Photo: Trans Am Bike Race blog, Nathan Jones and Anthony Dryer
Outside in the dark of the night it’s so hot that I feel like I can’t breathe. The sun won’t come up for another five hours. It feels like we’re capturing extra time– every minute on the bike counts. This is the beginning of a huge day. We need to get most of the way through Missouri– our next obstacle is the ferry from Illinois to Kentucky. We pedal through the deserted streets of Pittsburg and are soon on farm roads. It’s blustery, but mostly the wind is in our favor and it starts to rain. Evan pulls over to put his rain jacket on and I holler that it’s not even cold out. I don’t want to stop, but he’s right. We put on our jackets and it starts raining harder. It’s nice to have a friend in the dark. Flat farm roads start rolling pretty quick. Up and down like a rollercoaster, we pedal into the sunrise. We make it to Ash Grove at 6AM just as the gas station is opening. An old timer finds us to give us a little encouragement. I down a couple cans of cold coffee and he says that’s probably not the breakfast I was hoping for. He says Steffen slept just down the way and he’s been rooting for me the whole time and he hated seeing Sarah beat me. I put on some sunscreen and we hit the road.
I buy slices of pizza in Fair Grove and the day starts heating up. It’s 100 degrees before noon. We fill water in Marshfield and knock on a door in Hartville to ask for water. The woman says nothing and points us to the spigot out back, next to an above ground swimming pool. I kneel under the water and soak my whole body.
We ride into Texas County near Bendavis. All of the buildings are whitewashed and look like they’re from a hundred years ago. We stop at the town store in Bucyrus that looks closed, but it’s not. I go to the bathroom in the back to rinse my shirt. The sink is stained blood orange and the water smells like iron and it dyes my t-shirt red. The lady behind the counter is in a long dress with plated braids. Her two sons stand next to her quietly. I buy bottled water and potato chips. She’s kind and smiling and asks where we’re from and then has us write it down in her ledger because her sons love to look up these far off places. They followed the race last year, but haven’t seen too many people yet this year. I tell her they’ll be coming and with heat like this they’ll definitely be stopping. She reminds us that the heat index is 107°.
We step back out into the furnace to ride to Houston. It’s a climb to a high point and a big descent. Crossing a bridge, I hear the hissing of my tire losing air. I pull over to check it out and find a piece of glass. It’s a small slice, so I pump some air into it to limp to the gas station in Houston. When I get there, Evan is packing some gatorade on his bike, just about to pedal back to find me.
I buy some super glue at the gas station and apply it to the outside of the tire in an attempt to keep my tubeless set up. Air bulges through. Evan is really overheated and hangs out inside the air conditioned gas station while I work on the flat. I just want to get rolling again. One local man offers to get a tire for me off a bike he has at home and another offers to get his air compressor. I’ve got what I need. I take the tire off the rim, clean it, boot it and install a tube. I buy a packaged egg salad sandwich and some cheez-its and we head for the Ozarks.
The heat has taken its toll. Evan feels awful. Into the Ozarks, the hills get steep, leaving me in my lowest gear standing and cranking on the pedals. It’s green and lush and into the evening it starts cooling off and I start feeling really good. I’m excited to be in this race. I want to get to the ferry. I start calculating, if I push through most of the night, I might be able to make the last ferry tomorrow night. I’d need to make 240 miles in 22 hours. I know I could do it, but I do need to sleep sometime and descending these steep hills in the dark is no joke. We’ve already got a plan– a good one. We’ll sleep in Ellington for 4-5 hours, make it to Elizabethtown tomorrow night and ride the remaining ten miles to Cave-In-Rock on the following morning to make the first ferry at 6AM. I realize we both could be missing a big opportunity here. We’re working so well together. Our best chance at catching Steffen is to ride together, to help each other through the nights and keep a good pace.
“Let’s do it, Evan. Let’s go catch him.”
The first step is getting to Ellington. We make it there by 11PM, check into the motel. I plug in my Di2, take a shower and get to sleep. I sleep deeply and wake up disoriented with bags under my eyes. It’s quality sleep.
We climb to Pilot Knob in the early morning hours and resupply at the gas station. I’m relying mostly on chocolate milk and try to eat sandwiches before the heat of the day. We detour a mile off route in Farmington so that I can buy tubes at the bike shop. A tall blonde rider meets us a the bike shop and catches us in the hills out of town. He’s a smiley guy, born in Anchorage and has lived in Farmington for the past 20 years. He hammers a couple pedal strokes uphill to move out of traffic and it gets Evan laughing. There’s no way either of us are moving that fast.
Out of the hills, we ride through a valley. A long bridge takes us over the muddy Mississippi River to Illinois.