Top photo: Trans Am Bike Race blog; bottom photo: Josh Spice
Darkness on day 2, just past Prairie City
I feel sick to my stomach, disgusted by my slow pace. I’m losing and I feel powerless. I just can’t ride faster and I can’t get the miles done. Too many expectations. I want to ride 250 miles a day and I want to win this whole damn thing and I want to ride fast and I’m covering the distance, but I’m just not riding fast enough. Why can’t I ride 14 miles an hour? I’m struggling for 12. What I don’t realize is that I’m nearly 500 miles into the race by day 2. There is only one rider ahead of me and three sleeping in Prairie City. I lift my bike over a farm fence and hoist myself over to the other side. I pull out my bivvy, set my alarm for three hours and lay down. I close my eyes to rest, but my mind isn’t ready to sleep. I lay for fifteen minutes, easing my mind and I do feel rested, but I’m not ready to sleep. I want to go climb that hill. I need to. I need to keep my head in this race and I need to move. So I stuff my bivvy back into my framebag, hoist my bike back onto the road and start pedaling up the hill. It’s the right choice. Settling for disappointment never is. It’s dark and calm and rural. I pedal uphill until my map turns green for State Forest. And now I’m really tired and ready to sleep. I pull into a turnoff among tall trees. And this is where I’ll lay to rest. I feel comforted by the trees as if it’s the place I’m supposed to be. The day was hot and the evening is warm. I lay my bivvy over pine needles and reset my alarm.
Astoria, June 4, 2016
Sixty racers meet at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon with the intention of racing to Yorktown, Virginia– 4300 miles away. No one will make it there tomorrow or the next day or the day after that or even in two weeks time, but we’re all hell bent on getting there. Going into this race I have confidence that I could be a contender, but standing in this crowd, it’s hard to believe. These guys are bigger or stronger or sleeker than me. They’re roadies and in my grey cotton t-shirt, I’m not. I tuck my t-shirt into my shorts to be more aero, but mostly I look like a third grader getting ready for gym class. I spot Sarah Hammond across the plaza and in that moment I know she’s competition. She has a tight bikepacking kit and a fierce presence. But there’s no way she’s carrying two massive burritos like me and I’m not planning on stopping.
Nathan Jones stands on a concrete block to give final pre-race instructions. My mind is buzzing and I’m not really listening.
“Do not interfere with other riders… Ride your own race…We’ll have a neutral start until we cross the bridge at mile 5. I’ll lead you through it.”
This is my day. I can’t imagine finishing this race and I can’t imagine what the days will be like, but I know I can do it. We all line up behind Nathan Jones and his copper colored handlebar wrap and start pedaling. If it wasn’t a neutral start I might just go bananas. I love hammering on day 1 because it’s the only day I’ll have fresh legs. I pull up near the front next to Sarah. We’ve never met but we talk like we have. I remember her words:
“The food in America is terrible.”
“The drivers are hostile to cyclists in Australia.”
“The only difference between road biking and mountain biking is that on a road bike you can see long straight distances.”
“I like coaching women in Australia there are only two levels of female riders– novice and expert.”
“But you have loads of experience.”
I feel her tongue-in-her-cheek on that last comment. She’s an outright confident person and in this moment she knows she can stomp me.
Nathan Jones pulls over after the mile 5 bridge and we start for real. I’m hungry for miles. I stand up on my bike and start cranking. This is the only day we’ll ride in any kind of a pack. It’s a busy summer Saturday morning on Highway 101 and the beach front bike path. Neither the cars nor the pedestrians like us, but we’ve got to get through. It’s a race! I ride a few minutes with Jay P and Mark Seaburg and they’re friendly. I pass all the guys on the climbs and they cruise past me on the descents. Sarah hammers past me 20 or 40 miles in and is out of sight in a flash. She’s so fast!
It’s hot and just getting hotter and it’s going to keep getting hotter for days. The first 100 miles are fast and fun. I tell myself I’m going to have a good first day, then a good second day, then a good third day and then a good fourth day all the way to a good seventeenth day cause that’s what it’ll take to win this thing and I believe it. I leapfrog a few times with Brian McEntire. I’m a rabbit up the climbs and he rolls like a bowling ball down the descents. I’m breathing hard and my legs feel good, but my mind is starting to lose it cause I need to eat. It’s just too hot. I start taking bites of my massive burrito. I don’t want to stop, but I have to because it’s so hot. I fill my bottles with gatorade in Rose Lodge and turn inland. I buy chicken sandwiches and strawberry cream pies at McDonalds in Corvallis. At dusk a man flags me into an impromptu aid station near Harrisburg, but I keep going. Tatooed Kai pedals away from the aid station and passes me and I like the feel of this guy. It’s amazing how much you can sense from a person just sharing space for a moment. He’s calm and smiling.
I’m alone past 200 miles. Someone calls out to me in the dark, snaps a photo and pedals up. It’s Josh Spice! The last time I saw this guy was in Spring of 2013 in Alaska when he lived in a dry cabin in Fairbanks. He’s since shaved his big beard and moved to Eugene, a short pedal from the Trans America Trail.
“I’m packed light like you, with a little bivvy and some snacks. I’ll ride with you over McKenzie Pass through the night if you want.”
