The pedaling publisher from Colorado rolled into the Kuskokwim River outpost of McGrath on Wednesday afternoon to win the 350-mile version of the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
He promptly dived under warm sheets.
Neil Beltchenko, the founder of Bikepackers Magazine, had barely crossed the finish line before race director Kathi Merchant reported “he’s sleeping.”
It was understandable. The Gunnison cyclist had pretty much gone sleepless since leaving Knik Lake just north of Anchorage at 2 p.m. Sunday with about 70 other cyclists and runners in the ITI field.
He grabbed the race lead early and pretty much sealed the deal in the Happy River valley near 160 miles into the race, said Anchorage’s Clinton Hodges III.
Hodges was Wednesday afternoon taking a break in the village of Nikolai, population 94, about 50 miles east of McGrath. Hodges – along with defending and three-time ITI champ Jay Petervary and Fairbanks Casey Fagerquist – was part of a gang of four that chased Beltchenko into the Alaska Range but never could catch him.
Petervary at least had a good excuse. He’s signed up to go the full, 1,000-mile distance from Knik to Nome this year, and in the long version of the ITI, he is hours ahead of his nearest competitors.
Hodges said the race was decided when Beltchenko left Perrins Rainy Pass Lodge south of Rainy Pass about 2:30 on Tuesday afternoon. Beltchenko grabbed a lead of about two and a half hours there, Hodges said, but the problem wasn’t so much the lead as the weather.
“I think he rode most of the way to the top” of the 3,524-foot pass through the mountains, Hodges said.
Meanwhile, behind him the winds had started to howl as they often do in the upper valley of the Happy River, and things were not so happy. Snow quickly drifted shut the Iditarod Trail, and the Beltchenko chasers were forced to push.
“It was pretty much crap,” said Hodges, an ITI veteran. “It happens. I think we were a little bummed.”
Given that the ITI race is almost as much about the head as the body, being bummed was a bad place to be. Hodges pressed on still hoping to stay in the hunt, but more problems followed.
“I’ve been having some bike issues,” he confessed.
Concerned about icy trails before the race, Hodges pulled the new, lightweight tires off his fat bike and put on his worn, three-year-old studded tires.
Though the tires had been fine in the mild weather of Anchorage, he said, “they weren’t liking low pressure” in the 20-degree-below-zero cold north of the Range.
Bitter cold has a way of magnifying all problems. Hodges found himself dealing with tires that didn’t want to hold air, and then a hydraulic brake caliper that was dragging.
Hydraulic brakes on fat bikes work great unless a tiny bit of water develops in the line and the weather goes bitterly cold. Then the water freezes into ice, expanding as it does so, and the result is the same as pulling on the brake lever to compress the hydraulic flood.
“My brakes kept dragging,” Hodges said. He eventually stopped to pull off the rear caliper, and then kept going with only a front brake for stopping power.
Only the problems didn’t end there. The next thing to give up the ghost was his 5-year-old rear derailleur.
“Yesterday it started up acting up,” he said, “and then this morning it was just not working.”
Despite all of this, the 36-year-old inspector for Anchorage’s EMC Engineering sounded in good spirits as he headed for what looked to be a third-place finish in the 350.
Petervary looked to have wrapped the runner-up position and Fagerquist was several hours in arrears when Hodges left Nikolai.
Behind them, the ITI field stretched back more than 100 miles from McGrath east through Nikolai then south across the broad flatlands surrounding the Farewell Lakes to the remote outpost of Rohn in the heart of the Alaska before turning east again on the frozen Tatina River to the Dalzell Gorge where the trail began the climb south to Rainy Pass.
South of the Pass, ITI entrants were on the trail heading north from the Rainy Pass Lodge to Rohn and from the Winterlake Lodge at Finger Lake to Rainy Pass. Anchorage’s Lars Danner appeared to be bringing up the rear.
An active cyclist in Alaska’s largest city, he was this year on foot on the Iditarod Trail. The top runners in the ITI were about seventy miles ahead of him with Duluth, Minn., Scott Hoberg, a successful winter ultrarunner in home state, launching a serious challenge to Iditarod phenom David Johnston.
Hoberg held about a five-mile lead over Johnston as they headed out into the Farewell Lakes Wednesday night. Temperatures along the trail were again dropping below zero, but those on the move were blessed to travel beneath a full moon so bright it was almost like having daylight.