Once upon a time in Alaska, cross-country skiers and winter cyclists were at each other’s throats. Bikes, it was said, booby-trapped groomed skinny trails with narrow, snake-like ruts waiting to grab the skinny skis of Nordic aficionados and slam them face down on the snow.
It’s amazing how things have changed in a decade. On March 3 of this year, the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage (NSAA)will host its first-ever “Fat Bike Tour of Anchorage.”
“There will be separate 50-kilometer and 40-kilometer bike events that follow the same courses as the ski races…,” the Anchorage ski club says on its website.
There is a story here about diverse interests finding common ground that might set an example for a nation, and a state, torn apart by partisanship, but there is a lot more to this story of change that touches, as it does, on technology and climate, immigration and evolution, and one man’s dream of saving an Alaska tradition that produced unintended consequences no one could have imagined.
Maybe, the story should start with that one man, the late Joe Redington, the father of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Redington had help in creating the now internationally known race from Anchorage to Nome, but he was the linchpin.
His dream, he said, was to save the Alaska husky, an animal fading away as snowmachines began to take over travel in rural Alaska in the 1970s. A highly capable self promoter, Redington clearly had a business interest. He made a living raising and selling huskies to sled dog wannabes.
But Iditarod wasn’t really about money to Redington. It was about love.
He’d spent most of life living in wild Alaska and working with dogs, and he wanted what he loved to continue forever. To make that happen, he understood he’d need to drag skiers, cyclists, snowshoers, runners, hikers and even snowmachine riders into his dream.
Redington recognized that if there was to be a 1,000-mile sled dog race from the main street of the state’s largest city across the untracked wilds of the 49th state to the historic, gold mining town of Nome on the Bering Sea – and if that race was to be maintained far into the future – there would need to be an official and recognized trail.
And it was obvious to anyone with even half a brain that if there was to be a permanently designated trail across the breadth of Alaska, the state’s biggest landlord – the United States of America – would need to be involved.
The first Iditarod race went north to Nome in 1973 following a historic route first pioneered by the Alaska Road Commission in the early 1900s. The Iditarod National Historic Trail, a federally designated and protected route, would not be established until 1978.
Coalition of the willing
Anchorage cyclist Brooks Wade remembers attending a gathering at Anchorage’s Central Middle School way back when Redington was lobbying everyone to get behind the historic trail idea.
Wade thought the concept a little out there at the time, he admitted in a telephone interview, but the trail became a reality, which only encouraged Redington to further cement it into the state’s future.
From 1978 until his death in 1999, Redington spent a huge amount of time promoting the Iditarod Trail. If you could move, he wanted you out on it on a dogsled, on skis, on foot, on a bike and even, reluctantly and near the end, on a snowmachine – the technological change that did so much to both diminish the place of dogs in rural Alaska and build the white highways that elevated the capability of bicycles for wilderness travel.
Redington pushed for a 100-mile Iditaski along the trail in 1983. Four years later, “Redington challenges the mountain bike community with a 200-mile out-and-back on Iditarod Trail. (He) coins it ‘Iditabike,'” Tracy Ross wrote in “A History of Alaska’s Iditasport Bike Race” for Bicycling magazine in 2015.
By 2015, the Iditasport was already dead and gone, replaced by the same event with a new name – the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI). But Iditasport played a key role in bringing fatbikes into the main stream, and Iditasport founder Dan Bull cannot be overlooked in this history.
If Redington was something of a renegade, Bull was a full-on outlaw. Before disappearing from Alaska in 2001, Bull tried to stage his own death. A one-time preacher and one of the founding members of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, he later ended up riding a bike solo across the U.S.
State court records indicate a felony warrant for his arrest remains in effect in Alaska. The 2003 charges stem from the third time Bull was accused of driving under the influence. It does not specify if alcohol or drugs were involved, but Bull was known to have issues with both.
Now 66-years-old, he is living and working under an assumed name in Washington state, a long way from the revolution in winter cycling he helped foster. Bull took a 200-mile, out-and-back race to the remote, off-the-road community of Skwentna in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and boosted it over the Alaska Range to become a 350-mile race to the tiny, Interior village of McGrath and eventually on to Nome.
