2021 Trans Am Bike Race Day 6 Report
Friday June 11, 2021: Alarm at 5:15am, out the door by 6:12am. A standard 1 hour transition from bed to bike that I would like to reduce by half at some point in my self supported ultra distance cycling “career”. This morning it was acceptance of, rather than frustration at, my pre-ride procrastination. An early 6 bracket departure would still given me what I wanted – ample opportunity to bang out a solid 12 hours of riding + breaks + achieve a good nights rest. My focus on big picture stuff such as beating my 2017 race time by 4 days had disappeared (thank goodness) to be replaced by a more narrow determination to simply produce solid replicable days. Based on where I was at physically and mentally, 12 hours of riding + say 2-3 hours of breaks was an effort I should be able to repeat day after day.
Ok, so that was the new strategy, implicit within which was the not so new tactic of chasing dots. I was still very keen on making up for the 6 racers who had passed me over days 3 and 4. Last nights brief check of Trackleaders had indicated that I had unknowingly clawed one back and caught up with another, JG who had also stayed in New Meadows. As of this morning, JG was already on the road, 2 more were in Riggins 50ks away, and another 5 were spread out over the next 130 odd kilometres.
There was plenty to go at.
My motivation was definitely elevated and not just to chase dots. One of the chaps in the hotel reception that I had chatted with late last night had given me a must do for Riggins – stop at the Cattlemen’s Restaurant on Main Street for a chicken fried steak. Freshly home made and the best for far and wide apparently. I needed no convincing. I’ve been in the market for a chicken fried steak (aka country fried steak) ever since I found out what one was (ie a deep or pan fried tenderized and breaded beef steak) on the 2017 Trans Am. Alas, I never got the opportunity to savor this Texas originated dish on that trip. Maybe this time around I could right that wrong………for breakfast.
Giddy right up!
Back on US Route 95, another cold and overcast morning but this time accompanied with a little fog. The first 10ks or so out of town are flattish along a mountain flanked valley. The mountains then soon close in to form a canyon, the road cascading downwards in the company of the fast flowing Little Salmon River towards Riggins. The conditions and topography dictate I assume a position in the drops and give the pedals a good nudge.
The Salmon are a Runnin’
Its a pretty fast journey to Riggins, the 55 kilometres taking well under 2 hours. On the approach into town where the Little Salmon River joins its larger namesake, the Salmon River, aka “the River of No Return” there are very obvious signs that the spring chinook salmon season is in full swing. Scores of Pickup trucks are parked up alongside the road and many fishermen are jostling for the perfect spot on the rocky river bank to catch one of the increasingly endangered fish. These salmon are returning to the place of their birth, the relative calm of the upper reaches of the Salmon River, to spawn after a ridiculously lengthy, perilous and obstacle laden journey from the Pacific Ocean. Tis’ a bona fide miracle of nature. One adult salmon per angler per day is the current strictly enforced limit that will keep extinction at bay for the time being, the only tangible long term solution being to remove the 4 federal dams and reservoirs on the lower Snake river.
Rolling into Riggins you get a real sense of what is at stake if the Salmon disappear. It is very obvious that the whole town is dependent on fishing tourism. Bait and tackle shops, a couple of hotels and plenty of food outlets line the main street in this town with a population of only 250. The restaurants that are open this early, the Cattleman’s amongst them are packed with fishermen who must be prioritising a good breakfast over a decent spot on the river. Selfishly for me though it means that my first chicken fried steak will have to wait. I envisage at least an hour off the road if I was to indulge. I am sorely tempted but common sense prevails.
I pedal on out of town.
Three’s Company on Whitebird Pass
The ride to the next town of Whitebird, heading north along the canyon following the path of the Salmon River took around 1 hour 45 minutes. It is a busy stretch of US Route 95, a steady stream of fast moving cars and large trucks keeping me on high alert.
