Iditasport '91: The Snow Gods Smile on the Skiers

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in Bicycling Plus Mountain Bike, June 1991 as "Dreams Turned To Mush - A Skier Wins Alaska's Iditasport As Soft Snow Foils Cyclists Again"

More Iditasport articles

"I think I have proven once and for all that skis are at least the most logical form of transportation on snow" commented Bob Baker as he scooped up his half pound of gold winner's purse at the Iditasport awards banquet. After four years of the Iditabike, five years of the Iditshoe, and eight years of the Iditaski, the three Iditarod "undog races" were coupled with an inaugural Iditatri in a head to head battle under the moniker "choose your weapon".

The Iditasport is the brainchild of Iditabike founder and sponsor Dan Bull. The combined event was the next logical step as the Iditaski and Iditashoe events were both in decline and in need of a shot of adrenaline, while Bull's `90 Iditabike had turned into a bike pushing contest after several feet of snow fell on the trail the night before the start and the race ended after 50 miles in a rider mutiny, thus formally opening to question the logic of trying to bicycle on snow. With a purse of 6.6 pounds of gold put up personally by Bull's company ReloAlaska, along with major media interest, hopes were high that some 200 athletes of different persuasions would line up for the new event. Bull also personally financed the transportation, housing, and entry of four Soviet entrants. However, despite the hype, gold, and best efforts of Bull and his staff, just 55 athletes made it to the starting line. Though the race's motto "cowards won't show and the weak will die" may have scared off some potential entrants, the Gulf War and depressed economy were certainly the primary reasons for the small turnout. Indeed, with no less than four different television crews on hand, plus a swarm of print journalists, there were more media folk out on the trail than racers!

At the race start, Baker predicted a bike victory with a margin of more than eight hours over the other divisions. However, as the temps warmed later in that day, the stage was set for Baker to skate ski his way past the entire field to a new ski course record over four hours faster than in any of his four previous Iditaski victories. Meanwhile, those of us who had chosen a bike as our "weapon" floundered in marginally rideable conditions which neccessitated constant dismounts to hoof it for anywhere from forty feet to forty miles at a time. Bike leader Rocky Reifunstuhl, though he placed second overall only to Baker, was a full ten hours off of Mike Kloser's record race pace from the `89 Iditabike. So much for "the best packed trail in the history of the event" as we were told to expect at the pre-race meeting just eighteen hours prior to the start!

As roll was called at the starting line, each entrant announced his "weapon". Vern Tejas, the only man to solo McKinley in winter, would be racing the triathlon, while local rider Steve Mitchell, a three time Iditabike veteran, would be biking again, opting not to utilize the snowshoes and skis which had been flown out onto the trail for his planned triathlon attempt. Local top Iditabike competitors Bob Forney and Dave Ford were both biking, to no one's surprise, though we all noted their decision to ride single tyred bikes, rather than their quad bikes (RAAM winner Forney, living locally in training for a bike attempt at the entire 1,100 mile Iditarod Trail concurrent with the sled dog race, even has a six tyred bike for super soft trails). Even more reason to believe that the trail would be hard and fast!

The race got off to a quick start, with the bikers jumping to an early lead, though Baker did let his competitiveness be known with an awesome sprint off the line which put him in the lead for about one minute. Riding in a paceline, we lead bikers made the eight miles to Knik Lake, the race's old starting point and the actual Iditarod Trail start, in 52 to 56 minutes, with Baker covering the distance in 1:04.

