FAIRBANKS (AP) — There were several times during his epic, 2,000-mile bike odyssey that Billy Koitzsch wanted to quit.
Pushing his fully loaded, 115-pound fatbike through snowdrifts and 35 mph headwinds going across Norton Sound between Shaktoolik and Koyuk, for example, a 50-mile stretch that took him 19 hours.
“It was brutal,” Koitzsch said. “You’d push through a drift, ride for 150 feet, push through a drift, ride for 150 feet.
“The wind blew me over,” he added. “The bike was so big and so heavy the wind just throws you to the ground.”
The hours and miles — roughly 400 — of mind-numbing pedaling and pushing down the lonely and wide-open Yukon River tested both his mental and physical fortitude.
“You’re all alone in the middle of a mile-wide river,” he said.
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.
“Excruciating,” is how Koitzsch, who is by no means a wimp, described it.
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.
Actually, that’s not exactly true. Koitzsch turned off the Tanana River at Manley and rode the final 160 miles into Fairbanks on the road because both the trail and his brain were turning to mush.
“I couldn’t stand any more river,” he said.
Even then, Koitzsch had to contend with 25 mph headwinds as he pedaled down the Elliott Highway toward his intended finish at Pike’s Landing in 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.
“I never thought of it in terms of I’m going to Fairbanks,” he said. “It was just get to that 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).
He lost so much weight he used an extra pair of fleece gloves as padding for his butt because his pelvic bone “was just smacking against the seat.”
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.
“It was a fantastic year,” Koitzsch said. “Without Mother Nature giving me what she did, I couldn’t have done it. I hit it perfect.”
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.
Oatley, one of the state’s hardest-core winter bikers, said he can’t fathom what Koitzsch went through to reach Fairbanks.
“He’s basically living off a bike in the backcountry for a month and a half,” said Oatley, a friend of Koitzsch’s. “There’s not a lot of precedent for that.”
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.
“Those are the only two things that are close to Billy’s,” Oatley said. “I’m sure somebody somewhere will decide they can do a longer ride but it will be a horribly contrived route compared to what Billy did.”
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.
“It’s going to be hard to re-create something like this,” he said.
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.
“He talked about how beautiful the trip had been and how the weather was great and the trail was good in most places,” Oatley said. “He’s a really positive guy; I’m not sure I’d be that positive after 1,980 miles.”
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.
“That changed my life,” Koitzsch said.
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.
Today, Koitzsch and his wife, Erica, whom he met in Fairbanks, own Arctic Cycles, a fatbike rental business in Anchorage that he started in 1996. His surveying job — and a tolerant wife — allows him to pursue his passion for winter cycling.
“I just love being out and adventuring,” said Koitzsch, who hopes his two children, 7-year-old daughter, Lily, and 5-year-old son, Asher, share that gene.
As he walked out the door of Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, pushing his bike the day after finishing his ride to pose for a photo, Koitzsch ran into a man he had talked to earlier about his trip.
“You riding home?” the man asked, only half joking.
“Oh no,” Koitzsch said. “I’m taking a plane.”