The hills of western Virginia are mythical– exponentially longer and steeper than those in Kentucky or Missouri, they make you feel small. I am Sisyphus, rolling my bike up for eternity only to come back down to the base of another hill. The Trans Am Trail routes through nearly 600 miles in Virginia with more elevation gain than any other state. I honestly just want to be done.
I stop at the gas station in Haysi and drink redbull while the lady makes me two feet of omelet sandwich. The eggs look like yellow discs and taste like nothing. Accents are thick and my brain is fried and I really don’t want to be around people. I start feeling pretty woozy in the afternoon near Meadowview and stop at a white country store with an empty parking lot. Shelves are mostly bare and the strongest drink they have is Mountain Dew. I take two and fill my bottles. Signs in the parking lot announce that shoplifters will be persecuted and I have a hard time imagining what they could be stealing. I’m struggling to focus my eyes and I feel pretty wretched. I know I can’t continue like this for another two days. I need backup.
Just out of town, I push my bike across a construction site on Interstate 81 to a Love’s Travel Stop. I head for the trucker drugs aisle and pick out the most expensive caffeine pills I can find– there are at least four options. I buy a new pair of sunglasses and two 5-hour energies and get back on my bike. I can’t afford to ride unarmed. I need to finish this.
I stop in Damascus, looking for gu at the bicycle rental shop and don’t find any. At the top of the climb, I pump water from an abandoned house to fill my bottles. A few miles down the road a guy in a sedan pulls over. He offers me Gatorade and water and bananas. I just filled up, but it’s nice to have a friend in the woods. He tells me that Steffen has the look of fear in his eyes, like an animal being hunted. I tell him I’ll do my best to track him down.
I drink some whole milk in Sugar Grove and set in for the night. The sun sets over Rural Retreat and then I’m riding on a frontage road alongside I-81 in the dark. Just before 11PM I call it. The riding is easy, but it’ll be faster after a few of hours of sleep. I roll my bike through a lawn and into the trees across from the Fox Mountain Inn. I set my alarm for three hours and tuck into my bivvy. I’m so grateful for sleep. One more night to Yorktown.
I pack up at 1AM and start moving. I stop at the Radford Travel Station before sunrise. They have a short order cook fixing hot breakfast, but I don’t want to wait so I take some biscuit sandwiches to go. The riding is easy and I’m zooming. Outside of Red Mills an older guy stops to give me chocolate chip cookies that his daughter baked him. He’s driving back and forth between me and Steffen, giving us cookies and updating us on the other’s progress. He finds me again outside of Lexington and gives me a Klondike bar– the first ice cream I’ve eaten on the route. It feels like rocket fuel.
Outside of Lexington I meet a couple of young guy cycle-tourists. One of them tells me that the tourists along the route are keeping up with the race and cheering us on. I invite him to ride the hills through the night with me, but he’s looking forward to a break in town. Just as we’re parting ways he tells me,
“Lael, if I don’t see you again, I just want you to know that I’m really proud of you.”
It’s the nicest thing anyone says to me for the whole race. Riding away, I feel both like I’m going to cry and determined to get it done, to do something that people can believe in.
Climbing along signed Bike 76 Route, Nathan and Anthony wait for me with cameras at the top of a hill. The route sign points right and I start to turn and Nathan says it’s the other way and points left, so I turn left onto Interstate 81. Holy shit! It’s a divided freeway and 18 wheelers are honking at me cause they know that I’m not supposed to be there. Nathan and Anthony pull up in their Saturn looking sorry and tell me they fucked up and drive away. I don’t see them again for the rest of the day. I really don’t want to ride backwards on a one-way freeway. I see a concrete embankment sloping down to the frontage road that I’m supposed to be riding and shimmy down, using my bike brakes for traction.
It’s a hot afternoon. I stop at a church and kneel under a spigot and drench my whole body. The route turns to gravel along the Chalk Mine Run. A guy in a pick-up truck honks mean at me and then I see him pull into his driveway and then he sees me jump into the creek with all of my clothes on. I pass construction workers improving the roadway and one of them tells me that I’m all wet. Yep, I am.
The ride out of Vesuvius to the Blue Ridge Parkway is definitely the steepest of the whole route. I am standing up cranking in my smallest gear. The sky gets dark and it’s starts pouring once I get on the Parkway and it’s blowing wind. I cross paths with a young cycle-tourist and we look at each other in disbelief and we both start laughing. What the hell are we doing up here? I know that once I get down I’m almost out of the hills and I just want to get there. The rain lessens and the views open up. It’s spectacular to see the mountains drop off and to see so much of Virginia.
At the end of the Blue Ridge, a sign advertises aid to Trans Am Racers in Afton, a quarter mile off route. Bill meets me at the road and takes me to his place. His wife reheats half of a cheeseburger and makes me a turkey sandwich and Bill loads me up with energy bars and gu. I pump up my tires and lube my chain and I’m ready for the final push. Bill rides me back out on the route. The wind is still furious, but the storm seems to be dying and I’m happy to have some company. Bill points out the country store where Mike Hall drank milkshakes in the movie and sends me on my way.
