The most extreme cycle race in the world

OK, so that may sound a little grand. After all, we’ve talked about the Tour de France, the Coast to Coast in South Africa, the 508 Furnace Trail in California, but to cycle the Iditerod trail? In winter? Surely the most extreme cycle challenge in the world (akusport)!

Our congratulations to Kathi Hirzinger Merchant for becoming the first female cyclist to finish the 1100 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational race from Knik to Nome, Alaska.

So…. what more can I tell you about this race?

Not much. Facts appear to be elusive.

Although cycling the Iditerod does appear to have crossed it’s centenary. There are accounts of extraordinary rides in 1898 and 1900…

Winter cycling in the Arctic predates the verse of poet Robert Service…

“The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights…”

Bicycles were used as a serious means of transportation in Alaska before the automobile.  In ‘Wheels on Ice, Bicycling in Alaska 1898-1900’, editor Terrence Cole compiled many original accounts and photographs of men who drove bicycles instead of dog teams during the Klondike and Nome gold rushes.  In 1901 the Skagway newspaper estimated there were some 250 bikes on the Dawson trail and predicted that the pre-eminence of the dog team would soon be over.  Several journals recounted incredible 1000-mile rides along the frozen Yukon River from Dawson to Nome, and one translated the comment of a native North American, unfamiliar with the new technology: “Whiteman sit down, go like hell.” Sadly the comment still applies; most people in Alaska, as in the Lower 48, soon began their love affair with cars and roaring snowmobiles!

So, we know that bikes were used by many “stampeeders” in the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. Their accounts of thousand-plus mile journeys fill the short, magazine-sized book  ‘Wheels on Ice’ (Alaska Northwest Publishing Company, Anchorage). What’s interesting 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.”

But where do these extraordinary cycle rides fit into the present?

Many years later, five Anchoragers decided to organise a bike ride up to Nome on the famous Iditarod dog sled trail, some 1,049 miles long. And so began The Iditabike race. It began as a mere 170 miles  ride, and was conceived as a ‘shakedown training run’ to test equipment and stamina. 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.

Patti Brehler who participated in the 1990 February race said, “Anybody can mountain bike on a wooded trail. For a real challenge, try pedaling through two feet of snow with a 20-lb pack in minus 40 degree temperatures.”

“I rode the trail for only about two miles, and had to push my mountain bike the other 50 miles,” she adds. “It took me 37 3/4 hours to travel 52 miles, and sometimes it seemed more like a survival test than a mountain bike race.”

One of  only 23 cyclists to finish the race, which began with 58 entrants, Brehler credits her achievement to a regimented cross-training fitness program. She began training seriously for the cold-weather conditions of the Iditabike in November by keeping the heat off in her home and by training in Michigan’s 10 degree F winter weather in t-shirts, shorts and lightweight tights.

1990 was a particularly warm year which turned the snow and ice to slush. Bad for cyclists and ultimately the race was nicknamed 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.

Way back in  ’82, the first year they ran the race, Laddy Shaw bragged  “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… history relates a few others!

“I’m not at all sure I really enjoyed that…” famous last words, but this competitor survived to tell the tale. That’s the Idatbike for you, or should I say ‘The Iditasport’.

So what exactly has the Iditasport boiled down to?

Well, it’s an Alaskan Human Powered Ultra-Race with four different divisions: Ski, Bike, Foot, and snowshoe. The trail is snow-covered and packed down for travel. It is marked for both day and night with brightly colored and reflective markers. The trail crosses wooded, rolling hills and frozen rivers and lakes.

There are 3 divisions:

The traditional Iditasport 130, which runs 130 miles from Knik, Alaska to Finger Lake, running along several portions of the famed Iditarod trail.

The Iditasport Extreme, which runs 350 miles up and over the Alaska Range. No roads – support by snow machine and airplane only.

Finally, the beyond category Iditasport Impossible, which runs 1100 miles up the entire Iditarod Trail to Nome. This is the ultimate. Dan Bull says “You will not find a more envelope-pushing, on the edge, out there, life-changing adventure race anywhere! This race is designed for the serious racer looking for the that one-in-a-lifetime adventure experience” … and we couldn’t agree more.

This is Dave Norona doing the Iditarod Impossible in 2000 looking cool, collected and comfortable.

The interesting thing is that I cannot find any record of the race after 2001 – is it still being run? Can anyone tell me?

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5 Responses to “The most extreme cycle race in the world”

  1. Trevor Stolber
    2011 | 1 October at 01:19 #

    I want to do this! I saw a documentary on it and now I want to do it. Any information and details would be appreciated.

    • lolajones
      2011 | 1 October at 08:55 #

      I suggest you go directly to their site: http://www.alaskaultrasport.com And if you do do it, please let us know. We’d love to hear all about it.

  2. Kathi Merchant
    2013 | 22 October at 14:03 #

    The race was continued ever since 2001 under Alaska Ultra Sport called the “Iditarod Trail Invitational”. We now have a new website: http://www.iditarodtrailinvitational.com


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