The Trans Am Bike Race is a non-stop, self-supported road race along the 6,800 km Trans America Trail. Trans Am racers must carry everything they need to survive – warm clothes, wet weather gear, sleeping equipment, food, water and more. As is the case for most bikepacking events, riders are allowed to make use of commercial services along the but support crews or team cars are definitely not allowed. Riders alone have to find their own food and water, sort out bike issues out in the wilderness with frozen hands, carry all the equipment and spares they need to be safe, and find safe places to catch a few hours of sleep along the way.
The course is an established bike touring route running coast-to-coast across the United States. The 100% bitumen route traverses ten states from the Pacific to the Atlantic. It's popular with cycle tourists who typically bite off chunks of the route to ride in their holidays. In 2014 a few riders, experienced in similar adventures, posed the question, “how fast can we ride it?” and decided to race it for the first time. 2016 will be the third installment of the race.
Riders will typically sleep for only four hours a night and push through tiredness, fatigue and injury in order to get to the end. These events redefine what the word "motivation" means. Riders must deal with the fear of sleeping in grizzly bear country, tackle the high mountains of Colorado, battle the winds of the great plains, cope with riding though snow, handle the non-stop stress of being chased 24-7 and still keep moving. At the same time riders get a concentrated touring experience through some of the highlights of the North American outdoors.
With only a week until the race kicks off, I thought it would be good opportunity to preview the 2016 event and focus, in particular, on the women's field. While women's cycling is growing fast, when it comes to ultra-endurance events the women's fields are still relatively small. The protagonists of ultra-endurance cycling talk about inspiring, life-changing experiences and it's a shame that more women don't get to experience that. This year the women's Trans Am Race field is looking strong with some very tough riders lining up for the challenge. Read on to find out a bit more about the riders to watch.
Origin: Melbourne, Australia
Bike: Curve Cycling Belgie - Titanium Road Bike
Luggage: Apidura and Revelate
Supporters: Jaggad, Spinroom, Curve Cycling, 4SHAW, SP Dynamo
Sarah is no stranger to endurance cycling. As far as we know, she was the first woman to "everest" a mountain by bike. She did it by riding up Mount Buffalo eight times in 18 hours, notching up 9,031 metres of climbing along the way. Since then she's completed a few more everesting missions, both on and off roads. In late 2015 she rode non-stop 800 km from Melbourne to Adelaide in thirty-something hours.
When I returned from the 2015 Trans Am race and spoke about my adventure, Sarah was one of the few people who "got it". I could tell that she was eager for adventure and looking for a new mission to challenge her. There are very few cycling challenges left that would challenge Sarah. The Trans Am Bike Race is one of them. I'm so excited that she is taking on the challenge this year.
Sarah is new to ultra-endurance racing and this will be her first ultra-endurance race. Sure she doesn't have the experience of her competitors but that could work in her favour. She'll do things in her way, learning as she goes. She's proven plenty of times that she's tough enough to deal with the suffering that she'll face along the way. Sarah is untested after a few days of riding, so it will be interesting to see how her body adjusts to the load. I suspect that once she gets her touring legs and settles into her own rhythm she'll be unstoppable.
It's no secret that Sarah loves climbing, but I don't think that's where her real strength lies. She's a far better time trialist than most people know. It's a talent that she's developed over time as an instructor at the Spin Room. I think Sarah will come into her own on the great plains. I suspect her pace through Eastern Colorado and Kansas will surprise a lot of people and it's there that she could do the most damage to her competition.
Sarah has a big support network in Melbourne, Australia. While the Trans Am race is a solo, unsupported mission, Sarah will not feel alone. She'll know that all of Melbourne's cycling community will be following online and that will keep her charging.
In the world of bikepacking, Lael Wilcox needs no introduction. In 2015 she rode the Tour Divide route not once but twice - the first time destroying the women's field and most of the men in the Tour Divide race and the second time, only a couple of weeks later, setting one of the fastest times ever (male or female) along the route in an individual time trial. For those who don't know about the Tour Divide, it's an unsupported, mostly off-road bike race, criss-crossing the continental divide from Banff in Canada down to the Mexican border 4,500 km later.
Why is Lael so good? Three reasons. 1. She has extensive experience. 2. She's fast; and 3. She doesn't stop.
Lael has been traveling the world by bike for almost a decade now. Her adventures have taken her through Eastern Europe, South Africa and the Middle East. It's an impressive bank of experience but it's really Lael's race strategy that sets her apart from the competition. She just doesn't stop. She doesn't stop for sit-down meals - she buys food to take away and eats on the bike as she continues to ride. She doesn't stay in motels; Lael camps out every night. Why is that important? Well, if you sit down for a meal, you've got to wait for service, look at a menu, order, wait for your meal, talk to the locals, eat, wait for your food to settle and then be on your way. That whole process takes time - much longer than most people think. Lael knows that and that's why she gains one or two hours every day on most racers. On the road that could mean an extra 25 - 50 km. It starts to add up after a few days. Lael knows this and that's why she's the favourite for the Trans Am Bike Race in 2016.
