Reza Pakravan finished the Kapp to Cape cycling adventure in November 2013. Currently working on a book to tell the adventure, I caught up with Reza to ask him about what it is like to ride the length of the planet. Literally.
With his partner, Steven Pawley, Reza cycled over 11,000 miles in 102 days to raise money for schools in Madagascar and attempt to set a new Guinness World Record. Fighting Malaria, food poisoning and intense road conditions, they made it to the finish line in Cape Town, South Africa.
You finished Kapp to Cape about a year ago. Did you initially encounter culture shock on your return?
My partner, Steven, went back to work straight away. I wanted to make the adventure part of my life and make a living out of adventure. For him, it was very difficult but for me, I took a couple of months off. I had time in California to finalize my book and was also looking for a production company to partner with me to turn Kapp to Cape into a documentary. Since August, I have been in Rome and production on the film will be finished in two weeks.
Was it difficult managing the filming for a cycling adventure that you were deep into?
We had a cameraman at the beginning, middle, and end of the race. All the rest of the footage was self-shot between Steven and myself. It is not the easiest thing in the world when you are passing through some of the most unforgiving climates and roads in the world.
I realized the most challenging part after the expedition was coming back to normal life.
We struggled with time and food, basic requirements and add filming in was quite a difficult task to do. Steven wasn’t into the idea of filming but I really wanted a documentary. Sometimes you really want to be in that moment and you are in the middle of Africa and you experience something fascinating and you come out of an experience of life and death or see the hospitality of a stranger and you want to live that moment but you have to take the camera out and film.
What was your biggest mental challenge in Kapp to Cape?
To keep pushing and motivating myself to pedal ahead. There were times that I got really ill and times that I got knocked down by heat stroke, food poisoning, and Malaria but to just wake up and pull yourself together and carry on that was the most difficult challenge.
The physical struggles of the trip are a different story but the personal journey…that is the toughest moment, after the expedition.
To be honest, the expedition was a journey and it’s finished but the personal journey started when the expedition finished. I realized the most challenging part after the expedition was coming back to normal life. I decided to change my life and do what I love to do. I received calls from headhunters asking me to return to the corporate world with a good salary. I didn’t know when my next paycheck was coming and I was struggling with my finances but I had to tell them no. Turning those calls down and telling them I was not interested is actually something that hits me in my personal journey every day. It is a very tough moment to get through. The physical struggles of the trip are a different story but the personal journey…that is the toughest moment, after the expedition.
The Kapp to Cape takes you from the tip of Norway to the tip of South Africa. What was the starkest contrast between the two points?
Temperature! Then, obviously, wealth is the second contrast. And diversity. In Norway and Finland almost everyone is basically the same. The races are limited. In South Africa, it’s a very multi-racial society.
Have you found a commonality among people in your travels?
It’s fascinating because when you travel the world at the speed of bike and you see the world in that level of detail, the needs are so basic – eating, sleeping, water food – you are actually looking for similarities – you do not look for differences. Even if you want to go as fast as you can, you are still going so slow!
My dreams since I was a kid were inspired by explorers and adventurers who went way beyond their boundaries and achieved and made the impossible possible.
All you see are similarities, not differences. You see the hospitality of people everywhere. You see that most of the people in the world are the same. We may speak different languages, but pretty much we are made from the same wood.
Has it been difficult for you to find the words to tell your story?
It took a while for me to reflect. We had some really extreme experiences. I also asked Steven and he had the same feeling. I look at adventure as my job. When you are making a living out of telling your story, then you have to do it with some sacrifice. You can’t have everything. The whole thing about adventure is that if you want to make a living out of it, you have to be able to share it with other people. I miss that good old fashion adventure. No phone, no nothing…you just go with it.
You were an international pro basketball player back in Iran in your younger days. Did you get the chance to play ball with any of the kids during your journey?
Not really. We were just cycling non-stop. It was a race!
During the Kapp to Cape, you worked to raise money to build schools in Madagascar. Why did you choose schools in Africa?
In 2009, I went to Africa to do volunteer work with an NGO in Madagascar, which is one of the most impoverished places in the world. I carefully studied the financials of this grassroots NGO and went and worked as a volunteer for a month. This was a real trigger point for me.
If every person takes one step towards their own bit, collectively we could make this a better place.
What I experienced and what I saw people doing out there was fascinating and good. For all the good things I had in my life, I was able to give something back. Since then, I decided to raise money for them. In five years we have raised $120,000 dollars for them.
It was also important to feel the energy of people behind you. If you are doing something at that scale, why not raise money for a good cause? I combined my expedition with fundraising and it was a win-win situation for everyone and inspiring for others to do the same.
Have these adventures and endeavors for fundraising made you think about wealth, poverty, and income differently?
Not so much this trip but my previously travels did make me think a lot. I traveled in Africa a lot so I knew that there is poverty that exists in the world. It wasn’t anything new to me. In fact, I have been to fairly removed places in the world even poorer than the places I traveled this time. It’s fascinating that it’s such a cliché but the poorer the country the more hospitality they have. They invite you into their places and share more experiences with you.
What would you say would help bring the biggest positive change to our world collectively?
We all have and want different changes. The guys living in Gaza Strip need a different change than people like you and me living in democracy or someone living in Africa in poverty. The requirements are different. If every person takes one step towards their own bit, collectively we could make this a better place.
Environment, political, human rights or activists or whatever they do there are lots of people out there campaigning and standing up for other peoples’ rights to make the world a better place.
If you really want to get out of your comfort zone and experience what you want to experience you have to draw the line and do it.
A lot of people just succumb to the daily world and are completely detached. If we all did something we could all move mountains and make it a much better place.
What do you want people to gain from your story?
I have been a financial analyst for 10 years of my life. My dreams since I was a kid were inspired by explorers and adventurers who went way beyond their boundaries and achieved and made the impossible possible. I wanted to have a big adventure of my own. The comforts of my life stifled that dream. Basically, comfort killed ambition.
One day you look back and realize you will never ever get any younger. If you really want to get out of your comfort zone and experience what you want to experience you have to draw the line and do it. I resigned from my job and started training to travel via bicycle.
I feel that I can do whatever I put my mind to now. That is what I really wanted to get out of it and I got there. Now, I changed my life completely. My documentary is going to come out shortly and I am already signed for making a new one. I am very happy with my choice.
If you are really passionate about something, sooner or later you will be good at it.
It was quite a big risk to come out of the comfort zone and leave my hefty salary to hit the road. Coming out of my safety net where everything was safe in my life, I left everything to go to the unknown. Fortunately, everything turned to be good!
Do you think this was a required way to go – to just up and quit corporate?
The reason I did such an extreme thing – working corporate I lost confidence to be able to change my life. I needed to do something so big and way beyond me. I needed to know that I had to work so hard for it with 100% effort. I needed the validation for my ability and to go to that extreme to say, “If I really get to Cape Town I can do anything in my life.”
If I learned one thing in the entire expedition it was that in order to achieve any dream or make any dream come true, the most important thing is to take that first step.
Once I got there I just realized I managed to go from office desk to this level and battle through the most horrible terrain in the world with all sorts of weather conditions, malaria, heat stroke, whatever obstacle came in front of me…I could do anything. I can change my life. I needed validation to my ability and I got that validation. There is always the element of self-doubt but I think that is part of an adult’s life.
Why do people do what makes them safe vs. what they desire?
There is a struggle that every human in modern times faces. I have been in an environment where everyone hates what he or she does but they do it because it gives them a comfortable life. I can talk about my personal experience. When I came out of university I had student debt, I wanted comfort, and to pay back debt and have comfortable life. That is the way that society is structured. If you are really passionate about something, sooner or later you will be good at it.
