By Dave Pramann
Iditarod Trail Invitational 2010. Riding your Bike in Winter in Alaska is Really Not Stupid. Mostly.
Alaskan Iditarod Trail 350 Race had been in the back of my mind for over a decade. One of those looming bucket-list hard things. Shorter versions of the race over 22 years ago had gotten me out to Skwentna, but the intrigue of famous Rainy Pass/Farewell Burn areas had a strange and strong magnetism. 2010 would be the year! Before its TOO late and I have to like ride the indoor trainer or something really desperate.
110 years ago Alaska gold-seekers rode their bikes down frozen rivers in search for early claims so there is history here. Dearly hoping for a fast and mostly rideable race for me, I was searching for adventure and found it. Training/fitness over the winter went fine, equipment choices guessed at and tested, logistics guessed at/partly figured out, my Pneumonia appeared mostly over with a week or two earlier and before you know it I'm landing in Anchorage on bike-friendly Alaska Airlines.
Hung around with Jeff Oatley, Pete Basinger, Tim Stern and a bunch of others with extensive race experience. A nicer, friendlier bunch you will not find which makes this race unique and wonderful. Mike Curiak was also around getting ready for another unsupported trip all the way to Nome. He likely will finish late March, on his ~150lb bike, on his fourth try.
Gwennies is a popular spot for breakfast in Anchorage, I guided a bunch of us there Sat Morning before race only to completely slip on the snow-covered icy parking lot and bang down hard horizontal from 3ft up on my elbow and butt. Fine, smacked down internal bleeding bloody and we haven't even started yet. Reindeer Sausage and cakes were good though.
Weather was big question. Had been a low snow year for much of Alaska but several storms just prior to race were changing that, along with rumours of big water-overflow sections along rivers and lakes, making for a lot of unknowns. Trail reports were wildly variable and totally mostly wrong. Like J. Oatley said, "It really doesn't matter". My strategy was to go out with the fast guys and see what happens. And to be optimistic.
Race day dawned grey and mild, we watched Olympic Gold Medal Hockey in the Knik Bar until tying goal and then had to go. My team usually loses in overtime anyway and I was pretty sure the Canadians will cheat to win if they have to, HA!, so I didn't mind getting going.
Start was rather peculiar as you can take any route you want and it appeared there were three main paths folks took to the Yentna River. I followed the experienced P. Basinger but we still ended up about five minutes slower than another mostly road route taken by Oatley and a half dozen others. Funny how everyone goes out way fast in a 5 day event!
Hit soft stuff about 20 miles in and then it started to snow. Hard work so early. Combination of pushing and riding got me to the 50 mile check Yentna in 3rd/4th place. Tire pump broke at first use on the Yentna River, not at all good in a ~ 5-day race! Snowed heavier and eventually reached near white-out. Maybe 4-6" snow over solid base. Fortunately trail was fresh and I followed the leaders close thru to 90 mile check at Skwentna where we bedded down for a bit at the solid old Skwentna Roadhouse. Amazingly I woke up to ulner-nerve numb palsy hands from grabbing handlebars too tight or maybe slightly misadjusted bars after shipping? This affliction lasts for weeks/months and have not gotten this in 30+ yrs, is way bad for a cold winter race and how does this happen when I ride like most of the time?
Day 2: dawned grey and mild. Took off at first light to a mostly walking course gradually uphill thru Shell Hills toward Shell Lake Lodge where J. Petarvary and I had nice pancakes with hostess Zoe. Saw a nice wolf. Rest of trail, flat to uphill, marginally rideable to 140 mile pt Finger Lake Lodge. Anchorage reporter Craig Medred kept passing me on his stupid snowmobile regularly screwing with the trail, hindering ride-ability on his paddle-track sled. No thanks Mr. Medred, and then the fellow twists the half-truth around in his reports even when he is from Minnesota originally too. Just a reporter but has lost his Minnesota-Nice. Off my Christmas list.
If you look up these nice Lodges they appear real plush but let me please say we racers stay in spartan tents or bivy outside at most of them not so plush except for Rainy Pass Lodge.
Day 3: I leave at 1AM from Finger alone in 4th place under clear moonlit skies. Trail gets way more extreme. It starts to snow. Wind picks up to nearly whiteout. Some of the hills are extreme climbs/descents nearly to point of undoable just hoping to even get up them. Happy River Steps or something they call these. Crampons would be nice here. Steeper than anything Arrowhead has and longer and about 20" wide so challenging to move thru. A couple times I pushed/threw my bike up and forward and then crawled around to pull it up from above!
It snows maybe another + 4", wind picks up to near whiteout until I find a clump in middle of trail, its Petarvary bivouacking. We push together for a bit and then sleepies hit me so I find nice tree and bivouac for a couple hours thinking happy thoughts. Beautiful country at another grey snowy dawn and I push/ride to FinnBear Lake mile 165. Mike and Ingrid have the famous lone cabin in the wilderness of FinnBear and love to have trail visitors so I stop for hot chocolate and morning conversation. They are way good people and have that rustic Alaska cabin on lake ringed by mountains that you can only dream of. Only problem: getting there is never easy.
