I slept well in Lexington, but my thoughts before bed were troubled. I had made the decision to stay and not ride due to a storm going through the area I would have been riding over night. I knew that the choice was a smart one, but as far a racing goes, it was a poor one. About 99.9% of the things we are concerned about aren’t near as bad as we think they will be. Either way, I had made the choice to wait it out and it was done. I woke with my alarm about 3:45AM, got dressed in dank clothes and went across the parking lot to a gas station for an iced coffee and some donuts, then I hit the road. It was 4:00AM on the dot.
It would still be dark for 2 more hours and the air clung to everything with humidity and fog. The storms had come through in the night and left their marks. It was a cool ride as I made it out of Lexington and headed for what I believed to be my nemesis- the climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway at Vesuvius.
I had made a quick check of Trackleaders that morning and saw that the usual suspects had gotten out in front of me, like always. Michela, Stefano, Piero and Jimmy were up and had beat me to the punch. Reimo and Irena were in the vicinity as well, but had gotten into Lexington very late and I figured they would sleep a bit. As I rode along in the dark, I hoped to catch those in front of me, but didn’t think it would happen right away. I was going to settle in and just focus on how I would handle the climb coming up about 18 miles into my day.
Much to my surprise, just 4 miles down the road I came up on 3 riders. Michela, Stefano and Piero were there. They seemed surprised that I had caught up to them, but they were going pretty slow. We said our hellos and ciaos, then I rode on ahead. I settled in to a moderate pace focusing on what lay ahead. The only stop I made was to grab a photo of a fox I saw cross the road in front of me in the beam of my head lamp. He stopped long enough for me to pull out my phone, fiddle with it to get the flash working and then get a picture. He trotted off as I clipped back in and carried on up the road.
When I got to the little burg of Vesuvius, I thought I would try to find the general store that I have heard was there. I didn’t figure it would be open at such an early hour, but I thought I would try anyway. I made the turn to cross the tracks, then turned right and headed down the street that parallels the tracks. I thought that is where it was supposed to be. As I neared the end of the street, I still hadn’t found what I was looking for so I turned back and headed for the route. Getting some supplies there would have been nice, but I was prepared and had spent many hours thinking about the climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP). It was time to get it over with.
For Eastbounders, the BRP climb at Vesuvius is iconic. It is the last big climb of the route going East and represents the feeling of it being ‘all down hill’ from that point on. It isn’t, but everything gets smaller in elevation from there so I was looking forward to the challenge. In 2011 it had kicked my butt. I remember stopping quite a few times to rest. I would never walk because I wanted to be able to say that I rode my bike the entire way, but I did stop. This time, I wasn’t so proud and was more interested in just getting it over with, but I didn’t want to give up too easily either.
I settled in for the climb, finding my happy place in a small gear and alternating between sitting and standing to climb. I was surprised that I felt really good and before I knew it, I was at the top. I let out a victorious holler, pumped a fist in the air and a big smile crept across my face. At that point I felt I had slain the dragon and the Trans Am was mine. I had cleared the last major hurdle and knew I would be done soon.
Once on the BRP, I was experiencing euphoria. The sun had just come up on the horizon and the mountains were showing off. The early morning light shone orange and pink, poking here and there through mostly cloudy skies as the tree tops were tickled with smoky wisps of fog that looked like something from a pipe. It was a worthy scene of celebration for my final ascent. I rode on and soon saw the unmistakable pony tail of Jimmy in front of me. Riding up behind him, I shouted, “TADA!!!!!”, a little inside joke his wife Janie shared with me earlier in the race. We rode along on the parkway together chatting a bit until the downhill sections came along. I bested Jimmy by quite a bit on the scale, so gravity took me down the hills much faster and I moved on ahead.
After coming off the BRP, the route winds around through the foothills of the Appalachians on some beautiful back roads. It was 10:00AM, I was 60 miles into my day and had yet to have a place to stop so I headed off route to the little town of Crozet. There I went to a gas station that had a Burger King in it. I supplied up with things on the bike and grabbed a burger to eat right then. After eating, I went back the same way I had come and got back on the route. I was a little disappointed with my decision to go off route when just 5 miles up the road I went through White Hall and saw Jimmy sitting at the iconic old time general store there. If I had been more patient, I could’ve stopped there and saved myself 2 miles. Jimmy and I exchanged a few words of plans for the day and I went on.
