PERRIN'S RAINY PASS LODGE -- With a bright sun warming the Alaska Range mountains by day and the subzero cold of star-filled nights ensuring the glacial rigidity of the terrain below, two Alaska cyclists and an aging wheelman from Massachusetts rolled into and out of the remote checkpoint of Rohn to lead 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational north.
Behind them, 44 other cyclists and runners stretched back across the wilderness to a community along the Skwentna River so small it isn't even considered a town. It is the "census designated place" of Skwentna just upstream from Susitna Station, a long deserted riverboat stop on the Susitna River, north of Anchorage.
This is the wilderness at the front door of Alaska's largest city. Look north past Mount Susitna from the window of any high-rise hotel in the city's bustling urban core, and you will be looking into the heart of it.
Out there on Tuesday, Alec Petro -- a middle-aged, hedge-fund trader from Duxbury, Mass., and an aging, never-say-die athlete -- was finding the cycling adventure he sought in his first Invitational in 2009 when the event evolved into a survival epic.
A vicious mountain snowstorm that year trapped Petro, a half dozen other competitors, and race organizer Bill Merchant in a roofless cabin near the 3,160-foot summit of Rainy Pass. So much snow fell that Merchant buried his trail-breaking snowmachine. He repeatedly dug it out only to go a short distance further and get it stuck again.
Former race champs Jeff Oatley, a legitimate tough guy from Fairbanks, and Peter Basinger, an Anchorage kid trained by years in the Alaska wilderness to believe that survival epics are what one does for fun, eventually decided to lead a break up and over the Pass and down into the Dalzell Gorge on the other side that year, hoping to reach a Bureau of Land Management shelter cabin at Rohn.
When they went into the storm, Petro followed. He struggled mightily to keep up with those in front of him fearing that if he didn't, he might be left behind to die. Petro blames a lot of the suffering that came with that near-death march on his heavily laden, 75-pound bike.
The bike, he said, was both a curse and a blessing. The blessing was that he was one of the few Invitational competitors to include a gas stove and fuel in his gear. The stove and fuel enabled the group to melt snow for vital water to avoid death by dehydration, which comes way sooner than death by starvation.
The curse was the weight he was required to push through crotch-deep snow. He confessed to feeling a little guilty that while the others ahead of him took turns breaking trail, he could only struggle along behind dragging what Alaskans lovingly call a "fat bike.''
Fat bikes are so named not for their weight, though many are heavy, but for the four-inch-wide tires that in the right conditions allow the bike to float along atop snowmachine trails into which mountain bikes sink, falter and stall no matter how strong the rider. Petro was floating on Tuesday.
Shortly before 3 p.m. Monday, the fifty-something businessman pedaled out of this checkpoint with a couple of cyclists almost young enough to be his children. One was 41-year-old Tim Berntson from Anchorage, who has led the Invitational almost since it left Knik Lake on Sunday afternoon. The other was Kevin Breitenbach, the 32-year-old manager of the bike shop in a Fairbanks sporting goods store.
The trio had by then gapped a field that included former Invitational champs Basinger and Oatley, and Petro was the last man standing from a trio of Outside racers who tried to take up the chase of Berntson from the start.
One of the three, Charly Tri from Rochester, Minn., started to fall off the pace as the race climbed steadily from Finger Lake into the mountains. Tri, suffice to say, is not built like some dainty biker. Closer to that mold is Todd McFadden from Duluth, Minn., the 2013 winner of the Arrowhead 135. But he couldn't hold the pace either.
The course record holder for Minnesota's biggest fatbike race, McFadden rolled in here almost four hours behind the lead group. Tri was about another hour back. And a couple racers -- Basinger and Canadian Francis Lambert -- decided they'd had enough of beating themselves up and decided to take a long rest in a warm, wood-heated log cabin high in the mountains.
Out ahead of them on the trail, Petro was celebrating his new, not-so-fat, down-to-45-pounds-fully-loaded, carbon-fiber fat bike. It was, he joked, his reason for trying another Invitational. "Why?'' he asked himself. "Because I have a new bike.''
Whether he can keep up with Berntson and Brietenbach to the finish along the Kuskokwim River in McGrath remains to be seen. Berntson, a close second to ultra-endurance athlete Jay Petervary from Idaho in this race last year, appears a man on a mission.
Petervary set a course record on his way to victory. Berntson is now ahead of that pace, but some reportedly snowless and rough terrain still waits to challenge cyclists between the site of the old Farewell Burn and the Native village of Nikolai.
Some challenging patches of frozen tussocks six inches to a foot high await. The cyclists are sure to be forced to push. Basinger can push as fast as many people can ride. If someone falters, he's lurking.
And as Tim Stern of Colorado observed on Monday, when some pushing was needed on soft trail out of Finger Lake, "That pushing really takes it out of you.''
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com