UNITED STATES, 9th November 2018
I was up at 11 p.m. in the morning (not a typo) to make my final preparations for the day ahead. I’d gone to bed at 6 p.m. but had found it impossible to sleep, such is often the way when you know how important it is to get a good night’s sleep… and go to bed at 6 p.m. But ahead of me was an almighty challenge, a challenge that I had set for myself, a challenge to try and cycle as far as I possibly could in one day.
As a consequence I didn’t feel tired or sleepy, only excited. I’d been planning this ride for a month, pretty much ever since I’d heard about the Transcontinental bike race and decided it was something I wanted to try and compete in when we got back to Europe. It’s a non-stop, unsupported bicycle race across Europe, generally starting in Belgium and ending in Greece but with checkpoints along the way that change each year. Riders have to plan their own route, source their own food and sleeping arrangements along the way, and pedal all of the way themselves. The route varies in length but is typically around 4,000 kilometres long, and the winners have never taken more than ten days to get over the line. All of this appealed to me somehow. I remembered my long rides across Siberia, China, Australia, when I had to be efficient with everything I did, with a fond nostalgia, time having taken the hardship and reshaped my memories into something I look back on positively. I’ve done enough kilometres, I know how to ride all day, I know how to do all the things I’d need to do efficiently, and with so many years riding on a heavily loaded touring bike, the racing bike I’d have for the Transcontinental would surely feel ridiculously light and easy to ride. I was basically pretty sure I was going to win.
The Transcontinental grew rapidly in my mind into something I knew I had to do, but the idea that I had to wait until 2020 or 2021 to take part frustrated me. I wanted to do it immediately. And from this impatience came an idea. I could take one day and try to ride as far as I possibly could. It would have to be on my heavily loaded touring bike, but I would try to offset that by riding in favourable conditions, mostly downhill or at least flat, mostly with the wind at my back, mostly on high quality roads. It meant I needed to do it before we left the United States, and the last section of Arizona was perfect, it met all of the criteria. And that was why I was now packing up my bike in the dark, with midnight approaching, 25 kilometres south of Prescott, Arizona. Dea and I had gone our separate ways the previous morning, she to ride south to Yuma on the Mexican border over the course of four days, me to stop after just 25 kilometres to rest and prepare, then do it all in one day. The starting location had been carefully chosen, at the top of a pass, giving me some free early kilometres. The date had been picked with similar care, when I should have the most favourable winds. My bike was set up so that I should have very few reasons to ever pause from cycling, with my basket loaded up with food that I could eat on the go, and with a whole host of new parts having been recently fitted to it to ensure it should run smoothly. It was just a shame I hadn’t managed to get any sleep before the start. But there was nothing more to do about that. The time on my cycle computer rolled around to 0:00 and I took my first pedal strokes. I was about to find out what was possible.
I whizzed downhill for the first fifteen kilometres, taking the tight corners as fast as I dared in the glow of my headlight. I was down before I knew it and the road climbed again for three kilometres and I pushed hard to set a good pace. The night was warmer than I had anticipated and I quickly grew hot. I shredded my jacket without pausing pedalling, strapping it under a bungee at the back of my bike. There was no moon and the sky was filled with stars. Frequently I saw shooting stars dart across the sky in front of me. Each time I made a wish, and each time it was for the same thing. 400 kilometres. That was my goal for the day. It seemed ambitious, but I’d estimated I could spend 23 of the 24 hours actually on the bike, and if I could average 17.4 kilometres per hour, well, then I would succeed in hitting 400, the sort of daily distance I’d need to do to finish at the front of the Transcontinental field. My goal was simply to ride as far as I could, but I knew if I fell short of 400 I would be disappointed.
As the road levelled out and I reached Arizona’s flat desert I continued to move at over 20 kilometres per hour. Orion’s Belt loomed over me and I could just make out the shapes of occasional cactuses around me, but otherwise I was all alone. I had thought that this would be a time when my thoughts would wander back over all that had happened during our time in the United States. To think back to our time with Vivian in Helena, how we had continued our ride on the Great Divide, how we had met and made great friends along the way with a couple named Paul and Kelli, like-minded travellers who moved at our speed who we had ridden with for a couple of weeks all of the way to Yellowstone National Park. To think back on the great natural wonders, the geysers and the bison we’d seen there. To think back on all the good stuff but also, more importantly, all of the the doubts and the difficulties and the bad stuff that we’d faced. To think back on the time that Dea and I had spent cycling separately and all of the issues we’d struggled with, and to think back on the way we had come through it all and been so much stronger for it, events which I’m sure will make for some interesting chapters in a book someday but that we won’t be covering more on this blog. To think about Dea and how much I love her and about going to Mexico together and riding the rest of the Americas together, to think about our future together. And to think about my writing and my exciting new blog project (online now here). To think back also on the wonderful people we’d met along the way, like Sean in Grand Canyon, who had helped us out by letting us have numerous bike parts delivered to his address, then by letting us stay three nights with him and his dogs, and by being such an all-round good guy. And like Richard and Cecelia who had just hosted us in Prescott. And also I would think back on the extraordinary development and success of Eureka Ball, which had gone from strength to strength, most notably when we’d been playing a game in a park in a small town in Utah and some kids had spotted us and asked what we were doing, and soon there were multiple games going on with the kids promising to ask their teacher if they could play it in school sports. I thought I would think back on all of those things and all of the incredible landscapes we’d seen throughout the United States.