It’s dark and warm and we’re afraid of nothing. We chatter and pedal through the night. I’m over 230 miles in and feel lively, but not fast. I have slowed way down, but I’m happy with all my miles and Josh’s company. He’s ramped up about the race and entertains the idea of sticking with it, of riding another 4200 miles. It’s giddy. I know I want to get near McKenzie Bridge before I sleep. A rider flies past us up the climb, his flashing lights veer around a corner and then they’re gone. Evan, the ER doctor from from Portland, catches us, makes a couple of minutes of conversation and cruises by. We fill water from a garden hose. And then it hits me on the climb. If I keep riding with Josh, I’ll never get sleepy. This early on in the race, I want to get sleepy because I want to lay down and rest for two hours to reset. I want to get up and ride strong tomorrow. Josh totally gets it and we part ways. What a nice way to spend the first night! I mentally unwind over the next ten miles and pull over on a small road between Rainbow and McKenzie Bridge at 2AM. I’m still wired, but I talk myself down and have little trouble sinking into a restful sleep.
Up by 4AM, I’m not really rested and I’m not really tired, but I’m ready to charge ahead. The feeling is so familiar that I don’t hesitate to pack up and get moving. The rest of the climb up to McKenzie Pass is easy in the early morning. It’s green and lush on the west side and volcanic rubble on the east. I fly down hill past dozens of Sunday morning cyclists. After day 1 of the Trans Am Bike Race, the leaderboard is all but determined. In the next 4000 miles, I’ll only see five other racers. Ultra distance racing is a lonely pursuit and I like riding alone. In fact, I don’t see another racer at all on day 2. Sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’re racing when you don’t seen anyone.
I stop at the first convenience store in Sisters and am happy to see an old man with a burrito stand inside. I order a couple of chicken and rice burritos to go and buy some snacks and drinks while he makes them. I really don’t care what I eat. I just know that I have to have lots of food on the bike. Consuming 10,000 calories a day while riding through 100º weather isn’t delicious, but it’s what I have to do if I want a chance at winning.
The old man grins a row of gold teeth as he passes me two paper bags, each holding the biggest burritos I’ve ever seen in my life.
By the time I get passed Redmond it’s sweltering. I stop for Redbull and Gatorade at a road side stop before Prineville featuring a massive fried chicken case. In Prineville the bike shop owner takes my picture and his lady friend cheers me on. My skin is roasting and I’m not wearing sunscreen. Huge mistake! I pedal over Ochoco Pass. Some kind soul from Mitchell has set out a water cooler and a spray hose for Trans Am Racers. I fill up and drench myself. What sweet relief! The route doesn’t actually pass through Mitchell and I figure I’ll skip it and resupply in Dayville or John Day. I’m still carrying 1 ½ chicken burritos from this morning. They’re some of the worst burritos I’ve ever tasted, but once I eat them, it doesn’t matter.
The stretch of road leading into and out of Dayville is my favorite in Oregon. The colored rock and winding river look prehistoric. My legs are slow and I tell myself that when I find a store, I’ll get something good like chocolate milk. It’s Sunday and everything in Dayville is closed. An old man cycletourist cheers me on and offers water. I don’t want to stop, so I wave and pedal on. The heat diminishes into the night. This is an opportunity to start riding faster and I try to start pushing the pedals because that’s what I think road riding is all about. I want to be faster and I just can’t seem to do it and it’s starting to bother me. My slow legs are paying for yesterday’s speed. Everything is closed in Mount Vernon and then closed in John Day. I missed the last gas station by 20 minutes. I find a half bottle of coke and a mostly full gatorade and I pour them into my water bottles and move on. Then I’m to and through Prairie City and my mileage is short, but the day is over.
I wake up in the trees shaking with cold, stuff away my bivvy and pedal on. I eat the last of the cold shredded chicken burrito on the ride to Baker City. The day is already hot by the time I get there. Smiling Evan in his reflective jersey catches me at the convenience store.
“It’s so hot out there!”
“I know, forcing down food is the worst part about it. Yesterday I had a moment where I was choking down dry lunchables in the heat. We’ve got Hell’s Canyon coming up. Make sure you don’t miss the last store before the big climb. It’s at the bottom of a descent. Last year I missed it and had to ride back to it.”
He’s in and out of the store fast and effectively drops me. He raced the Trans Am last year. I chug a canned coffee, pack some fried food for later and get out of town. Evan was right. It’s an incredibly hot ride, but a stream follows the road. In a flash, I jump off my bike and run over to the stream. Fully clothed, socks shoes and all, I submerge my whole body. My brain stops boiling and I feel great and that’s my game plan for the rest of the afternoon. Every time my clothes dry out and my skin starts to fry I take a quick plunge in the water. I pick up drinks in Richland and stop at the last store before the dam. Out front I spot a couple loaded touring bikes, some of the first I’ve seen on the route. I say hi to the guy and our eyes both get wide in recognition. It’s Jamie from Silver City! We go right in for a big hug. I met him last year after I finished racing Tour Divide. He’s full of bike love and positive energy.
“Hey! I didn’t know you were racing this! You’re doing awesome.”
“Thanks! So great to see you. Are you guys riding the Trans Am?”
“Yep. We started in Astoria a couple of weeks ago.”
Too cool to run into a friend in what feels like the middle of nowhere. Jamie offers to pay for the gatorade and cookies I’ve picked out. At the register, I ask the man if there’s a good place to fill up some water.
“I’ll fill them up for you. Do you happen to know a rider with the initials LW?”
“No, not you, another guy.”
“Yeah, probably. If you see that guy, run him off the road! He came here earlier and I asked him to kindly move his bike off my porch. He said he didn’t have to cause nobody is in my empty store anyway. I ran him right out of here!”
I see that he’s tracking the race.
“Isn’t there a girl up front?”
“Nope. She was going about 4 miles an hour in the heat just like everyone does, but then a guy came along while she was climbing the hill and passed her like she was standing still.”
The man is still fuming. I thank him and then thank Jamie and get out of there. I guess Lee isn’t too far off.
It’s like riding into a furnace. I jump in the river one last time and then the road gets steep and keeps climbing. Along the dam, I cross a bridge into Idaho.