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In human-powered Iditarod, foot soldiers put up fight, but bikers will win again

Craig Medred
We ride! After days of bike pushing, Englishman Steve Wilkinson finally got on his bike to ride on the Iditarod Trail to Shell Lake Wednesday. The competitor in the Iditarod Trail Invitational did about 100 yards before he decided the trail was still soft and the riding too much work. He jumped off and resumed pushing. The finish line remained more than 200 miles in north in McGrath on the other side of the Alaska Range. A veteran of the 2011 Invitational, Wilkinson was thinking of dropping out of this one. A couple dozen others had already given up.
Craig Medred photo
Fat-tire cyclist Pavel Richtr from the Czech Republic pushes past the Shell Hills in the Iditarod Trail Invitational on Wednesday. He was working his way toward the Alaska Range as a pair of snowshoers -- Pennsyvlanian Tim Hewitt and Alaskan Geoff Roes -- led the race toward Rainy Pass. The race is normally dominated by the cyclists, but heavy snow and soft trail had turned the table on them, and they were chasing a gang of snowshoers.
Craig Medred photo
The weather finally cut the Iditarod Trail Invitational a break late Wednesday. Fat-tire cyclist Dave Kelley pushes his bike across the big swamp north of Skwentna in the shadow of the Alaska Range. Trail conditions were so soft cyclists still weren't riding, but it was a much nicer day to push.
Craig Medred photo
Anchorage's Billy Koitzsch (http://www.arcticcycles.com/) leaves the Skwentna Roadhouse on Wednesday with his take-apart fat bike in a sled. The sled rolls up when not in use. Koitzsch, who plans to travel the entire 1,000 miles of the Iditarod Trail to Nome, plans to roll the sled up, tie it to the bike and start riding when the trails firm up. They were still better for his snowshoes on Wednesday. Three Iditarod Trail Invitational competitors remained in Skwentna when Koitzsch left, but they were all talking about scratching.
Craig Medred photo
Dave Kelley, an Anchorage bicycle technician, might have been running last in the Iditarod Trail Invitational on March 2, 2012, but he was all smiles as he strapped on his snowshoes to start the climb from the Happy River to Shirley Lake.
Craig Medred photo
Reached in a snowstorm near the headwaters of the Happy River high in the Alaska Range on March 1, the improbable leader of Iditarod Invitational had only three words to describe the situation, and they won't be repeated here.
Craig Medred photo
Geoff Roes on the march toward Rainy Pass March 1.
Craig Medred photo
Iditarod Invitational veteran Pete Basinger on the roll through the Alaska Range March 1.
Craig Medred photo
Phil Hofstetter and Pete Basinger chase the Iditarod Trail north in pursuit of Invitational leader Tim Hewitt on March 1. Tripods mark the trail across the barren, windswept gap in the Alaska Range leading up to Rainy Pass.
Craig Medred photo
Fat-tire bikers push along the 2012 Iditarod Trail Invitational
Craig Medred photo
Reached in a snowstorm near the headwaters of the Happy River high in the Alaska Range on March 1, the improbable leader of Iditarod Invitational had only three words to describe the situation, and they won't be repeated here.
Craig Medred photo
Robin MacAlpine and Pavel Richtr pause near the confluence of the Susitna and Yentna Rivers during the 2012 Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Craig Medred photo
Iditarod Trail Invitational racers push their bikes through heavy snow near Flathorn Lake.
Craig Medred photo
Englishman Bill Dent gets on the satellite phone to call his wife from the deck of the snow-buried Yentna Station Roadhouse north of Anchorage on Tuesday as Sebastiano Favaro from Italy prepares his fat-tired bike for another push north in the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Craig Medred photo
Race, over, tired and beaten by the Iditarod Trail, Alberto Villaverde gets some help from Willow pilot Barry Stanley in loading his fat-tired bike for a long ride home to Italy.
Craig Medred photo
Peter Basinger, Tim Bernston, and Phil Hofstetter take a break near Lake Creek on the Yentna River about 75 miles into the 2012 Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Craig Medred photo

Technology triumphed on the Iditarod Trail Saturday. Granted, it was new, old technology, but it was technology none the less. The fat-tired cyclists in the Iditarod Trail Invitational finally reeled in the hikers, who'd pulled on snowshoes and outrun them for almost a week since the race started at Knik.

