a website for adventure cyclists, Beltchenko is no stranger to long-distance bike races. He rode to third in the 2015 Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile epic that tracks the continental divide of North America from the Canadian Rockies to the Mexican plateau.
In that race, Beltchenko finished about 20 minutes behind Idaho’s Jay Petervary, a two-time Invitational winner. Back again this year, Petervary was out the door only about 20 minutes behind the race leaders, and he was far from alone.
What might be one of the strongest fields in Invitational history was joining in the chase: Six-time champ Peter Basinger, who grew up in Anchorage but now makes his home in Moab, Utah; course-record holder John Lackey, a former Alaskan who has since moved back to his old home in Bellingham, Wash.; Fred West from Fairbanks, better known as a top Alaska triathlete than a fat-bike racer; Clinton Hodges III, a thirty-something Anchorage road inspector with an overgrown beard who surprised everyone with a third-place showing in the Invitational last year; and dark horse Adam Erritzøe, a Dane from Copenhagen.
Though the Invitational is by far the most global of winter races conducted on the fabled Iditarod Trail – sometimes half the field is from foreign countries or the lower 48 – it has never been won by a European cyclist. There have been a few in the hunt. Brit Alan Sheldon was second to McGrath in 2005, but the best finish in recent times is the third that Pavel Richtr from the Czech Republic posted in 2012.
Dominant players in world road and mountain biking, the best of European cyclists have been largely intimidated by the challenge of the Iditarod where the wilderness is large enough to be truly intimdating, where temperatures can drop to a life-threatening 35- or 40-degrees below zero, and where weather conditions can turn a race into a slog.
Snow slow version
Richtr finished third in a year when the race was plagued with deep snow that made the going so hard that about half the field dropped out, and it appeared for a time that the race might be won by runners Geoff Roes or Tim Hewitt, an Iditarod Trail legend.
Hewitt holds the foot record for covering the 1,000-mile length of the Iditarod from Knik to Nome. He’s back this year to bike the route. The last time he tried that it nearly ended in disaster. Invitational Trail boss Bill Merchant had to send a snowmachine out from Ruby to rescue Hewitt and his bike after they bogged down and stalled out in deep snow and vicious, 50-degree-below-zero cold.
It was something of a replay of 2012, albeit farther down the trail and in much more dangerous weather. It was not as cold in 2012 when Richter, a legitimate tough guy himself, just beat Roes and then Hewitt into McGrath in a time of 6 days, 18 hours to put cyclists in the top-three positions at the finish line.
Behind him, though, it was a different story with four more of those on foot struggling to the finish to put six non-cyclists in the top-10 in a race traditionally dominated by cyclists. Most years, cyclists are the top 10, and since 2013, the slowest winning time to McGrath has been under three days.
Last year David Johnson, an ultrarunning phenom, led the people on foot to McGrath in about four and a half days and couldn’t even crack the top-20.
Weather conditions this year look good for another fast race. Only scattered snow flurries are forecast for the south slope of the Alaska Range with the temperature near zero. But the race is expected to chill a bit as it jumps over the mountains.
The National Weather Service is calling for cold down to minus 20 on the north side of the Range by Tuesday, but the flurries are supposed to end and the skies clear. Trail conditions there are reported to be good to excellent on bare ground or an ice-hard snowmachine track left from the Iron Dog snowmobile race last week.
Trail conditions from Puntilla Lake to Rohn, a remote checkpoint in the heart of the Alaska Range, are more questionable. Competitors in last week’s Iditasport – a re-enactment of the first human-powered race held along the Iditarod Trail – bogged down in the Pass for a time, but race winner Kevin Murphy and Thomas Bailly have now reached McGrath and four others were closing on that small, Kuskokwim River community on Monday.
The Iditarod Trail north from the edge of civilization has seen less traffic than normal this winter because of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race deciding the part of the route through the Alaska Range was too tough for dog mushers. It has also been retrouted through Ptarmigan Pass instead of Rainy Pass which adds about 10 miles to the distance.
With the shift of the Iditarod restart from Willow to Fairbanks, the snowmachines that normally help pack in a solid trail for the dog teams from Willow all the way north to Ruby on the Yukon River have gone north to Fairbanks to work on an easier route along the rivers of the Interior.