But I didn’t think about any of that.
I didn’t think about anything.
I was in a zone, in a trance. I somehow knew that if I let my mind wander like it usually did then my speed would drop, I would lose the high level that I was cycling at. I was riding at more than 20 kilometres per hour, even on the flat, and I was well ahead of schedule. I can’t remember the exact details of when I got where, but at the time it was the only real focus of my attention, and it wasn’t long before I started thinking that maybe I was going to be able to ride 500 kilometres.
The night stretched on for a long time, as I suppose it will do when all you do is ride your bike in a straight line and don’t let yourself think about anything else, but dawn eventually broke, and I remember that at the moment when I first saw the sun I had already cycled 140 kilometres. I reflected on how that would usually count as a very long day, but I quickly dismissed such thoughts and pressed on. I knew if I thought too much about how what I was trying to do compared with a normal day then the enormity of the challenge might overwhelm me. Instead I repeated to myself that I was only going to do this once. This wasn’t something I was going to be able to repeat in Mexico or anywhere else, even if I wanted to. It was a one-off, it was my only chance, and all I had to do was give it my all on this one day and it would be done. With this motivating thought I kept up my unusually high pace.
I still felt surprisingly good as I took a road south-east from a town called Salome. It went in this direction for 50 kilometres through the first hours of daylight and during this ride I remained confident about making it to the 500 kilometre mark. I was working out what I was on course for, and I know that at some point I was on schedule for 514 kilometres with the pace I was keeping. At this stage I had spent only one minute off the bike in over eight hours (because I hadn’t learnt how to pee without stopping) and I still felt really good. But there was a problem, because the route I had planned would turn west at the end of this road on the interstate, and when I saw how busy the interstate was I became worried that I would get a puncture from all of the debris on the shoulder. I was also in need of finding some more road, because my original route plan was for 400 kilometres, and if I just kept on going with that I was going to run out of country before midnight. So I came up with a new plan, which was to retreat back the way that I had come, cycling again the 50 kilometre road back to Salome.
Unfortunately, I realised that doing this would take me into the face of a headwind, which rather hampered my hopes of getting to 500 kilometres. Then, as I slowed and made the U-turn, my front tyre went soft. This double whammy quickly put paid to my 500 kilometre-day hopes, which were rather fanciful in truth, and I felt suddenly deflated. But I kept moving, getting the wheel off and a new tube in as quickly as possible, while also taking the chance to get my trousers off and into my shorts and switch a fresh water bottle over. All-in-all I lost about 14 minutes.
More devastating for morale was the 50 kilometre slog back into the wind. I kept pushing myself hard, harder than I’d done so far actually, but my speed had dropped to between 13 and 17 kilometres per hour, compared with the 21-24 I’d been doing before. Still, there was that drive inside me, that focus, and getting to midday was a big boost. It was the halfway stage, and I’d cycled 242 kilometres. All I had to do was repeat that and I’d finish with 484 kilometres, a smidge over 300 miles. A respectable total, I thought.
At 12:30 I got back to Salome and decided to cycle back north for ten kilometres before making another U-turn and riding back south. I still needed to add a little extra distance to the day, and I also thought I might see Dea. I figured I’d passed her campsite around three or four in the morning, but with my 100 kilometre out-and-back there was a chance she’d been nearing Salome by now. After ten kilometres there was no sign of her, however, and I wouldn’t have been able to stop for a chat anyway, and I turned back south. I would later find out she reached this point about half an hour later.
I was still feeling strong, but the day was taking a long, long time. Time really did drag, but I maintained around 20 kilometres per hour. Then there was a descent, and I picked up time. It coincided with two in the afternoon, and I had now ridden exactly 280 kilometres. This raised my hopes again of hitting 500, and I began to believe it was possible. All I had to do was ride 22 kilometres per hour for ten hours and I would have the 220 kilometres that I needed. It sounds absurd now, but at the time it really did seem very feasible. Unfortunately at about this moment there was a fork in the road and I didn’t know which of the two options to take. My first instinct was to go straight on the road I was on, missing the right turn, and I went across the junction, but then I thought about it and decided I was probably wrong, I probably wanted to make that right turn, so I bumped across some gravel as fast as I could to get on it. I was now riding into a strong headwind again, and as I checked my phone I saw that I’d made an error. Still, I could easily get back on course by taking another connecting road. But the headwind wasn’t so helpful for my new quest of 500 kilometres.
