Pounding out speeds of 5 to 6 mph, a trio of fat-tired cyclists at the front of the Iditarod Trail Invitational powered up the Yukon River Friday morning leaving nothing but good news behind for the leaders in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The dog teams were closing on the cyclists after a long slog for all across the Alaska heartland from McGrath on the Kuskokwim River to Anvik on the Yukon River.
Both the ITI and the dog race were slowed by new snow, blowing snow, rain and warm temperatures there. The cyclists ended up pushing their bikes for much of 100 miles. The dog teams were sometimes down to near walking speed.
Nicolas Petit from Girdwood led the dog teams from Iditarod through Shageluk to the Yukon, which was where retired ITI director Bill Merchant, a former musher himself, thought the dogs were sure to overtake the human-powered racers.
Mother Nature, however, appears to have had other plans. The temperature in Anvik remained an unseasonably warm 34 degrees Friday afternoon, but the speeds at which Petr Ineman from Illinois, West Virginia’s John Logar and Australia’s Troy Szczurkowski covered the 55 miles from Grayling to Eagle Island made it plain they had a white sidewalk on which to ride.
Logar and Ineman stopped at the Iditarod’s Eagle Island checkpoint about halfway to Kaltag for a break at midday. Szczurkowski kept going, but it was unclear whether he was making a push to go all the way to last stop on the Yukon or just trying to find a better spot to stop and rest.
Behind them, Texas A&M philosophy professor Jose Bermudez was setting the pace upriver for Alaskans Kim Riggs and Missy Schwarz, and just behind them was dog-race leader Nicolas Petit from Girdwood.
Petit led the sled-dog field in the hard push from the ghost-town checkpoint of Iditarod to Shageluk and then on to Anvik and Grayling. He stopped there just before noon Friday apparently preparing to take the single, mandatory, 8-hour rest required of all teams along the Yukon River.
As he rested, defending champ Joar Liefseth Ulsom, the Norwegian from the dog-swamped community of Willow north of Anchorage, was closing fast. Having done his eight-hour stop in Shageluk, Ulsom was out of Anvik and on his way to Grayling just before 11:30 a.m. on the short run of usually less than three hours to Grayling.
He seemed certain to pass Petit there and jump back into the lead. Montana Jessie Royer left Anvik just behind Ulsom, but had yet to take the 8-hour rest.
Dog teams can take anywhere from 6 to 10 hours to travel from Grayling to Eagle Island depending on trail conditions. Given the speeds of the bikers, Ulsom’s time was expected to be near the lower end of that range.
It is another 65 miles from there to Kaltag. Ulsom is expected to catch the cyclists by that checkpoint.