Now onto the Iditarod proper, we made good time over the 41 miles to Big Susitna. The trail was fast, though, and we rarely punched through, however the snow depth was about half of previous years and the trail was worn down to an ice slick on some of the uphills. Riding through the muskeg swamps was exceptionally fast, especially as I'd finally learned the proper technique for hammering over mile after mile of continous whoop-de-doos. Crossing the open areas of frozen lakes was a bit slower, with complete attention and super low tyre pressure necessary to keep afloat. This was surprising as I was some thirty pounds lighter than ever before (five pounds less on my Ritchey equipped bike, fifteen pounds less in survival gear due to laxer rules on mandatory equipment, plus ten pounds less in clothing and body weight). Perhaps the trail wasn't so fast after all... Reifunstuhl and Forney blitzed the 41 miles in 2:46, with Ford fifteen minutes back, and myself ten more minutes back in fourth. Stoked to find myself so close to the front, with only last year's top three ahead, I headed onto the always marginal overland section (as compared to the return leg on a frozen river) of the course. We had all but forgotten about Baker, who would take four hours to cover the 41 mile distance.

In previous years, only the leaders had been able to ride all or most of the following 53 miles. By the time five or six riders passed over the trail, the fragile surface was torn up enough that those of us in the middle or back of the pack were doomed to pushing the whole distance. With better training, lighter equipment, and improved technique, I was ecstatic to find myself in the necessary position to actually ride the trail this year! Spying the tracks of the top three, as well as carefully avoiding the plethora of moose prints, I was able to pick an ideal line and almost consistently avoid punching through. Five miles into this leg, however, I found myself beginning to punch through, so I dropped my tyre pressure to about six psi. Barely able to ride, but still not walking, I was passed by four time top finisher Eric Breitenburger of Fairbanks. His Fat City bike was specially equipped with two rims spreading a single 2.2 inch front tyre out wide and three rims spreading out a single 2.5 inch rear tyre even wider. The wider tyre print enabled Breitenburger to stay on top of the snow more and thus walk less. Watching Eric ride into the distance, I wondered if Forney and Ford hadn't blown it by opting for their single tyred bikes. Within about five more miles, all hope of riding this overland section was abandoned as the temp rose to about 34 degrees. For the following twelve hours the recurring questions in my mind would be simple: Why does water have to freeze at 32? Why not at 34, or 40 for that matter?... Only the Snow Gods could answer that question and they weren't talking.

Within five more miles the trail had degenerated to the point where even trying to ride was a waste of time, so I resolved to hoof it as fast as possible. Assuming we five had been the only ones lucky and talented enough to ride most of that ten mile section, I felt confident that we had the top five locked up. Within an hour, however, a strange swooshing noise caught my attention behind me. I turned around and was stunned to find Baker about to skate right past me at some seven miles an hour, easily double the pace I was making. Disbelieving what I was seeing, all I could mumble was "are you in the race?" The walkman headed Baker didn't hear me, but in my mind I could imagine his response: "no, I'm just out here skiing in the middle of nowhere for kicks." Totally awed, I pressed on and began calculating how long it would take before we bikers would catch him on the return trip on the always fast Yentna River. Eventually the long-legged Steve Mitchell would catch me, exactly as in `88 and `89, and we pushed on into the night. We passed through the Rabbit Lake checkpoint as quickly as possible, as we'd found that Baker now led Reifunstuhl by twelve minutes and us by 2:32. Stopping for nothing, we slogged our way over the supposedly 23 mile stretch to Skwentna in 8:03, en route being passed by three more skiiers and being caught by lead woman Gail Koepf, wife of Reifenstuhl. We arrived at the halfway station with an elapsed time of 18:26, now 7:22 back of Baker and 5:04 back of Reifunstuhl, who with his snow biking studliness had obviously been somehow able to ride portions of the trail.

