“Woah! Either I am in the matrix,” I thought, “or the stress of the last 19 days is finally getting to my head.”
Only later did someone inform me that hallucinations are a common side effect of sleep deprivation. I had slept just one hour yesterday, two hours the night before that. Days and nights blended into a never ending continuum of pedaling, eating and the occasional short sleep. With another 500 miles to go, the finish line was so close and yet still so far.
The crank, crank, crank of Jesse’s pedals told me my temporary cycling companion and closest competition over the last couple days was just up ahead. We were currently tied in 4th place in a race that had tested every ounce of endurance in me. Metal gray clouds were rolling in above us and I was glad when fat drops began to fall. The heat over the last week had gone into the 40s.
‘Aw shit!’ I heard Jesse say as he pulled off the road. His derailleur had jammed up suddenly. He was using a SRAM RED system – great for normal races, but the Trans Am Bike Race is no ordinary race. Close to double the mileage and climbing of Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and the Race Across America (RAAM), without support of any kind for the riders, it is just a single route west to east: Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia. With 4,233 miles and a total of 69,000 meters elevation crossing some of the toughest mountains in the US, it could well be one of the most challenging races out there.
I’d had my own share of bike troubles, which started with that awful cranking of Jesse’s pedals. He’d wanted to find a bike mechanic to check it wasn’t anything serious. I wanted to get my seat clamp fixed. The screw had worn away so I couldn’t tighten the clamp properly, which meant my seat kept sliding down. Over the last week I’d been riding with my bum down low, knees crunched up and all the stress of the climbs going straight to my knees and tendons. I was taking painkillers to keep the swelling down and the pain manageable. I’d stopped at three other bike shops along the way, none had a screw that was the right size. Just keep pedalling.
Yesterday, my gears started jumping. I figured the chain needed tightening or changing. We still had a lot of climbs ahead of us and resolving potential bike problems was a priority. The next biggest town in Kentucky showed a bike shop on the map, but all we found was a young guy in the basement of the local college who helped people with basic repairs. Jesse was unconvinced he could do anything. He told me he couldn’t fix my seat but he’d set me up with a new chain – a simple enough operation for any bike mechanic. What could possibly go wrong?
I left him to it while we went off in search of food and water. Big mistake. Fatigue contributes towards bad decision making and in a race like this one, bad decisions can cost you dearly. We had wasted an hour and the next riders behind us, a couple of Italians, were closing in. It was time to go. Hardly glancing at the new chain, I clipped in and the first unsuccessful turn of the pedal told me everything I needed to know. The chain was too big. Nonplussed I wheeled my bike back into the workshop and told the kid to put my old chain back on as fast as he could. His mortification was tangible as he fumbled with the old chain and tried repeatedly to put the link back together. I was nervous too. Two blue dots on the Trackleaders map told me the Italians had just rolled into town. I would have to outride them again. I cordially thanked the kid and cycled out of there like hell followed behind me.
It was somewhere in the mountains of Kentucky pedaling hard up a steep incline that the chain snapped. I stood there frozen with uncertainty, my mind racing. What now? There were no big towns, no bike shops I knew of for at least 300 miles. My spare link was gone. I was well and truly fucked. Was this how my race would end? Less than 1,000 miles to the finish line, through snow storms, heat, mountains and headwinds, only to be defeated by a stupid chain link? There had to be a way to fix it. There is always a way.
A car came roaring up the road and I put out my hand to flag it down. The driver stopped and got out of his car. He was built like a boulder. “Uh, I need some help, sir. My chain just snapped. Do you know if there’s a bike shop or mechanic around here?”
He looked at me and my bike like we had landed in an alien craft. “You seen the mountains around here?” he answered. “Nobody rides bikes. Not sure how you even got here on that.”
“Crap” was my response to this. I must have looked pretty forlorn.
“Listen, my uncle has a car garage down the road. If he can’t fix your chain, I reckon nobody can. If you come back down the mountain with me, I reckon we could sort you out with something that should hold till you find a bike shop.”
Never did more beautiful words fall on my ears. “You are an angel! If he can really fix it, you would save my race.”
I told him about the Trans Am as he loaded my bike half hanging out of the trunk, and shuttled me and it down the hill that I had just climbed.
“I’m Keenas, by the way,” he said. “And don’t worry, I’m not a weirdo or anything.”
“I’m Juliana. And I know you’re not.”
“How do you know?”
“You have a good face.”