He called the race to McGrath – Redington’s original dream – the “Iditasport Extreme.” Nome became the “Iditasport Impossible.”
Bull signed sponsors to back the races – at one time they included Red Bull – promised prize money which wasn’t always delivered, and managed to gain the race national notoriety.
John Stamstad, a member of the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame, built his reputation on Iditasport success.
“In ’97 the race was changed to the Iditasport Extreme and…went across the Alaska Range of mountains,” the Hall says. “Stamstad was the winner again with a time of 5 days, and 5 hours. Stamstad followed that with victories in 1998, 1999, and 2000.”
Iditasport competition encouraged a host of modifications in winter bikes. In 1994, Simon Rakower of Fairbanks produced a 44mm wide bike rim – the now legendary “Snowcat” – in an effort to widen tire width and increase float while riding on snowmachine trails.
Once wider rims and wider tires got the bikes rolling atop snowmachine trails – rather than sinking in or, worse, punching in and sending riders hurtling over handlebars – the Iditasport shifted from a race of cyclists against skiers to a race in which skiers became an afterthought.
And as the bike competition intensified, the hand-built bikes crafted specifically for Iditasport just kept getting better, and the interest in winter biking kept growing.
Big business finally noticed in 2004 when Surly Bikes, a Minnesota company, unveiled the Pugsley – the first, mass-produced, so-called “fat bike.”
“I rode it with 26 x 3.0 Nokian Gazzaloddi tires before Endomorphs were available,” David Sunshine has written on the Surly website. A hugely nobby, heavy, downhill tire, the Gazzaloddi was the widest tire to be found at the time.
Early Alaska fatbikers used to mount the tires to Snocat rims, cut the outward protruding nobs off, and then try to find a mountain bike frame into which they could squeeze the tire.
The Pugsley ended the search for frames able to handle a three-inch tire. The Surly Endomoprh, a 3.8-inch wide tire, the first mass-produced fat tire, and the 65mm wide “Large Marge” rim shortly followed the Pugs into production.
From then on, rims and tires just kept getting both wider and lighter. As they did so, the ruts winter bikers used to put in trails began to disappear. The wider tires packed down a smoother surface, and the more people who rode, the wider and smoother the trails became.
The revolution was on. More fat bikes soon followed the Pugsley.
Alaska’s very own Fatback hit the market in 2007 with a new, wider, rear hub that would become an industry standard and frames of titanium and aluminum that shaved significant weight off the steel Pugsley fame.
Nine-zero-seven, another Alaska-based company, followed with another production fat bike in the late 2000s, and fat bikes were on the way to becoming a craze. Nearly ever major manufacturer selling bikes in the U.S. started producing fat bikes sometime in this decade.
As far as the Anchorage metropolitan area, the urban core of Alaska, was concerned, the timing for the fat bike business couldn’t have been better. The 2010s have been plagued by a number of low-snow winters.
There was so little snow in 2015 and 2017 that the normal Iditarod dog race restart along the George Parks Highway near polebrity Sarah Palin’s home north of Anchorage had to be moved beyond the Alaska Range to Fairbanks, the biggest city in Central Alaska.
The Tour of Anchorage ski marathon was transformed into a short, ski festival in 2015 and 2016 because of lack of snow. There was just enough snow for the event in 2017.
Longtime Anchorage skier Tim Kelley – he and friend Bob Baker raced a pair of mountain bikers along the Iditarod Trail to Nome in 1990 to prove that it could be skied or ridden – watched a lot of skiers move to fat bikes over the course of those winters.
Couple that shift with Alaska’s constantly shifting population and the change from skis to bikes was likely inevitable.
Alaska has the one of the “nation’s highest rates of population turnover from migration,” according to the state Department of Labor. The largest numbers of immigrants in recent years have come from Washington state, California and Texas.
Those are not big ski states, but home to a lot of people who know how to ride bikes. Plus, as Kelley noted, there have been other changes.
“A former University of Alaska Anchorage ski racer and super nice guy helped end the war,” Kelley messaged.
That, he added, would be Fatback founder Greg Matyas who has sold a lot of fat bikes to Anchorage skiers while actively promoting both cycle racing and wilderness fat biking.
