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Blue skies and a warming sun were smiling on Fairbank’s Tyson Flaharty as he rode into the outpost community of McGrath on Tuesday to join a select group of cyclists able to claim themselves faster than the dogs of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Or make that a doubly select group of fat-tire bikers.
Flaharty also joined the four-member club of Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) 350 winners who have gone under two days on a wilderness course that follows a snowmachine track for 320 miles from Knik up into the Alaska Range, winds through Rainy Pass and crosses the flatlands to the biggest human enclave in this part of Interior Alaska.
And McGrath, population less than 350, is no booming metropolis. It’s just the biggest thing around for a long, long way. Nikolai, home to less than 100, is about 50 miles farther up the Kuskokwim River to the east, and Takotna, home to about 50, is some 20 miles to the west on the Takotna River.
Beyond those two places, there is really nothing in any direction for almost 90 miles. The next nearest community would be Stony River downstream on the Kusko. It is about 87 miles away by air, but more like 200 miles by riverboat, and it’s home to only about 50.
This is big, empty country where temperatures can drop to 40-or 50-degrees below zero and a cyclist on the Iditarod Trail in February is more likely to meet wildlife than another human.
It is intimidating country where cyclists who decide to push too hard could be putting their lives at risk. Flaharty, who grew up in the Fairbanks and became a world-class skier for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was not intimidated and pushed just hard enough to reach McGrath in an official time of 1 day, 23 hours, 54 minutes in a year with plenty of snow.
Three of the four other sub-2 day times came in the snow short year of 2015. Anchorage’s Tim Berntson is the only rider who has managed to sneak under the bar on a truly snowy trail. His win came in 2016 with Flaharty second as an ITI rookie in 2 days, 1 hour, 25 minutes.
In only his second race, he bettered that by an hour and forty minutes on a trail that had enough snow that three-time champ Jay Petervary from Victor, Idaho was thinking the winning time would come in a just under three days.
Petervary chased Flaharty relentlessly from the start of the race, but could not catch him. Petervary was on his way to a second-place finish as this was being written while Flaharty was eating and getting ready to get some much-needed sleep.
Berntson, who was on the trail this year as a spectator, said it was clear early on that Flaharty was the fastest of a front group of four riders that quickly broke away and stayed away from the rest of the field.
Led by Flaharty, that bunch included Petervary; Anchorage’s Clinton Hodges III, a regular top-three finisher; and Peter Basinger, the winningest rider in ITI history with five victories.
The question that surrounded Flaharty’s performance was not his speed but the ability of the 33-year-old to maintain it for two days with little rest. He grabbed only a nap here and there during the 48-hour run that started on regularly used trails in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage before working its way onto old trapline trails in the foothills of the Alaska Range and following an annual shifting snowmahcine trail from there north.
ITI race director Kathi Merchant, who was in Nikolai when Flaharty stopped there, reported he closed his eyes for only about an hour before taking off on the 50 mile ride along the last stretch of trail to McGrath.
Former ITI 350 champ Jeff Oatley from Fairbanks described Flaharty as “an incredibly strong rider with an elite, national-level Nordic skiing background and corresponding motor.
“If I was him my ‘Plan A’ would pretty much always be ‘See if anybody can keep up,'” Oatley texted early Tuesday. “With a good trail. he wouldn’t need a Plan B that often. A good trail will always favor the strongest rider.
“His ride over Rainy Pass was ridiculous,” Oatley added.
A now retired Oatley, like many other ITI fans, was watching Flaharty’s progress thanks to the satellite tracking devices all of the ITI competitors are now required to carry for safety purposes. Global positioning satellite (GPS) tracks showed the cyclists moving at speeds in the range of 4 to 8 mph, indicating Flaharty rode most of the way to the top of the 3,160-foot pass.
Only in a couple short stretches did the steep terrain and snowy trail appear to slow him to bike-pushing speed. And he topped the Pass, started roaring down the other side, and finally rolled into the isolated checkpoint of Rohn around 5 p.m. on Monday, it became obvious he was in sight of joining that sub-2 day club.
The dog race competitors are chasing tens of thouands in prize money. The ITI winner gets his picture taken, a price that is usually enough to at least help gain a bike sponsor: