Things were not so happy as competitors in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, the toughest Iditarod race, wallowed through deep, sugary snow on Monday night high in the Happy Valley of the Alaska Range.
A race led into the range by fast-moving, fat-tired bikes had slowed to about half walking speed as race leaders struggled to make their way forward pushing fat bikes loaded with survival gear.
Midnight found leaders Jay Petervary from Idaho and Neil Beltchenko from Colorado still about 15 miles from Ptarmigan Pass and the drop down to the South Fork Kuskokwim River, where it was expected they could start riding again despite the snow falling across the top of the range.
Iditarod trail boss Bill Merchant reported from the Rohn checkpoint – a lone, one-room cabin at the confluence of the Tatina and South Fork Kuskowkim Rivers – that it has been snowing all day.
Behind on the trail there was reported to be about 30 miles of “sugar snow.” Merchant was not optimistic about it setting up after he struggled up the Happy, punched through Ptarmigan, and dropped down into Hell’s Gate on his snowmachine to put down at least a track for the racers to follow through the wilderness.
All indications were that his fears proved true. Petervary and Beltchenko were making about 1.5 mph, according to the GPS satellite trackers on their bikes. At that speed, they were not going to make Ptarmigan Pass until daybreak Tuesday.
Light bikes but….
Both Petervary and Beltchenko are sponsored by Salsa Cycles, a subsidiary of Minnesota cycling giant Quality Bicycle Products. When Petervary won his second Invitational in 2013, he was riding a Salsa Beargrease fat bike that with the proper build can be brought down to a standard-mountain-bike-like weight of 25 pounds or less.
But racers in the Invitational need more than just a bike. They need the gear to stay alive in the cold and snow while on the Iditarod Trail.
Petervary told Outside Online that in 2013 he “went really light. I had a 15F sleeping bag, down tops and bottoms, Gore-Tex tops and bottoms, and a windbreaker. I had a repair kit, a small medical kit. I go heavy on the extremity side: Two extra pairs of socks, a little extra headgear so I can switch out sweaty hats and balaclavas, and the same with gloves. Those are the things that get cold fastest so I like to be careful. But even with bike, kit, and partial food, I was only at 46 pounds, and I can survive at minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit with that.”
A 46-pound bike is a load to push when you’re slogging through miles and miles of soft snow. A competitor or two vying with Petervary for Invitational honors (there is no prize money) might have had a lighter load to push, but most were probably struggling with the same or more.
“You pack your insecurities,” Alaska adventurer Roman Dial once observed, and most people headed into the deep wilderness of the Alaska Range in the winter have plenty of insecurities, many of them justified. The cold has claimed more than one life.
Earlier this winter an experienced snowmachiner traveling between Shungnak in the wild heart of the Alaska Interior got his snowmachine stuck, worked up a sweat trying to get it free, failed to recognize the danger of that in time in 50-degree-below zero temperatures and ended up dead of hypothermia.
Invitational competitors like Petervary have learned, strangely enough, that if they are comfortably warm, they are too hot. They dress down to the point where they are just a little chilly to minimize sweating which both helps with hydration and prevents sweat from degrading the quality of the insulation in the clothing one needs to survive in the cold.
The temperature at Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge at the south end of the Happy Valley was near zero at midnight with the winds light. At that temperature, a cyclist struggling to push a fat bike across the great wide open to Ptarmigan Pass might be able to get away with wearing nothing but a polypropylene zip-tee and a windbreaker.
Early race leader and defending Invitational champ Tim Berntson from Anchorage appeared to have fallen off the pace and was in danger of being dropped as what had begun as a bike race deteriorated into a pushathon.
He was a couple of miles behind the leaders while six-time champ Peter Basinger, a notorious pusher, had closed to within about six miles of the lead.
Basinger has not won since 2012 and in that time has left Alaska, where he grew up; become a teacher; settled into a new home in Moab, Utah, where he teaches; and undergone back surgery.
Before this race, he confessed he didn’t really have any idea of what kind of race condition he might be in. The back still bothered him from time to time, he said, but it was way better than when he’d been in agony with a blown lower lumbar disc. And he had been training seriously on his fat bike.
Nearly all of that training had been alone, however, and the problem with training alone is that you have no real idea as to where your pace puts you to compared to people racing. In nearly all endurance sports, there is training speed, and there is racing speed. The difference might only a fraction of a mile per hour, but over the course of hours that translates into miles.
Early on, Basinger appeared to be struggling to hang onto the back of the lead group of cyclists. He was chasing almost from the time the race left the old port community of Knik just west of Wasilla on Sunday afternoon.
At the Winterlake Lodge on Finger Lake about 125 miles into the race, Basinger was two hours behind Bernston who’d pushed the race pace from the start. Basinger lost yet more time as the race climbed up through the foothills to the Rainy Pass Lodge.
And yet, he was within a few miles of Bernston on the trail Monday night and marching along at 2.5 mph or better while Bernston, one of but four people who have been able to ride a bike the 350-miles Iidtarod Trail from Knik to McGrath in less than two days, was struggling along at speeds sometimes dropping to 1 mph.
Anchorage’s Clinton Hodges III had been hanging with Basinger for miles, but as the night wore on, he, too, was starting to fade.
Hodges was the surprise of the 2016 Invitational, coming in third behind Bernston, one of Anchorage’s winningest endurance cyclists, and Tyson Flaharty from Fairbanks, a one-time national caliber Nordic skier turned fat-tire cyclist. Flaharty sat out the 2017 Invitational.
It might have been a wise decision. Race director Katharina Merchant said she thought the Iditarod cyclists might take a full day to struggle through from Puntilla to Rohn this year. The slow going was reminiscent of the old days when mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had to get out in front of their teams and break trail on snowshoes for hours.
Those were the grueling days of “The Last Great Race.” A team of trail breakers on snowmobiles now takes care of the trail for the dog mushers, and when trail conditions are bad, as this year, the race restart moves north to Fairbanks to be run on the frozen, snow-covered rivers of the Interior all the way to the village of Ruby, where it rejoins the Iditarod trail on the frozen, snow-covered surface of the Yukon River beyond halfway to Nome.