Thursday June 29, 2017: This was the 4th out of the 27 Trans Am mornings that I had shared with JJ. From a shed in Wyoming to a church in Kentucky, to an Airbnb and a hotel in Virginia. It was not a large proportion of the race, we had both ridden the race predominantly solo, but we had shared a lot of laughs and memories that would most probably last a lifetime. Although nothing was outwardly said to this effect it was undoubtedly going to be our last morning in each others company. I was absolutely committed to finishing on Friday (the next day!) while JJ was a whole lot more relaxed about the world.
We had risen later than previous mornings and I was particularly anxious to hit the road. I was going to skip breakfast but thought better of it. Skipping an included buffet breakfast to save 20 minutes was just plain stupidity. These budget hotel breakfasts may have lacked quality and taste but they offered a bountiful range of calories. Calories that I would absolutely need if I was to put in a 300+ kilometre day. I could also grab a good half dozen muffins that I could store on my bike to keep me going through the morning.
Breakfast done, I shook JJ’s hand in the hotel foyer and wheeled my bike with him out into the bright sunlight of the morning. It was 6:53 am.
The goal for the day was to at least halve the distance to the finish which meant at least 315 kilometres.
My strategy was to ride Balls Out.
My tactics were to keep stoppage time to an absolute minimum by focusing on keeping breaks to a total of no more than an hour per hundred kilometres. Alas, photo taking would also have to take a back seat.
I cued some fire up tunes, hit the drops and didn’t look back.
my exuberance and determination to get the day off to a flying start was tempered by the constantly rolling terrain. Progress was frustratingly slow with the first 4o kilometres of the day to Christiansburg taking just under 2 hours.
The reality of the day started to kick in, ie it was going to be a long one.
In an attempt to claw back some time I didn’t stop for water in Christiansburg. I’d avoided stupidity earlier but on this occasion ploughed straight ahead into the land of Stupid, population me. I’d already been going for 2 hours, the heat of the day was beginning to kick in and the next services were over 60 kilometres away. I mean how in holy crap was 1.3 litres (2 x water bottles) of water going to last me 110 kilometres?!
My stupidity was predictably rewarded by running out of water on the next remote stretch of road that wound its way along a seemingly never-ending valley. I felt dehydration close in on me as were the mountain ridges on either side of the road.
At last, after 5 hours of hard riding I finally made it into Daleville, rather dried out. I looked left and saw a Subway; “not hungry, just thirsty”, and right; “Gas station….that’ll do nicely!”
Ice cream and plenty of sugary drinks brought me back from the brink of dehydration.
There were a couple of silver linings from my stupidity laced morning however; 1. I was well ahead of the game with my 1 hour stoppage time per 100 kilometres idea, and 2. I was gaining on those 5 dots. LK, JR and CS were very much in my sights while RJ and MB were further down the track and would prove to be a longer term project 😉 .
Interstates, Dot-Catching And The Passing Of The Pepper Spray
I was back on the road at Midday and progress continued to be muted by the rolling terrain, although I was able to pick up the pace a bit on a section of Interstate 81. Interstates may well flatten the terrain but they are not meant for cyclists and that 13 kilometre stretch was particularly sketchy. Despite a wide hard shoulder, I was still buffeted by the massive trucks roaring by and the further to the right I rode meant more road debris to dodge. I felt far from safe.
My relief was palpable as I existed this brief yet manic section of Interstate and resumed the peace and quiet of country roads. Not far on I came across fellow Aussie LK (Lochie Kavanagh) who was taking a breather by the side of the road. I hadn’t seen Lochie since way back on Day 3 at the Spoke’n Hostel in Mitchell, Oregon. He had ridden an extremely strong race but had run into some mechanical and health problems which had slowed his progress considerably.
We rode together for a while and chatted. Lochie had ridden across Australia in March as part of the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race (IndyPac) and I was keen to get his thoughts on which race he thought was harder. Despite it being a shorter race than the Trans Am (by 1,300 kilometres) he believed that the long remote stretch across the Nullarbor Plain made the IndyPac a tougher race. IndyPac sits atop my Ride Bucket List anyway but that little piece of info only steeled my determination to make it happen sooner rather than later. The tougher the better!
Further down Plank Road we came across a touring cyclist coming the other way. We all stopped and chatted a while. He was from Germany and was only 4 days into his East to West Trans Am Adventure. He looked so fresh and eager, with pretty much the whole of the country laid out before him, as we had had almost a month earlier. As wiley old “veterans” we shared a few tips for the road and warned him of the dogs in Kentucky. He hadn’t heard about the dogs and all of a sudden some of that eagerness existed his expression. I felt bad so gave him my Pepper Spray. Besides, I really didn’t need my 2 boys playing with it when I got back.
“Give it a coupla practice squirts and you’ll be sweet ole’ mate!”
Late Liquid Lunch In Lexington
I rode with Lochie for a little while but my eagerness to make tracks soon took over and I pedalled away out front. I rolled into the city of Lexington about an hour later just before 3:30 pm.