If you want certain things in your life, rather than make a five-year plan, you might make a ten-year plan instead but at least you are doing what you want to do. I think the financial thing, absorbing corporate life; they pay you lots of money. It’s easy to get into it and get comfortable so that makes it very difficult to get out of it.
Is it possible to merge comfort with adventure living?
Yes, there are ways that people can combine their passion with a bit of commercial giveaway. What I did was drastic but there is always a possibility. I personally couldn’t do it because I wanted to do something completely different but I know people that have corporate lives but follow their passion at the same time. Obviously, it’s not as good as someone who is living the life they want all the time. It’s always a compromise, isn’t it?
People have different priorities – family vs. a single guy like myself. It really depends on the situation. My life allows me to be an adventurer but I am not sure a guy with three children couldn’t take the same risk so easily. If I learned one thing in the entire expedition it was that in order to achieve any dream or make any dream come true, the most important thing is to take that first step. Sometimes you have to ignore conventional wisdom and just go with it. There are so many different ways to live your life. The easiest thing is to give way to the corporate.
What’s your next adventure?
Adventures are addictive. I have three adventures planned that I am working on parallel. I want to cycle the Trans-Amazonian Highway. I am working on a documentary of a trip from Mumbai to London via solar panel rickshaw. Another project is focusing on my discovery of Malagasy music. I will be traveling in Madascar with a human powered mobile recording studio to capture the music. I would like to do all three in 2015 but at least two…definitely.
TP Question: Crumple or fold?
I fold. I normally take my toilet paper with me while biking. I usually use wet wipes which are obviously crumpled and I don’t fold it. I don’t use a toilet roll. I use the pocket tissue. I fold and put them away. It really depends on the situation. I never thought of that but yea, I definitely fold!
Reza is an ex-corporate financial analyst that took the big plunge into full-time cyclist and extreme sport junkie. Reza has poured his energy into scheming big dreams into reality. He has conquered the summit of Mount Sabalan (4,811m), cycled the entire Annapurna Circuit in the Nepalese Himalayas and set the world record for fastest crossing of the Sahara Desert by bicycle, clocking an impressive time of 13.5 days. Adding Kapp to Cape to his impressive portfolio, he is already on to the next adventure. Oh, and did we mention he used to be a professional international basketball player??
My name is J. I am a trail builder and bike shop owner. I have been immersed from head to toe in the bicycle world for 30 years. This is a story about how I fell in love with a different kind of bike, an orange bike from Austria with a 400cc motor.
I knew about moto guys and their amazing skills on mountain bikes. I saw the ease at which these guys controlled their bicycles in the woods. Something was quite different about these guys. They were comfortable at very high speeds and they could handle obstacles and terrain changes easier than most of my mtbing friends. They made “Brraaappp” noises while we pedaled through the woods and most typically they seemed to be having the most fun of all of us.
I had a Honda 3-wheeler when I was a kid for a short while. It was an x-mas gift that my Dad and Step-mom bought me. My mother was not happy about this purchase. I loved the power, and the thrill of this little machine. Unfortunately, one of our neighbors broke his leg on the 3-wheeler and it was sold without my consent.
I took some serious lumps on this bike as I learned quickly that there is no such thing as a good dual sport bike.
I had no intention to be hooked on moto riding, it just sort of happened. At first I started with a Suzuki DRZ 400. This bike is claimed to be a great dual-sport bike. It was claimed to be good, both on and off road. It was neither. I took some serious lumps on this bike as I learned quickly that there is no such thing as a good dual sport bike. It was piss poor on the road and maybe worse in the woods. It felt fast to me, but in hindsight it was mostly top heavy and slow through the woods.
In about 3 turns I realized that these guys had been riding longer than I had been alive and that I had no chance in hell to keep up with their “easy” pace.
Not long after I got this bike, I was invited out in the pine barrens of New Jersey with a bunch of guys on an “easy” Sunday ride. Most of these guys were 20-30 years older than me. They walked slow and they basically had none of the marks of the fast guys I knew from mountain biking.
In about three turns I realized that these guys had been riding longer than I had been alive and that I had no chance in hell to keep up with their “easy” pace. It was disheartening to get dropped so badly but I figured I had to learn the hard way. On that particular ride, I managed to drive a sharp stick through the radiator, and after a long push of the bike back to the road, I swore I would not ride this bike in the woods again.
I soon bought a KTM EXC. All the fast guys rode these orange beasts and I knew that I would figure it out sooner or later. It was a mean bike, maybe more than I could handle but I was determined. I quickly learned about suspension tuning, various costly repairs and basic bike setup. There was so much to learn and I was so excited at each new element I dug into.
So little of what makes sense on bicycles carries over to motorcycles.
I competed in a few harescrable races and quickly determined that I cared for my life more than my competition. I got knocked off the bike and I had enough. I was in the top ten but the racing really turned me off. It seemed like a competition to see who might out red-neck their buddies. I remember sitting at the start line with 40 guys all revving the hell out of their bikes for no apparent reason. It was fast and I learned a lot in a hurry, but in the end I was happy to go ride with a few racer types on my own terms. I quickly found a few guys who rode a lot and they taught me countless things that I would have taken much longer to figure out on my own. So little of what makes sense on bicycles carries over to motorcycles.
Fast forward to the present day…I now do a handful of dual sport rides a season and mostly trail ride on trails that are a bit tougher than what we mountain bike. These dual sport rides are usually 80-100 miles a day. They are mostly on private land. You pay a fee for access to trails that are otherwise off limits most of the year. It is a great way to ride some amazing single track with good friends and have a blast.
As a mountain biker I appreciate the fact that so many of the trails we ride on bicycles were first cut by motorcycles. I love the acceleration and the power to climb hills and mountains that are simply too much for a bike to climb. I am simply amazed by what is possible on a dirt bike. It has been an interesting journey to get to a point where I feel equally at home on a KTM as I am on my Cannondale.
It is interesting that my cycling friends look at me as a moto guys and my moto friends see me as a bicycle guy. Luckily I don’t need to choose just one. I think they compliment each other nicely.
Jason Fenton owns Halter’s Cycles in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey. When he isn’t slinging bikes out the shop door, Jason is trail building, riding bikes with the cutest daughter and raddest wife in the world, or hopping on his KTM to tear up some dirt.
Copyright 2014 Roam Life, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
My dad had this habit of calling me Imelda Marcos growing up. I had a thing for shoes. And handbags. And cute jackets. I converted a bedroom into a big closet and I filled it up.
After four years of living to work rather than working to live, I had a revolutionary moment: I started purging all of my stuff. I felt trapped and weighed down. It was time to re-prioritize. Over the last three years, I have gone through several phases of becoming a “minimalist.” There is no proper way of getting this done.There is no secret formula that makes it really easy to get rid of all of your “stuff.” It’s a process that takes time to sort out and to begin minimizing your inventory and then looking at material possessions differently.
If you are looking to live out of a few bags, one room, or your car, this Guide may prove to be helpful. [Read More…]
Yesterday morning, while I was stacking wood for my father, I was feeling rather glum. My father just had hernia surgery so it is up to me to get the firewood this year. Add this to working my butt off day in and day out to make some cash to fix up my old Subaru, I was burned out. I looked around and noticed all the snow that had accumulated in my yard. That didn’t help how I was feeling. I spent last winter in Park City, Utah living the dream and skiing every day. Motivation kicked in. “There is way more snow on Whiteface Mountain!” I thought. That last three wheelbarrow loads went quick. I was going skiing.
