Once again Alaskans dominated the biggest, annual sporting competition conducted on the historic Iditarod Trail despite being outnumbered about two to one by those coming from around the world to test themselves against the wild.
As in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the Iron Dog snowmobile competition that uses much of the same route, they made clear that Alaskans are to Iditaord racing what the Norwegians are to the winter Olympics.
As has become the norm, cyclists on fat-tired bikes led the parade in the human-powered Iditarod’s run north. Of the first 15 competitors to reach the Kuskokwim River community of McGrath, the finish line for the first leg of the two-legged Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), all were on bikes and all but three were Alaskans.
And one of the three who wasn’t – course-record holder John Lackey – was a former Alaskan.
Lackey in 2015 pedaled the more than 300 miles from Knik to McGrath in an astonishing 1 day, 18 hours and 32 minutes. He that year took more than 10 hours off the previous race record and topped by about 8 hours the best time ever put down by the canines in the paw-powered Iditarod dog race.
Now 43-year-olds and a resident of Bellingham, Wash., Lackey ever seriously challenged for victory this year but still finished only eight hours behind Fairbanks’ Tyson Flaherty who went to the front of the race early and never looked back.
A former cross-country skier who got his start at West Valley High in Fairbanks before moving on to the University of Alaska Fairbanks and then the world Nordic stage, Flaherty – in the words of his employers at Goldstream Sports – got “really into long endurance fat bike racing” after getting married and settling down in the Golden Heart City to raise a family.
Slower this year
Several sections of bad trail this year resulted in his ending up about eight hours off that pace. Soft trail in the beaver swamps between the Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake checkpoints forced the cyclists to do a lot of bike pushing on the 30-mile climb up to the entrance to Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range.
One of the few Outsiders to crack the top-10 – rookie racer Ryan Atkins from Sutton, Quebec, Canada – doggedly paced himself of Flaherty and caught the former in the village of Nikolai, the last checkpoint before the McGrath finish line.
The two rode the rest of the way together to McGrath to finish in a tie in the ITI350 inside the ITI1000 to Nome. With no money on the line and that sense of camaraderie that sometimes sets in between people battling the elements, finish line ties have become something of a tradition for both the ITI 350 to McGrath and the ITI 1,000
The McGrath finish for the race within the race is embedded in a history that dates back to the 1980s when it was thought pretty much impossible to ride a bike from Knik to McGrath, let alone the traditional end of the Iditarod Trail 1,000 miles to the north in Nome.
Iditarod Trail bike racing started then on mountains bikes with oversize tires on a course that went north from Knik, an old gold-mining port at the head of Knik Arm north of Anchorage, about 100 miles to Skwentna.
There at a tiny community that sprang up in the 1950s around an airstrip the U.S. government hacked out of the wilderness just off the Yentna River in 1943 amid fears of a full scale Japanese invasion of Alaska the race turned back for the start/finish line.
By the 1980s, it was the largest community of any sort in the little populated Yentna drainage and close enough to the Iditarod Trail to attract the attention of the late Joe Redington. The driving force behind the Iditarod dog race, Redington was a man with a vision intended to cement the once overgrown and nearly forgotten Iditarod Trail into the history of the future.
One way to do that, he figured, was to get as many people as possible interested in the trail. Thus the Iditaski and Iditashoe (snowshoe) races were begun in the early 1980s to follow in the paw prints of the Iditarod dog race first run in 1973.
The Iditabike followed in 1987 with interest in winter biking on the uptick in Alaska. Two years later, cyclists Dan Bull, Les Matz, Roger Cowles and Mark Frise proved it wasn’t impossible to get a bike to Nome, but that it wasn’t easy either.
It took them three weeks to reach the City of the Gold Sands. Suffice to say, the trip left an impression on everyone in the group, but mainly so on Bull who in the aftermath founded an event cross-country skier Tim Kelley dubbed “Iditasport.”
It combined the snowshoe, ski and cycling races into one event and pitted the latter two groups of competitors against each other. For a few years, there was a serious competition to see who could travel faster on the snowmachine-tracked trails of the Susitna Valley north of Anchorage.
For a very short time, as skiing transitioned from the classical Nordic norm to new-fangled “skate skiing,” technology gave an edge to the skiers, but all of that ended after Palmer, Alaska, bike builder met Mark Gronewald met Ray Molina, the owner of a New Mexico tour business, at an Interbike convention in Las Vegas in 1999.
Molina had pioneered the development of bikes with extra-wide tires for pedaling across the sands of Mexico and the American Southwest. Gronewald immediately recognized the potential for such bikes on the snowy trails of Alaska, and it wasn’t long before he and Anchorage’s John Evingson started building what would come to be known as “fat bikes.”
Today they are everywhere in Alaska’s largest cities in the winter.
A new old tradition
Fat bikes caught on slowly in the state where Gold Rush pioneers once rode bicycles along the frozen Yukon River to get from Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada to Nome, but by the mid-2000s interest had grown enough that one major bike manufacturer – Minnesota-based Surly bikes – was interested.
As it happened, Evingson had grown up in Minnesota and still had connections there.
“John Evingson (Hydracare owner, custom frame builder, and adventure rider/racer) came into the office, one day, with one of his steel adventure bikes that was sporting 80mm-wide rims and 3.0 tires inflated to 12 psi,” a Surly catalog from 2005 says. “After a few laps around the building and a few intentional curb bashings, it was easy to understand why a machine like John’s should exist. The giant footprint and low pressure, provided by those rims and tires, gave the bike incredible traction, comfort, and stability over loose and choppy surfaces. Awesome. It’s apparent that snow bikers, sand crawlers, off-road unicyclists, and downhillers, who want to run some really big rubber, can benefit from a wide rim/tire combo.”