It hasn't all been smooth sailing though. Some of Lael's adventures have definitely not gone to plan. Ultra-endurance racing is tough on the body and unfamiliar environments can trigger unexpected issues. Breathing issues were a factor in one of Lael's Tour Divide rides. Breathing issues also forced Lael to call it quits when attempting an Arizona Trail Race individual time trial. Let's hope Lael's body cooperates this time around on her race across the US. In true Lael style, she's already started her "warm up" riding from her home in Alaska thousands of kilometers to Astoria, Oregon for the start of the race.
Origin: London, UK
Supporters: Kinesis Bikes, Reynolds Cycling, Rapha UK, Brooks England, Leigh Day Cycling, Restrap
I don't know as much about Laura Scott but with a bit of internet stalking I've gathered enough info for a brief profile. On her gofundme page Laura explains that she recently lost a family member to cancer. "It was a stark reminder that we don’t have all the time in the world, and that if there is something you dream of doing, you just have to do it."
From riding around town on her single speed three years ago, it took a ride from Paris to London with a group called Tech Bikers to get her hooked on long distance cycling. She's now done that ride three times and a spark was lit for her to take on even bigger challenges like this year's Trans Am race.
A quick look through Laura's Instagram feed suggests that her riding volume has increased recently. As part of her final Trans Am preparation she completed the famous Bryan Chapman Memorial Audax ride. The 620 km ride took Laura 36 hours with only 2 hours of sleep. While it's an impressive effort, that sort of pace will leave her some way behind Lael Wilcox and Sarah Hammond. Anything can happen in endurance cycling though. If Lael and Sarah face health issues, mechanicals or push too hard early on Laura could be within striking distance. No matter what happens in the race, just by taking on the challenge Laura will inspire more women to consider similar challenges. It's something that she's obviously passionate about and with a very large social media following it's something that I am sure she'll succeed at.
Origin: Ferrara, Italy
FB: Ilaria Corli - Ultracycling
Supporters: Rusjan, Cab Polidiagnostico, KuotaCycle, DAMA Italian Sportswear, +WATT community, AMI Ferrara and Ferrara Buskers Festival
Image credit: Ilaria Corli Ultracycling
According to her personal website, Ilaria loves long solo cycling trips for the adventure, the freedom and the inner growth that can be gained. Ilaria's endurance cycling has escalated rapidly over the last three years with the following adventures under her belt:
- Barcelona-Ferrara: 1,200 km in six days in 2013;
- Ferrara-Oslo: 2,400 km in 12 days in 2014;
- Ferrara - North Cape (often considered the northernmost point in Europe): 4,200 km in 30 days in 2015.
These adventures, particularly the ride to the northernmost point in Europe, were completed in testing conditions, so we know Ilaria will be able to handle the extremes of weather the Trans Am will throw at her. It will be interesting to see how Ilaria performs when taking the leap from bike touring to bikepacking racing, combining the experience of solo adventures with the speed of racing. It's something Lael Wilcox did with huge success.
Recent photos of Ilaria show her looking fit and strong and there's no doubt she's going to be pushing for a fast time.
A quick look at Janie's Strava page shows some very long rides in March and April with some solid, consistent big mileage training weeks. Living at an elevation 2,000 m above sea level will help Janie power through Colorado and ride at a good intensity through the plains.
Janie is no stranger to suffering with most of her race experience coming from triathlons over the last 15 years. She's got an impressive triathlon resume at full Ironman and Ironman 70.3 distances, including a good result at the Kona Ironman world championships in 2014. He race experience extends to distance running as well. Janie is also a running and triathlon coach. She has also held workshops on mental toughness and tolerance for adversity.
With Janie's triathlon experience, she should be very strong in the time-trial section of the course through Eastern Colorado and Kansas. As far as I can tell, Janie has not competed in multi-day events. While Janie has suffered through Ironman-duration events, time will tell how her body and mind fares over extended periods. Suffering for 12 hours is very different to enduring a close to three weeks of racing. I'm sure this part of the allure for Janie. It will be a different aspect of mental toughness that Janie will need to draw upon in the Trans Am - she'll need the sort of toughness that keeps her moving when her plans fall apart, when the weather turns ugly, when an overuse injury flares up, and when she has to ride into grizzly country at night. I hope she manages to rise to the challenge.
According to the race organiser, there are four other women on the solo race roster at this point: Jodi Ashley (U.S.), Irena Sosinska (Poland), Jill Stetter (U.S.) and Amy Williams (U.K.). I've been told that Amy Williams has flown into San Francisco and is riding up to Astoria for the start on Saturday.
I'll try to dig up some more information and profile these entrants over the next week. If you have anything to add on their stories please feel free to share with us in comments section below!
It's shaping up to be an exciting race, that's for sure!