Over the course of three months this year, German Nina Gässler learned about the worst of Alaska, pedaled a fat-tired bike across some of the prettiest of Alaska, and eventually experienced the best of Alaska while physically back home in Finnmark, Norway.
Where to begin?
In Norway, maybe, where Gässler, the organizer of the Fat Viking race, met Kathi Merchant, the director of the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI). The Invitational is a well-known bike/ski/run race on Alaska’s most famous trail from Knik at the head of Cook Inlet up and over the Alaska Range to McGrath, the 350-mile version, or all the way on to Nome, the 1,000-mile version.
For fat-tired cyclists looking for big adventure, the ITI is a bucket-list ride. But it’s not something one jumps into casually. The Iditarod is remote and wild, and though no one has died in the ITI or the older and more famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, some have come close.
So in the interest of trying to make things easier for the growing number of European cyclists wanting to ride the Iditarod, Merchant hooked up with Gässler to make the Fat Viking, a 150 kilometer race through the mountains of central Norway north and west of Oslo, into an ITI qualifier.
Next thing Gässler knew, she was headed to Alaska to ride the ITI herself.
Once on the ground in Anchorage, Gässler borrowed a fat bike from Speedway Cycles, home of the Fatback designed by fat-bike pioneer Greg Matyas.
She didn’t have it for long. She quickly became one of the many victims of crime in Alaska’s largest, recession-plagued city.
“She came over at the 11th hour to compete in the ITI and had it ripped off while shopping at Carr’s within hours of leaving the shop,” Matyas said.
Being a resident of Norway, Gässler next did the honorable thing.
“I originally only planned to borrow it, but bought it after it was stolen,” she texted from Norway. Matyas loaned her another bike for the ITI, and Gässler took off from Knik on the trail to McGrath.
“ITI was a fantastic experience,” she said. “Puts life into perspective.”
The Iditarod is a ride back into time. From Kink north into the Susitna and Yentna rivers draining the south slope of the Alaska Range, civilization starts rapidly falling away. By the tiny community of Skwentna on the Yentna, it’s nearly all gone and by Shell Lake, another 20 miles north, the wilderness takes over.
For the next 250 miles, the human world exists as a handful of outposts in the big wild. Fewer people live along this stretch of trail now than inhabited the road houses there during Alaska’s gold-rush days in the early 1900s.
Three days and 21 hours after leaving Knik, Gässler rode into McGrath in the company of ITI veteran Jay Cable of Fairbanks to claim the honor as the first woman to finish the 350-mile class of ITI in 2018.
“The Iditarod Trail is both magical and brutal,” she later posted on Facebook. ” Rivers, mountains, gorges, roller-coaster forests, burns, frozen swamps….We had everything from snowstorm to really cold and sunny. You got to keep moving. It’s crazy. The hardest thing I’ve done.”
By then, the theft of the bike and all her gear – a misadventure that added costs of thousands of dollars to Gässler’s Alaska adventure – was already starting to get buried under the grit of time in the dustbin of bad memories.
By the end of May, back home in Norway, she’d pretty much written off the the bike.
Enter Chris Pijuan, a man on a mission. The Anchorage resident had noticed expensive bikes accumulating in midtown homeless camps in the Chester Creek greenbelt and decided to do something about it.
“If the cops won’t do it, somebody else has to,” he said.
Pijuan toured the camps, took a lot of photographs and posted them on the Facebook page of “Stolen in Alaska.”
“Bikes on bikes on bikes in the camps,” he wrote. “Look familiar to anyone? Saw an orange day tire someone has to be missing. Lime green and black Specialized.”
The photos reveal more than a half-dozen bikes, some parted out and some whole. Clearly visible in one of the photos is a like-new, carbon-fiber Fatback Corvus, the winner of 2018 honors for Carbon fat bike of the year.
“That bike was being used,” Pijuan said. “It’s probably been passed around a few times.”
The Facebook post got passed around, too.
“Someone alerted me to a FB post, and I immediately recognized the bike,” said Matyas. He arranged to meet Pijuan at Anchorage’s Mulcahy Park only about 20 minutes after seeing the bike.
It was “about 11 p.m. and (we) walked through the camps again,” Matyas said. “The bike was gone. I told him I was coming back the next day after a doc’s appointment. No sooner after getting out of the appointment, he called and said he had it in hand.”
Having confirmed the $3,000 bike was stolen, Pijuan said, he went back to the homeless camp near the Sullivan Arena, found both the bike and a rider there, and told the man he was going to have to repossess the bike.
“This guy tried to fight me for it,” Pijuan said. “He came at me. I’m 6-foot-2 and 215. I’ve got some experience as a bouncer. I have some experience in how to handle people without hurting them. He gave up and allowed me to take the bike.”
Since then, Pijuan has been back to the site with officers of the Anchorage Police Department.
“So far, we’ve recovered three” bikes, he said, but he has seen dozens more. Some are hard to identify because they’ve been taken apart. Others have simply not been reported stolen so police are unable to trace them.
“There were two bikes that matched the description of other bikes,” “Pijuan said, but the serial numbers didn’t match. Asked about the ownership of bike valued anywhere from $500 to thousands of dollars, Pijuan said, homeless camp residents invariably say, “we got those for $20 out in Wasilla.”
Pijuan said a trooper acquaintance told him that it is common for people to steal bikes and other goods in the bedroom communities of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage and then resell them cheap in the city, or vice versa.
“A statewide pawn registry would solve that problem,” Pijuan added. “All it takes is one programmer to build a decent website. It’s an easy fix. That’s why they don’t do it.”
An online registry would make it easy for owners to register their bikes in case of theft, and enable anyone buying a bike – or stumbling on a collection of bikes in an empty homeless camp in the woods – to check to see if the bikes are stolen.
Matyas said he’s just happy Gässler is getting her ride back. They’re working out the details on what to do with it.
“Chris Pijuan is the dude who made it all happen,” Matyas said. “I haven’t had time to figure out shipping costs, though folks are already willing to chip in to cover it and show Nina what real Alaskans are all about. (Somebody) swapped parts, and it needs some work, so we need to figure that stuff out (first).”
“Amazing (bike),” Gässler said. “Looking forward to getting it to Norway. Tell them to stop fundraising, I’m happy to pay for shipment.”
Alaskans being Alaskans, however, it’s almost certain someone will pick up the postage here as a display of what the 49th state is really all about: people helping each other, not ripping each other off.