It’s taken a while but I’ve finally stopped thinking of myself as a rookie in the world of ultradistance bike racing. True to form I dived into the sport right at the deep end, kicking things off with the Transcontinental Race in 2016. There’s no universal formula for this kind of racing and given the intense demands of each event it can take a while to go through the trial and error process to figure out what works for you. In 2018 my main focus is the 6,700km Trans Am Bike Race (TABR) across the US from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia. I’ve looked at all of the things in previous races that have prevented me from hitting the targets I know I’m capable of and worked to eliminate each one.
In a sign of how much progress I’ve made, I roll to the start line at 5:40am well rested and feeling calm, despite hitting the strong stuff the night before with Hippy. The start of the big ultras can be a bit strange. I may never get to see many of these riders again but I’ll get to know most of them through the race and the social media commentary that follows us all across the States. For now there are too many and they’re simply the hive. As we clip in and set off through the sleeping town of Astoria, we fill the streets and the buzz is palpable. The morning air is crisp but it’s going to be a beautiful day and we have the wind on our backs. After the rush and crunch of preparing for the race, life is about to get deliciously simple: food, water, a place to lay my head and relentless forward progress.
It’s a long race. The physiological cost of riding at a higher intensity increases exponentially so disciplined pacing is critical. A few days in you’ll only have one pace anyway but at the start it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and go off a bit too strong. I planned to ride to a certain output but my power meter died on me before we’d even left Astoria. Incidentally, this was a warranty replacement after the previous one died on day 1 of the TCR, so I don’t have the power data for my two biggest races. I’d have to ride this one on feel. The first few hours were dispatched at 29kph, which is fairly conservative for day 1 on a flattish course with friendly cross-tailwind. It was still enough to see me at the front of the race though and my phone was buzzing with messages asking me why I was leading already.
In every major race you’ll find a few keen riders going off much too fast, enjoying a few days in the spotlight and then dropping sharply backwards or scratching. You can’t win the race in the first few days but plenty of people will lose it. Perhaps this was front of mind for my fellow racers this year but I genuinely felt the pace was measured and the other riders around me were all sensible guys so I’m happy I wasn’t overdoing things.
I spent a few miles leapfrogging the velomobile of eventual winner Marcel Graber. He would slow to climb the rolling hills of Oregon but then whoosh past in a white blur on the descents, only to be caught on the next ramp. “He’s going to struggle in that” I remember thinking. Around 200km in I was caught by Michael Rushton on his extreme TT bike with an ultralight aero setup. He didn’t deliberately set out to create that bike, it’s simply what he had available and he tweaked it with the addition of some road bars. He’s an experienced triathlete and was running a high stakes minimalist strategy of travel light, ride fast and power nap only. The quicker you race the more you can tolerate and the less you stop the less kit you need, but it leaves very little margin for error and you need luck on your side. Sadly for Michael he didn’t have that and would scratch after 5 days of running in a podium position.
As you start with full supplies and, ideally, no sleep debt the first day is normally the most efficient. The first time I unclipped was at a convenience store 220km further south, having just left the coastline and begun the eastbound journey across the continent. 14 minutes here, another 7 minutes at a shell garage two hours later and 17 minutes at a McDonalds in Corvallis at 300km. Those would be my only stops on day 1 and looking back at those times I think they should have been a bit slicker but the ‘negative butt time’ (how one fellow rider called the time spent pushing his bike up any steeper hills) was probably useful.
By early evening I realised I’d fallen behind on fuelling and combined with the fading daylight I was starting to slow. The big decision on day 1 is whether to sleep before McKenzie Pass or push on over it through the night. The long climb over the Cascades begins 430km into the race and even with a fast start that means riding into the small hours at high altitude. The pass had only been cleared of snow in the past couple of days and would definitely be cold. I’d reach it a bit earlier than I’d normally stop but I figured it was pointless trying to steal riding time from tomorrow by pushing over tonight. I would still want to sleep the same amount. Better to slightly under-ride than be forced to over-ride by a bigger margin.
McKenzie Bridge at the foot of the climb is the natural stop for the night but I had the idea to stop one village earlier. As I’d already been climbing for the last 130km it was already quite cold and my plan was to sleep in a warm post office lobby. Figuring the post office at McKenzie Bridge would likely be full of snoring, farting TABR riders coming and going all night, I’d stop at Blue River. Stephen Haines had beaten me to it but we otherwise had the place to ourselves. I chugged a Muscle Milk, lay out my sleep mat next to the heating grille, plugged my electronics into the wall socket, covered my eyes with a Buff (the disadvantage with post offices is an inability to turn the lights off) and grabbed four hours sleep.
Time: 16h 01m
Move ratio: 93%
I’m adding the move ratio to these entries as although I find myself cringe when reviewing them over the course of the race, they are the most important metric and it’s useful to focus on this to find ways of improving.
