While on parental leave in Golden, BC, I started chatting with my friend’s friend Anton Lindberg about bikes. Anton had a frame designer friend, Freddie Sandström, who had agreed to help him with a custom titanium bike packing frame, and I felt that I wanted one too, and that perhaps the Trans Am was the right excuse to get one. After very many iterations, the design was finalized, and eventually the frame arrived.
Last summer, I rode down to Slovenia together with friends Martin and Tomas – with Tomas’ brother Martin providing the luxury of a follow vehicle, and then started talking loosely with Martin about the Trans Am. Not very long thereafter, we were signed up.
The Trans Am Bike Race (TABR) is an annual self-supported race along the Trans Am Bike Route, which starts in Astoria, OR and ends in Yorktown, VA. Some more info about it is featured on Wikipedia. There is also a full-length documentary called Inspired to ride (which unfortunately does not resonate much at all with my personal experience). It traverses ten states, three mountain ranges and a variety of landscapes over the course of 6 730 km (4 200 mi). All racers carry all they need themselves. It is allowed to sleep at hotels and shop along the way, but no individual support is allowed, and there are no check points or aid stations.
In the 6 months leading up to the race, I focused on doing longer rides, and to sort out gear (complete list with some comments is available here). Martin and I were signed up in the pairs category, and in order to ride together, we set out for a ride from Lund to Stockholm. We only made it half way, before being stopped by ice and snow. The consecutive try, now from Stockholm to Lund, went much smoother.
After a lot of preparation and riding, we finally arrived in Seattle and rented a pick up, which we drove down to Astoria, where we spent three slow days leading up to the start. I had a slight cold, and did not feel much like racing, but there we were. I went to the bike shop to have my tubeless setup done, but they messed it up, so I went with tubes in the end.
After a briefing the night before, the start went off at 5 am on Sun June 2 and 70-some racers set out. The field spread out fast and we tried to pace ourselves and not be carried away. The Pacific Northwest provided good riding conditions and beautiful scenery. We rode the first 100 miles to Pacific City together Luke Rathgeber, who is a German guy our age, with a background in pro team racing. Later he unfortunately had to scratch due to Achilles’ tendon problems. The first day we made good mileage, and ended up at a very friendly B&B.
Our strategy for the race was to do 200 miles (320 km) per day, and sleep 6 h every night. That is a lot more sleep than many allow themselves for these events. Being two, we felt that the biggest challenge was to be synced in terms of tiredness, mood and gear, and that being well rested would serve that purpose. It turned out that the strategy worked very well. We were very seldom too sleepy, and we stuck to averaging 200 mi per day.
Speaking of strategy, several people pointed out that being paired would be an advantage, as it allowed us to draft off each other. This is true, but was only useful the first two days, and on flat sections where we both had fresh legs – which was not very often. In fact, it often felt better to ride side-by-side or with some gap, as the small accelerations needed to keep drafting soon became too much for tired legs. The aero advantage was also limited by the slow speed, averaging just above 20 km/h. Other downsides of being paired were that there were two bikes and two bodies, which needed attention, often not at the same time. We were aware of this and tried to be really disciplined about making re-supply stops short and sparse. Perhaps this explains that the previously fastest paired riders had taken over 24 days, while the individual record was down to under 17 days. There was also a major advantage with being two. At least for me, 20+ long (typically 15+ h) days on the bike would become very boring without company. So while we both feel that we would have finished the race faster alone, I am very happy for the company that Martin, and later also Garth, provided.
On the second day we left the Pacific Northwest and moved into drier terrain. We were both amazed by how beautiful Oregon was, and felt good about the riding. There was a hostel along the way that served free food to us racers, and really boosted our morale to carry on. We heard that there was a church community center down the road that provided free lodging. However, we never found it and ended up sleeping out.
The next morning I had a sore throat, which just got worse. By the evening I had bleeding sores and the next day I had huge difficulties swallowing and lost the ability to talk. We got some stuff at a pharmacy, and rode on, communicating through sign language. The following night we spent at a B&B and for me it was the worst night of the trip, with very little sleep. Nevertheless, we got going early the consecutive morning.
Via a Swedish online forum, I got the advice from Gunnar (who is one of two Swedes who has previously completed the Trans Am Bike Race) to regularly rinse my nose to keep it humid. It worked quite well and over the course of two days I regained the ability to talk and eat normally. Besides my throat condition, our main focus was to get enough electrolytes and water, as the interior of Oregon got very hot. We soon ran out of electrolyte powder, and moved over to drinking Gatorade (the orange one is the one I find least disguesting).