I pulled up to the tollbooths on the road that leads to the summit on Whiteface and cars were everywhere. Normally this bothers me, but today I was excited to see who would be up there. I walked my skis past the assortment of old trucks and Subarus and began to hike. As I climbed up, rocking out to my hand picked ski tunes, I noticed the kindness in the smiles of each fellow adventurer as I yelled, “WOO!” cheering them on as they descended. I had done this ski route a couple of times before. It is a 5-mile climb; which, as you can deduce, is also a 5 mile return downhill.
I had a grin on my face the entire way up. I love exercise and this is exactly what I needed. My attitude did a 180 as soon as the skis were on. As I reached the castle that stands at the end of the road I was bursting with joy!
Out of breath I said “hi” to some fellow skiers snapping photos of the rime ice on the castle. It did look striking and almost foreboding. I mean, it’s a castle near the summit of a mountain. Since the summit is only a quarter mile hike from the castle, I went for it. The wind was strong but I knew to throw a fleece on before the ascent. After a struggle hiking in telemark boots on icy rocks, I made it. There was no view, which I knew there would not be. Even with the wind it was simply peaceful. I was alone at nearly 5,000 feet. I sat there for a while feeling renewed and reflected.
The ski back down took only forty minutes compared to the two and a half hours it took to make it up. I felt free. Spent, I was ready for some dinner and a shower. I was so glad to get out yesterday; I decided to do it again. This morning I got up at 5:15 to check for more snow. Sure enough, there was more! So I ate and took off. It was another bomber day.
Some may say, “I’m too broke to do that or to go somewhere new.” This is not a valid excuse. You find your own adventures. If you want to enjoy a trip like this, except for gas, it was free. I drank water along the way and ate before I left the house. I have a beat up cross country set-up or you can snowshoe. The skis got me to the top of one of the highest mountains in New York. I have an old car, and some acceptable gloves and layers, which are very important. Anyone can do this. All you have to do is drive to Wilmington, NY and up Memorial Highway to the gate at the tollbooths. The road is closed in the winter so you hike it up and it’s a good ski. You don’t have to go to the top to get a view either! I saw all the way to Vermont yesterday.
Roaming, adventuring, or whatever you call it is addictive. It is letting go and getting away from routine. It lifts your spirits and engages your senses. It can also be challenging. I never regret dropping everything to roam when I am feeling down. It changes you and your attitude. Everyone has different interests. Mine are skiing, hiking, biking and getting lost exploring. Others might prefer, reading, writing, surfing, climbing, or driving to a place they have never been. Whatever it is, I challenge you to step out of your comfort zone and roam! (Yes I feel you can roam into a good book.) So, go and challenge yourself. It is rewarding and makes you feel great! So go and ROAM LIFE!
P.S. I forgot to mention I am trying to fix my car so I can roam to Montana in February. I’m going to a place I’ve never been and living with people I’ve never met. It’s going to be more challenging than anything I have done and I can’t wait!
Geoff Harper is one of those adventurers that feeds off the challenge of the adventure itself. Traveling can be overwhelming for some people. Not for Geoff. In fact, he goes out of his way to find the more difficult ways to experience a new land. Like traversing Iceland’s South Coast the hard way, by beach, using roads only as a last resort. He embarked on his journey in August and toured the gorgeous country by cutting through 500 miles of Icelandic beachfront. After finishing over three weeks of fat bike cycling through severe wind, rain, and conditions that can make you question your own sanity, Geoff sat down and chatted with Roam Life about the experience.
One thing I noticed about you is that you are really good at bike porn.
That’s probably an extension of my design background. I used to design plastics packaging, which is basically cell phones – how they look. I have a fairly keen eye for linear design, keeping everything very symmetrical which is the same approach I used for engineering as when I look at or style a bike.
I was also big into motorcycles. Symmetry is something I look for and I think that’s something that actually lends into the way a bike rides. The balance that you perceive when you look at a bike is somehow aesthetically pleasing and somehow translates into the manner in which the bike handles and rides.
We read that you had done some mountaineering in Iceland.
Actually, my mountaineering experience has been in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. I had been to Iceland once before but not to hit the glaciers or to do any mountaineering. I would like to get back to do some mountaineering in Iceland now that I’ve seen it. My experience is climbing the Cascades and on Denali which I summited in 2009.
What made you decide to go to Iceland for a cycling trip?
Growing up in the UK, my best friend, Olaf, was from Reykjavík, Iceland. His mother lived in London and his father lived in Iceland. Every summer holiday he’d go back and spend time with his father. At the end of the summer holidays, we would regroup and he would talk about what he’d been doing all summer time. He would have gone glacier walking to geysers and in the middle of the summer time it stays light for 24 hours. This stuff that was completely off the wall for me as a kid. I think it went in at a very young age and I’ve always had this interest and fascination but never really had the opportunity to go and check it out. With the fat bike, and trying to come up with an adventure that was suitable it just seemed perfect.
Where did the idea to use a fat bike come from?
Iceland has always been somewhere I wanted to go and it came about that way. I was doing these big long rides in the Rockies throughout the winter. I would go out for a day on these solo rides through the passes and this is where I started to think, “Alright this is cool. I am getting strong on the bike. I can see what it can do. Where can I take it? Where can I go? What kind of adventure can I come up with?” And then somewhere along the line I connected the dots: Iceland, fat bike, and started to look at the beaches.
How much preparation did it take on your part to prepare for a trip like this in terms of logistics?
One of the first things I did was buy some books by different authors. One that stands out is Arctic Cycle by Andy Shackleton. It’s a really good read. He actually did the ring road going all the way around the outside of the country. He’s a British guy too. I contacted him and asked him what he thought of my idea and he said it would be tough but doable. Once I heard the word “doable” I decided this is what I am doing and it all started to solidify.
It’s a very strange dynamic of human experience to go from extremes within such a short period of time and to be dealing with that. It’s incredible.
I started research by contacting the Icelandic Search and Rescue to find out what maps they use because maps are very hard to get a hold of for Iceland. I guess population density doesn’t lend itself too much to the demand for maps, especially not for what I was doing. I talked to those guys and they told me of a cartographer based in Iceland called Ferdakört. They have incredible maps of everywhere I needed to go. Then I really started to go through what gear I would need.
A lot of the gear was borrowed from my mountaineering. I improvised. I was going to go with panniers at first but then I got to chatting with my good friend, Joe, at J Paks. I met him through the same bike shop I bought the bike at and he schooled me on this new style of bike packing. It was phenomenal. The packs were actually a huge part of the trip and made it easy to manage my gear and keep important parts of the gear dry.
I just messed around with setups. It took a couple of months of honing the gear and checking out ideas and looking at other peoples’ set ups and talking to different people.
I didn’t really allow myself to have that self-pity. If I did, I think it would have crumbled me. I would have just packed up shop and gotten on a bus and gone home.
I ran Vee Rubbers tires. They weigh 4.5 pounds each, which is horrific, but they were the best tires for the trip. If I had run my standard winter tires I think they would have just been trashed within the first week because the lava sand and rock can be extremely coarse and the gravel goes through rubber in no time. I shredded these Vee Rubbers and they are extremely tough. They lasted the whole trip but they look like slicks now and have all kinds of scarring on the tire wall, which would have trashed a regular snow tire. The guys at 9:zero:7 suggested to “just go with the safe option because if you are in the middle of nowhere and you don’t have spares the safe option is always going to be better even if they weigh a ton.” They were exactly right.
