TransAm report

TransAm report

With my head on the pillow I could feel the raging heat of my breath washing over my face. When I got into the hotel room I was shivering and had to crank the heating. Then after having eaten the equivalent of three meals in one sitting, my body is back into furnace mode and burning up. It doesn’t matter though – pass out, sweat, wake up, eat, ride again. Welcome to the TransAm bike race.

The final week before the start was fairly stressful – it is hard to switch to rest when you have been training so much. Plus the nerves kicked in and I had to make sure all the final preparations were handled. But soon enough it was Friday and Misha and I were driving up to Astoria. There was an impromptu meeting at the tower on top of the hill to be given hats, and a chance to chat with a few of the other 130-odd idiots taking on this challenge. Then off to eat and sleep, setting the alarm for 5am.

At 6am on June 3rd, the whole peloton rolled out from Astoria. There was a vaguely neutralized start until we got out of town, then things started to split up. We ended up with a loose front group of eight or so, in that mode of riding-together-but-not-drafting. I was riding to heartrate to ensure that I wouldn’t go too hard on the first day, and so was yo-yoing off the back on the hill. But clearly there is something to be said for the aerodynamics of my setup, since I was out-rolling everyone else on the downhills by a notable amount. The ‘group’ dynamic was interesting – our speeds were so similar that when I pulled over for a nature break, it took me two hours to see the front again! We were lucky with the wind – on the flat Southerly stretches on the coast I was cruising at 25mph, which was nice. I had filled my under-handlebar foodbag with sandwiches for the day, so would only need to stop for water. After a hundred miles or so the riders had spread out some more, and we were left with three of us at the front. Peter had to stop for water, leaving Andrew and I to continue on. We then made a quick water stop too, before pushing on. Andrew was sitting a good ways behind me for a long time, until he wasn’t (apparently stopped for food). So I was leading the race! Which given that I was riding in my home state and heading onto roads I know well, was pretty fun. But I was keeping a lid on the effort and heartrate, not wanting to get carried away. After gratefully receiving some cheering through Corvalis, I got onto Peoria road (where I have won several state TT champs in the past), and with the wind still favorable, knocked out that 22 mile section in an hour. I made a quick stop for water in Harrisburg, then it was onto Coburg where I was delighted to discover a whole mass of supporters out to see me. A brief pause to say hi and to get some food for that night, then back on the road – my teammate Stephen joined me for the last forty miles up the McKenzie valley, to the Inn I had booked. Misha was there to meet me. I had felt good on the bike all day, but once I stopped I was pretty wiped out – forced some food down, set the alarm for 3:30am and went to bed.

Day 1 stats:
Clock time = 14:00
Riding time = 13:31
Distance = 264 miles
Average riding speed = 19.5mph
Climbing = 2746m
Sleep = 5.5hrs

Getting up and eating at three in the morning wasn’t very fun…. But the early start was needed today as the goal was to make it to Baker City, 300 miles up the road. Before this event my longest ever ride in a day was 200 miles (longest in training this year was 173). So all this was very much into unchartered territory! I was very excited that the McKenzie pass was actually open – the ploughs had only cleared the last of the snow two days before, so we got lucky. My buddy Billy had driven out the night before and camped at the bottom – he met me there just after 5am to ride the climb with me. It was very nice to have company in the super early morning, and we rode a good steady pace to the top, where the temperature dropped down to 37 degrees. It was pretty chilly on the descent, and my shivering was making the bike go into a bit of a wobble, but we got down safely and rode into Sisters – this was my first little goal as I knew the bakery there that serves mostly vegan food! After a bit of refueling and loading the foodbag up with cake, I said thanks and goodbye to Billy and headed back out on the road. Just outside of town I saw a familiar figure on the road – it was Peter. I caught up to him and we discovered that he had stayed at the same place as me the previous night, but had started riding about an hour earlier. Unfortunately he hadn’t realised the unavailability of food prior to the climb, and so ran out of fuel over the pass. A big meal in Sisters had rebooted his day, and enabled me to catch up. We chatted for a bit, then settled into our riding – our speed on the road was very similar, so we would run twenty-lengths or so apart, but occasionally swap who was leading. We stopped in Prineville for water, then pushed on. As we clicked over the first 100 miles, I realised I wasn’t feeling so good. Thinking about it, I hadn’t eaten enough the night before (too tired), or that morning (too early), or on the climb (too cold), or at Sisters. And now it was catching up with me….. I stopped for a roadside break, called my wife and ate what I had. Then set off at a bit of a lower pace. There were some good climbs, which I enjoyed as I find it easier to find a good rhythm than on the flat – and then you get a rest on the downhill too. Coming into the tiny town of Mitchell at about 150 miles, I thought I might stop for water, then saw some cyclists and other people cheering at the roadside. It turned out this little community puts on awesome support for the TransAm racers, with a bunkhouse, food and great morale boosting! I decided to stop for food, and the huge plate of pasta pretty much saved my day – I really needed that larger input to make up the deficit. Once sated, I was flying up the next hill, pushing on to my last planned pitstop of the day, as I knew there was a Subway in 70 miles. One big sandwich later, and there was 80 miles and three big climbs to go to get to Baker City. I had passed a few people during the afternoon – I passed several more now, as I again found a good rhythm on the climbs, just stopping to add clothing and turn lights on as the sun set and the temperature dropped. Once down the last descent I was excited to nearly be there. But that last 20 miles on the flat on unlit roads just went on forever…. Attention had to be paid too – I had to hit the brakes hard when two huge elk crossed the road in front of me! I passed one more rider on that last stretch, so that when I rolled into Baker City at 11pm, I was at the front of the race again, along with a handful of others who were already there. I found a motel, walked across the street to the supermarket for food. Eat, shower, sleep.

