Images courtesy of Trans Am Bike Race blog, Nathan Jones and Anthony Dryer.
The ride through Yellowstone in the evening is out of this world. Geothermal smoke steams away from colored rock and pools of water. There is very little traffic. The park is at a standstill as everyone watches the sunset. In the calm evening, I ask Evan for advice. Throughout the day, I’ve watched his legs spin. His form is strong and concentrated, his legs push power. I tell him that I really don’t feel like I’m performing, even though I’m trying really hard. I feel like I’m taking the wrong approach and I need to change the way I’m riding. He tells me that I need to maintain a more consistent pace. I love hitting the climbs hard, but my legs are totally toasted for the flats. Evan is more scientific about it. He rides with a power meter and tries to maintain more consistent power throughout by backing off on the climbs and pushing through the flats. I take his advice to heart. He tells me that he’s sure I could improve a lot over time with practice. I tell him I want to improve right now. I’m in this race right now and I want to do the best that I can and I’m working for results. He explains to me the concept of lighting matches. Every time you burst up a hill, you’re lighting a match and burning yourself out. You’ll have to pay for it later. He’s right. I’ve been paying for it. I’ve been struggling.
We talk and ride into the waning sun. The only concern for the night is where to sleep. Sleep is never long, but it’s always significant. I know a few hours of sleep is the best I can do to recover. In a multi-week race, if you don’t sleep, you pay for it later. Travel in the dark is always slower than in the day, so it’s important to sleep during the dark hours. At this elevation, the night time temps drop to freezing– too cold to lay out in just a bivvy. Evan has called ahead for a room at the base of Togwotee Pass– a hundred miles away. Flagg Ranch, thirty miles closer, was booked up for the night. It’s already dark. Evan got caught up in this section last year and he’s anxious to get past it. We talk through scenarios as we pedal. Maybe I could beg someone to sleep in the lobby of Flagg Ranch for a few hours or maybe I could sleep in a pit toilet. Hours pass and we keep each other awake in the dark. It’s cold enough to see my breath. When we pass Flagg Ranch around 1AM, I say, the hell with it, I’m game to ride the next thirty miles. Let’s do it! So, six days into the race and full of spirit, we do.
We make it to the Hatchet Resort just after three in the morning– nearly 250 miles for the day despite headwinds and climbing. I curl up on the floor exhausted. Three hours later, I’m groggy and awake and my knees are throbbing. I think about packing up and then I think I’ll benefit from another hour of sleep so I extend my legs up the wall and sleep.
I wake up upside down and get out to the sunshine pretty quick– the whole point is to maintain a level of urgency. Every minute counts just as much as every other minute and if I can keep my mind wrapped around that idea, I’ll stay in this race. It’s all about deciding how to spend your minutes.
I buy cold milky coffee at the gas station and start riding up Togwotee Pass. I catch up with a couple ladies on hardtails with big tires and bikepacking gear. The Trans Am and the Great Divide both climb the pavement up Togwotee Pass. I take Evan’s advice and slow-up to enjoy their company. There are three of them riding together and they just got started yesterday and they hope to make it up and over Union Pass. Oh yeah, it’s beautiful up there! I tell them to have a great ride and I go catch their friend and on the way Evan catches me.
There’s an accident at the top of the pass and nobody is moving. We stop. People get out of their cars and get social and everyone is friendly. No, no one is hurt. A big guy on vacation laid down his motorbike and the road is blocked up. I’m feeling pretty good and I ask Evan if we should try to get to Rawlins. It’s far off, but there really aren’t many communities in this part of Wyoming. We’ll definitely have to sleep between six and seven thousand feet where it freezes at night– too cold to sleep out in a bivvy. What about Jeffrey City? It’d be a short day, but we could set the clock back and get an early start on the next day. Done. All of a sudden Evan and I are riding together with a plan to get to Jeffrey City tonight. I’ve never understood how people could ride together during endurance races. I never understood the benefit, until I found myself doing it.
A man offers us bottled water and we tell him about the race. After a few minutes he suggests that we try to walk around the police cars and see if we can get down the other way. We shrug at each other and go for it. We sneak by and then we’re cruising down Togwotee Pass. The people in the cars on the other side holler out their windows.
“What’s the hold up?
“Will it take long?”
It’s ups and downs to Dubois. We resupply at a Sinclair and I buy the lonely item in the hot case– a paper sack stapled shut. Back out on the road, under the sun and behind Evan, I unwrap the bag. It’s a deep fried disc. I take a bite. Oh man, that’s bad. It’s a deep fried burger patty coated in cheese– definitely the greasiest thing I’ve ever tasted in my life. I’m struggling to push the pedals. I take small bites and successfully finish the disc on the ride to Lander. We stop there for chocolate milk. Evan buys a pump at the bike shop and straps it to his frame. I feel woozy riding out of town and we take it easy until I start feeling better. It’s another stunning evening ride through the high plains in Wyoming. The road rolls into the sunset. Once it’s dark, the temperature drops. We see the lights of Jeffrey City from miles away and it seems like we’re never getting closer. But Jeffrey City is the goal and sometimes having a goal makes the riding mentally easier. Tonight, all we have to do is get there. I’ll think about tomorrow and the 2700 miles I have left in this race, tomorrow. We pass a pottery store and a bar and pedal up to the motel. These are the only three businesses in town. Evan comments that he likes the retro furnishing in the motel room. It’s not style, it’s just old. We agree on five hours of sleep. I plug in my bike, take my first shower during the race and crawl into bed. As the days progress, sleep is the only thing I truly crave.
The early sun quickly heats up the morning. We’re both slow to start with aching knees. Evan is convinced that we can maintain a stronger pace. He says we’re doing everything else right. We’re resupplying efficiently and sleeping a reasonable amount. The one thing we can manipulate is our power, so we agree to work on it. The ride to Rawlins is flat, a great stretch to make up some time. We warm up on the way to Muddy Gap, take a quick stop for snacks and I buy some sunglasses. We push the pedals to Rawlins, buy food at the gas station and take a look at the map to make a night plan. We aim for Walden. The mileage is short, but we’ll get there around sunset, avoid the mental strain of riding into the night and get an early start on the next day.
A ripping tailwind pushes us down Interstate 80 out of Rawlins. We sneak past a traffic block and soon we’re into Saratoga. I buy four slices of pizza at the Kum & Go and green Superfood juice, the gas station with the worst name and the best selection. We climb through the warm afternoon back into the mountains. For the first time in days, I feel both blessed to be out here and enchanted by my country. Evan and I ride side by side into Colorado. Nathan and Anthony take our picture as we cross that imaginary border and I know in my heart that my race is finally turning around.