“It’s not like I can call it quits in the middle of nowhere”
by Than Acuff
Last week, Gunnison Valley resident Neil Beltchenko spent three days and one hour riding his fat bike for 314 miles across a portion of Alaska to win the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
It was cold, –25 degrees cold, it was snowing, it was blowing, there was a trail and then there wasn’t a trail. There were times that Beltchenko was riding his bike, times when he was pushing his bike, times when he was pulling his bike and times he had to pick up his bike over and over again. At one point, for a long stretch, Beltchenko averaged less than one mile per hour.
The Iditarod Trail Invitational is the zenith of fat bike ultra endurance riding, and quite possibly, any kind of ultra endurance riding.
“It’s the biggest fat bike race for an ultra endurance rider out there,” says Beltchenko, “and definitely the most competitive winter ultra in the world. It’s like the Tour de France of fat biking.”
Beltchenko first tested the Iditarod bike race waters last year, coming in third. This year, with some experience and an additional year of training, he was set to beat his previous time and perhaps even win.
It all started for Beltchenko on Sunday, February 25 at 2 p.m. in Knik Lake, Alaska and both the weather and trail were great.
“It wasn’t too cold, or too hot,” says Beltchenko. “The trail was soft but it’s not like we were hiking our bikes… yet.”
He spent the first 10 hours of the race riding along with the 2017 race winner but when they hit the second checkpoint at mile 100, Beltchenko pressed on, while his closest competition opted to get some sleep.
“I was feeling really strong and I decided I’m just going to go and see what happens,” explains Beltchenko.
Then the weather turned as a storm rolled through Alaska, bringing fresh snow and plenty of wind gusting, at times, to 75 miles per hour. But the toughest part, so far, didn’t hit until mile 140. After a 20-minute “power nap,” Beltchenko grabbed his bike. and headed up into the Alaskan range to ride up and over Rainy Pass.
But with the weather in full effect and nighttime approaching, Beltchenko found himself pushing his bike for most of the next 20 miles and having to dig out a spot to sleep during the slog.
“Nothing too crazy but it was super snowy, couldn’t see the trail and if you stepped off the trail you would sink up to your waist,” explains Beltchenko. “Definitely the most challenging winter fat bike experience I’ve ever had.”
It eventually wore on Beltchenko enough to force him to dig a hole in the snow at around midnight, somewhere on Rainy Pass with temperatures at zero, and bundle up for a two-hour sleep. But he remained race-savvy despite the conditions and woke up to good news.
“I slept right next to the trail and it was snowing so I knew I would see tracks if someone passed me when I woke up,” says Beltchenko. “I woke up and there were no tracks so I was like, all right, I’m still in the lead.”
He was able to ride some portions of the downhill off Rainy Pass but he had spent from 2 p.m. until 4 a.m. covering the 20-mile stretch. Then, it got worse.
He came into the next checkpoint at a spot called Roan, which was nothing more than a tent, really. He slept for an hour, dug into his supplies that were left there by race officials, and then at 6 a.m. headed into the longest 70 miles of his life, bound for the next checkpoint at Nikolai.
With the storm still raging, Beltchenko proceeded to ride and push his bike through the storm. He came across a bush pilot who was set down until the weather cleared, and got some info about the upcoming portion of the course.
“He just told me, there’s no trail ahead,” says Beltchenko. “About three miles after I saw him, the trail just turned to shit.”
Beltchenko was fighting through successive wind drifts and stretches of deep snow that had him doing everything to keep moving forward.
“I was pushing my bike, I was pulling my bike, I just had to take it one step at a time,” he explains. “But there was nothing else I could do. It’s not like I could call it quits out there in the middle of nowhere. There’s no cell service, there’s nothing. It was a pretty incredible feeling—you feel pretty small in those situations.”
Furthermore, sleep was not an option as he was determined to make it to Nikolai, where he could actually lay down inside.
“I pumped a bunch of caffeine in my body. I was struggling mightily to stay awake,” says Beltchenko.
Then, the storm subsided, only to give way to bitter cold temperatures hovering in the –20 to –25 degree range.
“I basically had all of my layers on because that’s when severe cases of frostbite are prominent,” says Beltchenko. “It’s very risky and not sweating too much is a big deal. From Roan to Nikolai was, hands down, one of the most difficult things I’ve done on my bike… or off my bike.”
But once he made it to Nikolai, he was met with incredible news, as the checkpoint had Wi-Fi with updates on the racers.
“That was one of the best feelings,” explains Beltchenko. “A woman there came up to me and said, ‘Neil, you’re killing it,’ and I found out I had a 30 or 40-mile lead.
With a huge gap and just 50 miles to go to the finish line, Beltchenko settled in for one last two-hour nap and then hopped back on his bike at 2:30 a.m., riding the final 50 miles to McGrath in just over 11 hours to cross the finish line in a time of three days and one hour for the win.
“Riding the last five miles into McGrath, knowing I had the win and that all the hard work and training I’ve done the past two years was worth it was a big highlight,” says Beltchenko.
He may return to the ultra endurance race circuit this spring as he is feeling better than ever before after a race like this. The Arizona Trail race is on the near horizon, another race he has won.
“I don’t know why I like to do this stuff, but I do,” says Beltchenko. “It’s just so much unknown and that’s kind of the draw.”