I hadn’t had a proper meal since breakfast but I refused myself the luxury of stopping at one of the many restaurants on Main Street. My desire to minimise stoppage time was feverish, borderline manic. I wasn’t really hungry anyway so settled on a tiny little gas station and plundered it of an insane array of drinks and icecream; 1x Gatorade, 1x Chocolate Milk, 1 x Coconut Water, 1 x Coke 2 x Waters, 1 x Magnum and 1 x Popsicle. I thought I’d better include some “solids” so threw a packet of chips and a rather decrepit looking ham and cheese sandwich onto the counter. “Will that be all?” said the clerk with a wry smile.
There was nowhere to consume out the front of the gas station so I wheeled bike and clinking plastic bags across the road to a patch of grass out the front of the Washington and Lee University. The scene I created was an unsubtle combination of abject homelessness and mad-hatters picnic and I quite expected a “please move on sir” at any moment.
Indeed I was approached, but it was by a friendly local dot watcher (aka Dot Watcher 8) who’s name I unfortunately can’t remember. He was a teacher at the Military Academy just down the road and he had been coming out when he could to greet the Trans Am racers as they passed by. He actually had lunch a couple of hours earlier with 2 of the dots I was hunting down, MB (Mike Benigni) and RJ (Russell Jones).
Ah ha, I had their scent 😉 .
My new dotwatching friend was also a keen cyclist and described in quite a bit of detail the next sections of the route that would involve a long false flat, an insanely steep climb up a mountain called Vesuvius and then a long section along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I pretty much switched off for the Blue Ridge Parkway bit as I couldn’t get my mind off Vesuvius. It sounded ominous but I couldn’t wait to tackle it, the last big hurdle of the race.
Anyway, Dotwatcher 8 left me to my glutenous ways and it didn’t take me long to polish of everything! After all that though I still needed more water and snacks for the bike so I went back to my Lexington processed sugar dealer at the gas station for more smack. In a rare display (for that day anyway) of common sense I bought an extra 1.5 litres of water to strap to the top tube.
I would need it!
3 Dots Down 2 To Go
From my picnic spot I had seen Lochie pass by and so in a frenzy of pedal strokes I headed off to catch him. I would pass Lochie soon enough but funnily enough I would come across JR (John Richardson) and CS (Clay Stark) only a couple of hundred metres down the road.
I hadn’t seen John since Day 15 in Eades, Colorado (from afar) and Clay since Day 9 at a bike shop in West Yellowstone. It was great catching up with these guys and riding with them for a while, not for racing reasons but simply because it was just awesome being in the company of such cracking human beings. Two harder bastards (an Aussie term of endearment – just thought I’d better explain 😉 ) you will never meet. Clay, in his late 50’s, had got back into cycling 5 years before whilst undergoing treatment for throat cancer. He had been clipped by the rearview mirror of a car hours after riding past the crash scene where fellow racer Eric Fishbein had been killed, yet continued on in the race. Up until Day 15 I had seen a fair bit of John, an experienced ultra bike racer and runner. I think he is approaching his mid 60’s and what he lacked in sheer speed on the road he would make up for by riding extremely long days and sleeping rough. I know all of us mid-packers where in awe of his toughness.
It was an absolute honour being in the same race as these gents.
Anyway, I rode with Clay and John for a little while, chatting with each of them briefly in turn, before we collectively realised that we were off route. I blame the 2 old boys. Tough they may well have been, but shit navigators….. 😉 , although maybe my presence had interrupted their flow.
No dramas, only a couple of extra kilometres and we were back on track soon enough.
Not long later I passed Lochie who was sitting out the front of a convenience store on a corner as the route turned left onto River Road. I waved to him and then pedalled away with Vesuvius and the 2 remaining dots on my mind.
I was in full on racing mode now, keen to put daylight behind me and to close the gap to Mike and Russell. I spent a majority of the next 20 odd kilometres on the false flat to the town of Vesuvius in the drops, cranking away.
I paid for it though as after an hour of tempo+ riding I was blowing pretty hard and had to take a quick breather at the base of the climb and then again a couple of kilometres up the climb at a little snow-ball (similar but not the same as snow cones apparently) stand that had been set up in someone’s backyard. I bought a couple of Pepsis from the owner who came out to say hi although he was a tiny bit disappointed that I didn’t want to try one of his famous snow-ball’s, the method and recipe for which he had brought from his native New Orleans. We chatted whilst I drank. He had moved from the big easy about 5 years ago and loved it in the mountains but it had taken him a while to get used to the bears.
Bears eh, excellent news!
In brief summary, the climb up Vesuvius is incredibly tough on a loaded bike. Strava has it as a Category 2, 5.1 kilometres at an average 9%. My bike and my person had never been lighter but I needed every last gear of my 36-11 rear cassette. Thank goodness I swapped it out from a 28-11 just before the race, otherwise there would probably have been a fair bit of walking involved.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
The Vesuvius climb literally ends at an intersection with the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP). I had absolutely no idea at the time but this 755 kilometre (469 mile) stretch of road from Virginia to North Carolina along the Appalachian Blue Ridge, is one of the most famous roads in the US. It is actually 1 of only 31 scenic byways that have been officially designated an ‘All American Road”.
