... the T-shirt said. It had pictures of fish and a human skull on it. I'd seen a guy wearing it around Chilkoot Charlie's a few days before. Charlie's is a famous old Anchorage bar with the slogan, "We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you." At the time I didn't think about that shirt too much, but with five miles left to go in the Iditabike, it was on my mind.
Five miles. Doesn't sound far but a 40-50 mph wind was against us and my thermometer read twenty below. Ground snow thickened the wind like flour in an icy gravy as we groveled along the glassy surface of the big frozen lake. The lights of the lodge dwindled as the dawn light grew, making the finish seem farther away each time I raised my head up to look. Would we ever get there? Or, like the salmon in artist Ray Troll's T-shirt design, were we destined for terminal pursuit of some ill-conceived culturo-biologic imperative?
What on earth drives people to race bikes in winter in Alaska, anyhow?
Bicycles were used by many "stampeeders" in the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. Their accounts of thousand-plus mile journeys fill a short, magazine-sized book called Wheels on Ice (Alaska Northwest Publishing Company, Anchorage). What gets you about these stories is how casually great hardships are matter-of-factly recorded. "It was the only night on the trail I didn't have a blanket. My food had run out so the next morning it was a situation of ride 35 miles to lunch." Just like that (!).
If you didn't carry much gear, apparently, bicycles were the fastest way to travel frozen rivers and sled dog trails. Even so, ice cycling was never easy and in his introduction to Wheels editor Terrence Cole admonishes, "For good reason, the men in this book were considered more than a little bit mentally deranged."
That didn't stop five Anchoragers from plotting a bike ride up to Nome on the famous Iditarod dog sled trail, some 1,049 miles long. The Iditabike race -- which covers a mere 170 miles -- was conceived as a shakedown training run to test equipment and stamina, and it was first run in 1982. Three years later, Dan Bull, Les Matz, Roger Cowles and Mark Frise made a successful run to Nome in 22 days.
The originators no longer compete but with a volunteer staff outnumbering the racers Dan Bull stills puts on this beautiful race.
Back in 1990 warm weather and fresh snow turned the race into the "Iditapush." After that, Iditabike combined with Iditaski, an older race formerly held a week earlier on the same course. Skiers love soft snow but have trouble with the hard, icy snow best for cycling, thus it was reasoned that if competitors could choose their weapon on the start line there would never be a year in which nature dominated completely. Just to be sure, snow shoe, foot race and triathlon categories were created with a shorter 80-mile length and the event was restyled Iditasport.
Laddy Shaw said it back in '82, the first year they ran it. "Cowards won't show and the weak will die." Laddy proceeded to drop out of the race, inspiring the creation of the Laddy Shaw Award for the loudest braggart most humbled by the race. Previous winners include Chris Kostman, a fellow journalist.
There is a town up near Fairbanks named Chicken. Early settlers there wanted to name it after the small tundra-burrowing birds common to the area but no one knew how to spell Ptarmigan so they called it Chicken.
Idisport competitors are supposedly "required" to carry the following survival gear: a headlamp with spare bulb, sleeping bag rated to -20 degrees, a bivy sack or tent, insulated ground pad, stove and fuel, a pot 3 inches deep and one day's supply of food.
Bike racers are pretty creative when it comes to gram shaving, though. Bob Fourney had half a Fosters Lager can for his pot and what amounted to a piece of aluminum foil he referred to as an alcohol stove. John Stamstad had a length of bubble wrap for a pad. One guy's "20-below bag" fit into a wedge pack under his seat!
As a rookie I cut few corners. I figured on getting lost for several days and packed accordingly. Should I do the race again, though, I won't be so cautious. If you know how to spell Ptarmigan there's no point being chicken.
At 10:30 a.m. the race started under clear cold skies. The violent winds of the last few days paused. Last year's winner John Stamstad (Bridgestone/Continental/GU) and Bob en (Gary Brustin) a two-time RAAM winner, were favored, along with previous winners Rocky and Steve Reifenstuhl (Litespeed/Grafton). John told me later that in the banter before the hammer fell, Bob asked him who he thought might be fast and among a few others John mentioned me, to which Bob replied, "Yeah, but isn't he a journalist?"
"I know," insisted John, "It's weird, but he can actually ride."
Moments later the course dove into the woods and I fell back to twelfth place when I slid out in an icy corner. An ESPN cameraperson just happened to be standing there. My sponsors will love that. Hey, I go the extra air-time mile!
Pretty soon I started passing people on the rolly polly north-bound trail. One had a frozen Camlbak hose (gotta keep it under your shirt!), one had a broken titanium stem bolt and four others were just cruising along socializing or something.
The trail was mostly snow machine width -- three feet -- sunken a foot deep in the snowpack. The way the snowmobiles bounce along creates little hillocks every ten or twelve feet: big gear, out of the saddle sort of terrain. Short, steep descents into drainages make for slippery, frantic toboggan runs where you're scared to use the brakes and more scared your face will crack for grinning so hard. Seriously wicked fast fun. When you crash the snow off trail is soft but the trees -- birch, spruce and cottonwood pruned oddly vertical by grazing moose -- aren't. Occasionally the trail breaks on flat, open meadows. Headwinds in these stretches made me regret losing the lead pack so early.
Crossing the Yentna river into the Big Susitna checkpoint I surprised a musher and his dog team. They looked pretty astounded to see a guy sliding on his butt down a twenty-foot long chute of solid ice onto a frozen river whilst holding onto a bicycle, of all things.
