RAINY PASS -- Growing up in Anchorage, Peter Basinger loved to ski, cycle and tinker with bikes. Then life took over: Grownups, after all, need jobs to survive.
Basinger toyed with being a bike racer, but the kind of racing at which he is best -- long distance and off-road -- doesn't pay well, if at all. Being a bike mechanic was OK for a time, but didn't look like the ideal career choice for an intellectually curious young man. Now, at age 33, he has settled on becoming a teacher. He spent the winter in Moab, Utah, where he is a teacher's assistant while he works on finishing his master's degree in education. The dual commitments have left him little time to ride his bike, he confessed Monday night at Winterlake Lodge some 130 miles north of Anchorage along the Iditarod Trail.
Basinger is on the trail on vacation on a fat-tired bike as the three-time defending champion in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a human-powered race from the now-extinct port of Knik at the head of Cook Inlet up and over the Alaska Range to the fading community of McGrath on the Kuskokwim River.
McGrath is what Lower 48 Americans might call "a wide spot in the road," but few roads exist in Alaska, and none of them lead to McGrath. Only the Iditarod Trail, seasonal though it is and not very good at that, offers a ground link between the Interior river community and what most would consider "civilization" -- the urban sprawl surrounding Alaska's largest city -- about 350 miles southeast.
Drawn to Iditarod like a rabbit to cabbage
If you are the slightly demented organizer of an adventure race to trump all adventure races, this makes McGrath the perfect finish line for a winter ultramarathon with the simplest of rules -- run it, bike it, hike it, ski it, unicycle it, we-don't-care-how-you-get-
And if you are a lad growing up in Anchorage looking for the mother of all cycling adventures, this is like fresh garden cabbage to a rabbit. Basinger was in the race even before there was an Invitational. He did the Iditasport, a predecessor, in 2001 at age 21. Three years later, he entered the still-new Invitational and won. Since then, he has been a force with which to be reckoned. After that first victory in 2004, he won six of the next nine Invitationals, including the last three in a row.
"I'm not moving along too fast this year,'' he said, "but they are going to burn out. They haven't stopped to rest. Some of them are going to start falling off.''
At that, one of the Winterlake staff volunteered, "they didn't look that good.''
That seemed to be a unanimous view. An Outside writer visiting the lodge, one of Alaska's premier attractions, wondered aloud if the Invitational racers were having any fun at all, given the grim-faced looks she'd seen on the Gang of Seven at the front. They'd arrived at Finger on Monday afternoon, having clearly pushed each other across 35 miles of soft, punchy, snow-covered, and often just plain bad trail on the climb from Skwentna.
There was as much bike pushing as bike riding. Some of the pushing left the riders post-holing knee-deep in packed snow soft enough to let a foot punch through, but hard enough to make it a little difficult to pull out. The labor took its toll, according to those who watched the arrival of the seven at Finger.
"Wasted'' was the word some used to describe the group.
"That sounds good,'' Basinger said, but he made no promises of victory."I'm pretty undertrained this year,'' he said.
Still, the racers ahead are clearly aware of the threat he poses. They moved fast to vacate this checkpoint before Basinger arrived, although that cut the Gang of Seven to the Group of Six as they headed for a one-room, log cabin in the heart of the Alaska Range named Rohn. Phil Hofstetter from Nome decided to get some sleep in the snug, warm checkpoint cabin at Perrin's Rainy Pass Lodge. He didn't leave until more than three hours behind the rest at 4:30 a.m.
The Group of Six, meanwhile, appeared to be fracturing. Jay Petervary from Idaho seemed to be falling off the pace. Though he led the group out of here, he'd come in more than half an hour back. Basinger had predicted that back in Rohn.
"He always blows up at some point,'' Basinger said.
Whether Petervary, another past Invitational champ, had blown up again is unknown. But what can be said with certainty is that he, along with Minnesotan Jason Buffington, was noticeably missing when the race reached Rohn. It is possible, however, they decided to stop and rest in one of two safety cabins along the way.
Everyone has to rest sometime, or at least that's the way it's supposed to work. Jeff Oatley, a 43-year-old Fairbanks engineer who would be considered a little overweight by cycling standards, was trying to break the rule. Oatley thinks the one advantage he has over Basinger is a higher capacity to function in a sleep-deprived state, and he is trying to take advantage of that.
Trying to hang with Oatley, meanwhile, are fellow Fairbanksan Kevin Breitenbach and Anchorage's Tim Bernston and John Lackey. The 29-year-old Breitenbach won the Arrowhead 135 in Minnesota about a month ago; Bernston was second there.
Brian Hartman, an Anchorage veteran of the Invitational still in this checkpoint Tuesday morning, gave Basinger a decent chance of catching the leaders.
"Pete's putting on a push," he said. "I don't know how the (leaders) are going to keep up the pace. They're going to have to rest some time."
A rested Hartman was trying to drag his own group of three out of the checkpoint and back onto the trail to try to stay in the top 10.
"We can sleep in Rohn," he told Anchorage's Kevin Easley, "and then it's just a 90 mile push (to Nikolai). You've got to take a risk sometime."
"He thinks he knows what's best for me," Easley said, eyeing the third member of the trio, Dan Dittmer from Minnesota.
"If they're going, I'm going," Dittmer said to a reporter.
Trail conditions and warm weather hazards
The weather outside the warm, woodstove-heated log cabin at Perrins Rainy Pass Lodge was unusually friendly with the temperature in the 20s, almost no wind, and the sun trying to fight its way through high clouds. But the trail ahead up and over Rainy Pass has a nasty reputation for howling winds and blowing snow.
"I was really worried about the stretch we just did," Dittmer admitted, "but it was downright good."
The trail ahead is even better, Hartman promised. There would be some bike pushing to the 3,160-foot summit of Rainy Pass, he admitted, but after that it's almost all downhill and the first leg of the run to the Dalzell Gorge "is super cool."
Hartman eventually managed to get his small group on the trail shortly after 9 p.m., but not before Steve Perrin Jr. came in to warn the trio of potential avalanche dangers in the pass. That seemed to make Dittmer's eyes grow wide. There are not many places in Minnesota where cyclists have to watch out for avalanches.
For the fourth year in a row, Craig Medred is following racers into the Alaska hinterland, reporting on the Iditarod Trail Invitational ultramarathon. Contact Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com