What things did you leave up in the air? You know, “Oh, I’ll figure it out…”
The main one was actually the route because I couldn’t plan the route due to the ever changing glacial run offs, the tides, and the weather. I couldn’t plan an exact route because I didn’t know what I would come across. That would keep me up at night because I would say to myself, “Well, I know this area and I know roughly how I am going to do this.” But on any given day, depending on the time of day I was riding or if I got delayed because the tides would change, the glaciers would melt and the run offs would be higher or lower, I didn’t know whether I could ride through them or couldn’t ride through them. There were quite a few things I couldn’t really predict, including camping locations, because of this.
How do you plan for meals on a trip like this?
I laid out spots on the map where I could get food and I memorized them and I would plan according to these. I would say, “Ok. There are two days I’ll be on the sand.” and I always tried to pack an extra day of food just in case. A couple of times this was the right thing to do because usually, in Iceland, a gas station means food but sometimes the information is wrong. Somebody who lived locally would own the gas station and they would have a café attached and they would have some basic supplies there for people that are traveling and one of these was actually shut down. It was a crucial one. I got there and there was no food. I had an extra day’s food but it took another day to get to another town and stock up. As much as I planned, it didn’t necessarily fall 100% the way I wanted it to.
This was not an easy travel plan. Did you have a “shit your pants” moment?
I had a lot actually. In the beginning of the trip, I had this feeling more. The first time I got on the beach, I was hit with this moment that this was it. I was good. Then it started to get a bit weird where I thought, “Hang on a minute. Where is this going? What is this?” The third day is when the big storms and the rough stuff hit me. That was really when I started to doubt what I was doing. I had to stop myself from having those thoughts. I had this whole moment of “No. Not going to go there. It’s going to be okay.” In the cliché sense, staying positive was really what I was doing in that moment. It paid off.
I had marched into the elements with groups or friends but I had never really done it on my own before.
Traveling solo can be isolating. Did you wish for a teddy bear or a friend along the way?
I got into this process of thinking about the difference between aloneness and loneliness. I felt quite alone but I didn’t necessarily feel very lonely. It’s hard to quantify the difference between those two but loneliness is a little bit of self-pity and aloneness is more of an acceptance of being alone. In the process of thinking about those two ideas, I was okay. I’m alone. But this is temporary. I am going to be here for 3 or 4 days. I just have to push through. This is what I signed up for. I am going to be okay. I didn’t really allow myself to have that self-pity. If I did, I think it would have crumbled me. I would have just packed up shop and gotten on a bus and gone home.
There was a point when you hit the most difficult part of your trip – the Sandur. Before you got there you had “daunting knowledge that I would be traversing the legendary Sandur often described as ‘soul destroying’.” Tell us how you had mentally prepared for this and whether or not that plan really worked out once you got there.
That was one of those moments that I couldn’t necessarily plan for mentally. I knew it was going to be rough. I used my mountaineering experience. I had some rough times mountaineering. I would tell myself it’s not that bad because I’m not at altitude or it’s not that bad because it’s not -40 degrees and it’s not that bad because worse case scenario there is a road 10 miles away. I used perspective mirrors to keep dimension on where I was and what I was going through. It was a tough process and it was testing. One of the big things was having the roads so close by. If that road had not been there and I would have been way, way out in the middle of nowhere, just the knowledge that I could get to that road, even if I had to dump my gear and walk there, I had that. It was nice to know, for sure.
I spent hours riding and I would look at the GPS and I had done a zigzag route and I hadn’t really gone anywhere.
You ended with “I battled the Sandur for 3 days in total, an experience I will never forget.” So, it was a piece of cake?
It was definitely up there with the experiences I’ve had on big mountains for sure. It was rough. There were definitely times on the Sandur that it would have been nice just to chat about the plan with someone. To say, “Well, what do you think? Maybe we can do this or maybe we can do that.” But of course, I didn’t have that option so it just forced me into that mindset, “Well, okay. You are going to just have to call it.”
I read about 60 mile per hour winds and torrential rain but I thought I would just put my raincoat on and ride my bike.
The weather and visibility were the most difficult. The riding on the sand was rough. I couldn’t always tell I was headed in the right direction and I was getting battered by the rain and wind. I couldn’t see farther than ten feet in front of me. I would run across a glacial run off I couldn’t ride through and then I would have to go inland. This meant backtracking away from the westerly direction I was headed. I would have to go northeasterly to get to the road and then I would have to climb back. It was frustrating to feel like I wasn’t getting anywhere. I spent hours riding and I would look at the GPS and I had done a zigzag route and I hadn’t really gone anywhere. I was soaking wet and cold and it seemed like a lot of pain for not a lot of gain. Mentally, after a few hours of that, it ganged up on me a few times. You get those thoughts, “Maybe I will just hang out for a little while and regroup.” And that’s what I did. I tried to control that sense of frustration.
You said that you had “Moments of glassy-eyed elation followed by moments of gut-wrenching hardship” – to a person who has never done a trip like this…bring us there with you.
It’s a very strange dynamic of human experience to go from extremes within such a short period of time and to be dealing with that. It’s incredible. It is life changing. For me, that’s what defines these trips. That juxtaposed experience that highlights both ends of the adventure. I was riding through the Sandur and I felt like it was Groundhog Day. It was never going to end. I was going to be riding this thing for the rest of my life. And then all of a sudden, the terrain started to change, the sand started to even out, the wind started to calm down and I started to see the shoreline that was running along toward Vik. Right there, I snapped back into being normal and not being in this heightened state. It was very uplifting and almost instantly I forgot about the hardship. The three days that I spent suffering just completely dissipated. I don’t know whether that’s a human defense mechanism that we just shut that stuff out and maybe we shut it out temporarily and deal with it later which plays into the idea of how hard it is to write about the trip afterwards. You don’t process that stuff for a while.
Experiencing something on your own is great but if you take it to the grave with you then what use is it to anybody else?
So, there I am in this completely changed position and I was so thankful for it and was immersed and I had forgotten about the Sandur, it felt like, instantly. It’s a huge sense of relief. There were times when I also went from riding on a beautiful beach into a mess and that was a whole fearful conversation. I was scared. It was completely counterintuitive, too. I was riding from these ideal conditions to hell. I would tell myself, “This is what I came here for. Let’s do this.” Those are the moments that once you get through them you feel good about them because you overcame those fears. Being alone and doing that is something I had never done before. I had marched into the elements with groups or friends but I had never really done it on my own before.
One of our big beliefs at Roam Life is the power of people connections. How did your interactions with locals and travelers influence your adventure?
There were different levels of interactions. If I met somebody at a campsite or a store people would look at the bike and would want to know what the hell I was doing. So I had interactions with people that weren’t bike riders and weren’t riding out there. They were in a car or a coach (bus) so those interactions were limited in a sense because I couldn’t really share what I was doing with those guys but then I would meet some guys who were riding the road and who were cyclists and I could share a lot of what I was doing with those guys in a much closer way.
I didn’t meet anyone who was riding the beaches so my experience was very much my own experience and it was interesting. It was nice to talk about it with the other bike riders; especially the ones that knew about fat biking, they “got it.” They understood what I was trying to do.
When I pulled into a campsite toward the end of the trip, I bumped into an adventure scout group. At that moment I was kind of disillusioned because the trip was coming to an end and I didn’t want it to. I was ten miles from Reykjavík. I gave a little impromptu presentation. Luckily, there was a big map on the wall and I was able to point out where I started and where I would finish. They were all taken by the bike. That was one of the most powerful moments because in that moment I was sharing the trip and I was handing over elements of the trip. I could see in their faces, not just the younger scouts but the group leaders as well, I could see they were very much interested in what I was talking about that gave me value and perspective.
