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Alaska's first couple of distance cycling can't stop pedaling

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: July 8, 2016
  • Published April 8, 2016

FAIRBANKS — Jeff Oatley and Heather Best never planned to become the husband-and-wife power couple of Alaska fat bike endurance races. They just wanted to have fun.

But what began as a way for the two Fairbanks residents to explore Alaska snowballed into a string of dominating victories and top finishes in the White Mountains 100 and Iditarod Trail Invitational. Before moving to Alaska, neither had ever participated in a wilderness race.

Oatley and Best were both raised in the Lower 48. Oatley spent his early years in Lansing, Michigan, before moving to Madison, Alabama, at the start of his freshman year of high school.

"I grew up fishing and hiking and camping outside with my grandparents and parents," he said.

He first visited Alaska on a 1995 backpacking trip to Katmai National Park with his brother Mike.

"It was the biggest wilderness trip either of us had done up to that point," he said. "That was when I decided I wanted to move up here."

Best spent her childhood near the small town of Blue Grass, Iowa. She was a competitive athlete and cyclist, but off-road competitions remained beyond her scope.

"When we would vacation in the summer the family would go out west to the mountains and the bigger landscapes, and I always wondered why (we) just vacationed there instead of lived there," she recalled.

During the 1990s, Oatley competed in both road and mountain bike races in the Lower 48. By mid-decade he was following the old Iditasport race that sent entrants on a human-powered scramble from Big Lake to Finger Lake or McGrath, and the race helped lure him to Fairbanks in 2000.

"There wasn't all the information on the Internet like now," he said. "If you wanted to do it, you were going to have to figure it out on your own. I started as soon as I got here."

'Under-geared and under-prepared'

While learning the particulars of winter cycling, Oatley began work on a master's degree in engineering at University of Alaska Fairbanks. While studying water resources and hydrology, he did field work at the North Slope's Kuparuk River during the summer of 2001, when he met Best. She was researching hydrology for her own master's in geophysics at Boise State.

The two struck up a friendship based on a mutual interest in exploring their surroundings. Borrowing a canoe from their work site, they headed out on the river.

"We paddled like idiots," Best said. "We had some real adventures. We were pretty under-geared and under-prepared … but real excited."

In a harbinger for the life ahead, they joined a friend for what he promised would be a fairly uneventful paddle on Ox Creek.

The three "put on our hip waders and life jackets, got in our aluminum flat stern canoe and went down this raging little creek," Best said. "It was pretty great at first until the grade increased, and we were just skidding all over the boulders. We had to wait for few days for the water to drop."

The trio eventually got out, and Oatley struggled to get the beat-up canoe back in working order. The experience set the tone for their future escapades and cemented their adventure-driven partnership. By 2003, Best had joined Oatley in Fairbanks. They married in 2005.

'Miserable rides'

Oatley quickly became a familiar face in Fairbanks cycling circles after his 2000 arrival. He was a year-round cycle commuter and frequent participant in the Fairbanks Cycle Club's winter rides.

"I remember a lot of miserable rides, coming back to my cabin just covered in ice, freezing to death and wanting to get a fire going real fast," he said.

At the time, many winter cyclists in Alaska favored Snowcat Rims, designed and sold by Fairbanks bicycle guru Simon Rakower. Roughly twice the width of a standard mountain bike rim, riders installed them when the first snow flew. These rims were used by Alaska's previous first couple of cycling, the late Rocky Reifenstuhl and his wife, Gail Koepf. Together they dominated the Fairbanks scene in the early 2000s, just as Oatley and Best do now. The two couples soon became friends.

Oatley was scraping by as a student and couldn't afford the equipment needed for the Iditasport until veteran rider Kevin Petrone offered to sell his gear cheap.

"He did (the race) in 2001 with Rocky and Doug Stewart, and they walked almost the full way to Finger Lake," Oatley said. "He finished and was like, 'I'm done. I'll sell you all my stuff for dimes on the dollar.' "

Geared up, Oatley entered the 2002 Iditasport.

