Carefully enveloping the smooth, plush titanium tubing in bubblewrap and polystyrene; gently covering the American States painted amongst the bold and playful colours of my custom MPA design; I felt a bit lost. Packaging my partner up for our journey to the USA was sadly an experience surrounded by dark clouds: even bending to unscrew and tape items gave me pain and stiffness in my knee. What am I doing? This is a total waste of time, and more money I don’t have. I’m never going to be able to make it.
I was flying 4 weeks before the start of the longest self-supported race in the world, and had only just managed to straighten and walk on my right knee, due to a torn meniscus.
The Trans America Bike Race is a 4,200 mile self-supported event, with a set route through ten states: it starts in Oregon on the East Coast, then goes over the Coastal Range and the Cascade Mountains before taking you down the spine of the Rockies, finally it goes west again via many more ‘lumps’ to the Virginia coast. This central section is known for its fierce humidity, winds, and heat which doesn’t let up as you traverse the draining rolling mountains in the east. Riders are not allowed outside assistance, and must source their own water, food, accommodation and mechanical help. There are no checkpoints, but the goal for most is a sub 30 day completion (140 miles per day), although only 50% of people even finish.
Quitting my last medical job, I had 4 months to do serious miles, research and perfect kit and set up, and of course, get the perfect bike for the job! Still quite a cycling newbie at 18 months of experience, I had already done a solo 5000 mile ride, so had some idea of the mammoth preparation required. My Trans Am stead of choice was the MPA (Miles Per Annum) by Vaaru Cycles. The combined durability and weight of titanium made it a winner in my eyes, and after meeting Vaaru creators James and Stephanie, I fell in love with the down-to-earth caring nature of the brand, and the appeal of customising the bike specifications and even the paintwork!
My MPA and set up:
- Frame: 3Al/2.5V titanium, with custom paintwork from Fat Bike Creations
- My name, British flag, the 10 US States & a motivational quote were painted on
- Frame colours were to match my Assos kit, which never reached me. Thanks US post
- Fork: Vaaru F:140 carbon
- Wheels: Hunt SuperDura Dynamo Disc with Son Delux Dynamo
- Groupset: Shimano Ultegra R8000 mechanical (11-32t Cassette)
- Brakes: Shimano Dura Ace 9120 hydraulic
- Chainrings: Absolute Black oval
- Bottom Bracket: C-Bear ceramic bearings, BSA
- Handlebars: Syncros Creston 1.5 compact
- Stem: Syncros FL 1.5
- Seatpost: Syncros FL 1.0 carbon
- Aero Bars: Syntace C3
- Saddle: Brooks Cambium C17 (vegan)
- Tyres: Schwalbe Durano 28in
- Lights: Luxos U dynamo-powered headlight & BM rear dynamo light
- 3 bottle cages: rear fork, top tube, & frame
On 2nd June 2018, I stood with 5 other women and 110 men in Astoria, Oregon, about to set off on an exceedingly long journey. Yes, my MPA and I had made it. It turns out pig-headed persistence (plus a bit of luck), pays. I still, however, remained apprehensive that things could end abruptly, and I may struggle after 7 weeks of little bike-time.
The strategy seemed simple, cautious consistency should see me through, hopefully in <30 days:
- Aim for 150 miles minimum per day
- This would be ‘sensible’ considering the knee; to prevent a new injury; but also keeping extra miles in the bank in case of problems
- Aim for 6 hours sleep per day
- Eat enough calories and protein, but stay vegan:
- Take supplements for micronutrients & get protein via tins of beans (in most gas stations!), nuts & make peanut butter sandwiches
What actually happened
The stunning Pacific Coast was merely a distraction to the adrenalin-fuelled riders all storming south. Suffering from the overenthusiastic downing of peanut butter sarnies and acidic energy drinks (‘I’m an endurance racer now, every second counts!’), even water would singe my chest, but I thankfully managed the first major mountain, Mackenzie Pass, at mile 300. After a brief pause to observe the summit’s calm and desolate lava fields, I retired to my bivvy bag. Thus far, my MPA’s smooth handling and relatively light weight, had rendered me proud to be using it. Sadly, day 3 brought problems: I possess a curse of snapping gear cables within shifters (5x on my other road bike, in under 12 months of ownership, and a shifter change); and I had also allowed components to be tampered with a few days pre-race in an effort to fit a larger cassette to protect my knee. The gearing gradually went awry and a gear cable snapped (within the shifter, of course). Through hitch-hiking, the kindness of strangers, and more money, I returned to the route 32 hours later with a whole new shifter, derailleur and cassette (back to the 11-32t!). I have a nasty habit of cross-chaining: I’d need to obsessively bite this in the butt to stop a recurrence!
The town of Prineville hosted a few other strandees, who had to scratch from the race: a poor chap who had broken his collar bone after his wheel clipped a raised bit of cycle path, and his friend who continued on, just to be hit by a deer!
Keeping my strategy up, but never pushing too much, I surprisingly caught a large bulk of riders a few days later; awesome! It seemed as everyone around me was tiring and cutting daily miles, I was getting stronger and increasing mine. The knee was also holding out.