I’d stopped at 23:15 and started pedalling again at 04:50. For five and a half hours of stopped time it’s a bit rubbish to only be sleeping for four and this pre- and post-sleep faff is still one of the biggest opportunities to improve. I wolfed down a saved cheeseburger and started the climb up McKenzie Pass in freezing conditions, congratulating myself on making the smart decision the night before.
As the day began the views were beautiful with early sunlight trickling through the trees and catching particles suspended in the crisp air. With the pass still closed to traffic I could relax, treat the road as my own and enjoy the sound of birds chirping their morning songs in high definition. The sky was totally clear and from the bright photos you’d be forgiven for not realising how bitterly cold it was. A decent layer of snow hiding from the sun beneath the tree line might give it away. I caught up with Mathias Dalgas, a TCR veteran who I fancied as a top contender. He’d suffered a sudden knee injury in the days before the race and was riding on borrowed time. He was almost certain he’d be scratching soon but was managing his body to see if it might improve. He was almost Vulcan in his mindset. He knew himself well enough that the outcome was quite binary and didn’t warrant any fuss. It would either work or not. Sadly it didn’t and Mathias would scratch later that day.
Approaching the summit (1,623m) you’re surrounded by a stark fields of volcanic-looking black rock, contrasting with the silky ribbon of tarmac that cuts through it, trimmed with a stripe of egg yolk yellow. As it was still only around 4°C and the next 40km would be downhill I layered up but now that I was on the eastern side and exposed to the sun the temperatures quickly rose into the 20s as I dropped down off the Cascades. By the time I rolled into the town of Sisters I was roasting. And very hungry.
Angeline’s Bakery & Cafe looked like a good spot for a healthy breakfast. A cream cheese bagel, a green smoothie and a calorific cinnamon bun felt like I was hitting all the right notes. It was a long stop though at an hour in length. I remember it was busy and I also used the opportunity to drop layers and use the bathrooms to clean up but I’m sure this is more to do with my faff skillz and the lure of social media.
Clear of the coastline, this side of the Cascades, the terrain took on a wilder feel. It began to look more like the Wild West I knew from watching Westerns as a kid. Coming through Redmond I snatched a milkshake and a brace of cheeseburgers from another McDonalds and then got snared at a level crossing by the world’s longest freight train.
The climbing started again as I rode into the Ochoco National Forest and over Ochoco Pass (1,442m). Any minute now I’d hear the battle cries before a tribe of ‘Indians’ would come galloping into view over the hilltops. Bathed in afternoon sun and gently pushed along with a friendly tailwind, this was a beautiful time and place to be riding a bike. If I hadn’t recognised the name ‘Spoke’n Hostel’ from my route research I’d have been very tempted to keep on trucking.
The race route follows the Trans Am Bicycle Trail that was introduced in 1976 for cycle tourers to cross the country, usually over a period of 2-3 months. As a result there’s quite a lot of bike-friendly people and businesses along the route. There’s also a culture of hospitality and a nation-wide soft spot for Trans Am pilgrimages in general. The Spoke’n Hostel was my first introduction to this and I’m very glad I stopped.
The rack outside was full of the unmistakeable setups of fellow TABR racers. Inside was a huge bunk room, each offering charging points, reading lights and privacy curtains. Downstairs was a lounge area and a kitchen and dining space, with the table absolutely loaded with amazing looking food. I treated myself to a 45 minute stop, a decent meal and the opportunity to chat to the hosts and other racers. I can be a bit sweary anyway but in my excitement at having people to speak to I hadn’t realised my faux pas until Steven Pawley discreetly pointed out I was dropping F-bombs in every other sentence and that our Christian hosts were probably less than used to foul-mouthed Brits. They were all too lovely and cheery to give anything away themselves. This hostel is one of the highlights of the route and I’d encourage every tourer or racer to indulge in a stop here. On my way out I pocketed three of the hostels amazing ‘power cookies’ for later. It was only later that day when I first tasted one and realised I should have taken many more!
It was a long climb out of Mitchell over the Keyes Creek Pass and the light would soon fade so I was keen to push on. Oregon treated me to an amazing sunset that evening. The kind you can only get in a whopping great landscape. I fired up booking.com as I pedalled and found a motel in John Day. Booking ahead like this is intended to keep me efficient so that I’m not circling around towns hunting for vacant rooms or spending too long checking in. It didn’t work out that way this time though. Steven Pawley and I rocked up at the same time and swapped WTF expressions as the young lad behind the counter spent 25 minutes checking us in. That’s crushing when you’ve spent the day counting the minutes and there’s 500 miles in your legs.
