Across the big empty to the north of the Alaska Range, 33-year-old Tyson Flaharty, the apparent heir to a rich legacy of powerhouse Fairbanks cyclists, was burning up the Iditarod Trail on Monday night as fat-tired cyclists again appeared ready to upstage the dogs.
A 320-mile ride that many had expected to take the leaders in the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) slightly less than three days this year is now shaping up as a sub-two day jaunt from Knik at the very head of Cook Inlet over the mountains to the 350-person, outpost community of McGrath on the upper Kuskokwim River.
Sean Grady, a veteran of five ITIs, was Monday night predicting Flaharty could reach the finish line in as little as a 1 day, 20 hours.
“Amazing ride up front,” he said. “I think the record is safe, but he’ll come close. If he does fade hard, Jay (Petervary) will take it in 1 day, 23 hours.”
The race record time of 1 day, 18 hours, 32 minutes was set in 2015 by John Lackey then of Anchorage. Lackey took almost six hours off the time set by Fairbanks’ Kevin Breitenbach only a year before.
After Breitenbach rolled into McGrath in 2 days, 4 hours and 43 minutes in 2014, Outside online declared his time a record that “may stand for a long time as the fastest Iditarod Trail Invitational ever.”
As it turned out, Breitenbach’s ride served only to create a new target for the best ITI riders. Two days became the race’s four-minute mile. Lackey, Breitenbach and Andrew Kulmatiski from Utah all went under it in 2015.
Anchorage’s Tim Bernston buried himself on tough trail in 2016 to squeak into the sub-two-day club as well. In his rookie race that year, Flaharty was second in just over two days. The dogs of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race take longer. .
Flaharty has not raced since and snowier, punchier trail has slowed the last two runnings of the ITI 350. The same was expected to be the case this year given a snowstorm that brought a foot or more of snow to the valleys of the Susitna and Yentna rivers only a week before the ITI start.
But there was clearly enough snowmachine traffic going north over the Alaska Range in preparation for the weekend kickoff of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race plus cold weather under clear skies that helped to set up a firm white highway on which 4- to 5-inch tires could roll.
Temperatures hit 20 degrees below zero on the Yentna River Sunday night as the race was moving north. Those are ideal temperature for turning snowmachine packed snow into white pavement for fat bikes.
Ahead of schedule
By Monday afternoon at Puntilla Lake on the southern edge of the Happy River Valley looking north to 3,160-foot Rainy Pass, the racers were way ahead of the anticipated schedule.
“We were surprised,” Steve Perrin II said by telephone from Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge on the east shore of the lake. With the leaders already moving fast, he only expected them to pick up more time on the 30-mile run through the mountains to Rohn, a lonely cabin on the banks of the Tatina River for most of the year that comes alive at Iditarod time.
The weather that brought so much snow to the lower Yentna country only pushed three- to five-inches in the mountains, Perrin said, and there’d been plenty of Iditarod traffic to Rohn and back to pack that in.
“It’s good trail conditions,” he said.
That assessment proved pretty accurate. Though Flaharty’s satellite tracker showed his speed dropping below 2 mph, an obvious sign of some bike pushing on the steep climb to the Pass, he averaged about 6 mph into Rohn and was doing 9 to 12 mph down the Dalzell Gorge and along the frozen surface of the Tatina on the way into the checkpoint.
A twisting, turning, snakey challenge for the Iditarod dog teams, the Dalzell is bike-park-like fun on a fat bike and the Tatina an icy thorofare between mountains that seem to climb straight into the sky.
Flaharty did not linger long in Rohn. He was in and out within an hour as evening settled over the mountains and the temperature started to drop. It was back down to zero in the upper Kuskwokim village of Nikolai by midnight.
By then, Flaharty had left the Farewell Lakes and the overgrown Farewell Burn of old and headed for Sullivan Creek and the frozen, snow-covered lakes and wetlands between the patches of forest on the last 40 miles of trail to the remote village of less than 100.
Petervary – a 46-year-old, three-time winner of this event – was about 15 miles back with Clinton Hodges III, a top-five contender for years now, and Peter Basinger, an ITI legend back after year of battling with a bad back, in pursuit.
A six-time champ, Basinger grew up in Anchorage and dominated the ITI through his university years. He eventually became a teacher and moved to Moab, Utah to teach.
Back problems followed and he was out of competition for years. His last win was in 2012. Since then, he’s had back surgery and returned to battle back at age 38. He first hit the trail again in 2017 and finished sixth, about 18 hours behind a winning Petervary.
Basinger looked poised for a better finish this year and possibly a personal-best time. Hodges, meanwhile, was closing the gab on Petervary through the night and looked like he might claw his way into second.
“All four of the guys out of Puntilla Lake looked good,” said Berntson, who was on the trail as a spectator while recovering from hip surgery.
“He’s a a good athlete,” Berntson added of Flaharty, a former Junior World Championships Nordic skier from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “He seemed super motivated and I’m guessing he’s the fastest of the top four. If conditions stay good, he’s going to be real tough to beat.”
If Flaharty wins, he would join a sizeable list of ITI winners from the Central Alaska city of Fairbanks. The list goes back through Breitenbach to Jeff Oatley, who rode a fat bike the 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome in the astonishing time of 10 days, 2 hours, 53 minutes in and the late Rocky Reifenstuhl, who died in 2014 at the age of 61.
Reifenstuhl was riding bikes on the Iditarod Trail before there were fat bikes. He won the running division of the Iditasport Extreme, the ITI predecessor, in 1995. The next year, he won it on a bike.
Where the bikes can progress well without getting off and pushing, of course they should be expected to outrun the dogs. Think about it: can your dog stay beside your bike at a trot during a summer run on the bike path? A super fast trotting dog may hit upper teens/hour for a ways, but over the long haul, 10-12 mph is a fast long-distance racing pace.