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 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.