Three bikers finish Iditarod Trail Invitational
Three persistent cyclists arrived in Nome on their heavily loaded fat bikes on March 23, after 22 days and seven hours struggling through some tough winter conditions. For much of the time, they were not riding but rather on foot pushing their bikes through deep snow.
They were the only competitors to make it to the finish as part of the Iditarod Trail Invitational race in Nome this year. Petr Ineman, a Czech, won last year and was one of the trio. He was joined by Anchorage’s Casey Fagerquist and Jill Martindale of Grand Rapids, Michigan. They finished with the same time and all three are recognized as this year’s champions.
The Iditarod Trail Invitational, or ITI, was founded in 2002. It starts at the Iditarod Trail’s Knik Lake trailhead and follows the traditional trail. All racing is human powered with cyclists, skiers and those on foot taking on the challenge. Most choose to race the shorter 350-mile distance to McGrath. Those athletes who want to take on the long race must complete the shorter one in a previous year.
The evolution of the fat tire bike began in Anchorage and has spread worldwide. Most big manufacturers offer several models of fat tire bike and the popularity of them is keeping Alaska bike shops as busy during the winter as during the summer. Thanks to monster tires, a cyclist can roll over snowy trails which even skiers have a tough time negotiating.
“It was a very soft year,” said Jill Martindale, the 2020 women’s champion. She was recuperating at a Nome hotel with fellow riders Petr Ineman and Casey Fagerquist. The three had the look of contented exhaustion that comes after the finish of a long endurance event. There was a lot of snow between Knik Lake and Nome. Temperatures in the early part of the trail dropped to minus 45°F. After Nulato it was more wet than cold. And the three found themselves stuck with the Iditarod’s Elim 11, mushers waiting out the overflow conditions before heading to Nome.
“It’s mentally draining. It’s every day a different challenge,” said Ineman when asked about the most difficult part of the race. “Every hour!” added Fagerquist. “Sometimes getting off your bike and walking is the most refreshing,” said Fagerquist. “It’s actually easier,” added Martindale. “While you’re riding you’re always looking for the firmest part of the trail, which isn’t always right down the middle. Sometimes it’s over here, sometimes it’s over there. Or you’re following the tire in front of you or you have all these aches and pains so you’re trying to focus on where you’re going, the best line, and you’re trying to relieve all those pains. Sometimes walking is almost the easy part.”
With all the gear needed to travel 1,000 miles through the Alaska wild in winter conditions the packed bikes can weigh 80 pounds. While the riders spent some nights in B&Bs they also slept out on the trail. They had to be prepared for that.
What’s the difference between riding the shorter 350-mile race to McGrath and doing the full distance to Nome? Fagerquist, who has done the shorter race twice, says there’s a big difference. “Length, time on the trail, obviously,” he said. “You carry more stuff, so the bike is heavier. You have to be prepared for more variable trail conditions and weather. You’re out in the elements for longer. I think mentally it’s tougher. You can’t just push for a couple days and then you’re done. You push, push, push for 20 days before you’re finished.”
Is the mental side the hardest? “Yes, I think the mental side is the hardest,” he said.
Jill Martindale is an upbeat, pleasant 32-year-old who has a husband and two dogs back in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She works for a small firm, which manufactures bicycle rims and has done a number of endurance races. Casey Fagerquist is a helicopter mechanic in Anchorage. And Petr Ineman is a low-voltage electrician in the Chicago area. During the interview he didn’t mention he was last year’s winner.
The good design of the bikes is shown by the lack of mechanical problems on the trail. Martindale changed two inner tubes because at minus 45°F she was getting slow leaks. Ineman had a failure in the cassette of his rear hub. “My rear hub at 45 below, the night before the Cripple checkpoint, totally stripped,” he said. “So I had to strap my cassette to my spokes with a zip tie. On the trail at 30 below during the day it was debilitating to just push my bike on a rideable trail.”
In Ruby, he ordered new parts from a Fairbanks bike shop and had them shipped to Galena, where he fixed the rear hub without losing any time.
Riders in the past reported hallucinations along the trail had troubled them, but this trio didn’t have that problem. “We kept ourselves pretty well rested because we didn’t want to put ourselves into a hole,” said Martindale. “We have to be ready to keep pushing. I think to stay with other people helped to keep my sanity.”
They hadn’t planned stay together, it just happened that way. Did they ever get on eachothers’ nerves? “There were a couple of times Casey told me to shut up but I think it was all in jest,” said Martindale. “I have a very cheery disposition. So when things were miserable I’d say really positive things. So they’d tell me to shut up with the positivity.”
Riders report it can be very difficult to resist the urge to throw in the towel and quit the race. “When we were stuck in Elim it would have been real easy to quit,” said Casey. They stayed two nights because there was no trail. “Because of the re-route we didn’t see the overflow. But the re-routes were very soft,” said Martindale. “Because they were fresh, they weren’t packed down. It was really slow moving. It was awesome to be able to spend time with some of the mushers. They were really nice,” she said. “The Iditarod checkpoint invited us in.”
“We got to know the Elim 11 really well,” said Fagerquist. “They handled it great. They had a really positive attitude.” The Elim 11 were the Iditarod mushers who had to stop in Elim because of heavy overflow on the sea ice leading to Golovin. After an alternative overland route had been completed they were able to push on to Nome.
At the time of the start of the race the COVID-19 virus wasn’t yet a big concern in Alaska. But that changed while the athletes were on the trail. “It didn’t really affect us until after Ruby,” said Fagerquist. “And then they started closing villages and not letting us into town. That was difficult for us because we stay in the schools and they were all closed.”
“The Iditarod checkpoints were great. They found us places to stay, often times they fed us. They helped us dry our stuff out, we had a good relationship with them. A lot of times they were kicked out of the villages as well. They set up camp out on the river.”
Without a sure place to dry out clothing and gear, the race became more complicated.
“The whole first half, up to Galena it wasn’t an issue all that much,” said Fagerquist. “You perspire but that was easy to manage by how hard you were going. After Galena it started raining and rained all the way to Nulato. So being able to pull into Nulato at the Iditarod checkpoint and being able to have a tent with a stove was pretty nice. Being able to dry our stuff out. Koyuk let us use the school. After that it was just wet all the way to the finish. We just pushed over Topkok Hills and it was just wet. We were fortunate the Topkok cabin had wood.”
“Once I get home I’ll be working from home,” said Martindale. “The bike shop my husband works at is closed until April 14. There is a big gravel race April 18 and they had to postponed that. It’s a big party atmosphere, thousands of people come to it. It got put back to October.”
The ITI race can be expensive, but because they compete in other ultra and winter events the three athletes have the gear they need, such as a minus 40°F sleeping bag. The entry fee is $1,750 and the airfare to Anchorage from the Midwest is expensive. “We stayed at air B&B’s where it was $200 per person,” said Martindale. “But we also stayed in shelter cabins which were completely free. And you’ve got to mail yourself your own food drops.”