"The first time you do it, it doesn't matter," he said. "You hit a wall and you think you're going to die soon. But I look back (and realize) it was on the hard side, but certainly nothing near some of the hard stretches I've done since then through the Alaska Range and (other places)."

Mismanagement halted the Iditasport before long, with the better-run Iditarod Trail Invitational taking its place.

Oatley continued to hone his winter racing skills while Best focused on the more casual road racing scene in Fairbanks. During winters she'd borrow Oatley's bikes and ease her way into long distance trips.

"I rode bikes all the time prior to meeting Jeff, but I didn't realize how many different bicycles you had to have for different purposes," she said.

"I was a bike geek from way back," Oatley added. "Then with fat bikes, I just went off the deep end."

Like a lot of Fairbanks cyclists, Oatley and Best were initially skeptical of the emerging fat bike trend toward lighter and lighter bikes.

"It was a different mindset in the race back then," Oatley said. "With those bikes it was about keeping awake and moving because you're going faster than everyone who's asleep. That's really changed a lot in the race now."

By 2010, both had recognized the advantages of fat bikes in distance races where trail conditions vary. In that year's inaugural White Mountain 100 race north of Fairbanks, they rode fat bikes to wins in their respective classes, with Best coming in third overall.

Iditarod Trail Invitational records

But the Iditarod Trail Invitational is where the two have attracted the most statewide attention.

In 2014 Best completed the 350-mile trek from Knik Lake to McGrath in what was then a record finish for the women's division. She came back the following year and shaved more than six hours off her previous time, finishing in two days, eight hours and nine minutes.

Also in 2014, Oatley made headlines when he covered the 1,000-mile northern route to Nome in an astonishing 10 days, 2 hours, 53 minutes. His time was faster than every Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion prior to 1995.

Best's and Oatley's records still stand.

While the couple may be best known for racing, both insist they mainly ride for fun.

"I'm still not really into racing bikes," Best said. "I'm more into the ride for the sake of the ride. On a long-distance mountain bike race I spend a lot of time by myself just looking around."

Rather than follow a specific training regimen, Oatley and Best mostly ride as often and as far as possible. Winter weekends usually find them out exploring the wilderness beyond Fairbanks.

The White Mountains are a frequent destination. Best recalled one trip that turned unexpectedly cold.

"Two Christmases ago, we went out there and it was 20 above when we went in. It wasn't forecasted to drop but it did to about 30 below that night. (It) snowed and blew and we had to slog our way out. I was wearing all the clothing I had brought with me because a 50- degree temperature drop was not forecast."

Oatley remembered another trip in the same region, going from Windy Gap to McKay Creek.

"You go over all the hilltops and the wind was howling, then you drop down to the bottom and it's 35 or 40 below," he said. "It was a tough day."

'Crazy steep'

Reflecting on his recent ride on the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race trail, Oatley expressed awe at what mushers encounter on Eagle Summit, particularly during years when the race runs from the Yukon Territory into Alaska.

"I'd hate to be trying to get a 75-pound bike up the other side of that," he said. "That would be horrible. Or a dog team. It's so steep. Crazy steep. From this side it's not that bad, just a steep push."

Summers find the couple spending less time on bikes. Oatley is an engineer with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Best is a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. Both work in the field much of the time. Any time off tends to go to river trips, although a friend from Nome did talk them into attempting a summer ride on the Seward Peninsula.

"He told us that there's this awesome ride for summer fat biking from Deering in the Bering Land Bridge National Monument to Nome," Best said. "We pushed our bikes the whole damned way. In the summer."

"One hundred sixty miles," Oatley added. "Four days. It was just pushing through a swamp almost the whole time."

"I don't know if it was dramatic, but it was just ridiculous," Best said with a laugh.

Best and Oatley plan to continue pedaling and exploring Alaska, with racing just a small part of the scheme. Both laugh often, adding that even their parents have come to appreciate watching their intrepid kids' adventures.

"If they had bigger aspirations for us, they've given up on them," Oatley said. "So we're at a good place."

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer.

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