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Fast trail awaits Iditarod Invitational competitors

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 1, 2015

Just to the north of Alaska's largest city, the true hard men and women of the Iditarod Trail on Sunday headed north from the old port of Knik in a race against time and weather.

Out ahead of them somewhere, Bill Merchant, the organizer of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, was pushing a trail up Rainy Pass and through this year's supposedly impassable Dalzell Gorge, which is passable because almost anything in Alaska is passable for the fit, skilled and determined.

Behind Merchant, the Iditarod charge was to be led by a gang of fat-tire bikers who, with a little luck, might well set a record on the 350-miles of trail over the Alaska Range to McGrath in the Interior.

Thirty-two-year-old cyclist Kevin Breitenbach, bike shop manager for Beaver Sports in Fairbanks, covered that distance in a time of 2 day, 4 hours and 43 minute last year to set the fastest time ever in the first stage of the Invitational.

And conditions were shaping up for an even faster ride as 55 cyclists, runners and a lone skier -- 48 men and seven women -- set off down the trail this year from near the old home of the late Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race founder Joe Redington.

Trails and rivers that were slush when the Iron Dog snowmahine headed north for Nome from Big Lake, just north of Knik, last weekend had refrozen into icy highways promising fast rolling on studded fat bike tires.

North of the Alaska Range, meanwhile, the landscape remained bare of snow, making for hard, fast riding conditions more reminiscent of fall than winter in Alaska.

Breitenbach was expected to set a fast pace pushed by fellow Fairbanksan Jeff Oatley, the 2009 Invitational champ; Jay Petervary of Idaho, the winner in 2013 and 2008; Czech Pavel Richtr, a surprise third as a rookie in 2012; Minnesotan Charly Tri, fifth last year; and a player or two to be determined along the trail.

Snowy, soft, morale-challenging trail tends to favor the Alaska riders or a veteran like Petervary accustomed to grinding out tough miles at low speeds. Hard, fast trail opens the door for others, including rookies, more schooled in trail riding than fat-tired exploration.

As usual, the 2015 Invitational attracted a fair number of new competitors and a truly global field. Twenty-one of the entrants hail from the Lower 48 states and 15 are foreigners. They significantly out number the Alaskans in the race, although Alaskans are the favored competitors in both the cycling and running divisions.

How hard Oatley and Petervary will go to McGrath is also something of a question mark given that they are among eight cyclists signed up to keep on going through that checkpoint in a race to the 1,000-mile Nome end of the Iditarod. Oatley made it to Nome last year in a mind-boggling 10 days, 2 hours and 53 minutes.

His Invitational record time would have been fast enough to win every Iditarod dog race prior to 1994. The dogs have picked up the pace since then, but Oatley's human-powered effort last year would still have been fast enough to put him 22nd in last year's dog race, right behind two-time Iditarod champ Robert Sorlie from Norway in 21st.

Oatley went out easy in Invitational 2014 and hit McGrath hours behind the leaders. He might play it differently this year, though, with the weatherman forecasting another punch of warm Gulf of Alaska air into the gut of Alaska.

As the Invitational broke out across Flathorn Lake and started up the Yentna River on Sunday evening, conditions were almost ideal for cyclists with the trail firm and temperatures dropping toward overnight forecasts of zero to 15.

All of this was expected to change by Monday, however, with temps climbing into the 30s followed by snow, then rain and snow, moving in behind. Such conditions can soften the trail and slow cyclists. They usually expect to ride deeper into winter as the trail climbs into the Alaska Range and then jumps across to the north side.

Not this year, however. The National Weather Service is predicting the warm front will push through the range and into the Kuskokim River drainage on the north side by Tuesday. The forecast there calls for rain and snow with highs in the mid-30s to lower-40s.

That could create problems for those still climbing snowy trails from the Happy River up into Rainy Pass on Monday night into early Tuesday morning, but those through Rohn -- the historic, one-room-cabin checkpoint in the heart of the range -- shouldn't have much of a problem.

There is almost no snow on the trail north of there. Cycling conditions might be described as summer-like, mountain bike fast. That's all good for the cyclists, but not necessarily so hot for the 14 runners and walkers entered in the Invitational, or the lone skier.

Both groups pack their survival gear in sleds they pull behind them on the trail, and sleds slide much easier on snow than on dirt. As for skis, they don't slide at all on dirt, which means Alaska skier Gavin Kencth is likely to spend a fair amount of time walking whether he wants to or not.

The runners, hikers and skier are led by David Johnston of Willow, who has become a bit of a national ultra-endurance phenom. He set a record in the Invitational last year when he reached McGrath in 4 days, 1 hour and 38 minutes, beating more than a third of the cyclists in the field.

And now, while the dog teams prepare to make the move to Fairbanks for the start of the Iditarod dog race because trail conditions are too challenging for most mushers, Johnston will be out there on the Iditarod Trail again trying to break another record.

His prize if he succeeds? Nothing but glory.

The Invitational competitors -- unlike the people in the Iron Dog or the Iditarod dog race -- are true amateurs. There is no money. They compete mainly against themselves, pushing to see how far they can push.

It is the definition of Iditarod toughness.