As I’m getting ready to race the Trans America Trail in 2014, I thought now was an appropriate time to reflect on some of the memories I have from the first time I rode the route in 2010, and give other racers a taste of what they’re in for…
Starting: Yorktown to Williamsburg
This ride marked many firsts — I’d never embarked on a long distance ride of this kind of magnitude and wheeled out of Yorktown on the 7th April 2010 feeling excited, apprehensive, and glad to finally be on the road. I distinctly remember cruising down the Colonial Parkway toward Williamsburg, with the sun beginning to rise over the York River, feeling that if the rest of the ride went this smoothly I might just make it to the Pacific. Of course, this was a vain hope: a few hours later and I was suffering in unseasonably high temperatures, having just had a chap try and steal my bike (the first and only time this has ever happened).
Still, the first day of any adventure is a landmark, and I see this moment in particular as the one that marked the start of the road: not just on that trip but on my journey into distance cycling.
Blue ridge parkway: massive bonk
This is one of the biggest acts of cycling stupidity I’ve ever been guilty of. Anyone who has ever ridden a bike for any reasonable distance will have bonked at some point or another. It’s a of rite of passage into the cycling fraternity, the kind of experience you have to have at least once, and then hope fervently you never repeat. The bonk I had on the Blue Ridge Parkway, several days into my Trans Am ride, was the worst and most debilitating I’ve ever had — and something I hope never to experience again.
My first big mistake was not stopping to buy food before I pedaled out of Charlottesville — a rookie error when entering a sparsely populated area. My second mistake was not stopping at any one of the gas stations I passed on the climb up toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. I mean, why would I need to stop for food when I still felt great on the bike?
An hour later, with a good deal of climbing in the legs and around 60 miles under my belt, I unsurprisingly began to feel the crash — my legs started to feel heavy and I was slumping on the bike. Finally recognizing the warning signs, I was so far out in the mountains that there was no viable option for resupply close by. My only hope was a tiny convenience store serving some cabins on Love rd. about 10 mountainous miles away.
10 miles took over an hour. A tortuous, never-ending, hour in which my blood sugar dropped further and further into the red. I hobbled into the convenience store, my bike thrown forgotten on the ground outside, and grabbed the closest things to me: some Mountain Dew, a packet of crisps, and a handful beef jerky later and I was starting to feel better. In one of many examples of the kindness of strangers I experienced on the Trail, the shop assistant made me a pizza he had in his own freezer. Revived — I was back on the road and riding on.
Kindness of strangers: wheel problems in Missouri
No tour would be complete without a handful of mechanical problems to overcome and my Trans Am was no different. I took completely the wrong bike for loaded touring, complete with low-spoke-count wheels; a move which was always going to lead to problems down the road — but you’ve got to learn somehow right?
So, inevitably I started to break spokes mid way across Missouri. Stranded in a town with no bike shop, with a wheel that was on the verge of collapse, and no public transport options, I checked into a motel to assess my options. I ended up chatting to the owner, who called her husband, and together we hatched a plan.
Her husband, John Bridges, grabbed his van and drove me on a 70-mile round trip to several bike shops until we found one that could solve my problem. He wouldn’t accept a penny in return for his kindness and is an incredible example of a ‘trail angel’ truly saving the day. I always seem to come back from a long distance ride with a much better impression of humanity than when I started, and people like John are the reason why.
Kansas: goldfish bowl
Many residents of the UK, when they visit the US for the first time, comment on the sheer scale of the country — on the distances between places, the changes in landscapes, and even the size of the people. Compared the UK, the US is truly supersized in nearly every way. Nowhere did this strike me more than when I was riding across Kansas. The best I can do to describe the experience is to liken it to pedaling along inside an upturned goldfish bowl. The distinctive ‘pancake flat’ landscape spread out all around, the road arrow straight ahead, and the blue sky in a perfect arch overhead.
For me it was a surreal experience. A lot of riders comment that the Great Plains are akin to sensory deprivation — a time to introspect and go into yourself — but I found them to be an absorbing and alien landscape, nothing like anywhere I’ve visited before. Don’t get me wrong, I was glad when the Rockies began to swim into view over the western horizon, but my time in Kansas was unforgettable.
N.B. The second time I visited the Plains on a bike, this time in Montana and North Dakota, it was a soul-destroying experience (although good for fast miles). It remains to be seen which experience I’ll have in the Trans Am Race…
Cougar time: wildlife in the Rockies
Hoosier pass is the highest point on the Trans Am Trail, but the day I crossed it will not live long in the memory for that reason. It was one of the best days I’ve had on a bike, purely due to the scenery and the wildlife. I started the day in Guffey, CO (a tiny town way out in the mountains, made famous by the fact that it has a cat for a mayor) and had barely begun the ascent of Current Creek Pass, when I came across a stopped car. I drew alongside; the driver didn’t say anything but pointed up the road. Squinting toward where he was indicating, I could make out a large animal in the road ahead. ‘Mountain lion’ the driver whispered. It soon made it’s way off the road, and the car drove slowly for a while so I had a bit of protection. While Mountain lions don’t usually attack people but they are highly territorial so I was lucky I had an escort.
As if that wasn’t enough of an experience, coming over the top of the pass to see South Park Basin unfolding below me was incredible. Snow-capped mountains ringed the basin, and as I descended into the park I had several elk running beside me. It was possibly the best moment of the entire trip, and a serendipitous experience that I’ll probably never repeat. But that’s the beauty of long rides — anything can happen.
Check back soon for the final five moments that defined my 2010 journey along the Trans Am Trail. Reflecting on that tour is definitely whetting my appetite for the race in 2014 — I can’t wait to get back out there.