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Iditarod Invitational: Winter smacks racers, but bikers push ahead

Craig Medred
Foot racers in the Iditarod Trail Invitational charge away from the start line outside the Knik Bar on Feb. 24, 2013, at the start of the 350-mile race up and over the Alaska Range. Craig Medred photo

FLATHORN LAKE -- Just in time for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, ordinary Alaska winter weather arrived in the Susitna River Valley on Sunday, bringing blowing snow, mashed-potato trail, and fog. Fat-tired cyclists largely ignored the conditions and pedaled to the front of the one of the world's most extreme adventure races.

Like drunken sailors, they cut squiggly lines north along the Iditarod Trail until they were at last forced to walk. A single, fresh snowmachine track marked their route from a slough on the south end of the lake across two feet of unblemished snow to where the trail entered a thin patch of forest on its way toward a dismal swamp.

By then, though, the cyclists had already left the race's walkers and runners behind. Veterans of last year’s nightmare race were thankful the snow fell lightly this time, unlike 2012 when it buried the trail and ground the race to a crawl for everyone. Cyclists were sentenced to bike-pushing hell for days.

After that, it was a pleasure to be able to ride anything at all, and the race quickly shaped up like previous Invitationals, with cyclists demonstrating the value of the wheel, an eons-old human invention that changed the world

Beware of Basinger 

Rolling north into the gathering darkness Sunday night thanks to that simple invention were six-time Invitational winner and three-time defending champ Peter Basinger, a school teacher and sometimes bike mechanic from Moab, Utah, by way of Bend, Ore., and Anchorage.

Everyone expects him to win again this year, but there were two other past winners in the conga line at the front of the race on its first day out of Knik: Jay Petervary from Colorado and Jeff Oatley from Fairbanks.

Both were smiling as they pushed across the lake here, a sign that they were either enjoying the early going or truly are crazy. Normal couch-potato Americans have been known to question the sanity of those willing to ride and push a bicycle along 350 miles of snowy trail up and over the Alaska Range to the tiny community of McGrath -- or on all the way to the end of the Iditarod Trail in Nome, as Petervary has done.

The racers themselves, be they competitive or not, see this as a grand adventure in the style of the first Europeans to probe the vast Alaska wilderness. And there is plenty of wilderness out there. In many ways, there is more now than in the past, given the changes that have taken places in Alaska over the past century. Where once residents populated road houses and mining districts all along the Iditarod Trail to Nome, they have retreated into urban conclaves.

The nearest one, Wasilla, could be heard as the roar of snowmachines echoed in the surrounding hills and valley flatlands, but that would soon change as the race moved northwest.

Wonder walker Tim Hewitt 

On a grind-it-out trail that this Invitational was becoming Sunday, Basinger is hands down the best rider in the game. Where others squiggle and wiggle as they snake their way up a soft trail, Basinger pedals an arrow-like, energy-saving line. He won last year despite a huge, early-race snowstorm that allowed Tim Hewitt, a nearly 60-year-old attorney from Pennsyvlania, to lead the race to the top of Rainy Pass, about 120 miles from the start.

Hewitt is another phenom. He'll be on his seventh trip to Nome, leading a pack of hikers who hope to go all the way. Like Hewitt, many of them hail from Outside Alaska, including a contingent from Europe. The Invitational, which limits the field to 50, turns away potential entrants every year.

Race organizers Bill and Kathi Merchant reject some as just not mentally ready to tackle the Alaska wilderness. Others may lack the physical toughness necessary to haul food and equipment north along the trail. Bill Merchant was out building ice bridges on the trail Saturday.

“Ice bridges are built cutting brush and branches, then add snow, add water, repeat and so on until there is a level path across the creek,” Kathi Merchant wrote on the race’s web page

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com