Day 2 stats:
Clock time = 19:00
Riding time = 16:50
Distance = 295 miles
Average riding speed = 17.5mph
Climbing = 4604m
Sleep = 4.5hrs

I hadn’t set an alarm, but snapped wide awake at 5am, so got up, ate and got organized and left soon after 6. It was a beautiful day, with the promise of a lot of climbing and a crossing into Idaho. After an initial short climb there was a lot of rolling/downhill, so the average speed got pulled up over 20mph, which is always nice to see. I passed a couple of riders that I had seen last night – they had gotten into Baker City after me and left before me…. At 80 miles I stopped at the state border for a quick snack, then there was a long, fairly steep climb, followed by another nice descent. Just before stopping for food and water I caught another rider – we exchanged a few words in the store then I pedaled on. So far my prediction was proving about correct – I was one of the fastest riders on the road; others were keeping pace with me by riding more, but hopefully the extra rest I was getting would pay off as the race progressed. I was aiming for a town at 195 miles for a more major food stop, but was starting to struggle and so took that break about 40 miles earlier. This would prove to be a slight undoing – where I stopped happened to be right where the route took a left; I failed to pick this up when I restarted and ended up going 5 miles off course before I realised…. That was an extra 10 miles I could have done without. But lesson learnt – pay attention! The goal for today was to get to Grangeville; my concern was getting there in time to be able to get food – only 243 miles, but with a steep 10 miles climb right at the end of the day. I tried to keep the pace going on the flat, but there was a bit of a headwind and it was very slightly uphill in the valley following the river. I made it to the base of the climb just as the sun set. The nice thing here is that the route climbed on the old road, rather than the highway, so there was no traffic. And also a full moon, which was nice – I just had the lights on low and settled into my rhythm. It was a really nice climb – a part of me could still appreciate that despite the fatigue – lots of switchbacks, but slow going, I think it took me about an hour and a quarter. Once to the top, I quickly put on jacket and gloves, and headed onto the descent – also on the old road, so a little sketchy with no road markings and gravel in the dark! I just wanted to get down before I got too cold… Which I did, rolling into town just after 11pm. Oddly for a Monday night, the first two motels were full. But the receptionist at one kindly phoned the other place across town for me, and thankfully there was a room there. I went and checked in, then did a quick pedal back across town to the gas station (all that was left open) to try and scavenge something to eat – needless to say, options were limited. But needs must. Food, shower, bed.

Day 3 stats:
Clock time = 16:45
Riding time = 15:10
Distance = 254 miles
Average riding speed = 16.7mph
Climbing = 3705m
Sleep = 4hrs

I had had a few twinges from my knee on that final climb; I didn’t think too much of it though, just took some ibuprofen before bed. When I work up in the morning I was up and on the road by 6am. Got over the rollers and down the hill to the next town, where the store was open so I stopped to buy soy milk and avocados. A quick couple of bowls of cereal and then onwards. Now the tedium started – 80 miles following the river upstream. Slight uphill, slight headwind, and although it was beautiful, it quickly became monotonous and boring. No phone signal, so I couldn’t even call my wife for a chat whilst I was riding. I did think I might fall asleep a couple of times….. I switched between music, podcasts and audiobooks, trying to keep some sort of interest. One cool thing was the mini cable cars crossing the river – there were several, I assume to private residences – two parallel wires with a small 2-4 person box running underneath. Eventually I got to the next services and paused for a snack, then (hurrah!) there was Lolo Pass to climb – such a relief to have a proper climb after the perpetual drag. And to enter Montana! The descent started off nice and fast, and I was thinking it would be a super fun ride all the way down to Lolo. But no – despite going downriver, there was a headwind that just made it another long draggy section for the next couple of hours. I was really struggling mentally here, had to take a couple of short breaks to try and reset. Eventually got down, refilled water, then just had 35 miles left to make it to my intended destination of Hamilton. I knocked out the first 20 miles or so no problem, cruising along at about 24mph (so nice to actually be moving at a decent speed after the rest of the day), then the last bit was a real struggle – my knee was starting to hurt quite a lot, particularly if I stood up. Not good. But I made it, found a motel next to the grocery store, and it was nice to actually finish riding a bit earlier and in the daylight. Eat, eat more, ice knee, shower, eat more, sleep.

