The Iditarod Trail Invitational is arguably the coldest and hardest bike race in the world. Renowned for its schizophrenic temperament, few athletes have the chops to compete in it, let alone excitedly repeat the experience. Jay Petervary has traveled to Alaska and lined up at Knik Lake ten times. More than enough times to work on building a relationship with ITI ¬– he’s listened, accepted, shown patience, and forgiven. Petervary has that route in his heart, despite the fact that it will never love him back.
“Hi, my name is Jay Petervary, and I am an ultra-distance bike addict. I’ve yet to find a BA (Bikers Anonymous) group to help in my recovery, so I decided to go all in and be a professional in the trade.”
Petervary got his first taste for winter expeditions in 2007, and it’s been his favored ultra-racing category ever since. The Iditarod Trail Invitational has been the cure for the cravings ten times for him. “I’ve been lucky not to overdose, but I have made a lot of sacrifices and spent a lot of money to do the training and the trips. My passion for winter ultra-cycling borders on addiction – one that I am okay not seeking recovery for.”
Before his first ITI, Petervary was finishing up a decade-long stint of adventure racing where he’d been pursuing any and every long mountain bike event he could find. “At that time, it was 100-milers, 24-hour solos, and multi-day stage races. It was just before or just as underground bikepacking multi-day events were showing signs of a heartbeat. If the event claimed to be the “hardest” or was on one of those “toughest events” lists, I chased it.” It was within a list of 100-mile races that he stumbled upon the Susitna 100 race in Alaska. He was immediately intrigued by the opportunity to try something in winter on snow. “Planning and getting ready for it brought back a lot of favorite features of my adventure racing days – being creative, fussing with gear. And with the newly added challenge of snow and surviving extreme temperatures, I had something unique to figure out. I was immediately all about it.” It ended up being exactly what he was looking for.
“I planned for it and did it – on a skinny tire bike no less – and loved it. I also won. After the event and chatting with others, I was told ‘You have to come up for the Ultra Sport.’” Once he started researching it, the aspect of 350 miles with less support than a traditional event in a more remote, high-risk environment hooked Petervary right away. “The ITI was a challenge that allowed me to apply a lot of the skills I learned in adventure racing, but it was more or less structured around a solo winter bike expedition. There was no question I wanted in!”
“My passion for winter ultra-cycling borders on addiction – one that I am OK not seeking recovery for.”
Finding a new category of sport that required talents and actions beyond the sport itself was the draw. “To be successful in extreme conditions you also need to have this hyper-awareness of things that I already happened to enjoy. Extreme conditions have this amazing beauty to them, especially when you can figure out how to endure, survive, and travel through them.” Knowing that he was able to not only survive, but thrive was, and still is, “Simply euphoric.” “Being able to travel, ride (or push), while being comfortable in -40* in the middle of nowhere on a frozen river, in Alaska, with everything I’d need to live for a few days – and feeling 100% comfortable while doing it – there’s something to that.”
Everything Petervary went through and learned in his adventure racing days had provided him with a hardness that translated well to an event like ITI. “Adventure racing was gritty - we never carried sleeping bags, we used trash bags as rain jackets, we barely slept…It was also a sport where having multiple skills and smart decisions often trumped the athleticism.” He had been living in the Tetons for seven years at that point, feeling comfortable in a place with eight months of winter, skiing both track and backcountry, and embracing winter on the whole.
“It seemed like a natural progression as I had a lot of long distance cycling under my belt, a lot of winter/cold temperature exposure, and great experiences in all the other things like sleep deprivation, resourcefulness, problem-solving, and decision making. It was time to combine it all.”
“Extreme conditions have this amazing beauty to them, especially when you can figure out how to endure, survive, and travel through them.”
Before Petervary’s first ITI, he and his wife Tracey spent a few weeks traveling around Alaska for their honeymoon.
“It wasn’t winter, but it did give me a sense of how vast things are and how remote one can get.” Competing in the Susitna 100 the year before also gave him a little insight on things.
But there was a shortage of people at the time that he could turn to for information. “It was a weird time because people were protecting what they learned and didn’t share much. If anything, people made it almost sound unachievable, or they’d say just enough to scare you. To me that was attractive, and it turned it into a puzzle to try and solve (and share). Back then all knowledge was earned.”
Did his imagination match reality when he finally got there? “Absolutely not! The reality wasn’t surprising, but at the same time, it was a bit overwhelming. I think when imagining something, we tend to think bigger picture stuff and don’t include all the micro things/views that you get plugged into. It’s those little segments that are usually what give you the ‘holy shit’ moments.”