To be designated an All-American Road, a road must have at least two of the following six qualities; scenic, natural, historic, cultural, archaeological and recreational. Now I was only “up there” on the BRP for 2 hours and 45 kilometres but I would absolutely concur with its supreme scenic, natural and recreational qualities.
I mentioned in an earlier post that my time riding in the mountains, particularly the Cascades and the Rockies were changing me from a beach guy to a mountain guy. This stretch of BRP sealed the deal.
I will be back.
Trail Angels From Heaven: Gretchen Heller Thomas & Christopher Thomas
It it hard riding getting up onto the BRP, it is also quite hard riding whilst up there. This I was not expecting. For whatever reason, I only expected a shortish period of easy riding along a plateau of sorts and then a long old descent towards Charlottesville.
Not to be.
The scenery was incredible but was fast disappearing with the lengthening shadows of early evening and I didn’t particularly want to get caught up there in the dark as my front lighting situation was far from optimal at that time. My dyno light hadn’t worked the whole race (piece of shit!!) and the front light I’d bought at a bike shop in Lander, Wyoming was low on charge, as was my helmet light. I was also very low on water and snacks.
Enter stage left the Thomas’s, Gretchen and Christopher, Trans Am Trail Angels from Waynesboro, Virginia, who flagged me down after about an hour up there. They were cruising the BRP with a car full of Gatorade, water and baggies of trail mix to assist us racers.
I could wax lyrical about these guys for paragraphs but as this blog post is dragging on a bit I’ll keep it short and simple. Two nicer people you will never meet, so incredibly warm and generous. The drinks and snacks they provided literally sustained me to Charlottesville. I doubt I would have made it there without them.
The Blue Ridge Parkway Continued
Gretchen and Christopher not only restored my water and food stocks but they also resurrected my spirits as I was starting to struggle a bit until I met them. So much so that despite the fact I just wanted to get off that bloody parkway I couldn’t help but stop on a couple of occasions to take in the sheer splendour of the views and the most amazing sunset…..
The Moth Prophecy
The descent down the BRP would have been a lot more enjoyable in the light of the day as I could have really put the hammer down, but it was still satisfactorily fast. The Thomas’s had given me a heads up on a couple of tricky turns off the BRP onto Rockfish Gap Turnpike and then onto State Highway 6, without which I could easily have gone hurtling off in the wrong direction.
I then settled into a rhythm of sorts on some windy old back roads before coming to a T intersection facing an ancient looking convenience store in the tiny little town of White Hall. I was tiring and in need of something sweet and caffeinated but as it was almost 10:30 pm the store was of course closed. There was however a vending machine out the front so I rolled over and bought a Coke and kicked back to drink it on a picnic table.
As I sat and drank I realised how exhausted I was, unsurprisingly as I’d banked just under 300 kilometres in 15.5 hours with well over 3,000 metres (10,000 ft) of elevation. I’d done longer days in the saddle distance wise but with that elevation, it was my biggest ever day on a bike. I was satisfied with that effort and looked around for somewhere to sleep. I just couldn’t be bothered unpacking and pitching my tent so as it was a warm evening I got out my sheet and rolled up in it right then and there on the picnic table. I didn’t even take out my contact lenses.
Unfortunately, the vending machine was giving off just enough light to attract the biggest moths I have ever seen. They reminded me of fruit bats, freaky damn things and their incessant flapping around my head meant that despite my tired state there was no way any sleep was going to be happening there.
I was not overjoyed at the prospect of getting back on the bike but there really was no other option. To stimulate the old motivation I switched on Trackleaders. Mike and Russell seemed to be stopped in Charlottesville. Hang on, that’s only 20 kilometres away…..Giddyup!!
Consider my motivation suitably cattle prodded.
I rolled into the city of Charlottesville an hour later at around midnight. I was ravenous so stopped at a gas station for food and to check my phone for local hotels.
Whilst polishing off some fried stuff and pizza I also checked Trackleaders. Mike and Russell were well past Charlottesville near the town of Palmyra, about 40 kilometres away.
I fully expected to have caught them in Charlottesville. I must have been looking at old Trackleaders data earlier and/or the boys were riding like men possessed. To this day I have wondered whether they were keeping an eye over their shoulder at my approaching dot and kept on riding that night. One day we’ll talk it through over a beer or six.
I almost considered cracking on into the night to catch them but thought better of it. I’d reached my goal for the day of halving the distance to the finish. Another big day and I would be reunited with my family.
I found a hotel just off route near the University, set my alarm for silly o’clock and promptly fell asleep.
Day 27 Territory Covered and Stats
3D overview from Relive:
2D overview from Strava:
- Distance = 314 km
- Cycling (ie moving) Time = 13 hours and 28 minutes
- Stopped Time = 3 hour and 52 minutes
- Elevation = 3,565 m
- Money Spent = $104 ($44 on food/drink, $60 on accommodation, $0 on bike maintenance/stuff)
Read the final day….Day 28.