So Surly started making what it called “Large Marge” rims, but that was only the beginning of the story.
“Well, Marge is a reality, so Pugsley must follow,” the catalog added. “Our 65mm-wide Large Marge rim was the genesis of this project.
“Pugsley was created to go where other bikes may flounder. The premise behind its design is based on the allowance of tires with a larger-than-average footprint.”
For a few years, Pugsley and fat bike became near-synonyms. But that didn’t last long. As the first production fat bike, the Puglsey started a fad that became a trend and the rest is history.
A heavy, tank of a bike, it soon had serious cyclist, and former Anchorage Nordic skier Greg Matyas, looking for sportier options. The website Fat-bike.com now credits Matyas as “the father of the modern Alaska fat bike.”
“The bikes we ride today are all Greg’s fault,” longtime Fairbanks bike mechanic Jeff Gilmore told the publication. “He came up with the 170mm rear end which became the 190mm that everybody does now. He had a carbon fork made which was a sweet upgrade from the steel turd that was on my Pugs. He had 70 mm hoops made, then 90mm.”
All of which happened before carbon fiber arrived on the scene to even further lighten those one tank-like fat bikes of Pugsley days. Matyas is still producing fatbikes – his original Fatbacks having now been rebranded Corvus Cycles – and still tweaking designs,
So, too, his crosstown rivals at 9:ZERO:7 bikes who followed in Matyas’s footsteps.
Flaharty road a 9:ZERO:7 Lynx to McGrath. Atkins was on a Corvus Akio. Nine of the first ten behind them to reach McGrath to round out the top-10 were on or the other of those two brands of bikes.
John Stamstad, the winner of the first race to McGrath, has to be envious. He was on a regular, old mountain bike with the widest tires he could find in 1997 when Bull, inspired by the adventure-racing then becoming a “thing” on the national stage and aware that ever-improving snowmachine technology allowed snowmachine riders to push trails farther and farther into the foothills of the Alaska Range, decided to stage the first “Iditasort Extreme” up and over the range to McGrath.
The Extreme caught the attention of cyclists across the country and eventually helped propel endurance cyclist Stamstad into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. Stamstad, who grew up in Wisconsin before gravitating west, won the inaugural race and followed that up with repeat victories in 1998, 1999, and 2000.
His adventures in Alaska attracted enough attention that Bull was by 2001 able to attract Red Bull, the energy-drink company, as an Iditasport sponsor and pledge prize money for the first racer to finish the standard Iditasport, then slated to end in Finger Lake; the Iditarod Extreme in McGrath; and the Iditasport Impossible in Nome.
The three-headed raced at that time looked on its way to overshadowing the Iditarod dog race. A total of 165 competitors showed up, about twice the number in this year’s or any previous year’s ITI, and far more than the dog race has ever attracted.
It was a hell of a show until the wheels fell off. Cross-country skier Bob Baker beat the bikes to Finger Lake in a snowstorm, and bailed out there. Pat Irwin from Tennessee, who would quickly adopt Alaska as his new home, went on to win the Extreme, while Colorado’s Mike Curiak claimed victory in Nome in the Impossible.
Bull had way too good of a time entertaining his new sponsors at a party on Flathorn Lake north of Anchorage on the first day of the race with a lot more than energy drinks being served. He then sort of disappeared from sight while some partiers moved on up the trail much to the chagrin of some of the people providing checkpoint services.
Afterward, the winners all had trouble collecting their prize money. Curiak isn’t sure he ever did get his. He does remember that Bull took care to pack up the bike Curiak had ridden to Nome and ship it back to him in Colorado, and he figures that was good enough.
It was the first and last time the race involved any prize money, and Bull not long after fled the state after faking his death.
In the wreckage of all this the Iditasport died, and Irwin and Bill Merchant started the ITI to replace it.. Irwin would eventually give up on that effort but Merchant and his girlfriend, later wife, now ex-wife, Kathi pressed on to build the race into event that today attracts global attention before turning it over to Kyle Durand – a lawyer, adventure-racer and former American Ninja Warrior.
As the ITI350 was winding toward a finish Friday, Petr Ineman, a Chicago electrician by way of the Czech Republic, started north along the trail to Takotna and on toward Nome to snatch the lead in the ITI1000. He last year had to battle through a series of storms to make it there in 22 days, about the time it took the first gang of bikers to reach Nome in 1987.
Accompanied by Anchorage’s Casey Fagerquist and Jill Martindale from Grand Rapids, Mich., he finished as part of an ITI1000 winning trio. By then, everyone behind them had given up.
“The three had the look of contented exhaustion that comes after the finish of a long endurance event,” Nome Nugget reporter James Mason observed. “There was a lot of snow between Knik Lake and Nome. Temperatures in the early part of the trail dropped to minus 45 degrees. After Nulato it was more wet than cold. And the three found themselves stuck with the Iditarod’s ‘Elim 11,’ dog mushers waiting out the overflow conditions before heading to Nome.
“‘It’s mentally draining. It’s every day a different challenge,’ said Ineman when asked about the most difficult part of the race. “Every hour!” added Fagerquist. “Sometimes getting off your bike and walking is the most refreshing.”
Sometimes they all agreed, the bike riding proved possible but so demanding it was easier to just get off to start pushing and slog on. It is the stories they tell of a unique sort of suffering that seems to each year attract people to a race to which that old cliche that “just finishing is a victory” can truly be applied.