There was no food available so I raided the vending machine for a juice and a pair of pot noodles before heading to the room to wash my kit. My long-suffering arse hadn’t been quite as bad as expected but I was keen to keep it that way, so every chance I got I’d be washing my kit. I used the ultradistance racers’ standard drying technique: laying the wrung kit out onto a towel, rolling it up tight and then standing on it to pull out the moisture before hanging it up to dry. Four and half hours later it would be ‘dry enough’.
Time: 14h 08m
Move ratio: 78%
Tongue ulcers. My immune system’s canary in the coal mine. During the TCR I’d picked up a nasty throat infection and during LEL my mouth was totally shredded with ulcers. These tiny little alarm bells were a painful warning to manage myself better. I’d already been trying to avoid the sweeter stuff but it looks like I need to push that even further. This can make fuelling really tricky when you’re living out of gas stations and I’m jealous of those riders who can survive on sodas and energy drinks.
Leaving at 06:00 I was a bit surprised to find everything closed and I had to wait until I hit Prairie City a couple of hours later before I could have breakfast. It was here that I discovered America’s unique idea of what a ‘biscuit’ is. It was at least savoury and portable enough to eat on the go.
“Hob Nobs, Bourbons and Custard Creams. America, those are biscuits.”
The first 150km is spent above 1,000m, crossing three high passes (Dixie, Tipton and Sumpter) before dropping down to Baker City. The lush rolling terrain is crowned on each side by a range of snowcapped mountains. I pass Marcel toiling away up Dixie Pass and then I’m forced to laugh as he hunts me down on the descent, flying past me like I’m standing still. The steering at speed looks a bit jagged to me but he insists it’s much more stable than a traditional bike and he’s rocketing down these hills at 60mph (100kph). Apparently they’re regularly capable of 80mph+, which must be a massive buzz.
The Austin House Café is another race friendly gem but I had no previous idea about this one. They’ve got a great line in sweet potato fries but my favourite bit is the row of camp beds on their sheltered porch, perfect for a bit of bivy luxe. If I’d have known about this I’d have pressed on the extra 50km last night and bedded down here.
Marcel and I leapfrogged each other up and down the next two passes until the 50km descent towards Baker City, which would be the last time I saw on his way to overall victory. Until now I’d just assumed we’d get to enjoy the prevailing wind on our backs all the way across the country but my luck had run out. The wind now put its heavy hand on my forehead and even though it was downhill the final 40km into town took almost two hours.
I’d not been able to find anything substantial to eat yet today so I’d justified a bit of a feast now that I’d hit a major city. Chinese restaurants are great for a rapid turnaround of high carb food, only I somehow managed to drag this one out for 90 minutes!? I’ve no idea how that happens but it’s this kind of nonsense that I need to knock on the head for future races.
By now I’m starting to get used to the size of the US. My brain has recalibrated and can cope with staring into infinity. It’s something I typically struggle with but there’s a magic to being in such a vast open space when there’s literally nobody else around. Some might find that a bit daunting but I love the solitude.
You might have noticed in some of the pics that my eyes are really bloodshot and red since the morning of day 2. I’d put it down to tiredness but today it became clear that there was something more to it. At Richland I picked up some bug spray (40% deet) to avoid the critters that savaged me the night before, some alcohol-free mouthwash to help with my ulcers and some eye drops. I was craving a cold drink too and they were out of milkshakes so I reluctantly picked up an iced coffee. I don’t drink coffee so I was surprised to find it pretty quaffable, which was a useful discovery as they’re sold everywhere.
It was a cruel tease finding a big sign declaring ‘Halfway’ when in fact I was barely 1,000km into the race. Supply options were quite drawn out this deep into Oregon and as the evening approached I was keen to make sure I was carrying enough to give myself options. By now I’d adopted the strategy of carrying a milkshake or iced coffee underneath my aerobars and food above them. I’m still thinking I’d be more efficient if I could fit a feed bag to my cockpit too. One to experiment with.
Passing Oxbow I found Ryan ‘Rhino’ Flinn again. He’d decided the race wasn’t quite long enough and stuck in an extra 20km last night after a navigation snafu. Next up was the second velomobile rider, Dave Lewis, beginning the long climb into Idaho. I eased my pace so that we could chat for a bit. Dave was pushing a fairly flat 110 Watts at all times. This meant he climbed really slowly but you’d be amazed at how fast 110W will propel you in a velomobile on the flat, let alone the descents! It looked like sweaty work uphill though. Dave was shirtless in his plastic coffin and climbed with his cockpit propped open to try and manage the heat. I wonder how he’s going to cope once we drop down onto the plains and into the searing temperatures of the second half of the race!?
I reached the Idaho state line at 20:00 and although I rode on much further I’ll end this entry here as I’m writing them state-by-state.
You can also find daily highlights on my Instagram feed. Scroll to the right on my profile page to find TABR Day 1.