Idaho was then a bit more normal temperature-wise and after crossing Lolo pass in perfect conditions (overcast, light tail wind), we were accompanied by a strong tail wind and pushed over the next pass and onward to Jackson, Montana. The last 30 km in the dark we were riding on wet road with thunder to the right and behind, but never got rained on. In Jackson we stayed at the most friendly place. The manager was up with us until way past 1 am and helped us with laundry and made us food. The next morning was cold, but I felt well rested. This was the one of few days with headwind and later lots of rain too.
Getting closer to West Yellowstone, the rain turned to sleet, then to snow. We had heard that there was a fishing lodge down the road. We tried to phone, but did not get in touch with them. Nevertheless, we pushed on, now all wet, in the dark and freezing temperatures. We hoped for the road surface not to turn into ice, and it never did. Arriving late, everything was closed, but I managed to locate the house of the owner and he got us a cabin. By this time Martin, who did not have rain pants, was turning hypothermic. Fortunately, there was a heater, and we managed to dry out our clothes.
The next morning we woke to winter wonderland and with a light tail wind it was an easy ride to West Yellowstone, then on to Yellowstone. I got a flat on my rear tire, then we moved through the park but ended up at a road closure.
Here we sat down at a restaurant with new found friend Garth Elson from LA and timed it perfectly for the re-opening. Further down the road Martin and I saw two grizzlies, but rather far from the road, and with rangers present to direct the traffic. The same day, we rode through the Grand Tetons and by late afternoon ended up climbing a pass in heavy hail. The sun set and temperature dropped while we were still climbing. One of Martin’s jockey wheels froze but was easy to de-ice. My drive train started freezing up too and I was worried that the shifter cable would get stuck. With still one hour to the pass, we started to get ice building up on the tire side walls. We realized that a frozen over road would mean either walking down or sleeping in the snow. As we submitted the pass, we found ourselves on some ice patches, but fortunately, the road was dry further down on the other side and we made it safely to a motel before midnight.
Riding through Wyoming was not my favorite. The external conditions were OK, but I just did not enjoy this stretch very much. We caught up with “the Italians” Paolo and Max, who we ended up passing and being passed by almost every day. Late in the evening I got a second puncture, which was not a disaster, although it felt so at the time, as it meant losing some time and more night riding.
On the day we entered Colorado, I was feeling strong and cycled chatting with Garth and Martin. Colorado was exactly as I had imagined it landscape-wise (none of the other states were). The day we passed the Hoosier pass, I did however feel weaker again, probably from heat and sun exposure. Fortunately the pass was followed by a very long down hill tail wind stretch.
Moving on to the desert plain, I got my third flat. We pinched 4 tubes and the rim tape applied by the shop in Astoria was all wrinkled up. This really made me loose my mood. We spent 90 min getting things sorted, and still ended up with a slowly leaking rear tire, as the sun set with 50 km to go to lodging. It was broken down into 5 km sprints, with tire pumping in-between. To make the endeavour even more interesting, there were plenty of rattle snakes on the road shoulder, absorbing the road heat just after sunset. I was done once we arrived and got a room.
Fortunately I spotted a bike shop the previous evening, just 2 blocks from the motel. They opened 9 am, but I went just before 8 to try my luck. To my surprise a mech showed up and let me in the back door. She was the most professional mech I have met to date. Within 10 min I had a complete tubeless setup which last for the remainder of the trip. I cannot recommend Great Duvide Ski Bike & Hike highly enough, and we sent them (and some others) post cards as one of the first things after finishing the adventure. We were rolling again just after 9 am and although the landscape was not exciting, I was so happy to be riding again.
Then came the most surreal portion of the trip. Open fields and wide open horizons with a small white speck straight ahead, which we saw for well over an hour. It turned out to be a silo. The silo thing was then repeated several times as we moved on into Kansas.
In Kansas we planned to stay one night in Scott City, but everything was booked out both there and in the city before. This made for a long day, but without too much wind it was easy going and the night riding was a nice change away from the monotonicity of daytime Kansas. The next days a strong S wind picked up, which mostly meant side wind, and the occasional head wind hell, during sections of up to 20 mi going S. Again we had Garth’s company for a bit, as moving though the utterly flat and featureless landscape. East Kansas got a little better with wetlands and trees blocking the wind.
Entering Missouri, we were soon greeted by rollers, which soon turned into ridiculous rollers. While the 11-36 cassette with 38t 1x front was good for most of the trip, it definitively was a bit on the tough side for the Ozarks. Pushing on I tore some fibers in my left quad, which made for painful riding the next two days. The night riding was OK, but the steep never-ending rollers made for hard riding (the hardest?) during the hot hours of day. We muscled on through, with one day exceeding 5 000 m of climbing (without even any single long climb) and eventually reached Illinois.
