A Frenchman and a Norwegian battled for the lead Tuesday of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Nicolas Petit of France pulled ahead of Norway’s Joar Leifseth Ulsom, defending champion of the 1,000-mile trek across the Alaskan wilderness.

Most contestants are American, but the lineup also features two from Norway, including Ulsom; four from Canada; one from Sweden and Petit from France.

Their quest officially began Sunday when the mushers took off from a frozen lake about 50 miles north of Anchorage. A ceremonial start designed to be a fan-friendly experience was held Saturday in Anchorage.

The winner is expected in Nome, an old Gold Rush town on Alaska’s Bering Sea coast, in about nine days.

The Iditarod seems to go in streaks. Lance Mackey in 2007 won his first of four straight before health problems began to set in. Two years after Mackey’s run, the Seavey legacy took hold, with mushers Mitch and his son, Dallas, combining to win the next six races.

Ulsom broke the Seaveys’ string last year. If that came as a shock to anyone, they weren’t paying attention to his career.

His worst Iditarod finish was seventh place in 2013, his rookie year. Since then, he’s had two sixth place finishes and a couple of fourths.

It’s all part of his strategy.

“Basically since I came to Alaska, I kind of had a good plan,” he said. He tweaks it little by little every year, but he hasn’t made any wholesale changes to his training now that he’s the defending champion.

What has changed for the musher living in Willow, Alaska’s dog-mushing capital, was the instant fame his victory granted him, not only in Alaska but in his Norway.

“It’s definitely been a bigger deal winning the race than I thought it was going to be,” he said.

But he promises it hasn’t changed him or gone to his head.

“It was a lot of fun, and people are excited and stuff, but nothing crazy,” he said. “I’m still just a normal goofball.”

The Iditarod has faced criticism from the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which calls the race cruel.

Ulsom said mushers take “exceptional” care of the dogs and use them for what they’re meant to for. “These dogs have it in them that they want to run, and so that’s what they’re bred and meant to do, and they love it,” he said.