Koitzsch becomes first person to bike length of iditarod, iron dog trails outdoors newsminer.com gas up

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Then there was the pain caused by walking on the stubs of two toes he had amputated last year on his left foot after frostbiting them in the Iditarod Invitational, and a damaged third toe that he planned to have removed shortly after finishing his ride.

But through it all, Koitzsch persevered. He kept on pedaling and pushing his fatbike until he had done what no other cyclist has ever done. Starting in Knik on Feb. 22, Koitzsch followed the southern route of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to Nome and then turned around and followed the second half of the 1,000-mile trail used for the Iron Dog snowmachine race back to Fairbanks.

“Your body’s an amazing thing,” Koitzsch said after reaching Fairbanks. “Every time I thought I couldn’t go anymore I pulled my leg over the bike and my legs just kept going. The next thing I knew I was 10 miles in and thinking about getting to the next checkpoint.

It took 40-year-old Koitzsch 40 days to cover 2,000 miles and he lost 40 pounds doing it. He weighed 198 pounds when he started in Knik on Feb. 22 and was down to 158 when he finished in Fairbanks on April 5 (he spent two days resting after he reached Nome).

Koitzsch carried everything he needed for the trip on his bike, including a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, fold-up sled, snowshoes, cooking gear, food, spare parts and tire tubes (he used all three spares that he had because of stem failures). He mailed food to villages along his route or bought food and survived primarily on a diet of dehydrated Mountain House chicken and rice meals and peanut butter crackers. He camped out or slept in village schools and sometimes went days at a time without seeing another human on the trail. He talked to school children about how fatbikes — fat-tired bikes made specifically for riding in the snow — are a practical and healthy mode of transportation in rural Alaska.

Koitzsch, who rode to Nome in 2011, had been thinking about doing the ride for several years but it never worked out. He was hoping to do it last year before he froze his toes helping a pair of Italian cyclists cross through some overflow during the Iditarod Invitational. Koitzsch carried the Italians’ bikes across the overflow and ended up breaking through the ice.

He then rode 90 miles to Nikolai, where he had the choice of waiting there two days to be medically evacuated or to ride his bike 50 more miles to a hospital in McGrath, which also happened to be the finish line. Koitzsch rode to McGrath and was treated for major frostbite.

This year, the planets aligned, Koitzsch said. The weather, for the most part, was good. Warm weather — the temperature hit 52 degrees and it was raining on the Yukon River on his way to Nome — posed a bigger problem than cold — the coldest it got was 35 below — because it softened the trail in spots and forced Koitzsch to push rather than pedal.

Koitzsch also benefited from mostly good trail conditions, especially on the Yukon River between Kaltag and Galena and Ruby to Tanana on the way to Fairbanks. People traveling on snowmachines to and from village carnivals packed the trail into a highway, he said.

His custom-made 9 Zero 7 fatbike also was up to the task, though only about four of its 24 gears were still working when he reached Fairbanks. Fortunately, they were his four lowest gears, Koitzsch said. Other than that, the only bike problems he had were a few broken spokes and valve stems and several broken chains he had to repair.

Fairbanks ultra cyclist Jeff Oatley was competing in the 350-mile Iditarod Invitational from Knik to McGrath when he and some other racers came upon Koitzsch going over Rainy Pass in the middle of the night. Oatley had heard about Koitzsch’s trip a few days earlier and stopped to chat with him. He winced when he picked up Koitzsch’s heavily loaded bike, which weighed almost three times what Oatley’s weighed.

The only things that come close, Oatley said, are a trip that Colorado cyclist Mike Curiak did in 2010, when he rode the Iditarod Trail completely unsupported — his bike weighed 155 pounds when he started — in 24 days, and a trip that Fairbanks’ Andy Stearns did with two Canadians back in 2003 in which they biked from Dawson City, Yukon to Circle on the Yukon River, from Circle to Fairbanks on the Steese Highway and then from Fairbanks to Nome on the Iron Dog Trail. It took them 49 days.

It will be tough for anyone to duplicate, or top, what Koitzsch did, for the simple fact that the trails they would need to do so (i.e. Iditarod and Iron Dog) aren’t put in until February or March. It would be hard to start or finish much sooner or later than Koitzsch did.

Oatley met Koitzsch on the Elliott Highway about 20 miles outside Fairbanks and delivered him a cheeseburger, french fries and soda from Carl’s Jr. He said Koitzsch was “riding a wave of high emotion,” and not because of the burger and fries.

A surveyor by trade, Koitzsch grew up in Nome and was 14 years old when he saw Anchorage cyclists Dan Bull, Roger Cowles and Les Matz pedal their mountain bikes into Nome in March of 1989 after becoming the first cyclists to ride the Iditarod Trail. It sparked an interest in winter cycling that has been burning bright ever since.

When he moved to Fairbanks for his senior year of high school, Koitzsch, a 1991 graduate of Lathrop High, got a job at a local bike shop, now-defunct All-Weather Sports, and started riding seriously. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks for a couple of years before moving to Anchorage in 1994.