Day 4 stats:
Clock time = 13:35
Riding time = 11:35
Distance = 193 miles
Average riding speed = 16.6mph
Climbing = 1577m
Sleep = 6hrs

I couldn’t really tell how my knee felt when I woke up, except it was still a bit swollen. I iced it again whilst I ate, then rolled out in the cold morning about 5am. It was soon pretty clear that all was not well – I could kind of soft pedal, but if I stood up I was getting shooting pain. After a while the morning’s ibuprofen kicked in and it wasn’t too bad, but I didn’t want to be causing damage, and my pace was ridiculously slow. I was pretty upset, but just kept going because that is what you do with this event….. After almost two hours and covering only 22 miles, I pulled over and called my wife. We agreed I should backtrack four miles to Darby, get a motel room and rest and then revaluate later.

I iced my knee and took a nap…. Super depressing to wake up and see the big flag across the street showing a nice tailwind up the course…. But just riding up the road to get food showed that my knee was not in any shape to continue. I was there to race for the win – I have previously ridden across the country for fun, so I wasn’t interested in doing it just for the sake of completion. So with great sadness I had to quit. For a tiny town, I lucked out with stopping in Darby – it had a natural food store, a thrift store (where I bought some shorts and sandals for a dollar each), and the bar had three vegan options on the menu.

The TransAm route is pretty awesome for exploring the back roads of America. Which is great until you need to leave the trail. I stayed overnight in Darby, but then had to ride the 60 miles to Missoula (pretty much flat, I just soft pedaled and took my time), where I could rent a car to drive home. After doing 16 hour days on the bike, driving 10 hours straight was easy, and I was home that night.

Definitely some mixed feelings about having to stop. Mostly very sad after all the training and preparation, and the support from so many people. A small part of me was glad to have the excuse to quit – it was getting emotionally hard already. But it is hard to separate that from the feelings about the injury. But pretty pleased to have ridden 1000 miles in four days, with one day at 300 miles and over 15,000 feet of climbing. I also feel that I proved that my strategy of sleeping more seemed to be working – in theory this would have kicked in as more of an advantage as the race progressed. But only if my body could keep working!

Massive thanks first and foremost to Misha for supporting me through this endeavor. And to Andrew, Lauren and the rest of the English Cycles team for all their assistance with preparation and training. I am very grateful to my sponsors – DT Swiss (wheels), SRAM (groupset), Ruckus (tailbox), Schwalbe (tires), Exposure (lights), Castelli (clothing), Silca (pump/tools/lube), Kali (helmet), Arundel (bottle cages), Kaibab Customs (frame and handlebar bags) and Colorworks (paint). Look for full reviews of the bike, components and kit to be posted in the next few weeks.

 

5 Comments

  1. thanks for the insight. It was fun following your adventure.

  2. Hey Rob. Your skills with the bike, support form your sponsors and planning showed a professional level of success. When the miles start racking up there may be unforeseen issues that shorter training miles couldn’t show. Similar thing happened to me but on a smaller scale. I was devastated. Words of “better luck next time” didn’t sit well for all the training I did. However there was a next time and successful.
    I’m looking forward to reading more when you get around to it and hope your knee heals quickly and maybe find a cause.
    Rick.

  3. Great effort on the ride Rob…it’s a real shame you had to pull out…you were flying!…but as they say, everything happens for a reason, and i truly believe the reason here was so that you could lend me your trans-am bike to train on for next years Tour Divide!
    It’s like fate or something right? 🙂
    All the best though Rob!
    Catch up with you soon about the 20er mods!
    Take it easy!
    Scott

  4. Rob,

    Sorry to hear about the knee injury, but thank you for the report.

    Was the injury a re-occurrence of an existing injury, known risk, or new to you problem? Would it prevent a future reattempt?

    Thanks

    Daniel

    • Hi Daniel,

      The knee was a new issue. Having discussed it with a physio, we think it was just an over-use injury – I did a lot of volume in training, but nothing quite compares to 1000 miles in four days! I do also have a suspicion that the new pedals may have contributed to it – I was using Speedplay Zeros, and the release is quite hard at the end of the float (something I may be able to modify by backing off the cleat mounting bolts slightly), which puts quite a torque on the knee. I had no problems with this in the month prior to the race, but I wonder if this factor combined with the high mileage led to the injury. I do unclip with my left foot when I stop….. I have ridden Speedplay X-series pedals for a long time, and they have no hard stop at the release point, much nicer. But the walkable cleats with the Zeros are a big improvement!

      Fortunately, my knee is improving well – no pain the last few days, and I have been increasing my time on the bike without issue. Hopefully all back to normal by next week.

      thanks, Rob.

Leave a Comment