Experiencing something on your own is great but if you take it to the grave with you then what use is it to anybody else?
Had you considered doing this ride with a partner or group or was it always intended to be a solo trip?
With mountaineering, I had always wanted to do a solo trip but it’s such a high-risk game. I don’t think I have the skills for putting up a new route as a mountaineer. I don’t think I have the willingness to risk that much just to put up a new route. So this trip was the “putting up a new route.” It just happened to be on a bike. No, I didn’t want to do this with anybody. In fact, I had a couple of people say they wanted to do it with me but that wasn’t what the trip was about. I wanted to go and do this on my own.
Looking back, did you have any silly misperceptions or naïve understandings of what you were about to experience?
I had read about the weather but I hadn’t fully absorbed what it was. I read about 60 mile per hour winds and torrential rain but I thought I would just put my raincoat on and ride my bike. That doesn’t do it justice. When you actually get into that stuff it is pretty hard going.
I don’t know why but I thought I would see more people. Even when I went to the towns, they were very quiet; the weather pushes people inside. It’s a little eerie. I don’t think I fully appreciated that.
I tried not to go in with too many ideas of what to expect. It is what it is. I actually read some fairly conflicting stories and got conflicting opinions along the way so I decided to just go and see.
Are you dealing with post-adventure, reality bites depression?
I wouldn’t call it depression but there is a void since I got back. Dealing with the intensity of the experience and being alone while seeing amazing and different things on an every day and every minute basis then getting back to your normal life takes a little bit of work. It’s difficult to try and do the trip report while dealing with that. I train a bunch of bike guys as a strength conditioning coach. They want to talk about the trip, which is nice, and they are enthusiastic about the trip and that’s been helpful. It’s been a month long process of coming back down to Earth.
What’s your next adventure?
I came up with this idea of “The Unchained Cyclist.” I am hoping to get another belt driven bike and go off on another adventure. I have got my eyes loosely on the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. I used to live there in a place called Andora. It is one of my favorite regions in Europe. I would like to ride from the town of San Sebastian all the way through the mountains through Girona down to Barcelona. Extremely ambitious! I might have to make it a little more doable. [Planning a new adventure] gets you enthusiastic and pumped. I am a big map geek. I love maps. In my place I’ve got a big map up and I look at it for hours on end just thinking about what the next adventure will be.
When I was packing up and getting read to go home from Iceland, I wanted to lighten my load. There was no way I was going to get rid of the maps. They are my most favorite mementos of the trip because they were my guide the whole way. In the absence of having someone to talk to the maps were as much of a conversation as I could have. Between me, the maps, and the bike it was a team effort.
Did adventure for you start from the get go or was it developed over time? What was Geoff the 7 year old like?
My mom has a story that she likes to tell. When I was 5 or 6 years old, she says that if she left the gate open or let me out, I would just take off on my bike. I would just go. She would find me in random places and I would just be sat there staring at something. I didn’t know anything about road safety, I would get on my little tricycle and ride it a half a mile down the road in any direction and sometimes a bit further and she would come and find me. I wasn’t in danger and I wasn’t doing anything, I would have just stopped at a freeway or a field. She likes to tell that story. It’s possibly indicative.
Geoff today is a strength and conditioning coach. What kinds of advice/support do you give your clients?
Ever since I have been in the US I have been a trainer of some sort. I gravitate towards performance based training which is to oversee the strength and conditioning type stuff. I am a big proponent of developing strength. Even in endurance athletes because I think it’s what keeps us strong throughout big adventures. I have never had an injury. As endurance athletes, we tend to wear ourselves into the ground and don’t take care of the mechanics of the body in the manner that we should. I follow the primal blueprint methodology and did the trip in a fat oxidizing mode and stayed away from red lining. I trained specifically to become very strong and efficient at using my fat supplies for energy. Hopefully I am pushing out decent wattage for minimal expenditure. I maintained this oxidization mode throughout where I wasn’t pushing too hard and I wasn’t dealing with any of the fall out that happens when you burn a lot of carbs and sugars. This way I finished strong and finished healthy.
Finish this sentence: “When the going gets tough…”
…don’t think. Just do.
Stop thinking, in that moment when you start thinking, you have diverted your mind. If you are thinking, “Oh my God, this hurts,” just stop thinking. Your instincts will take over once you stop thinking.
A little Roam Life psychoanalysis question: When doing business in the bathroom, do you crumple or fold?
[laughing] I’d have to be a crumpler. Definitely a crumpler.
Geoff Harper is an adventure seeker and strength/conditioning coach living in Colorado. An avid mountaineer, Geoff summited Denali in 2009. Geoff will continue his adventures throughout the winter on his fat bike as the “Unchained Cyclist.”
Trying to digest and document the feelings and emotions of the following story and put them into words are hard. I am still sorting them out, and re-living the experience in my head, but taken outside of the element and delusional state of mind when they came about, certain elements are hard to put into words…This is my story of the 2013 Trans Iowa gravel road race…..
Not until a few days days prior to leaving for the Midwest does it hit me, and it hits me with the ironic dread of something that you chose to do out of your own nonsense. Yet, I am excited. The weight of it cannot be denied. It sits on the brain in an odd sort of way, but always very heavy. And I wonder if I may be crazy! I am less than one week away from this year’s 323 mile, self-supported, gravel road bike race across the endless farmlands of the Midwest: Trans Iowa V.9.
It’s been a long road getting to this point. There have been many hard battles, painful miles in training, endless hours of scrutinizing gear, planning travel, getting ready for it. If curious, you can read about them here.
The hurdle of the race itself seems almost insignificant compared to the effort spent readying for it. The whole affair is less of a single goal, and more of a mindset one needs to acquire for a long period of time leading up to it. A very long process. Until you remember that you could be racing a bike from the early morning of one day, all throughout that whole day, and finishing sometime the next morning or afternoon! Then it seems much harder. Or that moment when you felt good about riding 170 miles over about 14 hours on one of the biggest training rides of the year, my longest distance ride ever, and then realizing that’s perhaps half of what I’m up against. Ahhhh, those moments! But preparation was over, it was time to board a plane.
My support crew member and awesome girlfriend, Suzanne Marcoe, and I, would be leaving Portland, OR, and the beautiful 70 degree sunny April weather we’d been having and depart to Minneapolis, MN for a couple days to cool off. It had snowed in Minneapolis just days prior. Awesome. Iowa weather is notoriously fickle in April, as I could tell you from last year’s failed attempt at this race, which started in 38 degree sideways rain and wind and brutal 30mph gusts of wind. I made it 65 miles back then, falling victim to my own thoughts, poor sleep, and some ill-preparation and poor gear choices. But that was then, this is now.
Many good lessons learned that I would put to use before and during this year’s race. We could tell that the Midwest was still thawing out from a long winter upon seeing that the grass had barely a touch of green, and old snow banks crowded empty parking lots. But the weather was looking up, nice and sunny and bit warmer down south! The effect for me was added gravity to the situation, as there would be one less excuse for possibly not finishing this race.
After two great days spent relaxing and cooling off the effects of jet-lag, throwing some granite, drinking a few choice beers, re-acquainting with some old friends, and stretching the legs on a short ride in what I now understand to be one of the most amazing networks of cycling friendly routes around, we departed Minneapolis and headed south. Directly south! For 275 miles or so. The lakes of Minnesota part ways to show the true hand of what we’re about to endure: Gravel. Hills. Wind. The flat regions up north slowly morph into the endless pocketed rolling farmlands of Iowa.