I jammed through the first checkpoint without stopping. I was going almost all out and I kept stripping off clothes until I was wearing just one wool jersey and one pair of wool tights. It was up to 20 above zero.
At the next check point I got water and Dan Bull asked me if I was writing an article about the race. "I guess so," I replied, "since I'm too far behind to be racing." I was already 45 minutes back after six hours.
A bunch of snow machine traffic overtook me and the snow was softer in their wake, forcing me to walk in places the leaders probably rode. At one point I caught up to two snow machines dawdling along the narrow trail. I shouted but through the helmets they couldn't hear. I was about to throw snowballs when they finally just stopped, allowing me to post-hole around them in the soft trailside snow.
When I got the third checkpoint I should have stopped but didn't. The snow got soft and the going hard. The wind picked way up. I dropped down to 5-10 psi of tire pressure and could just barely churn along in my grandpa gear. I was already low on water with 20 miles to go before the next checkpoint, and the sun hung low in the sky. I thought of turning back. Yet, bootprints dotted sections of the trail I was riding, suggesting I might be gaining on someone. I couldn't stop now...
In wooded sections the trail was sheltered and hard but scrofulous, divoted by ten inch-deep moose prints. I felt the rims bottom out many times but (Whew!) didn't flat.
At one hillcrest the majestic sight of Denali (aka Mt. McKinley) and Foraker pinkened by alpenglow moved me to stop for a picture. I filled my barely halffull CamelBak -- the Ice-Bak model with uninsulated back -- with snow and put it under my jacket to melt the snow. Beats fiddling with a stove.
At last the moosed-up trail let out on the Skwentna River, the finish for foot and snow-shoe divisions and access to drop bags for the rest of us before we turned south on the wide frozen river. I grabbed a few packets of delicious unfreezable GU, mixed up a fresh Camelback of maltodextrin and Cytomax and tried to get out of the warm lodge before I sweated up. A volunteer aired my tires up a little.
Pretty soon I caught Bob Fourney and we talked a bit. I started to cruise on ahead be he kept my pace and I was kind of glad, frankly, to have someone with whom to ride into the rapidly cooling night.
When I asked Bob if the little bedroll tied to his handlebars was rated to minus 20 degrees he told me the story about the time he raced a cross country skier from Anchorage to Nome. Before a massive storm ended his progress he rode a bike with six wheels and didn't even carry a sleeping bag. He'd stop in lodges or curl up under the branches in hollow trees if he got sleepy, until he'd wake up so cold he had to get on the bike and ride hard to warm up.
"Richard [Larson, the guy who did the equipment check] knows I've bivouacked out at fifty below with no bag at all. He knows I know what I'm doing."
Personally, I found some irony in the way Bob strung those two particular sentences together. Yet, as the night cooled to 20 below and our clothes slowly turned into solid sheaths of frozen sweat vapor I felt reassured by Bob's unconcern. When my hands got so cold the fingernails stung Bob gave me some Mycoal hotpads to stick in my gloves. When his lights failed, we both relied on the secure swath of my lithium powered NightSun.
We passed a sleeping Steve Reifenstuhl at one checkpoint. We were three hours behind John and two behind Rocky with fifty miles to go. Our nearest chaser was three and a half hours back.
Rocky got lost somehow before the next checkpoint, allowing us to gain an hour on him, while John put another ten minutes on us.
Incredibly, despite headwinds, John covered the last 25 miles -- which left the frozen river to retrace the first hilly section of the course back to Big Lake -- in under three hours, just 20 minutes longer than it had taken him at the race's start. John credits GU, his food sponsor, with helping him finish hard and fast.
Rocky took five hours -- nearly twice as long -- while Bob and I took four and a half to ride the same section. I was feeling rough, having gotten lazy about fuel consumption. Bob shepherded me along, giving me his last JuicePlus bar at one point, and eventually we found ourselves spawning -- I mean spinning -- our way across that big frozen lake.
Which brings us back to why, aside from replicating history, weirdoes like us undertake such absurd, seemingly pointless challenges. it for the engraved whale-knife trophies? Do we just want big legs?
Perhaps we feel some need to respond in kind to the outrages of life, to acknowledge in some immediate visceral way the hopeless plight of salmon, for example, spawning up dam-clogged rivers. Columbia River biologists were supposedly thrilled last year (1993) when, of millions of salmon attempting to reach their birthplace at the river's source, three succeeded. The year before, none had.
Columbia salmon make Iditabikers seem a little wimpy, huh? Seems to me the toughest event in the world of gruel-sport could never approach the heedlessly cruel conditions of actual everyday life. We who complete these virtual strolls through the woods are upheld as masters of endurance amidst people working three jobs to pay off loans, toiling at physical labor twelve hours a day or more or fulfilling one of our manic society's "necessary" but unimaginably unsavory occupations. That's the irony of the ironperson myth: we're dilettantes. Our hobby is much more an escape from than indulgence in suffering.
When the lights of the lodge loomed large at last and the race really had ended and John was there congratulating me and shaking my hand and it was over and I had survived I said, "I'm not at all sure I really enjoyed that..."
John guffawed. "That statement is not entirely negative!" he chortled.
Sure enough, mere minutes later, as Bob and I sat down to a meat and grease bacon and egg feast I was already remembering the fun parts of the race. By the time I stopped shivering a few hours later I was already dreaming of returning someday soon for another winter tour of the Susitna Valley.