As 78 stalwart souls prepare to head north along the historic Iditarod Trail today, Mother Nature looks to be organizing a truly Alaska welcome.
The frigid cold that had worried some rookie competitors in the Iditarod Trail Invitational(ITI) had warmed into the teens by Saturday night, but heavy snows were falling.
The 46 fat-tired cyclists in the 350-mile race over the Alaska Range to the outpost community of McGrath appeared destined to find themselves clumped up in a pushathon as they struggled to roll heavily laden bikes north atop what had been a white sidewalk of snowmachine-packed snow.
The 27-competitors on foot trudging north in front of gear-filled sleds would enjoy somewhat easier going, whether they chose to put on snowshoes or punch their way through the fresh snow.
But the weather is sure to slow them as it will the five Nordic skiers who represent the gear-type which once dominated the Iditasport, the ITI’s predecessor. The skiers have since fallen victim to the wheel and the track, the latter being probably the most significant.
As snowmachines have steadily improved in the 21st Century, snowmachine travel along the Iditarod has grown greatly. The tracks of thousands of the sleds now pound the snow into white pavement, and on white pavement – even slick white pavement – the wheel encounters less friction than the skid.
Fat-tired cyclists now dominate a competition that began with the Iditaski and the Iditafoot. They were joined by Iditabike, and eventually all were rolled into the Iditasport. It was on its deathbed due to financial problems when the ITI moved in to take over the organization of the race.
A lot has changed over the years, but it is the trail that has changed the most. It is now hard and fast with some regularity, and when that is the case the cyclists can pedal the 350-miles through the wilderness faster than the dogs of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race can make the run to McGrath.
Thirty-four-year-old Tyson Flaharty from Fairbanks, a former competitive skier at the University of Alaska, won the race in under two days last year.Conditions being what they are, the winner is expected to take considerable more time this year.
Flaharty is back this year along with Clinton Hodges III, 38, from Anchorage, the third-place finisher from 2019 who has been in the hunt for a win for several years now but has yet win. They’ll be joined by 39-year-old Peter Basinger, who grew in Anchorage, but now teaches school in Colorado.
Basinger is something of an Iditarod Trail legend. Once the man to beat, he won the race six times and probably could have won it at least once more if he hadn’t slowed to help another struggling competitor.
Joining him and the other men on the trail is Rebecca Rusch, 51, something of a mountainbike celebrity Outside. She pedaled to a top-10 overall finish while leading the women into McGrath last year.
There are 14 women in the field this year, but only three of them Alaskans. Of the entire field, about two thirds are from out-of-state with Europeans well represented. The ITI has become far and away the most international of the Iditarod races.
Of the 78 in the field, 24 intrepid souls are planning to make the 1,000-mile push from Knik all the way to the end of the trail at Nome. They are led by 42-year-old Petr Ineman from Downers Grove, Ill., and 46-year-old Jay Cable from Fairbanks. Both have led the 1,000-mile racers into Nome before.
Correction: McGrath was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.