Out in the dark and minus-5 degree cold settling onto Alaska’s deserted Yentna River on Sunday night, adventure cyclist Jay Petervary was for a change free.
Free from the internet. Free from the phone. Free from the text messages. Simply free.
His mental state might well have echoed those historic words of one of America’s greatest orators, civil rights icon Martin Luther King: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.”
The hectic life that brings one to this point is something with which many in 21st Century America might identify.
Petervary, for those unfamiliar with the name despite his journeying north to ride a fat bike in the Iditarod Trail Invitational for more than a decade, is what might be called a professional adventure cyclist.
A Victor, Idaho resident, he is sponsored by Salsa, a Minnesota-based cycling company that is a subsidiary of QBP, a company formerly known as Quality Bicycle Products.
QBP is today the largest wholesale distributor of bicycle parts and accessories in the U.S. according to Forbes. Petervary also names a long list of other cycling equipment manufacturers as sponsors.
He is thus living what some might consider the dream: Ride your bike, ride your bike a lot, get paid and enjoy life.
Only it’s not that simple. Petervary isn’t a professional cyclist in the sense of say someone like four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome at Sky. Froome is under contract to Sky for an annual payment that ESPN and others have estimated at $4 million to $5 million.
Petervary, on the other hand, is an entrepreneur who juggles a lot of deals to make a living. Salsa and cycling equipment manufactures are only part of the mix. Petervary is also a cycling-event consultant, a coach, a teacher, an inspirational speaker and sometimes a guide.
In a Saturday night interview before Sunday’s start of his 12th trip north on the Iditarod Trail, Petervary pretty much made it sound like that when he isn’t on his bike training, he’s on his computer emailing or on his cell phone talking and texting.
Sound familiar? In some ways, the 46-year-old Petervary might be considered a cycling business-everyman.
The Great Escape
Against this backdrop, Petervary’s overwhelming thought about riding his bike across 1,000 miles of wilderness from Knik to Nome in the middle of the Alaska winter was simple.
“I don’t have to answer e-mails,” he said. “I don’t have to talk to people. I’m so (expletive deleted) relieved. I love being alone.”
Admittedly, Petervary said, the Iditarod Trail as an escape from modern life is not for everyone. The Iditarod crosses the last great wilderness in North America. Out there all alone far from any help on a bike, a means of transportation that can prove more than useless if the trail blows in as it regularly does, can prove more than a little intimidating.
To date, no one – not a fat-bike cyclist, not a runner, not a dog musher, not a snowmobiler – has died competing in any of Alaska’s annual winter races along the Iditarod. But there have been plenty of close calls and everyone in the know agrees that it is inevitable the trail will one day claim someone.
Runner Peter Ripmaster almost drowned in open water in the Tatina River on the north side of the Alaska Range in the 2016 ITI. Scott Hoberg was lost, confused and slipping into serious hypothermia when rescued last year.
The risk factor is real, and it can rattle ITI newbies. The Iditarod Trail, instead of becoming an escape, becomes a worry. And it’s hard to have fun when you’re worrying about what could go wrong next.
After all these years, however, Petervary is beyond that and now loving the experience. On the trail, he has become a man in his element. He talked about how his confidence that he can take care of himself in any conditions has grown over the years and how that changes the experience.
“It’s a lot of fun now,” he said.
Or a lot of fun if you’re in the physical condition to sit in the saddle for hours and grind out the miles while admiring the scenery.
Petervary last year won the ITI’s race to Nome in a time of 16 days, 23 hours and 45 minutes. It was a time fast enough to have claimed victory in three of the first four Iditarods.
It was his fourth trip to Nome and his third win there, but the truly competitive ITI event is the 350-mile dash from Knik over the Alaska Range to McGrath, a tiny, Interior community on the upper Kuskokwim River.
Knik to Nome is a better-than-two-week survival competition. Knik to McGrath has become a two- to three-day, don’t rest, foot-to-the pedal race. Petervary has won that race three times, too. The last was in 2017.
Historically he’s shied away from competing for McGrath honors while planning a ride to Nome. For cyclists, going too hard too soon in a long race almost invariably leads to a significant breakdown in performance near the end.
But Petervary said he’s racing for McGrath this year despite having his sights set on Nome, in large part for proof of concept on the long-distance, fat bike he road to Nome last year. Salsa calls that bike, the Blackborow, a “‘dream big’ cargo fat bike.”
Yes, a cargo bike. The kind of bike designed for hauling gear, groceries and packages around the city. A bike that is the antithesis of a “race bike.” But Petervary had these conclusions after riding the bike to Nome last year:
“…The Blackborow could/should change the way people look at what bike to use for the Iditarod Trail Invitational moving forward, especially the trip to Nome (1000 miles). It could even work for the trip to McGrath (350 miles).”
Petervary trailed 2018 ITI 350 winner Neil Beltchenko into McGrath by about four hours. Petervary later attributed the time difference largely to sleep.
“I got 12 hours of sleep on my way to McGrath and Neil, I think, got about three,” Petervary later wrote. “Neil was racing to McGrath. I was racing to Nome. Having done both I have different approaches/strategies depending on my finish line. My Nome kit was probably 15 pounds heavier than a McGrath set-up. I bring this up not to toot my horn, but because it makes me very curious what it would be like to truly race to McGrath on the Blackborow compared to traditional geometry bikes. I guess I’m not done pushing/testing the capability of it.”
The Blackborow is significantly longer than a standard fat bike. The length, Petervary argues, makes the bike more stable and easier to ride in junk snow, an Iditarod norm.
“…I’m not sure in engineering terms how a longer wheelbase effects tire loads but with my practical experience in the end I feel I can ride deeper, softer, shittier snow conditions then I can on my Mukluk, with a higher tire pressure,” Petervary argues. “It also means when I do run a very low pressure I can ride even worse snow conditions when I would otherwise be forced to walk.”
The Iditarod should have a decent dose of shitty snow this year. It snowed heavily last week in the Alaska Range and that snow is still not firmly packed in. Most knowledgable ITI watchers are predicting a winner in McGrath in about three days.
Petervary said he expected a winning time just under that margin. Whether he will be the winner only time will tell. He claimed he wasn’t even sure of what competition he faces.
“I think I’ve sort of aged out,” he said. “I don’t know a lot of these guys. I’m 46. I just don’t pay attention like I used to.”
But he warned that those who scoffed, maybe even laughed, at his cargo bike, that it’s no joke.
“This isn’t like second or third year doing this,” he said. “I’m not going to be out there on something that makes it harder. I think this is a better tool.”
The long, aluminum bike might be a little heavier than the shorter, state-of-the-art carbon fiber race bikes some other competitors will be on, but Petervary believes the Blackborow’s design differences trump any weight penalty.