Anyway, we pushed our loaded bikes maybe 35+ miles at about 2mph to near Rohn on the longest Puntilla Death March I've ever been involved with. On the bright side, the Taliban were not shooting at us. Apparently I did not train well for this push as my legs were absolute milk-toast by the time we got riding again on the ice near Rohn. The river ice was rather spooky in the dark on sloping mostly bare ice with fast-moving open water patches and sketchy ice bridges. The gentleman Kyle Amstadter even rode behind me a bit to ensure rubber-side down, Thanks Kyle! Exhilarating, even when one has paid-up life insurance. If you disappeared here nobody would notice til days later and then they would only find bits of you in summer. With trudge-fatigue I could hardly ride a straight line which is not a good combination here on ice, in the dark. Finally we reached the famous Rohn cabin where our crowded food tent awaited and bivied out in light snow and maybe 5 degrees F.
Day 5: Grey and temps in teens. I was feeling better about my chances of finishing as from here it should be largely rideable, even the Burn maybe. I gimped about with sore everything and not enough Ibuprofin getting organised in the greyness. My recovery was slight, but what's there to do out here but just go and do it, afterall I was a recent inductee to the secretive Duluth-based DBD Society . And quitting is not an option.
Trail became quite rolling not unlike sections of Arrowhead and the day actually cleared up for the first time all week. Saw scenic vistas of Denali, ice climbs, couple of overflows putting my waterboots on, etc. This day I really enjoyed and I/we made good time until it dragged on and on towards Nicolai. Sunset was nice with Denali visible in the distant northeast. 40+ mile Farewell Burn area was mostly devoid of snow and made for long stretches of mogul-like slow biking but we were biking, bumpy but biking! Temps dropped to below zero in the evening and a group of five of us stuck together finally reaching Nicolai about midnight. Amazingly several of the others actually had the energy to push out the door of our native-home checkpoint to the finish. Again, I was wasted completely and choose to wait till near dawn as I had no confidence in my energy level and you know you could die out there and then they would never let a Minnesotan enter again. Now I am down to about 4 tired dogs but I am a DBD member. And quitting is not an option. Bill, Tracey P, Kyle, Chris and myself had a great ride this day. Race veteran Sean Grady was impressive in his ability to ride the rough stuff and looked to finish really strong.
Finish Trail to McGrath was mostly river/lake/swamp flat with light snow and a tailwind. Saw fresh Wolverine tracks. Funny how about 1/4" of snow can blow in a trail and make it almost unrideable. Anyway, I totally limped in to McGrath counting down the last 50 miles every one at a time and singing happy songs to myself. Warmed up to a nice sunny day near 35F!
As I crossed the finish in McGrath I was greeted warmly and immediately by the winners Jeff and Pete who'd been there more than a day. The other dozen or so others ahead of me relaxing inside gave me the loudest cheer I will remember that forever! Then fresh man-pancakes and a luxurious house to sit around in. My cheeks might have been wet at some point cause I was REALLY REALLY REALLY glad to be done.
A funny (perhaps sad) story: as I left Nicolai at dawn, a nice smiley native man (let's call him Eskimo Charlie) waved at me and I returned the greeting energetically. Couple hours down the trail, bushplane flew low overhead and as I waved, he turned around and buzzed me like 50ft agl (above ground level) wagging his wings! Way good and cool, in middle of nowhere. Later that day after finishing in McGrath I am standing streetside outside the hotel and bar with a couple friends and Charlie comes running out and says "Hey come on I buy you a drink mister, and your friends, do you remember me, I've seen you three times today?" Appears he is the town inebriant-native who regularly gets this fellow to fly him to McGrath from Nicolai and just parties. The bartender cut him off long earlier but we had a nice respectful conversation. He asked how much to buy my bike but then said, "Oh wait, they would just find me dead frozen drunk along the trail". Apparently he knows his limits.
Things I'd do different: ITI race has multitude of variables which provide a huge challenge for rookies. I was constantly impressed by young rookie Chris Plesko who apparently did his research exceedingly well knowing the trail and its pitfalls like a veteran. My shortfalls were largely overcome by great help from other racers including Kyle Amstadter who regularly provided extra food, pump etc. to salvage my situation. Thanks again Kyle!
c. More Ibuprofin. The maybe 75 miles of walking, ice-falling and general trail abuse absolutely killed my knees and back and I did not bring near enough.
d. 100mm rims. Until the masses caught up with me, I was only one in top bunch not riding 100's. Anything to help in the softstuff is a big plus and I believe I could have ridden as much or more than anyone given similar equipment.
Larry tires were also standard and a big plus. I used one on front but would go rear also doing it again. Larry is sturdier and better traction front and rear. Most all of the cyclists had Titanium or Aluminum Alaska Fatbacks or 907's. Quite a change from a few years back in winter-bike history, there were only a couple of us on Pugsleys this year. A bike like mine with 70mm rims is good to finish but perhaps not competitive most years. But I will stick with the Surly Pugsley cause it feels right!
All-in-all this race gave me everything I expected and then some. I was amazed at the perseverance of the racers in what to me seemed tough conditions (veterans said 2010 was about average). Only about a 20% drop-out rate where maybe expect about twice that in a race down here. Every racer I met was wonderfully friendly and interesting and ya we had A LOT of time to talk, all the volunteers helpful and that really made for a fine event for me despite getting my butt kicked by Alaska. I REPEAT, THESE PEOPLE ARE SOME OF THE MOST AMAZING AND NICEST PEOPLE YOU WILL EVER FIND.
Thinking of doing this "Mega-Classic Winter Race" as Charlie Farrow calls it? Am happy to provide my limited advice, just ask. It will truly round-out your Winter-Bike resume!!
Acknowledgements: Sean Grady and others for stealing some of their pictures. Kyle Amstadter for borrowing stuff to me lots. J. Oatley and P. Basinger for good advice. Bill and Kathi Merchant for putting on the race.
dave pramann/March 2010