Amazing as it seemed, Pennsylvania's Tim Hewitt led the race up and over Rainy Pass.

The 57-year-old veteran of six treks along the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail to Nome finally said "enough" a couple hundred miles into a 350-mile race to McGrath and forfeited the lead to Geoff Roes, a noted ultrarunner from Juneau. Roes holds the course record for the Western States 100 Endurance Race, possibly the most famous ultra-distance marathon in the world.

RELATED: Check out complete Iditarod coverage at Alaska Dispatch

He charged down the Dalzell Gorge as Hewitt, who prefers sleeping out to snoozing in checkpoints, rolled out his sleeping bag, took off his snowshoes and crawled into the warm cocoon for a well-deserved rest. Roes, somewhat amazingly, led the race into Rohn, a lone-log cabin deep in the Alaska Range.

No one on foot, whether in running shoes or snowshoes (the former being way faster than the latter) had ever led the race so far.

But, then again, no one on foot had ever led the race to the checkpoints at Finger Lake on the south slope of the Alaska Range, or Puntilla Lake just below the entrance to Rainy Pass, or over the Pass

The unthinkable

What Hewitt did, with Roes close behind, was unheard of, unthinkable, almost unimaginable. Roes credited a "perfect storm" of weather events for flipping the cyclist-dominated Invitational on its head.

First there was the big snow. Almost three feet of it fell on racers over the first two days. And then there was the wind that drifted the snow to fill the trail as surely as if it had snowed again. And then, after the snow and the wind, there was weather so warm the new snow never set up into a firm surface. No one with a cycle could ride, or if they could it was so inefficient it exhausted or frustrated them. Most dropped out.

Bikes will win again

Five-time and defending champ Peter Basinger from Bend, Ore., by way of a youth in Anchorage, and sidekick Phil Hofstetter from Nome pushed and pushed and pushed on with Pavel Richtr from the Czech Republic always stalking. Somewhere, they knew, they would find firm trail, and when they did, they'd roll. The wheel was one of man's earliest inventions for a reason. It enabled humans to move themselves and their supplies from point A to point B faster than dragging a sled.

Roes had a sled. He had snowshoes. He had fast feet. And he had a determined spirit. He led the race out of Rohn at 6:30 p.m. Friday. The 90 miles of trail north to the Alaska Native village of Nikolai was reported to be pretty firm. It would be faster for him than the trek from Puntilla over the Pass. He would be able to put the snowshoes, which slow a hiker significantly at those times when they're not helping to make any forward progress possible, in the sled.

Unfortunately, the firm trail would also help the cyclists.

Basinger and Hofstetter were already smiling Friday when they started pedaling across Rainy Pass. They could smell blood. They found their quarry a day later on the trail across what once was the Farewell Burn. They rolled up Roes. Basinger and Hofstetter were first into Nikolai at 4:58 p.m. Saturday. The plucky Richtr arrived 25 minutes later.

The Invitational's Cathi Merchant reported from McGrath that evening that a runner had also apparently, finally arrived in Nikolai. It was thought be Roes. It was unclear how far behind he was, but nobody was expecting he'd catch up now. The 50 miles of trail to McGrath was reported firm.

The wheels were expected to roll into town Sunday. The bikes will win again.

A noble display

But for a few glorious moments -- people with one of the oldest of human tools, snowshoes, lashed to their feet -- put on a noble display of the indomitability of the human spirit.

Roes and Hewitt knew as well as anyone they were eventually doomed in a race against bikes, even on the Iditarod Trail. And yet they pushed the fight until they could push no more.

And they came  so close to victory. So very, very close to victory.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.

RELATED: Check out complete Iditarod coverage at Alaska Dispatch