We got to Grinnell, Iowa just in time to check into a hotel that I’ll only be sleeping in for one of two nights paid, dial in some last minute gear for the race, and then head over to the pre-race meet up. Or shall I say, Meat-Up! It’s held in the Grinnell Steakhouse, a fine establishment, where you grill your own cut of meat, Texas toast, and share a beer with your fellow comrades, future friends, and many folks that you will never see outside of the start line of tomorrow’s race. There are close to one hundred of us. We get details of the course: it’s supposed to be very hilly. But the weather supreme and the wind mellow. Sweet! I’ve been training on tons and tons of hills all winter. There is a palatable sense of equal parts excitement, fear, nervousness, and stoke in the air!
It’s back to the hotel, where all of tomorrow’s gear is laid on the ground next to my bike, ready to roll. I attempt to get a few hours sleep. Easier said than done, and one of the reasons I fell victim to last year’s race, sleeping not a wink that year. But this time I manage three solid hours thanks to a couple beers and some sleeping pills. I am awake by 1am in anticipation. I had been nervous about getting zero sleep, so I felt great! Let’s get this thing started! I toss back a cup of hotel coffee, if you can call it that, the remnants of yesterday’s cinnamon rolls, and a banana. Pretty shady breakfast if you ask me! Suzanne rolls out of bed and drives me to the start a few miles away in downtown Grinnell. Racers start assembling on what may be the least notable start line of any bike race I’ll ever do. But certainly the most significant. We line up in front of the local bike shop Bikes to You, mingle with racers, and I have a huge sense of optimism and am anxious to start riding my bike. And we’re off at 4am sharp!
Event promoter, Mark Stevenson, a.k.a. Guitar Ted, rolls us out in a neutral pace through downtown Grinnell in the middle of darkness, behind his blue pickup truck. I keep thinking, “I bet that truck has seen more miles of gravel than I’ll ever see in my life!” Sorting out crazy ways to connect 300+ miles of gravel into a strange cocktail of routes that bewilder the mind, year after year. Racers are lit up with whatever method of lighting system will see them through to sunrise, and all of the next night, an important detail of preparation. Once we cross Hwy 146 we hit gravel and the race is on! This is likely the last time I’ll really know where I am for the next day or so. One of the elements that makes this race difficult is that it’s a self-supported system with only what you can carry, buy, or beg for along the way, with only a set of cue sheets to show you where to go, and a lot of willpower.
We get the first 52 miles of cue sheets at the pre-race meet up, and the rest we will acquire at two key checkpoints, basically piloting in the dark the whole time, not knowing where we will go, only where we all hope to end up, back in Grinnell. Our support crew’s are that in the loosest definition possible. In reality, they are allowed to do nothing except pick us up in a ditch or small town somewhere along the way if we get too tired to carry on.
I had mentally prepared to go into this race with only one goal in mind: to finish. That’s all you can really hope to do. As many will attest to, any big ideas beyond merely getting to the finish can quickly come unravelled, and the only thing you can count on is everything not going to plan. Trans Iowa isn’t about trying to beat another racer; it’s more about finding a friend along the way to help each other see it through. Yet as bike racer my whole life, I’d committed to the idea of staying with the lead group of riders off the start to see where it took me. I wanted the thrill of joining some veterans and finishers that knew what they were doing. Rookies who had never “toe’d the line” at one of these races were in for suprises. So would I. But sometimes not knowing what’s ahead is also a strength. Last year’s attempt left me a bit scarred, so I kept what I needed from it and let the rest go. At minimum, all you knew is that likely over half the field would not make the finish, and in some years nobody would. The odds are against us all from the start! Good thing I don’t believe in luck…I joined with the lead group of riders the second our tires hit gravel. It was on!
The crunch of tires on gravel is a scary sound at first, but you get used to it. The perfect bike for this sort of thing may not exist. Some take a glorified road bike with wider tires and run with it. Fast and light. Others opt for the stability from a mountain bike, yet likely not as fast. I took a variation of bike similar to the style that many would be on. Something akin to an adventure road bike that fits bigger tires, is more comfortable off road, has accommodations for more water bottles and frame bags to carry the assortment of gear that 323 miles may take. It’s sort of a hybrid cyclocross bike.
I also had meticulously looked over the gear I would need: clothing, lights, food, emergency supplies, and cue sheet system. Other odds and ends: duct tape, zip ties, spare pedal cleat, a couple tubes, patchkit, mini-tool, spare light battery, chamois cream, advil, and a county map of every county within 150 miles of Grinnel just in case I got really lost. I must thank my good friend and two time finisher of TI, Joe Partridge for his wisdom in this regard. I glossed over some details in year one, and this year I had what would end up to be a dialed setup. I also had a good friend Tony Batchellor build me a bike he calls the Tonic Fabrications Crusher. He’d built a similar version last fall that got me fired up when I had been thinking of signing up for the race again. It’s steel with a softtail rear end, steep and fast geometry, yet upright for comfort on the long haul, and it hauls ass on the rough stuff. It fits four 30 oz water bottles due to some custom fork mounted cages from Ruckus Composites, allowing me to keep nothing on my back aside from a few goodies in jersey pockets, and I ran tubless 40c Clement MSO gravel tires set to 45psi, which were the shit. Magic carpet ride.
I had ridden as much gravel as I could find out west, which is sparse and never enough to get a feel for the terrain in Iowa, but I knew the second we hit the churned up limestone gravel that it was going to be a good race. We immediately ran into a bunch of hills. There were reported to be a lot of fast racers in this year’s event. Right off the start I was surrounded by some giants of this event, chit chatting, and sucking wheels. By the time the sun rose over the hills in a dramatic showing and slightly foggy haze in the air, I’d gotten to meet a few of them. All such nice people! Unlike the start of a typical bike race, the start here is a slower affair. You can’t burn too many matches early when you have up to 34 hours to go: the time cutoff for finishing. The low light on the horizon near sunrise was impressive, the wind minimal, the air a surprisingly warm temperature. The start of this year’s race was hard not to be excited about; it felt like a big group ride on a sunny day, what fun! I’ve heard reports that the start of the race was fast this year, and it certainly wasn’t slow, with the good weather making it seem possible that with a solid pace that somebody would finally crack the sub 24-hour time that has never been broken. Each year the course is different, so nobody knew for certain how possible this could be, but it was certainly on the minds of a few that morning.
Furthermore, I’ve learned that you never knew what others may be capable of, and I find this to be especially true of endurance racers where the mind is perhaps more important that the body. I didn’t know what I am capable of. I didn’t feel that the pace was too fast off the start, so I kept up with the leaders, never quite at the front, but in the mix. It was very hilly off the start of the race, as it would be most of the course. They all seemed like downhill at this point in time. I’d enjoy it while I had fresh legs! When I looked at my computer later on, I noticed we’d averaged 16 mph for the first few hours, certainly faster than I’d thought we were going, or should go. But I didn’t want to lose sight of any of them just yet, holding onto the thought that I could be among the top placed finishers so many hours later. I didn’t even stop to go to the bathroom until absolutely necessary, to keep along with the group.
