Man beats dog


Fairbanks’ Tyson Flaharty, the fastest dog on the Iditarod Trail to McGrath this year/Kathi Merchant photo


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.

His team was more than an hour behind the time set by Tyson Flaharty – the first fat-tired cyclist in the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) to reach McGrath last week.

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.”

That woman would be the late Susan Butcher, who last won in 1990 and retired after the 1994 race. Butcher died prematurely in 2006, leaving behind husband David Monson and two young daughters.

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.

The phenom

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.

A good trail had been put in for the dog race, he later said, and the weather forecast looked good, so why not?

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.

Lone exception

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.






















9 replies »

  1. No human is going to stand a chance in an endurance event against a well trained group of dogs. If Petit were racing for a finish in McGrath instead of conserving his energies to continue on for another 650 miles of course it would be a different story in terms of speed of completion. Additionally, the biker is a lone entity who only has to think of his own personal healthcare needs, whilst the musher has to take into account all of his/her dogs. Not to marginalize the accomplishment of the bikers, just pointing out that the two sports aren’t really comparable when it comes to calculating “speed.”

    • Sure Jason,
      Especially when the lead musher has 4 snowmachines “breaking trail” for him.
      That type of grooming and support is rarely seen by the biking crew.
      I can only think this plays a HUGE roll in the decrease in time to Nome over the years.

  2. As sad as it is for the “wheelmen” (as they used to call them when bikes first appeared in the Klondike) it’s just pretty hard for mechanical contraptions to compete for public love with the wonderful sled dogs of the North. I used to figure I ran 1/3 of the way to Nome behind or in front of my team. That’s nothing compared to the heroics of you pedal pushers.

    Chugiak’s late Jean Gilman was the one who came up with the “Alaska, where men are men and women win the Iditarod” line. We all knew Jean was the source, but newbies just seem to think it evolved of its own into the common Iditarod vernacular.

    The thing that first took the race to the nation was my 1974 sponsorship by the Wall Street Journal’s award winning weekly news magazine, the National Observer. They ran three straight months of weekly coverage, many articles right under the masthead and numerous times in the parent Journal. Circulation heads reported that some or all of the articles reprinted in 168 newspapers around the nation. The editors stated the series drew more written response than any other topic in their history; in second place was Watergate.

    Ian Woolridge’s 1977 series in the London Daily Mail–in which he coined “The Last Great Race on Earth” was what took Iditarod international. Up to that date, Ian’s series drew more Daily Mail reader response than anything else since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

    Even though those were huge national and international exposures, Libby’s exploit and the coverage it got were a veritable bombshell going off, rocketing the race into the stratosphere, and helping make “Iditarod” one of the two most recognized proper nouns masses connect to Alaska. (Yes, “Denali.”)

  3. Bryan you might want to read Wheels on Ice before you say there is no tradition to bikes on the gold rush trails of Alaska. We heard the Idita idiots a lot in the early days but in Nome in 2017 our finishers, mushers and ITC folks took up 1 side of the Gold Nugget Saloon trading shared experiences food and the occasional adult beverage until the wee hours. Looked like a big family reunion to me. And never did I hear the word crazy

    • Bill, no disrepect intended..None at all. Nothing but respect from me. Plenty of room for everybody. I apologize if I wasn’t clear. I was addressing more outside interests as far as Craig’s article goes. Media attention, sponsors, and general public interest in the lower 48. My point – I was speaking to some tourists off a cruise boat. I asked them what they were going to do or see – “we are going to ride sled dogs (in July)”. Sled dogs on wheels. That is the vision and “fantasy” when people think of Alaska – mushing, sled dogs, etc.. A more familiar image over bikes for most. Thus, the lack of exposure, media coverage, and interest. My assumption anyhow.

      • Bryan I probably am still a bit oversensitive from the early days when we truly were considered unwanted guests for some good reasons I wont go into here and some misconceptions. Over the years I and most of our racers worked hard to mend burned bridges and build a credibility on the Trail. The credibility only comes with years on the Trail as it should but I sure felt it had come to fruition in Nome 2017. In there town clothes a stranger couldnt have told a musher from a human powered athlete even if they listened to stories of overflow, windstorms and bitter cold.
        All that said I agree with everything you said in your reply. Our guys will probably never win a truck.

  4. Damn Craig! 1999 What a year. I had just gotten to Puntilla and told John and Pat, “The wind has really picked up and I couldnt see my skis coming down the runway.” I’m not leaving until it settles down.” They left anyway. They looked pretty shell shocked when you guys brought them back. Next morning the 3 of us left and it was beautiful over the Pass just a little nerve racking after seeing the debris from the slide You set off
    and listening to the booms of slides turning loose in the hills above the pass. Then lying under the table at the Rohn cabin while some of the guys tried to wade thigh deep overflow with garbage bags. Same year I followed John and Pat to Farewell airstrip when we missed the exit off the lake and some reporter followed me cross country to the Trail when I decided I wasn’t going to backtrack. Hell of a shortcut!

  5. Quite and accomplishment but, it lacks tradition. Sorry Steve but, the image of Alaska and sled dogs goes hand-in-hand. To most people (still), the idea of riding or pushing a bicycle through the snow just seems silly.

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