Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit on Tuesday led the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race into the tiny, Kuskokwim River community of McGrath more than two hours ahead of the pace set in the record Iditarod run of 2016.
If Petit goes on to win the Iditarod in Nome, he stands to pocket more than $50,000 and the keys to a new Dodge truck. Flaharty won a free entry in a future, 350-mile ITI race.
An Iditarod victory for Petit on down the line in Nome would also boost him into the category of the almost famous. Alaskans think of winning the Iditarod dog race a big deal, but in much of the rest of the world some people still think of it as “that race some woman wins ever year.”
Before her death, she and Libby Riddles, the first woman to win so-called Last Great Race, helped make famous the phrase: “Alaska – Where Men Are Men and Women Win the Iditarod.”
It has now been 29 years since a woman won the Iditarod, but t-shirts bearing the slogan remain a mainstay of the Iditarod store. And Riddles remains among the best known Iditarod figures.
If Flaharty, an Alaska product, wins a few more ITI races somebody might notice, but there’s no guarantee. Peter Basinger, who grew up in Anchorage, and won five of the races on his fat bike before moving to Utah and then California is still Peter Who.
Flaharty – a former world-class junior skier at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, his hometown institution of higher learning – is still probably better known for that than his Iditarod exploits. The world of sport is strange in this way.
When you’re hot, you’re hot; and when you’re not, you’re not.
In 2014, Fairbanks’ Jeff Oatley rode a fatbike 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome in 10 days, 2 hours and 53 minutes to win the ITI 1000. His time would have won every Iditarod dog race prior to 1995 and would have been good enough to put Oatley 11th in the dog race last year.
Granted, Oatley had great trail for most of the 2014 race, and Iditarod mushers struggled with some bad trail last year. But there is no doubt what Oatley did in 2014 was mind-boggling.
Nobody ever imagined a cyclist could make that sort of time on the 1,000-mile trail from Knik to Nome, and nobody – outside of cycling enthusiasts – much cared when Oatley set the record.
Oatley was the right cyclist in the wrong place at the wrong time on the wrong route, though it’s not like he cared. He’d rather ride than be noticed. He’s sort of ideally made for Alaska.
He once took off on something of a whim and rode the 1,000-mile route of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.
Forget that the route crosses even wilder country than the Iditarod and the temperatures regularly dip to 40- or 50-degrees-below zero, sometimes colder. Riding in these sort of conditions are just something the now almost 50-year-old Oatley does.
Can you say, Jeff Who?
Things would likely be different elsewhere.
The 2019 Paris-Nice cycling race will start in Saint-Germain-en-Laye just west of the famous French city on Sunday and cover a mere 750 miles through the very civilized countryside over the course of the next week.
If this year is anything like last year, tens of thousand of spectators will turn out to line the race route and about 8 million people will watch the race on television, according to Amaury Sport Organisation (AS0), the business that runs Paris-Nice along with the Tour de France and other cycling races.
No one watches the ITI. There is no TV coverage. Even internet coverage is spotty because the event happens in the definition of nowhere and attracts no media at this time. Sports are fickle in this way.
The Iditaord dog race was a little known, odd-ball, sporting event until 1985 when Riddles, an attractive blonde woman then living in Teller, won by forging through a potentially life-threatening storm. In the process, she vaulted the Iditarod onto the international stage.
Riddles’s victory earned here a spread in Vogue magazine, and she subsequently traveled the world talking Iditarod. When Butcher followed up on Riddles’s win by claiming another victory for women and then started feuding with old friend and four-time champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers over who was the greatest Iditarod musher ever, the Iditarod was in fat city.
By the time Swenson walked his team through a storm in 1991 – saying he would rather die than lose again – the race was an established institution. It has clung to its title as the Superbowl of Alaska ever since.
When several ITI racers pushed their bikes through a coastal storm to reach Nome last year, their near Swensonesque achievement barely warranted a mention.