Somewhere in the first 20 miles I would meet and have fun chatting with Corey “Cornbread” Godfrey. Corey had a meaningful impact on my race, and I think was in contention for a top finish. He was stoked and had a great attitude! He had experience, both good and bad, to serve him, and I gleaned a couple helpful ideas during the morning. We ended up riding close to the first checkpoint, and Corey would end up riding off out front, to only be seen later on in the day. I rolled into the first checkpoint at mile 52 feeling great with a couple of other riders whom I don’t recall. We didn’t stop for more than a minute to get the next batch of cue sheets and reset my computer to match the new batch of cue sheet mileages. There were a few out front at the time that I figured we’d let go. I had it in my head that they were on their own, and the odds of trying to stay with them bad, if not consequential. It turns out one of the heavyweights of the race, and early leader at the time, Eric Brundt, who’d won last year had taken a wrong turn and I ended up chatting with him a bit near mile 65 as he caught up, and just enough time to take a picture. I thought maybe we’d be looking at a soon to be record holder! He seemed a bit tired, but then proceeded to ride out by himself after some rest in pursuit of the leaders. He only had enough gear to last what looked to be a several hour road ride!
Near mile 65 I found myself on my own, a fear in last year’s race, but I was oddly confident at this moment. I rolled into the first point where we’d have any sort of water/food access, the infamous Casey’s Convenience Store in the small town of, heck, I don’t know! I was happy in my decision to ride by myself at the moment, and took the time to gear up for the unknown.
The temperatures were to be record high for this event, and it later showed highs in the mid 70s and it felt warm. The route of TI will usually go through a few stores along the way, and this is where you need to make some critical decisions on what to bring. Water is certainly on most people’s check list, but food also would be on mine. I’d packed a bit light on the food, only bringing Hammer Fizz tablets for hydration, about a dozen packets Honey Stinger chews, some Hammer Espresso Gels for night, and a couple Snickers bars and a banana off the start. So here I opted for a cheeseburger, gallon of water, and another pair of Snickers bars. Part of the element that makes this race difficult is the food, or lack thereof. Not the stuff of typical endurance bike racers. A place where need and adaptability meet in the middle and my training as many can attest to is a very grey science of basically whatever feels good at the time. So it was worth the extra 5 minutes it took to wait for a burger… I’d need it. I recall Dennis Grelk, a former race winner that I judged to be a smart racer, making quicker work of the stop and after having an early flat tire and getting a bit off pace, seemed eager to take off down the road. That would be the last time I saw Dennis for many miles, but we would meet again.
What happened next surprised me a bit. I was only about 80 miles into the day, noting that I was over a quarter of the way through the race, when I felt a bit of pain in my hands while riding one of the few miles of pavement during the whole race. I typically ride without gloves most of the time if it’s not too cold, and am used to it, road or mountain, or gravel. But the roads had been fairly rough already, with lots of slower fresh gravel laid down, if not a bit bumpy too as it was drier and faster than it could have been, so the terrain had numbed my hands a bit. I was developing what appeared to be potentially horrible blisters on my lower palms! I knew from my experience watching ultra-running races that such things can quickly become a deal breaker, out of the blue. I’d started with gloves until just after 7am, but then had been only two hours of riding gloveless in this fair weather and was hurting. So I put on my long fingered gloves that were a bit hot, but would help avoid further damage. My backup pair was for colder conditions at night, so that was the only choice.
The course took us on some awesome roads at this point, winding somewhere west and northwest of Grinnell along some ridgelines on some winding scenic roads that broke up the long straight gridline stretches that are so typical of farmland in this part of the world. Did I mention hills? There were a few. Including a great stretch of road called Mormon Ridge. The wind was mostly at my back and the going fast. Cows stared, as if to say “what the heck are you doing out here?”. Farmers were out with the plows starting to churn up the ground for spring crops. They all waved. I got into a long period of feeling good, doing hard work, riding my own pace. Just zoned out all the other thoughts in the world except forward progress.
This was what I’d wanted, to go my own pace for a long while, making sure it was what I needed. Well it turned out to be fairly fast. I’d average about 15 mph all the way to the next checkpoint. At one point I put my head down and just sat in the drops for hours on end, the stretch in the back actually feeling good for once. Not much else to do, except get where you need to be, and going fast seemed easier than going slow. I can’t recall much about my thoughts during this time, but I can taste the feeling. And it was good. I hadn’t seen another racer in hours…the hours started to mesh together. The stare down the road grew a bit longer. I started to crunch numbers, pacing, distance. …The math was growing fuzzier…There appeared to be no shortage of rolling hills. The Who song “I Can See for Miles” kept playing on repeat in my head, which was no longer screwed on correctly.
Somewhere around mile 140 I had to outsprint a couple of dogs that were pretty menacing. This is a real hazard in Iowa, and hard to gauge the proper protocol. I used my legs and outran them. Easier said than done! Later on I’d hear of two riders that had gotten bit by a dog on the course, wondering if it was from these hounds. One rider bit turned out to be Eric Brunt who’d worn himself out in the heat going perhaps too fast. His race would end sometime around then, a shame! I wondered what could have been for him. I ended up going through 120 oz of water in this stretch, and bummed one more 30oz bottle from a farmer about 160 miles in. Side note: Iowan’s are a great nice bunch of people! I never met anyone who didn’t smile at you or at least be nice while thinking you are bat shit crazy. The lady who’d given me the water said she couldn’t think it’d be a good idea riding a bike in this heat, yet took the time to go inside her house to fill it up. I kept quiet how far we’d been and how far we’d go. It probably would have been dumbfounding…
I was glad to have taken so much water, as I rolled into Checkpoint #2 at mile 172 with nearly nothing to spare. The heat was wearing on me a bit, but really I felt great this whole stretch and my optimism was growing by the hour. I was over half way through! A few previous race veterans or finishers were staked out in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a dirt section of B-road, along with a photographer or two, volunteering to work the checkpoint. They were putting in some serious time to be there for us, killing time by doing heck-if-I-know, and I was very thankful to get the next set of cue sheets!
I also was shocked to learn that I was now in 4th place! Having let perhaps 8-10 riders go on ahead in the first 60 miles, I didn’t know how this was possible..but apparently a few others had dropped out or gotten lost…Interesting…it affected my mind, in some ways good, and some ways bad…with that few people ahead…Who would I ride with during what was likely to be a very long second night? And where was everyone? I wanted company! Also, I was a bit amiss when learning that the next convenience store was 10 miles further along, which I’d convinced myself was to be right here. Oh well, I took off fast, thirsty. Then stopped a ¼ mile later to remember to reset my computer, which I did by switching to a second Garmin 500 computer that should have enough batteries to last the next 150 miles to the finish! I was 12 hours into the race. The next section didn’t appear to be any big hills, but faced the wind pretty solid, and just kept climbing. Somewhere in here I wondered just how much corn the world actually needed, as it seemed they were about to plant an endless supply of it…. only person I saw were farmers with plows.
The pace up until now was seemingly too fast, yet I felt good. Even after going solo for many hours. I lost track of which way the sun was hanging in the sky, and the heat had done some damage. I still had no idea where the heck I was, aside from that I was told I’d gone about as far north as we would… which meant the next third of the race we would face directly into a S/SW headwind…
A slight fear grew in the mind as the miles set in. What cards would we be dealt during the next 150 miles? How many hills would there be? What is there that I don’t know and don’t know how to handle? How will the body fair? How will the mind be? Was there any chance of breaking 24 hours? I sort of thought there may be. Probaly not the best thing to try and accomplish with more important goals in mind… Should I race as fast as I can and risk complete physical and mental shutdown, or race to finish?