I fought hard to get back onto the right road without losing too much time. Sadly the road didn’t share my passion for making this 500 kilometre thing happen, and it began on a long climb into the mountains. The wind was also against me here, and it was utterly demoralising. Over the course of the next hour my hopes of getting to 500 kilometres evaporated again in the face of this climb, my speed stuck around 14 kilometres per hour all of the way to the summit. This was still much faster than I would usually cycle up such a climb and my body was beginning to protest at the exertion. My left hamstring felt a little tight and my back was getting sore, but overall I was still okay. I had a lot of good food in my basket, including bananas, grapes, sandwiches and energy bars, and I’d been grazing on it all day, keeping my energy levels up. The psychological effect of getting to the top of the climb and not seeing a big descent where I could make up the time was more energy-sapping, however. I reached the town of Quartzsite, where I navigated a couple of red lights by making right turns (legal in the US) and then U-turns, until I was at the exit I wanted. At this stage I had still only stopped three times, for a total of about 16 minutes, in 18 hours, covering just shy of 350 kilometres in the process.
From Quartzsite to Yuma there was just one road, a very long, very straight, 100-kilometre-long road. Unfortunately as I pedalled out onto it I discovered that it was not a good road. There was only a very narrow shoulder and it was rendered unusable by a rumble strip having been ploughed down the middle of it. The road was busy with rush hour traffic and, while it was just about safe enough to ride on in daylight, the sun disappearing over the horizon to my right had me greatly concerned. This was about the time when I would usually be calling it a night and there was plenty of good camping around in the desert. It was silly to continue on under such conditions, but I couldn’t quit. I’d put too much into this day to quit. I wasn’t even at 400 kilometres yet! I pressed on as fast as I could, hoping to get to a wider shoulder. Thankfully the traffic thinned out and the rumble strip buggered off, but even so as it grew dark there were times when I felt I had to pull off the road and let cars pass when there was something coming the other way, blinding them with their headlights. I lost another eight minutes this way.
My new goal had been adjusted down to 450 kilometres and I made a plan to aim for 17 kilometre hours for the six hours of darkness that remained to cover the final 100 kilometres. In a way it felt like weakness to lower expectations, it felt like weakness that I could no longer cycle at 20 kilometres per hour, but in reality 100 kilometres on my heavily loaded touring bike was under normal circumstances a very good day, never mind with 350 kilometres already in my legs. The longest I’d ever cycled in a day before was 250 kilometres, I knew I’d already done something special, I’d already put in numbers that seemed absurd to me. All I had to do was get to the line in one piece and having cycled as far as I possibly could without breaking myself. And I was beginning to break down. Turning my head led to severe pain in the middle of my upper back, so to look behind me to check for the headlamps of cars in the darkness involved half standing and turning my whole upper body as one. My arse was sore like never before, and I could manage only a short time on each cheek before having to shift my weight onto the other, almost always with a corresponding cry of “Ouch!”
There was no doubt that I was suffering. I was suffering like I never suffered on a bike before. I really just wanted it to be over and each hour passed incredibly slowly. It had been an eye-opening experience, for sure, if only to teach me how long 24 hours actually is (it’s really, really a long time, it really is). I was riding under the stars again, but this time the road was still fairly busy. A wide shoulder had thankfully appeared, but it was not in great shape and it was much better for me to ride out in the road. Hence a strange sort of video game scenario developed where I would ride in the road until a car’s headlights appeared behind me in my mirror. I would then turn my body to check on its position, how close it was, and move over once it got near, briefly bumping along on the shoulder before returning to the road. And so this weird night-time game went on, and on, and my mind began to deteriorate slightly. I was still essentially in control of my mind, but there were weird moments when things seemed to have personalities, things like my different gear combinations, or the cars. Mostly though, I just wanted it to be over. At nine o’clock I got to 400 kilometres but I felt no sense of elation. I still had three more hours to suffer through.
I arrived into Yuma in the final half an hour before midnight, quite convinced of one thing. I had absolutely no intention of competing in the Transcontinental race anymore. Sure, I’d proved I could do this type of thing. I’d ridden a really long way, on my loaded touring bike, I’d spent no more than 24 minutes off the bike in 24 hours, the vast majority of which had been for reasons beyond my control, and I’d ridden hard all day long. But by the end I was crawling along. I could barely turn the pedals. I was in agony. The idea of sleeping for three hours in a bus shelter and then getting up and doing it all again, for TEN DAYS IN A ROW, was utterly beyond my comprehension at this stage. There was no way I was going to be getting up and cycling any distance in the morning, I would count myself lucky if I would be getting up at all in the morning. This, I decided, surely was a one-off event, and not one that I was finishing strongly. In fact, I finished it circling pathetically around a patch of desert at an intersection just out of town that I’d earmarked for my tent. As the clock struck 0:00 again I skidded to a stop in the sand. I would say that putting up my tent was difficult, but the truth was that to be doing something, anything, that was not riding a bicycle felt simply joyous. I crawled inside and fell into one of the greatest sleeps of my life with just one thought on my mind.
Distance cycled: 452.67 kilometres (281 miles).
Time spent on bike: 23 hours, 36 minutes, 35 seconds.
Average on bike speed: 19.18 kilometres per hour.
Average distance per hour: 18.86 kilometres.