Exposure

Bikepacking Alaska’s Iditarod Trail

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Photo: RJ Sauer

On February 26, 2017, I joined 70 racers at the start line of the annual Iditarod Trail Invitational, a bikepacking race along the Iditarod Trail across the Alaskan backcountry, which takes place at the same time as the dogsled race. Participants are self-supported, carrying all of their own clothing, camping, and cooking gear, with food drops shipped ahead along the trail. This year’s race was fraught with frigid temperatures that frequently dropped to minus 40. Of the 25 racers intending to race the 1,000 miles to Nome, only six would finish.

Here’s a series of images from my 18-day, 1000-mile sufferfest.

Photo: Martijn Boonman, a fellow racer I rode with for several days, soaks up the rising sun and the hint of warmth it brings. Keeping dry was a critical, daily chore. The cold temperatures combined with the perspiration and moisture from breathing built up a constant layer of frost on our face and clothing.

Photo: RJ Sauer

Along the trail, various shelters, cabins, and roadhouses offered an opportunity to get out of the cold, grab a bite to eat, and even a warm place to sleep. Here at Shell Lake Lodge, Frank Janssens unpacks gear he plans to dry inside in the early days of the race.

Photo: RJ Sauer

As the sun rose over the Alaskan Range, we pushed our bikes into a fierce headwind, often searching blindly for the vanishing trail as we approached Hell’s Gate and Ptarmigan Pass, about a quarter of the way through the race.

Photo: RJ Sauer

Boonman followed the hard-packed trail out of the Rohn checkpoint through the Farewell Burn, a charred stretch of landscape leading out of the Alaskan Range. This was the site of Alaska’s largest forest fire, which burned 1.5 million acres in the summer of 1978.

Photo: RJ Sauer

When the temperature dropped to minus 40, we took refuge inside a small wooden shelter in Ophir—385 miles into the race—to cook a hot, dehydrated meal and get some sleep. By morning, the shack was like an icebox. We struggled to repack our bikes and hit the trail.

Photo: RJ Sauer

It was hard not to stop and appreciate the breathtaking scenery along the way, but taking photos was a delicate balance of getting the shot while protecting exposed fingers. For me, photography was a great way to emotionally manage the time and distance.

Photo: RJ Sauer

My loyal setup for the 2017 Iditarod Trail Invitational: a carbon Salsa Mukluk. Both my bike and body managed to stay relatively intact for the duration of the race despite the constant exposure.

Photo: RJ Sauer

The portage from Kaltag on the Yukon River, which weaves 75 miles north to Unalakleet on the ocean, was shrouded in a supernatural mist. This stretch of trail was some of the most incredible fat-biking I’ve ever done.

Photo: RJ Sauer

I pulled over to let a team of dogs pass along this narrow stretch of trail. There was a camaraderie and mutual respect among those of us racing the Iditarod by bike and foot and the mushers competing with their dog teams.

Photo: RJ Sauer

The beautiful, warm colors of sunrise, which was around 9:30 a.m., offered an invigorating glimmer of hope and a reprieve from the suffocating cold of night.

Photo: RJ Sauer

When fatigue set in and my spirits dropped, the isolated Alaskan landscape always mesmerized and delighted, motivating me to push on.

Photo: RJ Sauer

Just before crossing the frozen sea ice, musher Jason Mackey and I shared some time at a small shelter.

Photo: Asymetriq Productions

An aerial view as I rode over the frozen tundra toward an isolated shelter on the edge of the sea ice, 20 miles outside Shaktoolik and about 200 miles from the finish line.

Photo: RJ Sauer

Just when I hoped to make a long, hard push to catch first-place rider Jay Cable, I had a stroke of bad luck and broke my pedal. I managed to cover just under 100 miles before coming up with a replacement.

Photo: RJ Sauer

The smiling face of race legend Tim Hewitt—the first and only Iditarod Trail Invitational competitor to finish the race to Nome on foot and on bike in separate attempts. This was also Hewitt’s record 10th finish, a feat unlikely to be matched. I am grateful to have been there with him for his first finish in 2001 and his most recent in 2017.

Photo: RJ Sauer

My second time posing under the burled arch in Nome, at the 1,000-mile mark of the Iditarod Trail, a finish line shared by bikers, foot racers, and mushers. I came in second place, in just under 18 days.

Want to try the Iditarod Trail Invitational yourself? Take a look at Bikepacking.com.

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