FAIRBANKS — While cyclists dominated the inaugural White Mountains 100 in 2010, that may not be the case this year.
“I don’t think it’s a given a biker is going to win it this year,” defending champion Jeff Oatley of Fairbanks said of the 100-mile human-powered race in the White Mountains National Recreation Area north of Fairbanks.
Oatley won last year’s race with a time of 12 hours, 22 minutes, which was almost four hours faster than the first skier to reach the finish line. The top six finishers last year were cyclists.
But Oatley and his wife, Heather Best, who finished third overall last year, rode the course last weekend and Oatley said the trail conditions could favor skiers this year.
“There was more soft trail out there then I’ve ever seen at this time of year,” Oatley said. “The first 15 miles on the way out and the last 10 miles on the way back were pretty soft. If the trails are like that skiers are going to be faster.”
A full field of 65 racers — 33 skiers, 29 cyclists and 3 walkers — is set to begin the second running of the ultra race Sunday morning at the Wickersham Dome trailhead at 28 Mile Elliott Highway.
The trail also was wider this year than last, Oately said, which should benefit skiers using skate skis. Most skiers opt for traditional classic skis because of the hilly and backcountry nature of the trail but the top skiers will likely use skate skis.
“I think you can skate most of White Mountains trails with normal skate skis this year,” he said.
That was music to Mike Kramer’s ears. Kramer, of Fairbanks, was the first skier to finish last year’s race in seventh place overall and he would love to give Oatley and other cyclists a run for their money this year.
Like some other skiers, Kramer used shorter skate skis last year to accommodate the narrower trail. The shorter skis are more durable than normal-length skate skis but they are not as fast or comfortable.
“The shorties were helpful last year but they’re slower,” Kramer said. “They’re a little more fatiguing on your body because they don’t have the shock absorption of the longer skis to spread your weight out.”
Kramer finished in 16 hours, 10 minutes last year and he figures he can shave two to three hours off that time if the conditions are right.
“Last year there were a lot of unknowns,” said Kramer, who like many skiers had never skied that far before. “This year I think racers are more prepared for what’s in store and I think that will translate into faster times fro most repeat racers.
“I think 13 hours is realistic,” he said. “If it’s 30 degrees and icy the entire day I think a skier could do that course in 13 hours.
Whether or not skiers will be able to keep pace with cyclists depends on the trail conditions, he said.
“The biggest factor between bikers and skiers is the softness of the trail,” Kramer said. “If the trail is punchier for bike tires it’s going to level the playing field quite a bit.”
Oatley, the defending champ, is still recovering from a second-place finish in the grueling 350-mile Iditarod Trail four weeks ago but he is still considered the person to beat this weekend. Oatley said it’s been hard to muster motivation for the race, which will be his fourth ultra race this winter.
“It’s hard to imagine racing right now,” said Oatley, adding that he’s nursing a sore knee.
Of course, Oatley said he felt the same way at the start of last year’s race and he ended up duking it out with fellow Invitational racer Peter Basinger, who he edged by 19 minutes.
“I might not even race hard but the reality is when the race starts I’ll probably go pretty hard,” Oatley said.
His main biking competition figures to come from his wife, Best, who finished third last year only 1 hour and 11 minutes behind Oatley; Greg Matyas of Anchorage, who is coming off a third-place rookie finish in the Invitational, where he was about 5 1/2 hours behind Oatley; Kevin Breitenbach of Fairbanks, who finished fourth last year a little over an hour behind Oatley; and Ethan Kopacz of Anchorage, who was fifth last year.
“Kevin’s going to be the strongest guy not on a fat bike,” Oatley said of the bikes with super-sized tires that are favored by most winter riders these days. “That be an advantage or disadvantage. In the White Mountains some of the trails are so hard the fat tire is a weight disadvantage.
“There’s not many times that’s the case on snow but we do get those conditions at this time of year around here,” he said.
Oatley, too, thinks a faster time than he clocked last year is possible.
“I didn’t think last year’s time was very fast when I rode it,” he said.
The fact that he will have other skiers pushing him to go faster could help Kramer. Anchorage skiers Rob Whitney and Cory Smith have reportedly been training specifically for the White Mountains race and both are accomplished long-distance skiers.
“I expect to have my hands full with those two guys,” he said.
Max Kaufman, who was the third skier to finish last year about two hours behind Kramer, and Jim Lokken, another savvy ultra racer, should be able to keep the top skiers company, too.
On the women’s side, the only cyclist expected to challenge Best is Janice Tower of Anchorage, who finished sixth overall last year, almost two hours behind Best.
Last year’s top women’s skier, Robin BeeBee, who finished in 24:13, is not competing this year. The top returning womens skier is Lisa Beattie of Fairbanks, who finished in 27:59 last year. She will likely be challenged by Kristen Rozell of Fairbanks and Rachel Steer of Anchorage, who finished second in the Tour of Anchorage 50K race earlier this month.
Like several other top Fairbanks skiers, Kramer is passing up the 50-kilometer Sonot Kkaazoot on Saturday to defend his title in the White Mountains 100.
“I would have liked to do the Sonot but the timing didn’t work out,” he said, noting that the races were on different weekends last year. “This will be the first time I’ve sat out the Sonot since I started skiing.”
Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.
WHITE MOUNTAINS 100
What: 100-mile human-powered race in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. Racers have their choice of biking, skiing or walking.
When: Starts 8 a.m. Sunday.
Where: Race starts and finishes at Wickersham Dome trailhead at 28 Mile Elliott Highway.
Who: 65 participants — 33 skiers, 29 bikers and 3 walkers
Course record: 12 hours, 22 minutes by cyclist Jeff Oatley of Fairbanks