“That diluted the animosity and gave fat bikers the majority,” Kelley wrote. “I assume NSAA is going fat because of money. Hard to justify the expense of the Tour of Anchorage if few skiers show up because most of them now are bikers.”
Kelley points to others who brought skiers and bikers together as well.
“Another diplomat was Brooks Wade. When he ran the Susitna 100, it was pretty mellow between skiers and bikers because he was so easy-going and likable,” Kelley said.
“I don’t claim any personal credit,” Wade said, “but that event did help to bring people together a bit.”
Over the years, the 100-mile, backcountry loop on trails through the Susitna Valley near Big Lake has faced all kinds of bad weather. There is nothing like suffering together on the trail to bond people; it is a little like military boot camp.
The Su 100 will celebrate its 15th anniversary this year. The ITI, heir to the even older Iditasport, now boasts a bigger field than the Iditarod dog race. Most are fat-tired cyclists who come from across the country and around the world.
Wade, who dates back to Redington days, finds it all a little hard to believe. He remembers people thinking Redington was a little nuts.
“He wanted everybody to go to McGrath,” Wade remembered.
McGrath was 350 miles north of Wasilla on the far side of the Alaska Range. At least 250 miles of the route crossed what most Americans would think of as mind-boggling wilderness. Often the trail wasn’t good. Sometimes there was no trail.
A ski race to McGrath, let alone a bike race, seemed crazy. And now?
The slowest winning time to McGrath in the last five ITIs is three days and five hours. It used to take the dogs longer. The record time of 1 day, 18 hours and 32 minutes – set by John Lackey in 2015 – is at least eight hours faster than the fastest time run by any of the super dogs of the modern Iditarod.
The trail is better. The bikes are better. There are ever more people riding. They push each other in competition.
And now the bikes have invaded the Tour of Anchorage. The best Tour times from the past are sure to take a beating. The wheel, an invention more than 5,000 years old, long ago proved itself far more efficient than the skid given any kind of reasonable rolling surface.
It’s been seducing humans ever since. Anchorage is today over run by fat bikes thanks to what Redington helped start with the Iditabike. And the Alaska huskies he intended the Iditarod to save?
They’ve morphed into thin-coated, long-legged, speed dogs sometimes looking little like the huskies Redington knew, and the Iditarod race, a once growing affair, has now shrunk back to the size it was at the end of the 1970s.
Unintended consequences easy to understand thanks the clarity of hindsight. It’s a lot easier to park a fat bike than a dog team in a garage in urban Alaska, and a lot easier to bike than ski – not to mention faster – on a snowmachine trail packed firm.
Ding-A-Ling! Only a half-brained knuckle-head would think Joe was a dog lover. That guy was all for using dogs however he could for whatever bangs he could get. And, yet, the stupidity about him continues. Thank God I’m not the only one who knows the Emperor wore no clothes.
The old website got zapped in transition to a new hosting company that bought out the old one. So, sorry, you can’t get the books right now except from me in person. The corrections to your historical errors just take too much explaining for me to be willing to pick my way through them with you by email, then answer questions or go back and forth on clarifications or possible disagreement. But, Steve, it would be really enjoyable to sit down over a cup and go over them in depth. Where’s your homestead? Contact info?
Wow ! Cycling and skiing! My family loves it . The fatback Corvis is a sweet ride . Joe Redington helped improve so many people’s lives and health by promoting outdoor sports ! The work him and his friends put into trails benifits all Alaskan s ! Thank you joe and friends ! Nothing better than bycycles and skis !
I’m the race director. Bikes have not “invaded” the Tour of Anchorage; they have been invited. And as of last Thursday, there were 343 skiers signed up and 49 bikers. If conditions stay good, maybe we’ll get to 800 skiers and 200 bikers. I don’t foresee a mass exodus of skiers doing TOA on bikes (unless the course has turned to ice). Ideally the skiers will keep skiing the race and those who prefer biking will join an exciting new event. True, ski numbers used to be much greater when snow was more consistent and biking was less popular, but we’re nowhere close to writing the obituary for skiing.
I think the bike revolution is awesome.
But skiing is a looooong ways away from dying.
I was just finishing up a fantastic up n back on Archangel 6 or 8 weeks ago,just finally got the first good dump of the year.