THE FIrST Run
Testing Theories and Meeting Family
Entering into relatively foreign territory meant the race itself would have to suffice for testing a winter-ultra gear set up. Petervary remembers, “I carried A LOT that first year. Call it paranoia packing. But I was prepared! I remember setting up and packing a ton of stuff on my handlebars and how hard that was to move the bike around.” He also constructed a foot system with a built-in gaiter. “I was warm at -20 and was able to walk through overflow up to my knee without a problem. I went on to use those boots for years.” Typical to riders on first trips, tours, or races, he brought a lot of clothing he never used, and carried it on a rear rack with mini panniers he’d made out of crampon bags. He also remembers breaking a set of pedals and a crank arm. However, he says, “Looking back at that first year, I can proudly say I showed up very prepared and even did things that influenced set ups moving forward.”
He also discovered that the Iditarod comes with a family. It’s comprised of organizers, volunteers, checkpoint people, villagers, mushers, and of course, the bike racers. Petervary was about to begin his history with this group.
“Any good adventurer knows when to be the student but also how to identify who might be a good teacher. To this day I remain both a student and teacher.”
There was grumbling of a possible new competitive person, and people were somewhat aware of who Petervary was with his previous year’s win at the Susitna and his multi-day experience from adventure racing days. “I think people were more curious about me than I was of anyone else.” Despite the fact that a scenario like this might compel a newbie to try and make a name for themselves right out of the gate, Petervary has always undertaken these adventures for himself and never felt he needed to prove himself to anybody. “Any good adventurer knows when to be the student but also how to identify who might be a good teacher. To this day I remain both a student and teacher.”
Petervary recalls, “One of the first people I remember meeting was Bill, the race director at the time, and having some adventure conversations with him. We hit it off pretty quickly. When you both share stories, and the excitement of telling them as well as listening to them starts to rise-n-shine in energy, you can just tell the person loves it. I also met a few competitors that I have become friends with and still see on this yearly outing.”
That year, Petervary would also meet Rocky Reifenstuhl. “Rocky was iconic in the event. He lived in Fairbanks, won the event a handful of times, was a bit older, and super competitive on the trail. But he was incredibly talented, knowledgeable, and really a nice guy when you got to know him.” Not everyone was as warm to Reifenstuhl’s competitive ways. Petervary recalls, “I was just behind him and Jeff Oatley who were traveling together. When I caught up at Shell Lake, I pointed in a direction and asked if that was where we were headed. Rocky responded, ‘Yes.’ I took off and quickly figured out I was going the wrong way.”
Petervary corrected his course and ended up catching both of them again at the next checkpoint in Puntella Lake. When he arrived, the weather was gusty and snowing, and the two racers were resting. Reifenstuhl said, “We are leaving at 1 a.m., and if you want to join us, you can. We are going through Hell’s Gate, and the race has never gone that way.” “As a scared rookie, I immediately jumped on that offering. All three of us ended up traveling the almost 200 remaining miles together in what I might call my hardest ITI to date.” A lot transpired in those few days, and although they welcomed and encouraged him to travel with them, Petervary, “Felt like the puppy dog that couldn’t leave their side. One of the best things was not getting mentored by them per se, but instead becoming really good friends.”
“It was the only event to date where I was pushed and challenged the way I look to be challenged. Even to this day, I look for that and still haven’t found another substitute or anything similar. Hence the nine more times I lined up.”
All in all, it was and still is his most challenging ITI run to date. “I got my ass kicked! It was my first time exposed for long periods in -20 plus temperatures, I swallowed a cap and broke a tooth, we pushed our bikes a ton, I learned what tussock grass heads were while trying not to twist my ankle in between them in the snowless “burn” section, I swelled up like a balloon, and I walked around at home during my recovery/thaw-out like a zombie,.” But he says, “I loved it, I wanted to get better, I made friends, and I satisfied this adventure challenge that I crave. I finished in second place that year with Rocky and Jeff.”
Petervary’s first ITI experience provided him with the challenge, variety, beauty, remoteness, and adventure he was after. He admits that he also loved the ass kicking he got. He was now driven to learn and figure things out that would make attacking the route easier. “It was the only event to date where I was pushed and challenged the way I look to be challenged. Even to this day, I look for that and still haven’t found another substitute or anything similar. Hence the nine more times I lined up.”
A natural-born tinkerer, he was drawn to finding the best solutions for gear. “I love to make and mess around with equipment, and in the early years, you had to do that more than now. But even today, I am making discoveries. It’s such a unique event in that every year it is going to be very different. Snow conditions and weather have so much to do with your traveling speed and what you are faced with. There is always the possibility that the trail gets shut down and stops travel completely due to weather.” As someone who can say they’ve both ridden and pushed their bike across Alaska, the constant unknown is what makes each run such an addictive challenge.