Poorer night’s sleep bivvying outside and in places like roadside loos, would affect me on the bike: particularly one Idaho day with 3 hot summits, a pot-holed vehicle-heavy downhill against a headwind which jarred my stabbing saddle wounds relentlessly, then into a lightning and hailstorm before a final major climb which took hours. The feeling of being in the ‘hunger games’, and ability to cope with constant pain and discomfort can be unbearable if you are also sleep-deprived.
In the West every so often you are treated to some incredible larger-than-life vista: this shatters negative emotions, would remind me of how insanely lucky I am, and possibly allow my eyes to weep a little instead of my saddle sores for once!
From Oregon, to Idaho, Montana and then Wyoming, long climbs and mountain storms alternated with stretches of some poorly surfaced roads. A night at 2000m of altitude surrounded by bear warning signs, shaking in all my layers and some morning snow forced me to reconsider regular bivvying. Passing comfortably over Hoosier Pass at 3,500m in Colorado, led us to all naively believe the utterance ‘its all downhill from here!’.
Eastern Colorado introduced the punishing miles lying ahead: hot, flat, and mentally numbing with nothing to distract you. There were some astonishing storm-patterns: quickly building before you, tumbleweed and winds would aggressively hit the bike and blow you around, lightning would strike the fields alongside, and a tipping of water bullets for 30 minutes would block your vision before the angry dark lady would move to the next helpless area. Crazy! Finishing a long day in the night, my headlight picked up two bright dots in the distance. Moving closer revealed their large cat-eye characteristics and the rising water vapour from exhalations passing before them. Tensely, I kept some distance & tightly gripped my pepper-spray; trying to forget the recent news of a cyclist who was hunted and killed by a cougar.
Kansas was, well, Kansas. The head-shake of despair from anyone you mentioned it to, gave it all away. Gusting southerly cross-winds blew me off my bike, and recurrently into traffic. Fighting this in humidity and unbearable heat gives most their biggest struggles of the race. Sadly, the mental battle of flat desolation also leads to driving carelessness: two racers were hit by vehicles here. One has lost his life (RIP John Egber, you are an inspiration to so many); the other is thankfully recovering after a spell in critical care, although his accident hit me immensely. I had seen him a lot the preceding days, was in awe of his tenacity, and had been with him just an hour before the incident.
My natural optimism and hyperactive mind helped me through most days and nights, and I found entertainment in writing cycling ‘parodies’ to famous songs! Recordings are on YouTube if you need inspiration for your TABR attempt (‘Alaina Beacall’).
Finally entering Missouri returned joy to most, until we found the ‘rollers’! Quite incredible: smooth tarmac traverses three, sometimes four hills in quick succession, the next one steeper and taller than the last. This leads to a rollercoaster of visual illusions where someone in front looks to be defying gravity. The unforgiving rolling continued, via a few more mountain ranges, until the final 100 miles. Geez! ‘Make up the miles in the east’ indeed.
Illinois and Kentucky presented the infamous dog-chases I had SO looked forward to (not). Climbing hot, sub-tropical swamplands with moments of bug infestations, and recurrently seeing canines wanting to show you who’s boss, would get a little annoying! One such evening, fellow rider Steve and I also passed countless police cars to find there were two escaped convicted murderers on the loose, brilliant! This pepper-spray may have multiple uses.
The Schwalbe Durano tyres lasted beautifully: only two punctures. Sadly one tear couldn’t be sorted as the thru axle handle broke, so lead to more hitching and another lost half day.
Increasing daily miles whilst racking up mountain climbs, meant an average of 3000m ascent on many sequential days: unsurprisingly my Achilles tendon started throbbing. Thankfully other niggles were bearable, such as the small friction/sweat wounds forming on the backs of my legs, and the now thickened saddle skin area. Another racer with less time for self-care due to a top 10 finishing goal, required surgery to drain his saddle abscess: he had to complete the race, standing up.
My final day through lush green and hilly Virginia, allowed me to reflect on my journey: how it really started with the will of not giving up, despite a diagnosis warning me to think otherwise. Also how my consistent strategy paid off, yet feeling quite fresh, how I figured I could push a lot harder in future.
As the night veil approached, I reached the Victory Monument at Yorktown to the announcement of ‘Alaina we have salad for you!’. After one month of peanut butter, Cliff bars and cheap fruit pies, this was pretty cool.
I had completed Trans Am in 27 days: two lost to mechanicals, and 25 full ride days, this meant an average of 167 miles on every day I rode. My goal was also to raise funds for a small charity who offer food, clothes and aid integration of asylum seekers and refugees, Asylum Link Merseyside; so far an incredible £4000 has been raised.
Considering everything, I would not change any aspect of the bike or kit I used. I probably could have taken a little less, and perhaps let go of using mudguards; this was a rarity amongst other riders. I’m extremely happy with and proud to have finished Trans Am on a Vaaru MPA.
Bring on the next challenge.
For further details, blog access, and fundraising information, please visit www.alaina.co.uk