Cycling 4200 miles in just 26 days is no mean feat, but for keen cyclist Martin Cox, it was an irresistible challenge. Having recently returned home from the 2017 Trans-Am, or Trans America cycling race, he shares his thoughts on his epic, American adventure.
It was the best of rides, it was the worst of rides (Dickens knew a thing or two about blogging!) Even trying to summarise a 4,200 mile bike ride across America is hard!
The 2017 Trans-Am bike race pedalled off at 6am on 3rd June, taking in 10 states, 3 mountain ranges, and over 50,000 metres of climbing (metres, not feet!) It is a challenge that truly warrants the label ‘epic!’
And I was there, in a car park in Astoria, Oregon, anxious, excited, and just a little bit nervous about the days and weeks that lay ahead. To try and give some clarity on scale of the ride, many of the readers may have done a Lands-end to John O’groats ride – it’s 5 of those… you can’t help but be a little nervous!
Many of the readers may have done a Lands-end to John O’groats ride – it’s 5 of those
But it’s not a charity event nor just a long pootle, it’s a race, and whilst most of the 130 starters have no chance of wining, we are still out there to go as fast as we can, and this means packing light and forgoing many creature comforts.
I had with me what amounts to a full set of Rapha’s brevet range, but no more – so it was one pair of shorts, one wind block jersey, and a base layer; I would spend the 25 days wearing this for almost every minute of the trip! This was supplemented by Rapha’s merino arm/knee/leg warmers as appropriate for the conditions (or for sleeping in), but there would be no bib-tights for the colder times! This stripped-back approach to clothing has a couple of benefits, a key one being clarity of thought and purpose. Each item you take has to be packed and transported, and each item means faffing, so by taking this minimalist approach on-bike time is maximised and less energy is wasted ‘thinking’ about apparel. Warmers would be slept in then removed as the day warmed up, all whilst moving on the bike. The items could then be put into the webbing of the packs whilst riding, negating the need to stop and faff. Faff is a real time killer!
This desire for streamlining controls a great many decisions, and ultimately as a racer we carry only that which we can’t do without, and we pad it out with ‘luxuries’ that help to assuage any doubts we may have.
I always get my bike a really thorough service in the weeks before an event like this, swapping out chains, tyres and cassette with fresh stock to ensure that it’s in the very best condition, hopefully ensuring I’m less likely to have mechanical issues. With this in mind my Specialized Roubaix turns up to the start line effectively factory fresh, with only a 13 item multi-tool and a Genuine Innovations tubeless tyre plug kit for servicing requirements during the race. I bring spare tyre levers because I’m paranoid about tyres (bad history), but that’s it – I have trust in both Specialized in making an awesome bike, and my local bike shop in giving it a great race prep. I don’t want, or need, to be thinking about worst-case scenarios!
The race is about a personal challenge and overcoming their own short comings and fears to reach the other side.
As the race progresses it’s clear within hours who the contenders will be – they develop a lead that’s measured in miles within 24 hours. For them the race is about beating each other and aiming for the record, but for most riders the race is about a personal challenge and overcoming their own short comings and fears to reach the other side.
But, and this must be stressed, it’s also about seeing a side of America that’s normally flown over and driven past. Hemingway wrote, “it is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”
The Trans-Am will take you through cities of 50,000 people, mid-west ghost towns with barely a soul left, and through communities that have become directionless since mining vanished. It will also take you through flourishing farmland, through small towns with main-streets that are teeming with local shops, and through thriving college communities where tourism is welcomed and encouraged.
1000 miles was my furthest gap between showers
A signpost in Oregon gives directions to a city 103 miles away, upon arrival we find it has just 300 inhabitants. A request for directions gets the response, “just over there”, which turns out to be a 10 mile high-altitude grind in Colorado, whilst others speak with barely concealed fear at the idea of riding a bike just 10 miles – describing the next town as “miles away!”
To enter a race like the Trans-Am is to suspend real life for a moment and enter into a world where every action, every thought revolves around the turning of pedals, around the slow, steady, progress towards the other side of the great and vast continent.
Food is taken at service stations with little consideration for nutrients, rather a focus on calories. Cola, donuts, and burritos are considered staples. A wipe down with feminine hygiene wipes is the norm and a shower becomes a luxury (1000 miles was my furthest gap between showers!)
Good, better, best: A dry night under the stars with a bivvy and camping mat, a quiet night in a Postal Service lobby with a working electrical outlet, a motel room with showers and a warm bed. But the more luxury we have at nights, the longer we stay, the harder it can be to rouse ourselves in the morning and get on the bike again. Sometimes spartan simplicity is good!
Loneliness is a killer, so better to embrace solitude. Enjoy your own company, the freedom to think, the music you have brought – I found myself being inspired by the soundtrack to Hamilton: An American Musical and will forever associate it with my continental crossing.
Could anyone do this ride? Yes! With practice on shorter events, miles in your legs, and sufficient mental resilience, it is open and available to everyone. To get to the start line injury free can be a challenge in itself so to cross the continent in whatever time is something that will stick with you forever!
Addendum: writing a post about 26 crazy days is terribly tricky, there are countless stories, anecdotes, and observations from the road that would (and may) fill a book. The very best way to get a taste is to sling a bag on your bike and head out to a point on the map that’s just a little bit further than you are comfortable with. By taking yourself out of that comfort zone you will stretch and develop all the skills, talents and attributes needed to cross a country – and develop a wealth of your own stories to amaze and confound your friends with!
As the comments below note, I was unable to complete the full distance in the time I had planned, having to head due east and miss off around 100 miles in the last 24 hours as I tried to get to my flight on time – ironically, I still missed the check-in for this! I’d had a mechanical issue with flat tyres and inner tubes, and was unable to sort this at the roadside, so rather than ride 30 miles with a tyre stuffed with rubber and grass (I’ve done this before and ruined a rim), I hitched a lift for that distance. I intended to make it up later but, as mentioned I ran out of time and so was unable to.
I apologise if this was left out – there’s only so much that can be written in one post. I was planning on detailing this further in a follow-up article about the learning experiences from a race such as the Trans-Am.
Martin’s bicycle and travel insurance for the Trans-Am were provided by Yellow Jersey Cycle Insurance. For more information, head to our cycle travel insurance page.
Correction: Our introduction to this blog and our newsletter originally stated that Martin Cox had ‘successfully completed the 2017 Trans-Am, or Trans America cycling race’. Unfortunately time restraints meant that Martin had to shorten the final stage of the race, cutting around 100 miles from the total distance, and so was categorised as a DNF. That said, we’re still pretty impressed by a 4100 mile ride coast to coast across the USA.