We pulled into the driveway of an open garage where a couple guys were tinkering with some cars. Both were built like lumberjacks, clearly of relation to my rescuer, or raised on the same diet. A woman sat on an old couch watching a reality TV show and her kid ran up to stare as we pulled the bike out of the trunk and wheeled it in.
“I found this young lady stranded on the road. Her bike chain’s broken.” Keenas announced. “You think we can fix it? She says she’s racing across America.”
“I dunno,” came the answer from the uncle who could fix anything, “but we can sure as hell give it a shot. Let’s see what we got us here…now that has got to be the tiniest motherfuckin’ chain I have ever seen!”
There followed a group huddle around the link in question, as they studied the damage and debated what to do.
“Alright guys, let’s quit fuckin’ around and get this young lady back in the race!” was the final pronouncement and I half expected to hear a “Hooyah!” The Bud Light beers came out of the cooler and we got down to the business of fixing that delicate little link without a spare.
True to their word, they had me and the Beast back on the road in just over an hour. Lacking the tiny connecting piece to put the chain back together, they sawed a small screw to size and jammed it together so well, that I rode their homemade link all the way to the finish line. I was saved by redneck ingenuity that day and I hereby testify that I am a converted fan of the hillbilly variety.
Jesse and I made a dash for cover as lightning tore through the sky above us. We rested under the roof of somebody’s porch while the storm rolled over and he called around for a mechanic. On the third number, he got lucky.
“Awesome!” Jesse said, hanging up. “He’s driving out here with his tools and a new derailleur. Don’t worry about me, I’ll probably catch up to you somewhere down the road.”
The cold tiled porch looked so inviting, I was half tempted to bunker down with him and have a nap while he waited for the mechanic.
“See you later.” I told him instead, and pedalled off into the light rain.
A thick fog rolled in that night and without a GPS, I kept missing signs, getting lost and having to backtrack. It was around 3:30 am by the time by time I got to the foot of the last big climb over the Blue Ridge parkway. I had no idea whether Jesse was ahead or behind me at this point. I sat down with my head in my knees and dozed for about 10 minutes, mentally recharging for the final ascent. Then I stuffed down my last two chocolate bars, picked up the bike, clipped in and started up the mountain.
That mountain range seemed to go on and on and on. It had no real summit, only an endless series of climbs and descents along the ridge. Just keep pedaling. As dawn broke, the view became clearer, and what a view! Climbing mountains without a view is truly senseless. I smiled, breathed in the fresh morning air, and said thank you. When the days were long, when the pain got too much, when I felt too tired to keep pedaling, I would take my mind outside of my physical sphere of suffering and meditate on the beauty around me, the beauty I have experienced, of where I was and what it was I was doing.
“Thank you for the flat ground I sleep on. Thank you for the peace I feel. Thank you for the chance to live my dreams.” It was the mantra I had learned from a friend and often repeated. How much you suffer or how much you enjoy a race like this one is all in the mind. I think the same is true of life.
Crank, crank, crank. Jesse pedaled up. “Well there you are! Good morning!” I said.
“Stopped for a couple hours’ sleep at the bottom of the mountain. I fell asleep on my bike again and almost crashed,” he said. “Took Mike Hall’s advice and slept in the post office. It was great.”
He’d already fallen off his bike twice sleeping. I’d almost collided with an oncoming truck while dozing on my bike and veering into the opposite lane. We decided it would be a good idea to stick together till the end to keep each other awake. This sleep deprivation thing was dangerous. We finished the last climb together.
“I’m starving. Let’s get down this mountain and have us a big American breakfast.”
“Right.” Jesse agreed.
We got to the bottom only to find it was another 50 miles to the next town and when you’re as tired and hungry as I was, it’s enough to make you want to throw down your bike and cry like a big, filthy baby. I threw down my bike, sat on the tarmac and dozed instead while Jesse munched on something from his bag of supplies. He always seemed to have food. I estimated 80% of his bike weight was probably food reserves. When I opened my eyes, he was sprawled on the road next to me sleeping.
“C’mon man. Let’s haul ass to the next town. I need food and water. If we sit here any longer, I won’t get up again.”
We were just over 200 miles from the finish line. I wanted to get there that night. I had a flight out the next day that I had to make. Every five years my family from my mum’s side met for a reunion. I’d promised to be there. Having a deadline had helped keep me from dallying too long anywhere. It had also gotten me further faster than I had imagined, all the way into the top five.
