2021 Trans Am Bike Race Day 1 Report
Sunday June 6, 2021: I woke before my alarm. Standard practice on the morn of any big life event, for most I would assume….there being few bigger than racing ones bike across a continent. I had slept well. The jagged nerves of 4 years previous which had prevented a peaceful nights rest had been replaced by a calm sense of anticipation. After mid pack finishes in the 2017 Trans Am and 2019 Trans Atlantic Way, I was now a little more versed in the elusive art of self supported ultra distance racing. Kit selection a little more dialed plus I now knew with certainty that with a little luck I could actually finish these ridiculous races. Specific knowledge of this particular route also a massive benefit. Knowledge = power = a more calm MAMIL on race morn.
Calm is good of course, if a little uninspiring. I was envious of the rookie racers who were about to tackle this magnificent route for the first time and in particular those who hadn’t done any touring or multi day ultra racers before. They were no doubt jumping out of their skin with nervous excitement. That leap of faith, that “lets have a crack and see what happens” feeling is simply exhilarating. I felt it just over 4 years ago and I really felt its absence that morning as I paced my Airbnb, munching away on a purposely bland breakfast (ref below) of toast, trail mix and highly sugared black coffee, whilst packing up my bike bags.
Don’t get me wrong, I was still pumped, just not as pumped as I was for the 2017 race.
You never forget your first!
Or maybe my slightly reduced stoke was due to the fact that I was still feeling rather rough. I won’t bore you with the garish details but I was still a long way off recovering from a nasty bout of food poisoning that I suffered 2 nights earlier. North-east Portland Wholefoods’ store made guacamole very much in the frame. Suffice is to say I wouldn’t be surprised if there were mass resignations amongst the Portland Airport Holiday Inn cleaning staff after witnessing the aftermath Friday morning. I doubt Keith Richards in his prime would have left a hotel room in such a state.
I felt crap all Friday but managed to drive to Astoria – if I had had to ride as I did in 2017 I would have been totally screwed. 14 hours sleep Friday night had me feeling less crap Saturday and I made myself do an hour long shakedown ride before the pre-race meeting in the late afternoon.
Race morn, early Sunday, better again but still very rough, still a good ways of being ready to race.
Anyway, enough excuse laden preamble. Time to ride bikes.
At around 5:45am I wheeled my bike out into the chilly, wet and a little breezy Astoria morning. Later than planned – I’d miss the start line photograph……again. The rain was not heavy but steady and it looked set in enough to warrant full adoption of my wet weather kit – rain jacket with hood tucked under helmet, rain pants and waterproof socks. The later 2 items 1 of many tips I had picked up from Touring With A Sense of Urgency (not an affiliate link, just sharing the love) by self supported ultra cycling legends Jesse Carlsson and Sarah Hammond. (There is no better ‘How To’ out there – I just wish I stumbled across it earlier)
From my Airbnb on Pier 39 it was about a 8 minute slow pedal along the Columbia River path to the Maritime Museum. The breeze definitely stiffer than previously noted. The racers were already arranged in a line out the front of the museum and I took my place at the end.
“Lovely day for it” I said to no one in particular.
There was a loud and incredibly infectious giggle coming from my right.
“Yes, Hi Mark” said De’Anna Caligiuri with a broad smile.
“Lovely to meet you in person”.
De’Anna had reached out to me in early May after a race in Pennsylvania called ‘Crush the Commonwealth’ (Pittsburgh to Philly in odd years and the reverse in even years) which we had both participated in. She had read my 2017 Trans Am blog and wanted to chat more about it but our paths hadn’t crossed, no doubt due to the fact that I had been running late and pretty much missed the start (a common theme here??) and also because she was a shedload faster than me….12 hours faster to be exact……in a 400 mile race!
I had a feeling she was going to have a strong Trans Am.
Our brief chat was rudely interrupted by a call to start the race and we all ambled forward in a bunch towards the exit of the Museum complex. I found myself next to a big name in ultra cycling, Evan Deutsch from Portland who was lining up for his 4th Trans Am, 1 win and 2 third placings to his name. The smart money was on him and his fellow P-Towner Kraig Pauli.
Before I had a chance to fan boy out, we were off…….and rollin’…..not racing just yet as there was 10 k’s of neutral rollout to negotiate first. I looked around. There were noticeably less people clicking in than in 2017, 42 intrepid souls vs 130 odd 4 years previously. The Global Pandemic and associated travel bans keeping what was usually a very international field to that from the Lower 48 States of the US.
My chances for first Aussie home had never looked rosier ;-).
I rode briefly with Alan Murphy from Michigan, also a veteran of the 2017 race. Our pacing had been very similar on that ride but our paths never crossed. He rectified that wrong by introducing himself at the pre-race meeting yesterday. It was great to meet another racer from that extraordinary edition of the race, particularly someone from the Mid-pack. So many stories to share. Hopefully I’d see him again as the race unfolded over the next few weeks.