Before entering Illinois, we met up with Garth again, went past the Italians, and also passed Michal from Poland. Michal had been up with the lead but now appeared to suffer from something, and indeed permanently slowed down to finish far after us. In Illinois we had to take a southern detour through Cape Girardeau. We decided together with Garth to push trough to there and were hit by some fierce but warm thunder storm rains in the dark along the way. The next day we crossed a river and then literally cycled in the flooded Mississippi for a bit, before moving into a mellow roller landscape, that took us to the ferry crossing at Cave in Rock. The ferry took us across to Kentucky. Later, the ferry broke down, rendering some riders a 47 mi detour, before it got fixed again.
Kentucky was more rollers, but mellower. It felt like a rain forest with fire flies, turtles, tortoises, and an abundance of road kill. After a while we entered the Appalachians, marked by longer and steeper climbs. Outside the city of Hazard we stopped for an early hotel might, as we were already drenched and thunder storms were forecast for the night. The next morning, starting 4 am, made for a wet day with lots of small climbs, and then some larger.
Virginia was the last state between us and peace of mind. The landscape became noticeably less rolling and we were accompanied by a welcome tail wind through the last two days. The second last day ended with a long steep climb up Vesuvius (not the Italian version). Martin was sleepy and we stopped for a 2 h bivy, rather than risking a mishap during the long descent in the dark. The night was cold and windy, but it was no problem to fall asleep. The next morning, both Martin’s and my bivy liners reeked of ammonia. Wiht inadequate protein intake, our bodies were consuming our muscles, which got truly noticable the weeks following the race.
After some more rolling landscape leading up to Charlottesville, the landscape flattened out and the riding got easy. The Italians and Garth were too far ahead to catch, and there was nobody near behind us, so we took an easy day and enjoyed the surroundings. As it got dark, we entered a very long and quite nice bike path. It turned into as rough surface parkway made out of blocks. We had been warned about it being as pain, and I had constructed a pessimistic mental picture, so the actual riding felt easy. With 20 km to go we grew impatient and floored it, moving at normal road bike speed for the last stretch. When we had 10 km left, I felt for the first time with confidence that we would make it. Martin’s rear tire was worn through the first layer of weave, and mine was getting there too. But 10 km you can do on the rim, or with one leg, or even crawling half-dead.
Finally we reached Yorktown and the Victory monument. Garth was waiting for us there. Our friend Anton had driven all the way down from Brooklyn and arranged a nearby hotel room. He had brought us food and beers. Garth had previouly had two beers, which rendered him near unconscious, and after having one I too could see how that happened.
Anton rode the TABR two years previously and met his wife Amy (another of the racers) along the route. They now live in NY, and had invited us to stay with us until our return flights. Anton picking us (including Garth) up was such a luxury! We cannot thank him and Amy enough for making the post-race days flow smoothly and be a memorable part of the journey. We were hanging out in Brooklyn, went to a concert in a park, ate and had a few more beers. It was pride week and the 50th anneversary of Stonewall, so there were festivities everywhere.
The above was a rather chronological account for the TABR. But what was it really like? Mostly (estimated by me to 70 % of the time) the riding was right-out enjoyable. Elements such as heat, cold, rain, snow and wind posed challenges, but it was never these objective challenges that made the riding hard. As far as wind concerned we were very lucky and only had monster head winds for less than 50 miles in Kansas. We did, however, have some intense climbs in the heat, and we got caught in blizzards as well as torrential rains.
The moving was slow. Before the trip I was a bit concerned by aero aspects, and tire roll, but moving at just above 20 km/h, these turned out to be secondary concerns. When speaking of gear, it also turned out that one set of clothes was enough (as they can be washed).
Bodily agonies were manageable throughout. Early on I got a bit of saddle sores, but managed them well with alcogel, chammy and antibiotic salve. There was only really one day, during which they were significantly bothersome. Sitting in the TT bars posed no discomfort whatsoever, but I got a partial paralysis of my right pinky finger (temporary ulnar nerve damage also known as cyclist’s palsy), which is getting better, but likely will take a few months to recover from completely. In Kansas I noticed a bit of knee irritation and moved the saddle up 4 mm. It helped. Unfortunately, I broke the collar bolt in the process, but very luckily found a replacement within 5 min, which made for a quick stop. (The post then slipped, but we managed to secure it by slight over-torquing). The worst discomfort by far were the bleeding wounds in my nose and throat. They responded to treatment consisting of rinsing, using HALLS tablets, and a buff, but never got perfect during the trip. My upper arms were most of the time sprayed with blood from blowing my nose. In the steep hills of the Ozarks, I tore some muscle fibres in my left quad. While painful, it worked OK to cycle on ibuprofen and paracetamol, and the pain was gone a few days later. We were on pain killers most of the time; ibuprofen 400 mg 3-4 times per day and paracetabol 500 mg 2-3 times per day. This is not recommended in conjecture with physical stress and we were careful to stay hydrated and watch for signs of kidney issue. Both of us developed saddle sores, but they never got out of hand. It was mainly the part of the bum/leg chafing at the edge of the saddle that got pimple-like irritations. We scrubbed with alcohol in the morning and evening and did the same with the ads of our bibs, which we also tried to wash as often as possible. During the day we used plenty of chamois creme in conjecture with antibacterial oinment and during the night we used the same oinment together with skin repair creme. During the first half of the race my lower arms got severely burnt in the sun from sitting in the TT bars, despite using sun screen. Next time, I would for sure bring thin white sun sleeves.
