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McGrath happy man

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Smiling Iditarod Trail Invitational champ Jay Petervary in McGrath/photo courtesy Kathi Merchant

After the cold, the wind, the sideways blowing snow and lots and lots and lots of bad trail, Idaho’s Jay Petervary pedaled his fat-tired bike into the tiny, Interior Alaska community of McGrath on Wednesday afternoon to claim his third victory in the Iditarod Trail Invitational.

His prize?

A hot shower, a warm comfortable bed, and the admiration of a small cadre of adventurer racers and cold-weather cyclists who know the difficulty, and the danger, of muscling a heavily loaded bike 350 miles across some of the wildest country in North America on a so-called “trail” left by the passage of a few snowmachines, or snowmobiles as those Outside of Alaska call them.

Some years, it’s a long ride from Knik to McGrath. Other years it is more. This was one of the latter.

There was a lot of bike pushing through soft snow, and a blizzard that made it at one point hard to see let alone make forward progress along the trail. That dragged Petervary’s finishing time down to 3 days, 3 hours and 29 minutes, more than a day slower than the 2016 time of Anchorage’s Tim Berntson.

Berntson last year became one of only four cyclists to cruise the 350 miles from the tiny outpost of Knik near the head of Cook Inlet to McGrath on the banks of the Kuskowkim River in under two days. 

Berntson and Colorado’s Neil Beltchenko, an Invitational rookie, were dueling for second on Wednesday evening.  Any chance Berntson had of competing for victory this year disappeared on the 80 miles of trail from Rohn in the heart of the Alaska Range to the Athabascan village of Nikolai on Tuesday night.

The GPS satellite trackers all the cyclists now carry showed Berntson strangely yo-yoing along the trail. He repeatedly caught up to race leaders Petervary and Beltchenko and then stopped only to chase back on, catch them again and stop once more.

Fatback Bikes owner Greg Matyas, Berntson’s bike sponsor, on Wednesday offered an explanation for what was going on:

Berntson suffered three flats and ran out of good tubes to put in the fat tires on his fatbike. He trailed into Nikolai, where he made repairs. But once he got rolling again out of there, he found himself in a tough race with Beltchenko, a newcomer who impressed Invitational trail boss Merchant.

Tough new blood

“This kid is hard-ass,” said Merchant, a veteran of the original Iditasport who when forced to quit with a broken bike less than halfway into of those races borrowed a pair of running shoes and completed the race on foot.

Beltchenko, Merchant said, seemed to relish the trials and tribulations of the Iditarod.

Even after what was primarily a push of 50-pound bikes through deep, sugary snow to get from The Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge on the south side of the Alaska Range through to Rohn, Merchant said, Beltchenko was all smiles.

His attitude was helping reverse the image of journalists as  a bunch of whiny bed-wetters. Beltchenko is the founder and editor of Bikepacker.com, a news and information website for adventure cyclists he started with companion Lindsay Arne.

“He was probably the bubbliest of the three (leaders),” said Merchant, who described the surface of the trail through the range as pretty much awful. Luckily, he said, the Iron Dog snowmobile racers who were first up the Happy River valley on the way to Ptarmigan Pass, Hell’s Gate and the South Fork Kuskokwim River wove a nice trail around the willow thickets.

There had been concerns the cyclists in the Invitational might end up doing a lot of bushwhacking – not an easy thing while pushing a fat bike – but that did not materialize as a problem. The problem was mainly the soft snow.

Merchant said it was so sugary when he went through that “you could have let it sit for 10 hours and it wouldn’t have set up.”

No dogs

The trail is usually packed in pretty solid by this time of year as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race sends through teams of snowmachines ahead of that March race. But the dog race decided the range was a little too tough for travel this time – there is low snow in places that makes it a rough ride for the people on the dog sleds – and so moved its Sunday restart north to Fairbanks.

The race will follow the frozen rivers of the Interior for more than 500 miles north and west to join the historic Iditarod Trail at Ruby on the Yukon. The lack of traditional Iditarod traffic meant bikes and hikers were about the only things moving on the trail north of Perrin’s this weeks.

Kathi Merchant, the ITI race director and Bill’s wife, was hoping the trail had improved at least a little by Wednesday when the stragglers in the race – some on bikes, a bunch on foot – found themselves battling not only the trail but a nasty mountain storm.

“Conditions are brutal in Ptarmigan,” she said. “Minus-15 with 30 mph (wind). Minus-50 windchills is what Steve Perrins told me. It must be brutal for the racers going through there right now.”

Oddly enough, conditions were better on the normally much colder north side of the Range. Petervary pedaled into McGrath with the temperature about 7 degrees and a blue-bird sky smiling on him. Kathi said he looked tired but good and said he mainly wanted to get some sleep before he did anything else.

“It is a real year,” she said, “the real deal this year.”

Riders who hit the trail in 2015 and 2016 enjoyed a unique period when Alaska experienced temperatures above normal for 14 straight months. There was a  lot of talk then about global warming.

There has been less of that since December, a month that registered below normal. January followed that pattern, and on Wednesday the National Weather Service reported February tracked the trend in Anchorage.It was 1.5 degrees below normal despite a mid-month thaw.

Not many Alaskans were complaining, however, with the short, dark days of winter growing quickly longer and brighter, and with plenty of snow on the ground for a change to make for good skiing and fat-tired spring biking.
 

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