Next man up Ryan Davis from South Carolina. I’d briefly met Ryan in Kinsale, Ireland at the finish of the 2019 Trans Atlantic Way where he was helping out as Race Photographer. He takes amazing photos (@mrides on Instagram), specializing in capturing candid photos of peoples faces, particularly those of ultra distance cyclists……and his girlfriend ;-). You really get a sense that he is trying to capture the emotional state of the subject in the moment – such rich pickings amongst us ultra racers. He’d had a field day at the pre-race meeting and caught me in a moment of “How the fuck am I going to ride tomorrow?!”
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I rode with Ryan until the end of the neutral roll out, chatting photography, grand stand finishes in Yorktown complete with loved ones (too early perhaps??) and knives…..yes knives. Not much of a knife guy me but upon Ryan’s unveiling of a rather impressive daggery looking thing with his best Paul Hogan’ “that’s a knife” I couldn’t help but wonder at the possibilities such an item could provide on a self supported cross continent bike ride. Possibilities currently unobtainable via my titanium spork.
The conversation made me laugh but unfortunately it was over in short order as we fish tailed our way across the slippery metallic surface of the Lewis and Clarke River Bridge. The bridge crossing signifying the end of the neutral rollout. The race across the country was on. Soon enough the field strung out and in a fluid movement of knife sheathing and arse lifting out of saddle, Ryan was off to hunt down the leaders.
I wondered if I would see him down the track.
There was no arse lifting out of saddle for me though. The fresh conditions and adrenaline hit at the start hadn’t blown off the cobwebs as I’d hoped. I would very much need to manage my effort until my mojo was restored. Hopefully that would be sooner rather than later. I had big plans for Day 1.
Head down. Find the gear. Turn the pedals. Grit the teeth.
The mornings riding was tough. A battle against low energy, persistent rain and a stiff easterly breeze which retarded progress as either a cross or a headwind as the route meandered south down the Pacific Coast. Ever so often I would pass or I would be passed by another rider, a cursory nod and brief interaction helping in the battle against the elements. A feeling that we were all in this together.
4 years ago I had been fully engaged with the ruggedly beautiful Oregon coast and heavily forested hinterland; Haystack Rock, the Paragliders readying themselves for action off Sunset Beach, the novel Tsunami Hazard Zone road signs. This time around though each was just another familiar sight to afford a cursory glance. Nothing special.
Yup, my mood was darkening with the weather.
I actually almost told Alan Murphy to “fuck off!”
We came across each other on the stretch into Bay City, a small town on the western shore of Tilamook Bay, about 105k’s and 5 hours into the days play. Alan is a lovely bloke, always up for a chat – the polar opposite of me when I’ve got the shits. He also has a very clear, crisp voice and despite the wind, the rain and his location 10 feet behind me it felt like his voice was coming from somewhere adjacent my left shoulder.
“Nice work Mark. Perfect pacing. Thanks!”
“Wow, what’s that smell? (the aroma of fried and/or baked food was in the air). “Smells delicious.”
I attempted a response to each comment, but my voice being rather less clear and crisp (more a dull monotone) was lost in the road noise.
“What was that?”……….”Huh?”
Oh for fuck sake!
(Alan – l love you mate!)
There was a silver lining to my head down, elbows on aero bars position though. I was able to observe and indeed to ponder, thus taking my mind briefly off my woes, the phenomenon of floss picks on the shoulder of the road. I think that’s what they’re called – a small strand of dental floss on a tiny plastic sling shot looking thing. Dental care for those craving ultra convenience. I’ve seen these before by the side of the road whilst riding but never in these numbers. The 10k stretch on the busy Oregon Coast Highway that led to the town of Tillamook was littered with the damn things. As I slalomed past them I made up all kinds of scenarios as to why they were there for shits n’ giggles – none of them that complimentary to the locals.
Despite having plenty of water and food on board I decided to honor my day 1 plan and stop to resupply at a Shell Gas Station in Tillamook. Besides I just wanted to get off my damn bike for a bit. Still having plenty of water in particular after 5.5 hours in the saddle was a sure fire indicator that I was riding dumb – not rehydrating anywhere near to the extent that I should have been.
I’d pay for it.
The next 40 kilometres to Pacific City took just under 2.5 hours. Very slow going which included a few brief stops here and there to adjust my wet weather gear and to simply rest on my handle bars to gather myself.
I was really starting to struggle, both physically and mentally.
It was becoming painfully obvious how depleted I still was from the food poisoning. I felt like I was running on fumes, nothing in the tank. Not drinking enough water during the mornings riding hadn’t bloody well helped.
My mental state was deteriorating. I had been so excited to test myself against the Trans Am course again and to better my time of 27.5 days. The goal was 23 days. An aggressive target, particularly as I was coming in way heavier than ideal but given my knowledge of the route combined with a good 14 months worth of preparation and a fancy new bike, I thought realistic enough. Given that the second half of my 2017 race was significantly stronger than the first half and indeed the second half of the course is arguably harder (there is more climbing in the last third than the 1st third), a majority of the 4.5 day improvement would need to happen in the first 2 weeks.
