The smart money is on Reno Deprey at Saturday's American Birkebeiner ski race. The safest bet in the world is that the Anchorage man will win his age group.

As long as he finishes the 34-mile race in Wisconsin, Deprey will celebrate his seventh age-group victory in America's biggest cross-country ski race.

The day after the race, he'll celebrate his 86th birthday.

Deprey is racing in the 85-99 age group of the men's 55-kilometer classic race, where the competition promises to be … well, let's get the analysis from Deprey himself.

"In my age group?" he said. "It's me and my shadow."

For the second straight year, Deprey will be in a class of his own in the race that starts in the town of Cable and ends in the town of Hayward.

Last year marked his first in the 85-99 age group, and before you dismiss his victory because he was a solo act, consider this:

His time of 5 hours, 46 minutes, 31.7 seconds placed him ahead of about one-third of all racers. Deprey placed 1,361th among 2,015 total finishers and 1,098th among 1,568 men.

Not bad for an old man -- an identity he embraces.

"A lot of times I'm always the oldest guy," Deprey said. "They say, 'There's the old man again.' ''

An inspiration from Alaska to Maine, the old man has been skiing for 80 years.

These days Deprey trains with Alaska Pacific University's masters ski group and is a regular participant in many Anchorage races, including the Tour of Anchorage ski marathon.

"I wish you could see the encouragement that the Anchorage ski community has for Reno when he finishes the 50-K Tour of Anchorage every year," his wife, Becky Manley, said by email. "He had a spontaneous standing ovation at the Tour of Anchorage award ceremony a couple of years ago that was remarkable."

As a little boy growing up near the Canadian border in Madawaska, Maine, Deprey got his start on skis made from barrel staves – pieces of wood cut in the shape of a ski, with a shoe nailed in the center.

When he was 6 or 7, his mother bought him a pair of real skis for 50 cents, paying 10 cents a week for five straight weeks to an older boy who was a motivated seller.

"The reason he wanted to sell them was so he could go to the double features on Saturday afternoon," Deprey said. "So she paid him 10 cents every Saturday so he could go to the show.

"Later on we found out they weren't his skis, they were his sister's."

Deprey said he was 50 years old before he saw his first groomer. He remembers a time when waxing skis meant first putting down a layer of pine tar. He recalls fashioning broomsticks and pieces of cardboard into ski poles.

"I skied with bamboo poles in college," he said. "If you had those, you were really an elite skier."

Skiing took Deprey to Western State College in Colorado in the 1950s, where his teammates included Dick Mize and Jim Mahaffey – men who helped turn cross-country skiing into one of the most popular participatory sports in Anchorage.

By then Deprey had already spent time in Anchorage. A member of the Navy and Air Force, he was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base from 1951-53.

"Arctic Valley was my home," he said, and his ski companions included Mahaffey and Anchorage ski pioneer Sven Johanson.

Deprey worked as a high school math teacher and ski coach in Maine and New Hampshire from 1960-88. Shortly after he retired, he learned the 1992 World Masters Cross-Country Ski Championships were coming to Anchorage.

"I called up Jim Mahaffey and Dick Mize and said, 'If I go up there, do you have a place for me to stay?' They said, 'Come anytime.' ''

He came, and he never left.

"I said I'd give it three years and see how it goes, and I got the bug and here I am," he said.

"When I came up it was like, 'Wow.' It was like I had taken a 100-pound pack off my shoulders. This is where I belong."

Deprey met Manley while both were members of the Alaska Sports Academy and married her 11 years ago. She got him interested in cycling, and together they have participated in numerous endurance bike rides and ski races, in Anchorage and beyond.

Last summer "an incident with the bike" led to rotator cuff surgery. Deprey, who was able to resume skiing at the beginning of January, said the shoulder is "not too bad, but weak."

"Some people call me the robot man," he said. "I have a bad right knee. My hip has not been replaced but I've had some work done on the hip, and two rotator cuff (surgeries)."

Through it all, Deprey keeps going.

"He may be the most resilient person I know," said APU coach Calisa Kastning, who had Deprey in a masters group for three years. "When plagued with injuries he finds alternative exercises and seems to bounce right back to top shape once healed and is back on the bike or skis without seeming like skipping a beat."

Deprey and Manley traveled to Wisconsin earlier this month and are skiing nearly daily on the Birkie trails. Deprey said his love of skiing makes it impossible for him to quit.

"I just love skiing. It's a love that's always been with me," he said. "And I like the people. The skiers are great and we all have something in common.

"The big thing is health, and it's really kept me healthy. Today Becky and I skied 26 (kilometers) and yesterday we skied 20 K. It's really an accomplishment to be able to do this at my age. And I feel pretty good tonight – as a matter of fact, I'm drinking a glass of wine right now."

Come Saturday, don't expect Deprey to furiously double-pole his way from Cable to Hayward. He said he doesn't race as much as he tours. "If a big hill is coming up, I just walk up," he said.

But if past performances are any indication, he'll be swift enough to outpace many younger skiers in Saturday's Birkebeiner.

"They'll never catch me – in age, that is," he said.