KNIK -- The Iditarod Trail Invitational, the world's strangest bicycle race, on Sunday left a long-deserted port on a trail intended for snowmachines bound for a village so small and remote that it is about as close as one can get to nowhere.
The race leaders and veterans quickly disappeared from sight in the direction of the Alaska Range. The race's newbies promptly got lost on a remnant of the Iditarod National Historic Trail that a local history buff has voluntarily been rebuilding.
The new trail was nicely cleared through the thick spruce on the hills east of the Susitna River and marked with first-class tripods in the swamps down in the lowlands. Near a place called Flathorn Lake, it parted ways with a route the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race followed from Knik to the Susitna before the sprawl of civilization along the Knik-Goose Bay Road outside former Gov. Sarah Palin's home in Wasilla forced the dog race north to Willow.
The old dog trail through the wilderness on the edge of suburbia is still heavily used by snowmachines and was a hard-packed, white sidewalk pointing west from an intersection. The new trail was not so good, but it had Iditarod Trail signs and, as it wound into the woods, there were enticing Iditarod Trail mile markers.
At least a half-dozen racers, nearly all of them European, charged straight ahead onto the new trail and followed it past Mile 20 to Mile 21 to Mile 22 before the last of them began to meet the first of them coming back telling a strange a story about the need to "posthole three miles" through snow "to get to the trail."
The warning didn't make much sense until about mile 23, which is where the trail ended. The builder was still working his way toward the river. The snow beyond the end of the new trail was about waist deep.
The cyclists did not long ponder the idea of going cross-country carrying bikes weighted down with 30 or 40 pounds of gear. They turned around.
Scotsman Donald Kane stopped on the ride back to lament the decision to follow a fresh bike track down a dead-end trail. "My buddy had a GPS (Global Positioning System), but he decided to follow the bike tracks,'' Kane said. And Kane decided to follow his buddy Alex Casanova from Catalonia.
Casanova was just ahead of Kane on the trail back. He was about to discover that while he, Kane and others were detouring, they had been passed by hikers and skiers. The Invitational is an event open to all, but it's really been a bike race ever since "fat-tire bikes'' with tires nearly four-inches wide arrived on the scene years ago.
It has been a decade or more since Fairbanks skier Bob Baker, a distance-skiing legend in the 49th state, beat the bikers to the Finger Lake checkpoint on the south slope of the Alaska Range to win some prize money in an event that has rarely paid prize money. The race was then called the Iditasport, but it was the same race as today's Invitational.
A few skiers still come, but with no hope of winning. There are four this year in the field of 50 competitors. They have no hope of winning. They are, like the hikers, chasing adventure, not victory.
Some of the cyclists came to race. John Stamstad earned his way into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, in significant part, due to his performances on the Iditarod Trail. Stamstad's exploits helped entice Scotsman Kane.
"I'd already been up Denali," he said.
Kane doesn't expect to win the Invitational, but there is honor in finishing. A near opposite of the Tour de France in the world of cycling, the Invitational does share one thing in common with the globe's most famous bicycle race: Not just anyone is allowed to ride. In the case of the Invitational, race director Bill Merchant scans the field pretty carefully to make sure competitors have the skills not just to pedal, ski or walk, but to survive.
The few race checkpoints along the 350-mile route to some businesses around an airstrip in a place called McGrath are tens of miles apart, and there isn't much between. A racer who took a wrong turn on the south side of the Alaska Range one February and went down a pioneering snowmachine trail was lost for days.
Even without getting lost, there are plenty of survival challenges.
The temperature Sunday was near 20, balmy for this part of Alaska at this time of year, but the winds were screaming. "Dismal Swamp was pretty bad," said Mark Silverman from Anchorage; the miles-long, treeless flat west of Flathorn Lake long ago earned its name. The winds roaring across it Sunday bit at any patch of exposed flesh.
There is most certainly more to come: blizzards, floods, 50-degree-below-zero cold, rain and more wind. Sometimes they've all come during the same race. The weather usually plays havoc, but when the trail is good and firm, some of the bikers have been known to almost fly north.
Race record-holder Pete Basinger from Anchorage went from Knik to McGrath in three days, five hours and 40 minutes in 2007. It takes the Iditarod dog teams about the same time. Basinger, who is now teaching in McGrath, was among the race leaders Sunday. With him at the front were former champs Jeff Oatley, a cold-climate expert from Fairbanks just back from a successful run in Minnesota's Arrowhead 135, and Jay Petervary, a Jackson, Wyo., native who plans 7,000 miles of racing in three of North America's biggest ultra-endurance events as part of a "No Idle Tour'' this year.
Petervary will race the others to McGrath, but he isn't stopping there. Along with 10 of the 50 others in this year's Invitational, he plans to keep pushing on for Nome at the end of the Iditarod Trail -- another 550 miles from McGrath.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.