GREAT trail for classic,skaters not quite as happy.Trail was set,not that it mattered to me.Lone biker lasted maybe 150 yds,I smiled in empathy and said “Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.
Now its bike friendly
Hello Matias, Joe Westfall here , I just had total knee replacement back in November and to be able to continue mountain biking through the winter I got a foldable Fat Tire Mountain ebike. I’ve been using it for my physical therapy recovery and it is working out great. I am wondering if I could use it to participate in your March 3rd event? Please let me know. I can bring along my permanent handicap hang tag if you need me to . You can also text me at 907-441-1840
Joe: Sorry to hear about the knee. Glad to hear about the e-bike. John Evingson, a significant player in the development of the modern fat bike and a serious cyclist in his day, had the same surgery. He has since become quite the e-bike advocate.
I personally think their use on bike and backcountry trails should require the addition of a handicap tag, but with that, I’m all for them. Anything to keep people moving, especially old people eligible for Medicare.
Healthy people save us a lot of tax dollars. I’m dying to see what Matias rules here.
Let’s not forget it was Dorothy Page who had the first Idea to race sleddogs out on the Yentna River…
The Idea for the Iditarod started with Dorothy Page.
“(In 1967) run in two heats over a 25-mile course, the race was officially named the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race, in honor of mushing legend Leonhard Seppala.”
Shortly after Joe Reddington saw profit in selling dogs, lengthening the course and getting the military to back his idea.
At one time it is reported he may have had as many as 500 dogs on chains…many of which suffered for his gain.
“Joe Redington, Sr. later expanded the original 1967 event making it longer and more lucrative.”
Then came the “marketing” which aimed to connect the new long race with the Serum Run’s history although it was nothing like the current race today.
“Half of the 1925 serum delivery was done by train. Dogs ran in relays for the remaining 674 miles, with no dog running more than 100 miles.”
If Alaskans really wished to preserve history, these mushing events would be relays with more periods of rest and less corporate profits.
Best article ever Craig. Mr Sunshine happens to be one of my oldest mountainbiking pals dating back to the mid 90s. One of the most hardcore riders I know and has even won the Arrowhead 135 in the past
Hi again Steve,
You and I need to get together to let me true you up on Iditarod history. You might like to nab my 2-volume set, TRAILBREAKERS–Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod. So many untruths have been printed about race origins, then others come along and–“It’s in print, it must be so”–copy what they’ve read, and so it has gone, and gone, and gone, on and on, until some of it is so embedded I don’t know if the hooey can ever be rooted out. (But I try.) There are only a few of us left who can relate the story with what I call, “Unassailable Authenticity.” That rare property is held only by, “I Was There!” “I Did It!” “This Is The Way It Was!” I admire your zest for dog welfare. Why not come by my stand down beside the Alaska Mint on 4th Ave. during Rondy, and Thursday, Friday, and Saturday during Iditarod. I’d like to meet you, and plumb up a whole bunch of your narrative. We might not be in agreement on some of this Iditarod stuff, but it kinda embarrasses me for you to see your history so askew.
Rod, very generous offer. Hope Steve takes you up on it.
I would be happy to meet with you, although I do not attend Rondy or Irod events for many reasons.
I will look for a copy of your book as I am open to hearing both sides of the issue.
As for what you are questioning in my response, you must be more specific?
I have meet personally with an Irod musher from one of the early races in the 1970’s. He has only confirmed my evidence on the poor treatment of dogs.
(Think whips on the trail…
Which I believe are still allowed to be carried under current Irod rules?)
This man is also still alive and in our state.
As for Joe Reddington having 500 dogs and Dorothy Page starting the first organized race in 1967, are you claiming these are false?
Let’s be honest the race today is not like the race when you were younger.
Corporate sponsors and financial gains are now two of the driving forces in career mushing.
In the beginning there were two groups (1. Dorothy Page…small community relays and not much prizes.
2. Joe Reddington with media spotlight, new infused corporate sponsors from the booming oil industry in the early 80’s, and a much longer more competitive race that bred mushers like Susan Butcher)
Maybe after the commotion of this years Irod event, we can find some time to sit down for tea?
With winter, family and homestead, my chores are many and days off are few.
I will look online for a copy of your book and always welcome your replies.