So back to the main challenge: motivation and mental state. Here it certainly helped to be two. It was often that one of us was a bit lower than the other, and we knew from prior experience that things always get better, even if sometimes all feelings would tell you otherwise. Martin bonked really hard on a climb in Wyoming, and for me the worst part was on a similar climb later on. I downed 7 snickers bars and 2 cliff bars within the course of an hour. It felt awful at the time, but soon enough energy returned and we could pedal well into the night.
While it was sometimes tough to pedal, I never actually felt like I would rather want to be somewhere else, or that I would like to quit the race. I also didn’t feel much like racing. In fact, racing is not my thing and it stresses me out, so I thought of the whole thing as a speedy bike packing trip. I had my phone mounted between the TT bars and with bone conducting head phones that leaves the ears open to hear traffic, it was possible to listen to music, pod casts, and to make video calls to family back home while pushing on.
We spent most nights in motels or hotels. We preferred motels, but many of them did not have night desks, so sometimes hotels it was. A shower, cloth was and good sleep is the perfect mental reset. Some days, the circumstances (weather and availability) rendered bivying the logical option. We spent three nights bivying. It worked out fine, but I always felt more rested after sleeping inside. Normally, I always sleep outside when touring, but then with a tent, proper mat and sleeping bag – not only a bivy bag and minimal mat. The main morale booster was of course to have Martin (and later sometimes also Garth!) to chat with.
Prior to the trip, several persons had asked me how it would be like cycling as a pair, and some had even discouraged it. Martin and I had previously cycled from Lund to Tehran together. During that trip, we decided to split up for some sections to get some time by ourselves. Now, I felt that we knew each other better and we had had several open dialogues about our objectives and how to handle inter-personal aspects. All in all, I think it worked out really well. We only had three arguments during the trip, and they never got out of hand. Each time, the issue was forgotten within an hour, and each time the issue was just a very minor lack of communication combined with us being tired or stressed. I think it also helped meeting up with Garth every now and then. Being American, he had interesting things to say about people and history, and provided new things to talk about (as we were running out of discussion points after a few days of riding).
Could I recommend the TABR? Yes, at least to anyone comfortable with long days in the saddle, who is not expecting things to always go as planned. And I think it is necessary to embrace some degree of suffering and recognize it as normal for the experience to turn out positive. Also, it is a too long race. Both Martin and I knew that. By the time we arrived in KY, we felt it would be OK to do something else for a while. Strangely enough, I was starting to fantasize about road cycling without luggage back home.
Would I do it again? Likely not the TABR (at least not in a while) but I would for sure be into doing the shorter (4 000 km or so) Transcontinental Cycle Race (TCR) in Europe, or the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan. Actually, the latter I would more likely want to do out of race, to have some time to kick back in the tent, read kindle books and sip a bit of whisky with a mountain view.
Shortly I am off to a 2 week cargo bike tour through Europe with 1.5 year old Oskar and wife Ingrid. It will for sure be different, and an adventure nonetheless.
Update: when writing this, it has been two weeks since the finish. We spent almost one week in Brooklyn, taking it rather easy. Unexpectedly, I did not sleep more than on average 7 h per night during this week, and did not feel sleepy from that.
After goodbyes and a direct flight from JFK, I landed in Copenhagen around lunch time. Three hours later I was on the cargo bike with Oskar, heading for a dip in the sea in perfect summer weather. The next day made for another cargo bike excursion, and the third day I went to run intervals on the track with my local group. During the session I noticed that my legs were dead. I could not run faster than 4 min/km, which also meant I could not get heart rate and breathing going. Since I had not been running for a while, I also felt that some muscles in my legs would need training before being able to run faster. The day after, I went out to cycle intervals with my club. Again, the legs were limiting. It felt OK to go steady by myself at 350 W, but any acceleration to close gaps felt impossible. Reading other people’s accounts, I expect it to take at least a few more weeks, before being able to do high intensity stuff.
After longer endeavours, it is not uncommon that I get a bit depressed, and feel generally bad. This never happened this time around, and it wad very simple to transition back into normal lite in society. After working for one week, I went on parental leave and have had no problems at all, except that I got a bad cold from my son. It really hit hard, and one night I slept for more than 18 h non-stop, which I guess is a sign of a worn body.