I stayed moving through the remainder of the morning and into the afternoon, foregoing any stops. I rolled straight through Charlottesville with intention and carried on through several small burgs until I came to Palmyra. At 2:30PM it was still very humid and starting to heat up nicely. I went to a gas station there for a cold drink and to fill up stores again. I stood in the shade of the canopy that covered the pumps for a few minutes, then hit the road.
Another 25 miles down the road, I stopped at a gas station just outside of Mineral. I bought some snacks and drinks, but was really looking for real food. They had fried chicken, but it didn’t look appetizing to me at all. I asked the attendant if there were any restaurants or diners in Mineral. She told me about a couple places, but the one that stuck out to me when she mentioned it was a Mexican place. I thanked her and rode the mile or so into town in search of my place to eat.
I found Sabor Mexican at the stoplight in town, leaned my bike up outside and sauntered in. I grabbed a table where I could see my bike out the window and ordered tacos carnitas. While waiting for my food, I texted Jimmy and told him he should stop and have a meal with me. He responded that some friends from Washington DC were coming out to ride to Yorktown the next day with him. He would be meeting up with them for dinner elsewhere. I told him how cool I thought it was that his friends were coming out to meet him and wished him well. I ate my food and started contemplating the evening ahead.
I opened up Trackleaders, as it was an easy way to see the route since I wasn’t carrying the maps. I was 135 miles into my day and to the best calculations I could make, I was about 140 miles from the finish. 140 was very doable, it would just take me into the night where I would likely struggle with staying awake, if history was any indicator. Pushing through the night would do me no good as far as catching any other racers as the next ones in front of me were Jason and George who, at that moment, were about 20 miles from the finish according to the website. It also showed that I had put an ~25 mile lead on Michela, Stefano, Piero and Reimo. Irena showed to still be in Lexington. Jimmy said that he planned to stop and get a room in Ashland. If I stopped for the night somewhere along the way, I would likely lose some places to the group. If I rode on through, even if I had to stop for a nap somewhere, I would have an easy stroll to Yorktown and maintain my position. That was it. I would ride through the night and finish the Trans Am.
I left Mineral about 6:15PM and headed out of town. As I rode, I took a short video with my phone and posted it to Facebook with the caption that I planned to make the push to Yorktown overnight. It was of little significance to anyone else, but I felt that if I made it public, I would be less likely to succumb to what I figured would be my desire to stop along the way when I got tired. With my plan set, I laid down in the aero bars and settled in for the night.
I only made it about 10 miles before my body started telling me I needed to find a place to stop for a nature break. As I have mentioned in prior posts, Virginia doesn’t have a lot of places along the route where someone can find a private spot. I was in the country, going through farmland, but houses were everywhere and I was no where near a town where I could find a public restroom. When a wooded area with a gravel drive and a for sale sign that said ‘acreage available’ showed up, I knew I had found my spot. I bailed off down the gravel and then into the woods. Having taken care of business, I made my way back to the road, thinking I was good to go and had addressed all matters for my trip to Yorktown. Then it hit me that I would be arriving somewhere in the night. Yorktown is a small village with few places to stay. If I showed up at 4AM, would the little mom & pop motels have their offices closed? I thought it best to call ahead, so I pulled off on the shoulder and commenced to making a reservation.
Once that was taken care of, I got ready to take off again, feeling like all items were addressed. I clipped my right foot in, looked over my left shoulder to make sure I wasn’t pulling out in front of a car as I got back on the road and saw a cyclist coming up behind me. I pushed off, but didn’t take off fast as I wanted to know who it was. When they caught up, I found it was Irena! She had ridden into the storm the night before, taken just a short nap and then road through the day and caught up. Her tracker batteries were dead so it looked like she was still in Lexington. We rode along together and chatted a bit. She asked what I planned to do. I said that I was going to push on through to Yorktown. She said that she would have to stop. That gave me a bit of relief that I wouldn’t have to contend with her. Then she asked me how far it was.
I said, “it is 20 miles to Ashland, then 100.”
She said, “it’s 100 miles to Ashland?!?!”
I replied, ” Oh no! It is 20 miles to Ashland, then another 100 to Yorktown.”
Her face lit up with a great big smile! “It is only 100 more miles to Yorktown?!?!? I can do that!!!!”
At once, she got up out of the saddle and started cranking it hard. After about 4 or 5 pedal strokes, she turned around to look at me and smiled. Her attack had been a tease. I said, “Well, I’m not gonna just let you go!” I now had a race to the finish, and with her dead tracker, we were the only ones that knew. The dot watchers would miss this one!