In previous Iditabikes, we checked into Skwentna for a mandatory six hour safety layover, but in the Iditasport, such luxuries were no longer mandated, so I quickly restocked myself from my airdrop and headed back out into the night. Still fifth in the bike division and ninth overall, I did stay at Skwentna long enough to find out that Reifunstuhl was making under six miles an hour down the river, while Baker was swooshing along at over eight. This did not bode well for my chances at riding down the "always fast" Yentna River and I was now thoroughly regretting my decision to enter the 200 mile bike race, rather than the 100 mile snowshoe race as I had originally planned. After forty-three miles of hiking overland, I simply was not in the mood to slog my way down 57 miles of apparently unrideable river, so I turned backed to Skwentna and checked in for a layover of indeterminate length. After an eleven hour sleep, a couple of meals, and a change of clothes, I watched on the t.v. as Baker cruised into victory, followed an hour back by Reifunstuhl. The champion skiier had taken several hours of breaks on the return leg, then lost the lead to Soviet skiier Pauvil Poroshokov, only to regain it when the Soviet took a fourteen mile wrong turn. At the awards banquet, Baker conceded that the Soviet would have won by at least an hour if he hadn't gotten lost. Reifunstuhl, who placed third in all three of his previous Iditabikes, followed Baker by 55 minutes. He had joked at the start that he had a poison pill ready in case he took third for the fourth time in a row. Though Reifenstuhl proved to be this year's best snow biker, he was followed just 21 minutes back by Forney. Poroshokov was fourth overall, two hours back of Baker, then nearly five hours elapsed before Ford rounded out the top five overall and third in the bike division. Vern Tejas won the tri division hands down, covering 49 miles by bike, 53 miles on foot, 57 miles on skis, then the last 30 miles on bike, in 42:01, placing eighth overall in the process. Gail Koepf swept the women's race with a time of 48:27. With no women in the ski or tri divisions to challenge her and the second woman almost six hours back, she would take home eight ounces of gold. Combined with her husband's seven ounces, I think it's safe to say that they paid for their weekend. As for me, I spent nineteen hours at Skwentna, then when the temp fell to 22, I headed back down the river in the company of fourth place woman Mary Burns. With the Snow Gods smiling on us and the temp eventually dropping to zero, we rode all the way back to the finish on a frozen trail. We crossed the line together after 58:36, Mary in fourth and myself tenth in the men's bike division and 21st overall. Snowshoe racer Tom Sobal covered the 102 mile race to Skwentna in 23:52, beating five time winner Shawn Lyons in the process and eclipsing his course record by 3:17. Of 55 starters, 15 dropped out, including one triathlete, two skiiers, two snowshoers, and ten bikers.

Perhaps next year we'll finally have the opportunity to ride "the hardest packed trail in the history of the event." With the proper conditions, we could bike the distance in eighteen hours and really show those skiiers a thing or two about logic... I think I'll start making my offerings to the Snow Gods now.

Race Results

  • Bob Baker, 1st ski, 1st overall 28:33
  • Rocky Reifenstuhl, 1st bike, 2nd overall 29:28
  • Bob Forney, 2nd bike, 3rd overall 29:49
  • Pauvil Poroshokov, 2nd ski, 4th overall 30:33
  • Dave Ford, 3rd bike, 5th overall 35:26
  • Leon Maltsev, 3rd ski, 6th overall 36:16
  • Terry Teilbord, 4th ski, 7th overall 36:48
  • Vern Tejas, 1st tri, 8th overall 42:01
  • Kevin Dobelbower, 5th ski, 9th overall 47:34
  • Gail Koepf, female, 1st bike, 1st overall 48:27 and tenth over-overall
  • Sergei Sukalin, 4th bike, tenth overall 48:27
  • Donald Briere, 5th bike, 12th overall 51:13
  • Ed Goettel, 2nd tri, 13th overall 53:45
  • Marianne Stolz, female, 2nd bike, 2nd overall 54:15 and 14th over-overall
  • Kelly Duklet, female, 3rd bike, 3rd overall 56:37 and 19th over-overall
  • Mary Burns, female, 4th bike, 4th overall 58:36 and 21st over-overall
  • Chris Kostman (me), 10th men's bike, 13th bike overall, 21st over-overall 58:36
  • John Lapkass, 3rd tri, 23rd overall 60:44


  • Tom Sobal, 1st place 23:52
  • Shawn Lyons, 2nd place 27:08
  • Ron Kopsack, 3rd place 32:18
  • Melissa Lee, 1st and only female 64:55

More Iditasport articles