How to Win the Iditarod Trail Invitational

March 10, 2020

This year's Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) dished out some of the more challenging conditions in years - soft fresh snow, 36 hours of 50+ mph wind gusts, heavily drifted trail, and then overnight temperatures that plunged to nearly -50 F. The race course follows the iconic dogsled racecourse from Knik, Alaska, over the mighty Alaska Range, and to the ITI350 in the village of McGrath. And the trail itself is generally little more than slightly packed ribbon across the landscape left behind by a handful of snowmachines. It's remote, it's wild, and the scenery is stunning and diverse, with everything from frozen rivers to swamps to massive glaciated valleys to gorges. Checkpoints every ~50 miles or so offer a bit of warmth and food, but aside from those, riders must be entirely self-supported and carry all their own survival gear, food, and repair items. 

I spent the entirety of the race at or near the front, hopping back and forth with veterans Tyson Flaharty and Clinton Hodges, trying my best to conserve energy and take good care of my body. At times, two or three of us moved together through particularly taxing sections - miles of unrideable drifts and through heavy winds and occasionally zero visibility in the mountains. And at other times, we were strung out over a few miles, all in pursuit of one another and pushing hard at a whopping 5 or 6 mph. The elastic finally broke 50 miles from the end when I managed to get away from Tyson and Clinton with a sustained, hard attack on some delightfully firm trail across a long series of swamps. After just over 4 days of racing, I rolled into McGrath alone for the win, becoming the first rookie to ever win the overall title. 

My Pivot LES Fat was built specifically with this race in mind - hopefully, some of y'all find these details interesting:

 

  • Wheelset: HED BFD 26" 100 mm rims laced to Industry Nine Hydra hubs with 45NRTH Husker Du 4.8" tires. I went with wide and floaty given all the snow that had fallen on the course this year, gambling a bit and forgoing studs. I also replaced all the factory grease in the hub bearings with a thin coat of Arctic grade grease. The rear dropouts were in their longest wheelbase configuration for a bit of added stability. 
  • Drivetrain/brakes: I ran a 1x12 Shimano XTR drivetrain with a Wolftooth 30T CAMO chainring and RaceFace bottom bracket and crankset. I replaced the BB bearing grease, but I should have pulled off the dust seals since they stiffened and dragged terribly below -40 F. And I also neglected to blow the grease out of the shifter, so it didn't behave all that well below -25 F. I opted for SRAM brakes since DOT fluid performs notably better than mineral oil in the cold. 
  • Cockpit: My setup here is completely built with comfort in mind - a short stem for upright posture, Fasst Company Flexx MTB handlebars for a bit of suspension, short bar ends and thick foam grips wrapped in cork handlebar tape, and Revelate Designs Expedition Pogies for warmth.
  • Other bits: I ran a 9Point8 dropper post for a bit of extra ease getting on and off the bike in deep snow and for a bit of added safety on steep descents, and I loved having the dropper (although below -25 F, I used a camp to make sure the post didn't slide down on its own). I used XTR Trail pedals with the wider platform for a bit of extra stability under my giant boots. 
  • Carrying other gear: All my gear was packed into either a voluminous frame bag or on an Old Man Mountain Sherpa rear rack. Revelate Design's Nano Panniers make stashing and grabbing extra layers quick and easy, and the big orange bag held a few more extra layers and a 0-degree sleeping bag (I was a bit under-gunned in that department, unfortunately). On the bars, I strapped a foam sleeping mat, and a steady stream of snacks stayed handy in a couple of smaller bags on the top tube and handlebars. 
  • Other equipment: I carried a small canister stove and pot for making water, standard repair items and tools, a small first-aid kit, a fire-starting kit, a couple of AA and CR123 powered lights, a few chemical hand warmers. I had a GPS mounted on the handlebars for navigation, and I carried a second back-up unit just in case the first failed. And for water, I wore a Revelate Designs Wampack under all my insulating shirts that held 3L of fluids.
  • Keeping the feet warm: My system for keeping my feet warm was a pair of 45NRTH Wolfgar boots sized 3 sizes too large, a pair of Intuition mountaineering boot liners, thick wool socks, thin liner socks, and some plastic bags over the liner socks to serve as vapor barriers. I also used trash compactor bags over the boot liners to keep them dry when having to walk through overflow or open water since the Wolfgars are not waterproof. For the coldest night, I donned a pair of Therm-ic Powersocks to pump a bit of heat into my toes. 

 

What would I change if I could do it all again? I'm not sure I'd change much at all. I used virtually all my gear aside from the emergency and repair items. The bike setup was flawless aside from my negligence in a bit of the bearing winterizing process. I'd likely run studded tires for any year with less snow than this one, I might opt for a 28-tooth chainring, and I'd likely experiment with some sort of steering dampening system. But the bike as built did everything just as I asked it to do. 

Article written by Kurt Refsnider