Whitebird is named after Chief Whitebird, the leader of a band of the Nez Perce Indian tribe who with the assistance of Chief Joseph’s band kicked the arse of the US Army in the 1877 Battle of Whitebird Canyon, the first battle of the Nez Perce War. The battle was the culmination of years worth of broken treaties by white settlers as they expanded westward. The Indians had already made considerable concessions and were en route east from their ancestral homeland in the Wallowa Valley to an agreed upon reservation. Although the Nez Perce elders counselled peace, out of bitterness 3 young braves killed 3 white settlers. Things escalated quickly and although Chief Joseph in particular still wanted peace, the US Army got involved and attacked the Nez Perce near modern day Whitebird only to be soundly defeated. Knowing they had inadvertently kicked the hornets nest the Nez Perce subsequently went on the run, a forced march north to the freedom and safety of Canada.
In Trans Am circles Whitebird is known as the last port of call before tackling the mighty Old Whitebird Grade, aka Whitebird Pass. It is a very tough yet spectacular 16 kilometre climb, complete with proper Tour de France-like switchbacks and beautiful views. Four years ago I had ridden half the climb in the dusk and the other half in the pitch dark of night and I was looking forward to a daylight summiting.
I had been on the go for almost 4 hours and just over 100 kilometres, I was very happy with the progress and keen to keep the momentum going but a resupply in Whitebird was essential before the climb. I rolled down Main Street surveying the limited options. There was a bike parked up outside the General Store. Another Trans Am racer! It had been 3 days since I had seen another racer, 4 days since I had actually spoken with one. I parked up and headed in to see who it was. It was JG, Jeff Grissom from Indiana. We introduced ourselves and chatted away on our respective adventures to date whilst stocking up on what we needed.
As we were settling up with the friendly store clerk who was very much part of the conversation, the front door opened and who was to walk in but………Sonny Rasmussen. Three 2021 Trans Am racers in da house!
I was the first back on the road, a local who had obviously witnessed many a hardy cyclist head out of town to tackle Whitebird Pass yelled out his best wishes. It spurred me on and I upped the effort but Sonny and Jeff soon caught up with me, ye ole’ power to weight ratio very much in their favour.
The climb takes us almost 2 hours. We ride a majority of it 3 abreast, chatting and laughing together, Sonny occasionally flicking open his Gopro to film our progress. He is collecting footage for a short film that will be made about him by documentary filmmaker Annalisa van den Bergh who described the project on the Trans Am race Facebook page earlier in the year; “The short film will help bridge the gap between the hearing and Deaf communities while telling the ultimate story of perseverance and adventure.” Earlier in that same post Sonny had described living with deafness; “….Throughout my life I have experienced oppression and misconception of my deafness, language, intelligence and ability. I never gave up and continue to fight, proving to people what I am capable of.”
Damn fucking right!
You meet the most extraordinary people in these racers. Jeff also, one of the older blokes (62) in the field although you would never tell by looking at him. His bike broke days before the race, not a small problem but he refused to let that get in the way of his Trans Am dream. He tracked down a similar bike, swapped out all the kit, just in time for the start. I very much doubt whether I would have persevered with a bike that I hadn’t thoroughly prepared on.
Anyway, a tough climb made a lot less tough in the company of these 2 legends, capped nicely at the summit by a group photo.
Grangeville to Kooskia
The 3 of us ride a majority of the descent to Grangeville together and then go out separate ways. We lose Jeff on the approach into town and then Sonny heads off to grab some lunch. He tries to convince me to join him but I am keen to crack on. I feel a bit rude but I still have enough supplies on the bike to make it to the next services in Koosksia, 35ks up the road. Efficiency is top of mind and I only want to stop when I absolutely have to.
I bid Sonny farewell and ride on out of town. I am soon passing through a wide open, rolling expanse of farmland and prairie, a dramatically different scene from that earlier in the day. About 15ks out of town I pass a couple of touring cyclists that have stopped by the side of the road. They give me a big cheer which gives me a hit of adrenaline. I start to push harder. I spot the flashing red light of another cyclist further up the road and wonder if it is a racer. Surely not another one. I have cell coverage so I check Trackleaders. It is! MH, Mike Healey from Florida. Bloody hell it is raining dots today. I push even harder to see if I can catch up.
It takes me a while but I eventually catch up with Mike, ably assisted by the very steep descent down Lamb Grade Hill, where you drop like a stone from the aforementioned wide open farmland to the more enclosed valley of the South Fork Clearwater River.
“That is not a Floridian accent!”