A big first 3 days was essential and I had planned accordingly….in detail.
As I rolled into Pacific City, 155 kilometres and 8 and a bit hours in, that plan was already out the window. I was pretty much cooked, not even halfway to the planned day 1 destination of Coburg.
The disappointment was hitting hard.
Maybe a good coffee and a coupla pastries will help.
I pedaled over to the coffee shop I remembered from 4 years ago……..closed……..Fuck it!
Option b was the general store opposite for something way less comforting than coffee and pastries. Oh well, at least I got to meet 2 other racers, Hunter Shaak from Maine and Sonny Rasmussen from South Dakota.
I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic. This general store had been bursting with Trans Am riders and tourism in 2017, Covid very obviously affecting both dramatically. I had met Russel Jones here and caught up with me ole’ mate Mike Benigni who I then rode with for a while.
A New Plan
From Pacific City the route rejoins the Oregon Coast Highway. I swapped race position and a few words with Mike from Florida. I didn’t realize it at the time but it was actually the one and only Mike “4 x” Robison, a nickname coined by Virginian Dotwatcher extraordinaire, Prince Purple, in recognition of the 2021 race being Mike’s 4th Trans Am!
Chapeau Mike, chapeau!
In a vein attempt to “freshen up” I had taken off all my wet weather gear just past Tillamook but the rain was back with a vengeance. Luckily I was passing through the coastal village of Neskowin and pulled into a hotel complex to take shelter whilst getting it all back on again. Oh what fun! I was sorely tempted to cut my losses, call it a day and get a room but I just couldn’t do it.
I perused my race notes. Coburg, still 185 kilometres away was in a different galaxy to what I was capable of that day. I worked my way up the spreadsheet. Harrisburg (where I had overnighted in 2017), 166 kilometres down the track. Nah. Corvalis, 130 kilometres. Also a big fat No!
Shit eh, the revised goal for the day’s riding is gonna have to be the city of Monmouth. Given my pre-race confidence I hadn’t even noted any accommodation options there.
Awrighty then, lets get these next 100k’s out of the damn way!
The next 100k’s
Back on to the Oregon Coast Highway for a bit and then a left turn onto Slab Creek Road for a testing 10k climb.
Plenty of stops to suck it up but at least it was a nice, quiet back road and the rain had reduced to a drizzle. On one of the breaks I took a selfie to commemorate the fun I was having….
….So much fun in fact that I decided to extend the days riding by taking a wrong turn. I had stopped in the tiny little town of Otis (which made national headlines I have since learned in 2004 when it was announced that it was for sale for $3million), for yet another quick break. Jeff Hunt from Mississippi had rolled up. It was great to see a familiar face. Jeff had introduced himself at the pre-race meeting, wanting to say that he had read and enjoyed my 2017 race blog. A lovely gesture which meant a lot. We chatted for a bit before I took his leave and continued on straight ahead, whilst he studied his paper maps and instead took a left turn.
It was not a costly error, only 10 minutes worth but it was further proof that I was just not in the game.
From Otis it was long and steady 30 odd kilometre climb, firstly on backroads and then on the busy Oregon Route 18. The route was now trending east. The flirtation with the Pacific Ocean was finally over. Progress was now being made to the Atlantic.
I caught up with Jeff and we rolled into the American Market convenience store together in the ex Indian Reservation town of Grand Ronde at around 6:30pm. The sun was finally coming out. I was in need of calories but had no appetite to consume anything so made some lazy choices from the fried and refined sugar food groups. A friendly store clerk roused me from my dazed state and we talked Trans Am for a while.
Back on the road. 45 kilometers to Monmouth.
About an hours riding later I needed the bathroom. Number 1. Standard (rather civilized) operating procedure for me in such a circumstance usually involving walking my bike well off the road, laying it down and then taking some form of cover behind any available flora. Particularly relevant when riding on a busy road (assume a non built up area – I am not an animal). However, in my fatigued state I couldn’t be bothered with all the above and from just off the road surface and whilst still attached to the bike via my right cleat, untucked and unleashed. I was at an angle that afforded a modest amount of cover from traffic but no cover what so ever from the approaching Jeff who pulled up right next to me. The poor chap quite obviously thought I was resting and I simply didn’t have the energy to yell out out “Hey mate, I’m pissing here!”
It turns out almost pissing on someone is quite the conversation stopper. Without a word he was off.
I caught up with Jeff about 30 minutes later on the approach to Monmouth. He was checking his maps.
“All good mate?”
“This the right way into town?”
“Yep. Straight on.”
And that was it. He rode his race and I rode mine. (Chapeau Jeff!)
I jumped on the bike path for the straight, flat section into Monmouth, the red sign of the College Inn promising the first comfort of the day. The car park was almost full. Please, please have a vacancy.
I got the last room.
What a day! Good to have it behind me.