A blogger from somebody’s basement was leading Alaska’s premier fat bike race into the Alaska Range on Monday.
OK, maybe somebody more than a blogger. Thirty-year-old Neil Beltchenko from Crested Butte, Colo. – the leader in the Iditarod Trail Invitational – is the founder of Bikepackers Magazine, now Bikepacker.com.
He remains a regular contributor to the business he started with his wife, Lindsay Arne, but judging from the times he is rolling up on fat tires along the Iditarod Trail it would appear he has been finding plenty of opportunity to slide away from a computer to get out on a bike and train.
The third-place finisher last year, Beltchenko was into and out of Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge early in the afternoon with a lead of about an hour on a motley crew of chasers behind.
That group included Jay Petervary from Idaho, who is the defending champ and three-time winner of the 350-mile race up the remote Yentna River north of Anchorage into the mountains that slice through the heart of the state and on into the truly wild heart of the 49th state.
From the Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake near 2,000 feet in the Happy River foothills south of the highest pass on the Iditarod Trail, Steve Perrin was reporting excellent trail to the north.
“We’ve had beautiful weather here,” he said just before noon Monday.
A light snow had begun to fall, but there was no wind, he said. Crews preparing the trail for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which starts Saturday in Anchorage, had come through pulling heavy sled-loads full gear, he said, and others had come behind pulling heavy sleds loaded with fuel headed north.
Such traffic only serves to pack in a firmer and firmer trail, which is good news for people on fat-tired bikes. Invariably, Perrin said, there are some windblown areas up in the pass that might require some bike pushing, but all in all the trail was sounding better than last year when it took Petervary 3 days, 3 hours and 29 minutes to make McGrath.
He finished just ahead of Anchorage’s Tim Berntson, the 2016 race winner and one of only four cyclists ever to make it to McGrath in under two days. Bernston is sitting out the 2108 ITI after hip-replacement surgery.
John Lackey, who now lives in Bellingham, Wash., set the course record of 1 day, 18 hours and 32 minutes in 2015. The trail was a frozen sidewalk almost all the way from Knik to McGrath that year, and Lackey set a time eight hours faster than any dog team had ever been able to cover the same distance.
Beltchenko and his chasers looked to be moving at something close to dog-team speed this year, but with hints weather might slow the race ahead.
The forecast for the village of Nikolai on the north side of the Alaska Range called for one to three inches of snow and west winds Tuesday. From Nikolai, the trail turns west toward McGrath and smack into any winds.
On the trail behind Beltchenko, Petervary was joined by an eclectic group.
- Clinton Hodges III from Anchorage, a 36-year-old, bushy bearded, road construction supervisor who looks more like a member of the band ZZ Top than an ultra-endurance cyclist.
- Jussi Karjalainen from Oulu Finland, a retired university professor in his 50s who made a name for himself by winning some Arctic fat bike races in his home country.
- Casey Fagerquist, a 35-year-old former runner for the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves by way of Wyoming now working as helicopter mechanic in the ski-town of Girdwood just south of the state’s largest city.
- And Kevin Breitenbach from Fairbanks, the winner of the 2014 ITI in a then record time of 2 days, 4 hours and 43 minutes. A sometimes writer, sometimes househusband, Breitenbach these day lists his profession as “outdoor industry product tester.”
There aren’t many venues better than the Iditarod Trail for that job.
Whether any in the chase group can reel in Beltchenko remains to be seen. That Karjalainen is even in the pack, given his age, is impressive. He was on Petervary’s wheel on the trail just outside of the Rainy Pass Lodge at about 4 p.m. Monday. Hodges was only about a mile ahead and closing on the cluster of lodges structures along Puntilla Lake.
None of the riders who left Knik lake a little more than 24 hours earlier were expected to linger long at the lodge.