Turns out Mike is Irish and we chat away abouts matters expat and our Trans Am experience to date whilst pedaling the next 8ks to Kooskia. He is another one of the fit as……..a fiddle 60+ year olds. I tell ya if I am smashing the pedals like these blokes in my 60s I will be damn impressed with myself.
From Kooskia the route gets very remote, one of the longest section of the Trans Am trail with no to very limited services. It is around 2pm so I will need enough food and drink to last me the rest of the day, overnight and possibly well into the next morning depending on how far I get tonight.
Mike and I stop at a supermarket on the main street, do our respective shopping and reconvene back out the front to chat, eat and drink whilst jamming all the purchased provisions into our bike bags. He hits the road first but I need a little more time off the bike. All of a sudden I feel quite fatigued, probably a combination of not eating enough and pushing a bit too hard on that last section from Grangeville.
Will I ever learn!
It ends up being quite a long break, around an hour and I eventually force myself back on the bike to tackle the next part of the route into the Idaho wilderness.
Into the Idaho Wilderness
There is an inherent excitement with not knowing what is around the next corner, the opposite when you do, particularly when the memory is tinged with memories of struggle. This was definitely the case as I made the right turn out of Kooskia onto US Route 12 at the middle fork of the Clearwater River. I knew based from my time on this road 4 years ago that it would be tough going. I knew that I would be stuck on that damn road for what would seem like an eternity as it followed the Clearwater and then Lochsa Rivers up into and over the Bitterroot Mountains via the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests……….for 160 kilometres! Furthermore I knew that I would be climbing the whole bloody way, a mind achingly frustrating false flat of circa 1 to 2.5% for a majority of that 160 kilometres with a ramp up towards the end over Lolo Pass.
It is one hell of an exercise in focusing on the moment rather than the big picture.
I pedal on quite unenthused by the task at hand, the big picture on my shoulders. It is warm and I am getting through my water a lot quicker than ideal so stop at the tiny town of Syringa at the River Dance Lodge and Cafe. It is closed due to COVID but I catch the eye of two ladies who are cleaning up inside the cafe and they kindly top up my water bottles with water and ice. The icy water really hit the spot!
Only 10ks later I come across the Wildnerness Inn in Lowell, the last chance to purchase calories for at least the next 120 kilometres so an essential stop despite the recent dalliance in Syringa. I sit out front for a while, slurping Coke, munching on chocolate and thinking. I would have loved to have got over Lolo Pass tonight but that is looking increasingly unrealistic. It is pushing 5pm so a summiting at the earliest would be very early in the morning. I very much doubt I have enough in the tank for that and besides it would be way contrary to my thinking of earlier in the day to “bang out a solid 12 hours of riding + breaks + achieve a good nights rest”.
OK, so an early night it will be. Put in another 2 hours of riding, give my brand spanking new bivy its first outing and get out very early in the morning.
From Lowell, the river (the Lochsa River now) reduces in breadth, the mountains either side close in and the pine forest increases in height and density. It starts to feel remote. It is remote and as the road winds it way north east along the river it becomes increasingly so. The scenery has not changed much in hundreds of years, from the days when the Nez Perce tread a similar path on their annual summer pilgrimage north to hunt buffalo, and again as they fled towards Canada following the Battle of Whitebird Canyon in 1877. In 1805, the Lewis and Clarke expedition also battled through this rugged country, following the river in the opposite direction on their journey to the west coast. They battled so much that they had to send an advance party ahead for food as they were running low. Ironically the Nez Perce came to the rescue and in their first dealings with the white man assisted with supplies of salmon and roots.
I put in another couple of hours of riding before finally deciding on an open gravel clearing between the road and the river to set up camp. It is ridiculously early, only around 8pm Pacific Time (I crossed back into Pacific Time from Mountain time past Riggins), but I’ve never used a bivy before and would prefer to negotiate its unveiling in daylight hours. As I unpack, my neighbor, a campervanner who is parked up at the opposite end of the clearing and who I hadn’t noticed as I rolled in comes over to say hi. He is very noticeably stoned and up for a chat. Not wanting to piss him off I accept the offered can of hard soda and indulge him for a while.
He finally leaves. I wriggle my way into my sleeping system and set my alarm for 1:00am. I’ve done the solid 12 hours in the saddle, now for the good nights sleep…..hopefully.