We rode along together at an easy pace chatting for a couple miles. She said that she would have to stop in Ashland for supplies and I said I would as well. I told her that my previous experience was that there are very few services in the last 75 miles and most would likely be closed through the night. I told her my intent was to make sure I had enough to make it through from Ashland. She acted like she might even stop for some sleep, as she had pretty much rode through the night before. I secretly hoped she would!
Very soon, a pretty good little hill came into view. I didn’t slow down or shift and just kept cranking. I seemed to be climbing better than her, so quickly I made a gap on her. I didn’t want to just drop the hammer and take off. First off, I thought that would look pretty childish. Secondly, if I was going to get away from her, I wanted it to be a gradual thing. This girl had a monstrous cycling pedigree from riding around Europe and Asia. I wasn’t interested in seeing if I could out sprint her. I wanted to sort of sneak away.
When I reached to top of the hill, I looked back and had better than 100 yards on her. I just stayed steady and slowly pulled away. When I would go around a corner, I would put the hammer down and make the gap bigger and bigger. Not long later, I didn’t see her anymore on the straight parts. I kept a high level of output and plotted my stop in Ashland.
The sun set as I arrived in Ashland. I stayed focused on the GPS to make sure I didn’t make any wrong turns and rolled straight through town looking for a gas station. When I found one, I already knew exactly what I would get as I had planned it out in the 20 miles before as I rode. I ran inside, grabbed the things I needed, loaded my bags and hit the road, all the time watching to make sure Irena didn’t go by. I got back on the road and never saw her or her headlamp. Back out in the dark countryside, I had the hammer down and laid it all out.
Another 17 miles down the road, as I made my way through the streetlights of Mechanicsville, I saw a gas station and decided to make a super quick stop to top up on fluids. I slammed an iced coffee, refilled my water bottle and grabbed an extra Gatorade just in case, then got right back on the road, all the while watching for Irena.
The next 60 miles or so was a blur. I was riding across the piedmont through wooded areas and corn fields. It was pancake flat mostly and very dark. I remember riding along for a good 15 miles or more, needing to pee, but not wanting to stop for fear of giving Irena an edge behind me. I finally stopped and did my business and never saw her light. Then it hit me. What if she was riding without her light to sneak up on me? ‘Dude! That is crazy talk! You can’t ride through the night without a light!’ My exhausted mind and body was going nuts with the thought of staying in front of her. The only real excitement was what seemed to be the constant threat of deer. They would be foraging along the sides of the road and get spooked as I rode by. It was then a 50/50 shot whether they would run in front of me or not. There were a couple that got entirely too close, but I made it through.
When I reached Jamestown, I knew that the end was near and I was glad for it. I was spent. It was strange to be riding through what are normally busy tourist areas in the middle of the night with not a soul around. I rode alongside the James River on the Colonial Parkway all alone, all the time watching behind me, just waiting to see the beam of a cyclists headlamp. On through historic Williamsburg and then back on to the Colonial Parkway for the last bit to Yorktown. As all the other racers have said before, the bone jarring cracks in the pavement were excruciating. All the while, I fully expected that Irena was right behind me.
When I got to Yorktown, I was elated, but frantic. I rolled down Water Street watching my GPS for turns and feeling my pulse rise even higher as I knew it was almost over. I had been to the monument before, but remembered that the route was a little confusing in Yorktown. That had been 5 years prior and in the daylight. Still, the GPS was taking me on different streets than I had traveled in 2011. When the GPS showed I was supposed to turn the wrong way up a one way street, I was concerned, but just wanted it to be over. As I came up the hill and broke out of some trees into a clearing, I saw it. Just to my left was the Yorktown Victory Monument.
I rode up to the monument and couldn’t believe it. I was done with the Trans Am. I had finished. It was complete. Two years total of dreaming and planning plus a DNF in 2015 culminated into that one moment. It was 2:58AM local time, which meant I had finished in 24 days, 15 hours and 58 minutes, putting me in 16th place in the overall classification.
Not a soul was there but me. I snapped a couple pictures and called my wife as I walked around the monument reading the inscriptions. I then sent out a couple texts to some close friends, letting them know that I had finished and posted my finish pic to Facebook. I sat for a moment, reflecting on what had happened, then got back on my bike and rode down the hill to my motel a couple miles away. I had wrapped up my last day on the Trans Am with 276.5 miles and 10244′ of gain. I was truly spent in every way- emotionally, physically, and mentally, but I had accomplished the one goal that I had planned to accomplish above all others. I had completed the race.