Far from the bright lights of civilization, the fat-tired cyclists at the front of the Iditarod Trail Invitational’s human-powered race to McGrath and beyond were Tuesday slogging their way toward Rainy Pass high in the Alaska Range.
More than 24 hours into the 350-mile race to a tiny, outpost community on the Kuskokwim River, a race that will for some competitors continue on for another 650 miles to Nome, the 2020 ITI was looking to be almost as much a competition in bike pushing as bike pedaling.
As has become the norm, the fittest of the fat bikers were at the front of a string of 78 cyclists, cross-country skiers and walkers/runners/snowshoers in this epic, human-powered endurance race.
When the wheels roll on firm trail, they open a gap on everyone. And when they don’t….
Well, a satellite tracker on the bike of 40-year-old Kate Coward from Golden Valley, Minn., showed her struggling at 0.7 to 0.8 mph on the big hill that climbs from the infamous Happy River to Shirley Lake.
“I don’t know how the lighter people do it when their bikes are 30 to 50 percent of their body weight,” observed Sean Grady, a four-time ITI finisher monitoring the event from Anchorage.
They do it by being super fit and even more determined.
An experienced ultramarathon runner and Nordic skier, Coward earlier this year obliterated the ski record in the Minnesota’s Arrowhead 135. In this race, she has been traveling in the company of Colorado’s Peter Basinger, the winningest competitor in ITI history.
Running fourth or fifth overall, Coward was almost a checkpoint ahead of the nearest other woman cyclist in the race and well ahead of all non-cyclists.
The nearest runner was almost 40 miles off the race lead, the nearest skier more than 50 miles back.
Alaska-grown Basinger’s six ITI victories predate the fat-bike craze. Still an Alaska resident at age 23, he won the 2004 race on a custom-made Wildfire fat bike at a time when the only fat bikes to be found were hand built.
At that time, most of the fat bikes in the world were being ridden in the 49th state, and even in the 49th state, they were a rarity. It wasn’t until the next year that Surly, a Minnesota-based company, launched the steel-framed Pugsley, the first mass-produced fat bike.
A 36-pound monster with heavy wheels and the handling of a tank, it seems like a relic from another age in these days of carbon fiber and aluminum, but it started a revolution that transformed winter bike racing.
When Pugsley’s began selling like hotcakes, the competition to build ever better fat bikes heated up. Led in significant part by two Alaska brands – Fatback and 907 – the bikes became steadily lighter and more nimble.
Fat bikes are now seemingly everywhere in and around Alaska’s largest city, and many of them make the Pugsley look like the Pigsley as some now jokingly refer to it.
Fully tricked out fat bikes today can weigh less than 25 pounds, enabling serious ITI competitors to hit the trail with a fully loaded bike weighing only six- to eight-pounds more than those early Pugsley’s weighed bare.
And there is a huge difference between floundering around in the snow while pushing sub-45-pound loads than plus-55 pounds loads – or significantly more – of bike and gear.
ITI rookies heading into a frozen wilderness far from anyone or any roads tend to pack their insecurities in the form of extra cold weather clothing and huge sleeping bags. It is not uncommon to see people struggling with outfits in excess of 60 pounds, which is enough weight to turn the twisting climb of Happy Hill into a struggle to the top of Unhappy Mountain.
Not that this year’s race has been easy anywhere.
Push, push, push
Looking at the pace of Coward scaling the Happy and race leader Tyson Flaharty plodding across the inevitably wind-drifted muskegs short of Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge on Tuesday afternoon, Grady had a simple, one-word answer to the question of “don’t you wish you were there?”
“Nope,” he said.
The pushing had slowed the leaders enough that Coward and Basinger had closed to within five miles of the gang of three at the front of the race.
Led by Fairbank’s Flaherty, Clinton Hodges III from Anchorage and Kurt Refsnider from Prescott, Ariz., have taken charge of this race. By late Tuesday afternoon, there were out in the broad, open Happy River valley on the climb to Rainy Pass.
Hodges, 38, has become a regular contender in the ITI 350, but has yet to win. Refsnider, 38, is a former road and cyclocross rider who now teaches at university in Arizona and rides mountain bikes for Pivot Cycles.
“….He eventually returned to the dirt and became enamored by probing mental and physical limits in multi-day ultra-endurance events, winning and setting records in some of the toughest bikepacking races in the United States,” Pivot says. “Kurt also makes time for exploring new landscapes at a much more relaxed pace on multi-week bikepacking expeditions. Amid all those miles, Kurt is also a geology professor at Prescott College, a cycling coach, the founding director of Bikepacking Roots (www.bikepackingroots.org) and an advocate for preserving our wild places and public lands.”
An ITI rookie, Refsnider has also suffered at least one rookie mistake in losing the trail on the way to Happy River and being forced to double back onto the route.
The Iditarod is not a well-marked course. It is nothing but the track laid down by snowmachines going north. If one of them takes a wrong turn and others follow, it is easy to get suckered off the main trail.
Each one that makes the wrong turn, goes until it’s obvious the trail has been lost and then turns around to come back leaves an in-and-out trail. If many do this, the heavier traffic coming and going on the in-and-out trail will make it look better used than the main trail.
Refsnider got lucky in that the wrong trail didn’t appear to go far, and he lost little time. He, Hodges and Flaharty were back together as the gang of three plugging across the Happy at 7:30 in the evening.
They were doing 5 mph when the trail was good and slowing to 1.5 to 2.5 mph when it wasn’t. Temperatures had dropped below zero. The wind at the Puntilla airstrip at the south end of the Happy Valley was reported to be blowing snow around at more than 25 mph.
The ITI that looked to be grind when it began is sticking to the script.
It is clear no one will reach McGrath at dog-sled speed this year let alone faster than the huskies of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race as has somewhat regularly happened in recent years.