Instead, the big news focused on two mushers trapped in the storm, two mushers the trio of cyclists stopped to help. One of the cyclists borrowed the satellite phone of cold-fingered Scott Janssen, who couldn’t dial it, and helped to get the Iditarod moving on a rescue of Janssen and mushing friend Jim Lanier.
Then they pushed on down the trail undeterred by the weather as many other ITI cyclists have done and eventually pedaled into Nome largely unnoticed. The media was preoccupied making a hero out of Janssen for spooning with Lanier while they awaited rescue.
The only Iditarod cyclist who ever gained any real recognition was the one rescued in Rainy Pass, but then it wasn’t due to the rescue.
Washington state’s John Stamstad ended up in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame thanks to his endurance-biking credentials, some part of which were built on his dominance in the Iditasport Extreme, the predecessor to the ITI 350 to McGrath.
In 1992, the Hall notes, Stamstad “entered his first Iditasport, a race in Alaska in February along the famous Iditarod Trail. Stamstad won that race in 1993, ’94, ’95, and ’96. In ’97 the race was changed to the Iditasport Extreme and distance of the race was increased from 170 miles to an arduous 350 and went across the Alaska Range of mountains. Stamstad was the winner again with a time of 5 days, and 5 hours. Stamstad followed that with victories in 1998, 1999, and 2000.”
He and Pat Norwil, a fellow mountain biker from Washington state, might also have been the first Iditarod sporting casualties if not for the intrusion of the late Richard Larson, an Iditasport official who ordered them out of Rainy Pass one year with temperatures at 30- or 40-degrees-below zero and the wind blowing so hard it was difficult to stand up.
Stamstad later confessed he wasn’t quitting unless Norwil quit, and Norwil was no quitter even when he knew that was the best idea.
“Climbing over snow drifts, we stagger under the force of the wind,” he wrote for Mountainzone after that 1999 race. “I could see the frustration on John’s face, my own confidence has started to waver. We are so close to the turn up Pass Creek, so close but so very far away.”
That’s about the time Larson showed up to check on the lightly dressed and lightly equipped cyclists.
“‘How is my face,’ I yell at Richard,” Norwill wrote. “I’m freaking. This weather is starting to get to me. John says ‘we can’t find the trail, and we can’t afford to wait around.’ Richard and Craig (that would be the author) are yelling ‘we could hardly follow your tracks the snow is blowing in all signs of the trail.'”
Whether the quote is accurate, I can’t remember, but the weather was undeniably dangerous.
“On a rise, we four regroup,” Norwil wrote. “What to do? We all agree this pace is way too slow. The trail breakers say ‘we can’t guarantee we will be able to find the trail.’
“At this speed, John and I are doomed, Richard sees it in our eyes: the fear, frustration, disappointment, but mostly the lack of energy to make a decision. Richard says, ‘leave your bikes against this tripod and get on the snowmachines we are taking you down.’ Anger and frustration well up but I know he is right.
“Riding the sno-mos back to Puntilla Lake, the (previous) check point, is like being on a bronco bull. The wind has sculptured the snow into ridges and drifts that make traveling treacherous. Craig and John disappear over a drop, setting off a four-foot slab avalanche that they luckily are able to ride down. Richard is left grabbing for the brakes as the two of us peer over a four-foot drop into blocks of snow as big as outhouses.”
The fun and games in ’99 didn’t end there. They actually got worse. The front bunch of racers ended up stuck in the Rohn checkpoint in the heart of the Alaska Range for almost a day with 40- or 50-degree-below zero temperatures playing havoc with the Kuskokwim River just downstream.
Ice dams caused overflow to build up so deep no one could get across. Riders lashed garbage bags on their legs and left to wade across only to return to the one-room log cabin as ice men, saying the water was too deep.
It was epic, but unlike Riddle’s ’85 run to Nome, the story of that Iditasport never caught fire. The ITI remains little noticed if now men beat dogs.