I make it to Charlottesville around 9PM. I stop at a gas station and buy a pint of ice cream, a cheese sandwich, two slices of pound cake, yogurt covered pretzels, a 5-hour energy and a bag of potato chips. I’m loaded up good cause if I ever catch Steffen, I’m not stopping again. The soles of my feet are killing me. They’ve been wet since the creek before the Blue Ridge Parkway and they’re starting to burn. I hunt around the gas station, looking for socks. No luck. In town, I pass the campus bookstore, full of University of Virginia paraphernalia. Bingo! I buy a pair of XL shin high socks and sit in a corner of the shop to put them on. At this point, my feet are white and seriously shriveled. What a relief! I throw the old socks away, pop the cap off my pint of ice cream and eat it as I pedal down the road. It’s definitely messier than I envisioned, but tastes like a million bucks.
The road is narrow near Monticello and cars honk at me and I don’t care. I get really tired near Cuckoo and can’t keep my eyes open. I pull over in a farm field and set an alarm for twenty minutes and after twenty set it for another twenty and wake up after ten. I tell myself I’ll ride another ten miles, at which point I’ll sleep if I have to or I’ll go for it.
After ten miles, I feel fine. I chase a caffeine pill with a 5-hour energy and I start cruising. All I need is water. I fill up from a spigot at a gas station and then I’m ready. This is it. I’m going to chase down Steffen. It’s 2:30AM and I start riding hard. Just past a massive water reservoir, on the outskirts of Bumpass I see a bright light coming towards me. Immediately when we cross paths, the biker turns around and starts riding next to me. It’s 3AM. I’ve slept a total of six hours in the last three nights. Not everything is making sense. I look over at him, first thinking that maybe he’s a fan that has come out to encourage me in the night. But his face looks serious and his bike is all packed up like mine.
So I ask him, “What’s your name?”
And he responds, “Steffen.”
An alarm goes off in my brain. Holy shit! This is the guy I’ve been chasing for two weeks. And I start sprinting like mad. I’m no longer tired. I am so excited! We ride side by side on the rural Virginia streets. I push the pace and every time he catches up square to me, I push it a little harder. I’m riding super aggressive, burning through stop signs and cutting corners. My lungs are on fire and we still have 125 miles to Yorktown and I really don’t know how long I can keep this up, but I’ll keep going til I can’t. We continue like this for twenty miles until the road splits. I head to the right and Steffen calls out that the track is to the left. He slows up a bit for me to catch up and when I do he says,
I don’t want to talk. I just want to ride, but since he waited for me, I concede. We ride and talk.
He says, “We’ve been battling for two weeks. Let’s just finish this together.”
I say, “Together? No! This is the best part. It’s a race and I want to race to the finish.”
Then he says, “But, you’re losing.”
I shake my head. “No.”
He nods. “No.”
Then I take off and I don’t look back. Six miles down the road I realize I dropped him and the realization that I could actually win this race sets in. Then the battery on my electronic shifting dies. Oh no! First I think I might just singlespeed to the finish, but the terrain is pretty flat and I know I’ll ride much faster with gears. It’s still dark and I stop at the Sheetz gas station in Ashland, so I can work under the light. I roll my bike around to the back, so Steffen won’t see that I’m having a mechanical problem if he catches me. I remove my seatpost to get to the battery. I can’t seem to pull the battery out of the post, so I just unplug the cord, plug it into my spare battery and shove both batteries and the cord into my frame. I can’t get my seatpost wedge to tighten, so I pedal away standing up feeling pressed to get the hell out of there. I tighten the seatpost wedge down the street at a bank and then I’m home free.
98 miles to Yorktown! I ride a solid, fast pace and I’m focused. I watch the road like a hawk, looking for debris, telling myself over and over “No mistakes and no flats.” I’m going to win this race! The day heats up. I stop to pee twice and fill my bottles with water and that’s it. The track is flat. Some folks wait along the side of the road to cheer me on and take my picture. The road surface gets pretty rough twenty miles from the end with small stones embedded in concrete. I don’t care and I don’t slow down cause I just want to finish. I make a couple of turns through phony colonial Williamsburg, past revolutionary reenactments and children marching with flutes and snare drums and then I’m back on the Colonial Parkway. Just out of Yorktown, there’s a construction detour, so instead of following the track I navigate through town, following signs to the Victory Monument. And then I’m done!
At 11:10 AM on June 22, after 18 days and 10 minutes, I arrive at the Atlantic Coast. A small crowd waits and cheers me in. Nick is there, Nick’s sister Katya is there and Jen Barr is there. I couldn’t have better company. Someone sets out a camping chair on the foreground of the Victory Monument. I sit down, take off my shoes and tell my story.
Two hours later, Steffen rolls in. He stops in front of the monument, pulls a blueberry muffin out of his framebag and eats it, face first. Once he’s finished, Nick gives him another muffin.
Eight hours later, Evan rolls in. I am so happy to see him!
Two days later, Kai rolls in. We bring him donuts and coffee and beer and gatorade.
Three days later Kai, Nick and I take the train to New York City. The Trans Am is over, but we’re still riding bikes in America and drinking chocolate milk.