PUNTILLA LAKE -- A sense of awe filled the snug, one-room, log cabin where most of the cyclists in the Iditarod Trail Invitational holed up Tuesday night. Outside the winds swirled snow around Perrins Rainy Pass Lodge on the south slope of the Alaska Range.
Off to the north, the windswept pass rose to 3,160 feet, and on the other side of it was 29-year-old cyclist Peter Basinger, who was pushing and pedaling away from almost everyone in this competition to reach the Interior village of McGrath and win nothing. All that's on the line here are bragging rights, but it is amazing what people will do for those.
Behind Basinger, a graduate student from Anchorage, Jeff Oatley, a 40-year-old mechanical engineer from Fairbanks, was trying to hang on. Last year, Oatley won a race that turned epic when competitors were buried in snow just north of here in the Range.
Basinger, a three-time Iditarod Invitational winner and the course record holder, decided he would ski. He won the ski division of the Invitational, which incorporates bikers, skiers and runners. But he was half a day behind Oatley.
This year he's back on the bike looking fit and strong and crushing the field. He has been pulling steadily away since Skwentna. By the time he left this checkpoint in the early morning Tuesday, he had a five-hour gap on Oatley and a 10-hour lead on former champ Jay Petervary from Idaho.
Basinger didn't get but a couple hours sleep in the checkpoint, but checker Dan McDonough said he left looking fresh. He must have.
It took him an hour less than he had projected to push and pedal up and over the pass, McDonough said.
Other cyclists couldn't help but be impressed. After days of battling soft, twisting, torn-up trail, they know how tough it is to travel cross-country in Bush Alaska.
"The whoop-de-doos,'' said Kyle Amstadter, "they're painful on my butt.'' The whoop-de-doos, or moguls as others call them, are leftovers from the recent Iron Dog snowmachine race from Big Lake to Nome. The machines bounce and claw their way up into the Range, and every time the track spins, they dig a hole.
Below Finger Lake, where Iron Dog racers trying to make time put the throttle down, there were places where machines obviously launched over beaver dams and landed many feet away on the far side. Some of the impact craters were big enough to hold an elephant, and they continued across the beaver ponds as the bounces of the machine became smaller and smaller.
Those weren't the biggest problem for the cyclists, though. Bigger problems came from track-spun holes sometimes a foot or two deep and only a two or three feet across.
Some could be ridden over, but many halted the bike and required the rider to get off and push. Some of them stopped the bike quickly enough on the downhills that crashes were unavoidable.
"Did you see where I crashed?'' Dave Pramann from Burnsville, Minn., asked when passed on the trail just outside of this checkpoint.
Pramann, who is in his 50s, was starting to show the toll of those crashes. He moved stiffly around the checkpoint before crawling into bed.
A one-time race leader in the group with Basinger, Oatley and Petervary, Pramann was now just trying to hang on as younger racers closed in. Amstadter, an engineer from Anchorage, was among them.
He led a gaggle of Europeans -- a couple Italians, a Dane from Greenland -- and Outside racers into the checkpoint shortly after dark.
"There's a huge group coming,'' he said. "I left them an hour and a half ago. It (the trail) got very rideable maybe the last five miles.''
Or at least very rideable for Amstadter, a little man. Some of the bigger people were still struggling in soft snow, but the pace was clearly picking up. To be able to ride on the trail in a bike race is a good thing.
So is reaching a checkpoint. The sounds of the wind blowing down from Rainy Pass could hardly be heard over the snoring of many racers settled in here Tuesday night to grab a few hours sleep before pressing on.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com