Neil Beltcheko, champion of the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational, shares his story from this year’s Alaskan fat bike winter ultra.
Salsa – Congratulations on your victory in the 350-mile ITI. How does it feel?
Neil – Oh man, what an amazing experience this year was. The race throws out all the stops; last year was brutally cold weather and plenty of hiking as we took the alternative way through Hells Gate. This year wind was the name of the game. So much wind that I found myself in waist deep snow dragging my 50lb rig. Being able to accomplish as much as 300+ miles on a bike is one thing, but in reality, when you come up to Alaska, you will get more than a bike race, you will be faced with a true remote adventure.
Overall, I feel great, happy, healthy, and humbled to have done something so few have.
Salsa – Did you have a strategy for the event? Or did you just see and opportunity and go for it?
Neil – So last year was my year to learn what this race was all about. As a rookie, I took a lot away from the experience knowing what I had to do to move forward. It’s important to know what you are getting into before grabbing the bull by the horns. I knew my plan from the start; ride my own ride, pedal hard enough, get to checkpoints and not stick around much, and the big one, sleep very little. This would hopefully create enough of a gap where I would have some room to work with. I should say managing sleep times and how my body reacts to this method is the key.
I could not be happier with my plan, I’ve done this before in races and it proved to again work in my favor.
Salsa – Once you were off the front, how difficult was it not knowing where the rest of the field was? Did you find yourself looking over your shoulder much?
Neil – That’s the best part of the race, you just never know where the next guy is. It’s not like I can just jump on my phone, which happened to be frozen anyways. I knew the game I was playing so there was plenty of looking over my shoulders and even keeping my light very dim. All it would take was Jay or Clinton to get a slight glimpse of a light to get motivated, keeping at least an hour gap was a priority. This meant super short food breaks and pedaling through the night.
Salsa – How different did the race seem this year, now that you had seen the course last year?
Neil – Honestly, the best preparation I did was racing last year. Simply put, there is no way of knowing the trail without experiencing it. Last year we dealt with chilling temperatures and some wind and hiking. This year, Mother Nature dialed the wind factor up big time. Sections last year that I rode between Rohn and Nikolai were waist deep. To say I was hike-a-biking is an understatement. I dealt with deep snow, so deep that I could not just roll my bike, but I had to carry it. I broke so much trail this year, but I did so in the wind storm, which helped me as most of it just filled back in for the next guy to experience. Funny how that works.
Salsa – Any final thoughts on the experience and adventure that the Iditarod Trail Invitational is?
Neil - There is no place on earth where a bunch of like-minded individuals get to play and play for a handful of days. The ITI, and Iditarod Trail as a whole are truly amazing things. Following the millions of reflectors through tight spaces, trees, over lakes and through rivers is like riding through history. So much determination, dedication and devotion has been laid down on the trail. I’m just a small blip of that.
I’m going to enjoy this one immensely, because it all went right, and you can’t always have what you want.
My last thought is that we have some incredible people in this world, from bike designers drawing up my Mukluk, to the amazing volunteers on route, and Katy an Kyle who are two amazing race directors. There is literally so much that goes into this race that we normally don’t see. So, to everyone in the ITI family, thanks for the support this year, now it’s time for some mancakes.
SAFETY TO NOME - COMING 2018!