Until I moved into 7th place, nobody had paid much attention, but the moment I began passing the men, a general uproar kicked in. Women everywhere started cheering me on. Blue dot watchers were waiting by the roadside in almost every town I passed, holding signs or shouting, “Go Juliana!” The support across the continent was incredible.
Then came the accusations. Apparently women were not supposed to be able to ride as hard and fast as men, therefore the most obvious explanation must be that I was cheating. I heard it all, from drafting to cutting corners, doping and even having campervan support secretly following me. At first the insults hit me like a blow. I was stunned and so disheartened I almost cried. Finally, I got angry. I was not there to race men, ruffle feathers or bruise egos. I was there to ride hard and push my personal limits. I was doing this for me and nobody else. What anyone else said meant nothing and would not change that. Just keep pedalling.
“Just think,” Jesse said as we downed yet another service station breakfast a couple hours later, “this will be the last shitty breakfast we eat.”
“Hallelujah.” You can endure anything when there is a foreseeable end.
We may have been closing in on that finish line, but the day dragged on and on. The road felt endless. We sprinted, slowed, sprinted, slowed. I was on my last reserves of strength. I had not slept in over 24 hours. The pain in my knees and tendons was becoming unbearable. My rib, badly bruised from crashing on the second day of the race, throbbed even through the painkillers. But more worryingly, a nerve was pinched from sitting so long on the bike and a sharp pain shot from my lower back down my thigh. My body could not possibly hold up another day. It was time to end this.
Dusk settled over us at just 100 miles from the finish line. “I need some real food if I’m gonna have energy to keep going. I reckon we have a good dinner and then finish this.” I suggested.
We pulled into the first restaurant we saw at the next town we passed through, sat down and ordered steak and chips.
“Awesome!” Jesse was grinning hugely. “My family’s driving down to meet me at the finish line.”
He was texting furiously with friends already congratulating him on Facebook. His mood was euphoric, his mind already projected into the future and the end of the race.
“Just 100 miles.” he was singing, but all I could think was, “These are going to be the longest 100 miles of my short cycling life.”
And they were. The pinched nerve grew steadily worse and no position I shifted to could alleviate the pain. I was biting my lip to keep from screaming, but every so often the occasional cry escaped me. I had already taken a double dose of painkillers, I couldn’t possibly take any more. Just keep pedaling.
Then out of nowhere a car pulled alongside me. “There you are!” said the woman in the passenger seat. Lauren was a Facebook friend whom I had never met in person. She lived in Washington and decided if I were riding a second night without sleep, she was driving the three hours south to find me. Another road angel. The amount I had encountered in America was overwhelming. Angels who paid for my meals, given me food, water, money, helped me out. One guy even flew all the way from Florida to buy me dinner and hand me a donation towards future meals.
“You are putting out so much energy into the world, I thought I’d come and give some back to you,” he told me.
Energy was just what Lauren had brought: she produced a cooler with the highest energy shakes she could find full of vitamins and calories. She had also brought her girlfriend, Jo, who was a physical therapist.
“Let’s see what we can do about that pinched nerve,” she said. While I slurped down about 2,000 calories, Jo massaged my arse and thigh. I can only imagine how this looked to passing motorists. She had truly magic fingers. By the time they drove off, I was feeling the most human I had felt in days. It held about thirty miles and then the pain started up again, first dull, then sharper and sharper.
Forty miles from the finish line, I was riding with my thigh on the seat, pedaling with one leg. Maybe the pain was a good thing. It helped keep me awake. Every so often I would hear Jesse holler, “You awake?” Every so often, I would holler back the same. In this way, dozing and pedaling, we arrived the last 20 miles to Yorktown as dawn began to lighten the sky.
The entire road to the finish line was made of bricks. Mike Hall had messaged me earlier to suggest letting a bit of air out of the tires for a comfier ride. The jolting had me clenching my teeth in agony.
“I’m probably gonna sprint it to the end,” Jesse told me.
“You do what you gotta do, man.”
Watching him sprint away, something clicked. I could not let it go. I followed. I don’t know how, but I kept up. Ten miles to go. Pain is temporary. Just keep pedaling. I had reached that point where it was entirely mind over matter and only my mind kept my body moving. I saw that finish line and nothing else. Jesse and I crossed it together. Mike Hall and Ed Pickup were waiting at the monument with beer.
I had won the women’s category and tied fourth place overall. I think I drank a beer, but I hardly tasted it. All I could think was, “I am going to sleep like I have never slept before.”