Questions…I’d been looking at the altimeter and I’d only climbed 9,000-10,000 ft of rollers in the first 172 miles…Seems like a lot, but I’d been told it was a really hilly course, and I feared there were many more ahead…
Rolling into the next small town, I was happy to see a second Casey’s Convenience Store, and it was much needed!! I had been riding for 5 miles without water, feeling dehydrated despite the huge volume of liquids I’d consumed, and hungry as all get-out. I’d been dreaming about what to pick up from here, and was overwhelmed with the possibilities. The previous stop had been early in the morning. Apparently too early for them to stock the pizza oven that Casey’s is famous for, but this time we were here about 4:30pm and it was time for some pie! I was also happy to see Corey Godfrey sitting out front! We chatted for a few minutes. He was seemingly in odd spirits, and mentioned he’d been riding with Chris Schotz, a top finisher from last year, at the front. Chris had bypassed nearly all food and water stops, and was making fast time, but potentially digging an early grave in the process. Corey had caught up to him recently. And there was an unknown rookie shortly behind named Rich Wince. The competitor in me started thinking…could I catch up to them? They were perhaps 45 minutes ahead.
One problem: I had an interesting pain develop when I had cruised into the town. A pain I associated in the kidney region, and it worried me. (It hurts a bit today, as I type this with a numb left hand from nerve damage I’m still feeling three weeks later, and a bit of lower back soreness) Feeling good otherwise, and no previous experience to guide me outside of the pain of lightly bruising one while crashing on a mountain bike last year, I wondered what it was. Corey was a voice of reason. Caution, but confidence seemed the approach. It was possible dehydration, or maybe just the fatigue in the lower back that comes from racing 180 miles of rough gravel roads. It turned out to the be the latter, but had a small impact on my philosophy of the race from that point forward. It was to be the only point in the race I had doubts of finishing. The pain seemed odd, and scary. Looking back on it, I focussed from this point onwards to finish the race, not get there too fast. I drank 40+ ounces of Gatorade and water at this stop, stopping for about 30 minutes, the longest time I’d not been pedaling the whole race. I sent a message to Suzanne to let her know I’d made it this far and to get some good sleep and definitely don’t come and get me anywhere in the next 12 hours, no matter what nonsense I could mention in the middle of the night if feeling bad! I then stocked up on 3 slices of pizza, another couple of Snickers bars, a bag of Chex Mix (Bold Party Blend of course!) and a shit ton of water. We’d been told we’d see a 24 hour convenience store near mile 280, 100 miles further, and I was to take no chances. In retrospect, I wished I’d taken a whole pie….
Meanwhile, Corey told me he was done! What?! I was sad for him, but he put in a solid effort. He had a bad pain in his knees, and I respected his decision and would miss the possible company. Eager to hit the road, as I was now feeling good again, I took off just as a few more racers caught up to me. I didn’t want to be there when Corey’s bail-out crew showed up, a vehicle that was likely to be destined for a pub nearby if I were in his shoes.
Despite the urge to join forces with other riders for the evening and night, I was more concerned with making progress, as fast as possible. I left, only the 3rd rider to cross whatever roads we’d be seeing ahead, with a bit of an urge to go fast, and a cautious voice that told me to monitor the pain I’d felt in my back. I reminded myself the importance of finishing this race and kept that in the back of my mind. It was all unknown territory from here… the distance, the time, the night…
The next few hours were good ones. The hills kicked in and they were serious. Lot’s of stair step rollercoaster sections that required lots of energy. Definitely the biggest hills, or at least the biggest I can remember seeing, because there would be many more at night that induced pain! For those who haven’t ridden in this part of the world, the terrain is hard to explain. You try to average a consistent pace, keeping speed up where it counts, and not pushing too hard where it doesn’t. The hills are 50-150 ft tall and probably look like a bell curve. There is almost no flat ground in any part of Iowa I’ve ridden a bike in. So ironic since I live in a flat valley surrounded by mountains. You come into them with decent speed, especially on a fast downhill sometimes letting off the brakes entirely, then kick in with a bit of power to gain momentum to fly up the hill. If a headwind is present, as they increasingly were in this latest stretch, you’d feel it at the top of the hill and on the flats. Repeat this process about a thousand times during the day and each roller reminds you of the previous many. A pain builds in the legs. I found it hard to judge how bad it may get later, as I was a bit worse for wear by now.
This was the most beautiful time in the race for me. The sun hanging lower in the sky… enjoying the scenery. My mind still lingers on these moments now, and the feeling is hard to let go. Perhaps I enjoyed it too much. Trying to conserve energy and food for what I rationalized what may be a long 10 hours at worst until the next food stop. Upon hitting 200 miles in this stretch, it felt great! I’d made a goal of getting this far by nightfall, one I’d been ready to let go, but was happy to do it. And I’d been riding for about 16 hours now, nearly a personal best. There was the weight of one critical detail, however, that lay heavy on my mind. There was nobody around. What would that do to my spirits during a long 9 hours or so of darkness? I didn’t know… despite lots of experience deep in the wilderness of Oregon stumbling around on mountain bikes at night by myself, this scene, this situation seemed an odd one. I had done three especially dumb training rides that prepared me for these moments this winter/spring, all involving some sort of extreme cold, wet, and long stretch of night riding solo at a time that mimicked the hours a graveyard shift worker would encounter, but none of them suddenly seemed that relevant. I’d never ridden a bike all night before. Again, the unknown…
I began to layer up for the night by putting on a light Rapha wind/rain jacket, wool cap to cover the ears, and leg warmers on top of the base layer and long sleeve wool jersey I’d used all day, and my light Rapha shorts that were great during the peak of the heat! About as comforatable as one can get while pedalling for this long. The hand issue didn’t seem bad anymore so I put away the gloves for a while, and kept some shoe warmers, a warmer jacket, and thicker cap in the seat pack for later in the low points of temperature I may face near the next sunrise. Low and behold while I was taking in the sunset and snapping a good picture, here comes a few soon-to-be friends! After racing for 150+ miles by myself, I was eager for some company! It was a group of 3, here was Dennis Grelk catching up, while in tow were Monika Sattler and Aaron Gammel. I shouted to keep going and that I’d catch up in a few minutes and quickly packed things up and took off in a hurry.
If there was ever a low point in the race, which there really hadn’t been any of, this crew would raise you out of it! They seemed stoked on how things were going and had been riding together for the better part of the race. Aaron and Monika had ridden together since the beginning, I recall, while Dennis had pulled off for some grub and attitude adjustment somewhere after I’d seen him at the first Casey’s, and met the two somewhere along the way. This meant Dennis has put a good pace in, despite a few setbacks. I knew he was strong, and Monika appeared to have no end of energy, and was eager to chat up a fellow racer at 210 miles into the dumbest thing any of us had ever done, tried, may do all year, or perhaps our whole lives. Meeting the group renewed my desire to go fast, and I did some work to rally the group and we all took pulls at the front, keeping the band on the road.
The next five hours or so are quite hazy. The night began to wear, not on the spirits for me, but on the body and eyes, and memory. I recall helping to do a lot of the cue sheet navigation during this time, as Aaron had been having some troubles with fatigue, and Monika had learned a tough lesson in gear choice upon realizing her helmet mount on the light didn’t work the previous morning, so she was left with only a bar mount, making it too hard to read cue sheets. Dennis seemed to have highs and lows, and appeared to be fighting some of his own battles, yet I can’t recall him ever complaining about a thing. This was the time of day when a long silence from anyone could have meant anything, and somebody was likely fighting some demons. I checked into a Zen state of mind for a quite a while, the darkness blurring the lines between uphill and downhill, loose gravel and fast, and focused on doing work and helping the group however possible. I suspect there was more suffering than I remember now, moments were blacked out, the mind hazy, memories that perhaps I don’t wish to recall.
I was still grappling with the idea of racing a bike for more than 24 hours, and wanted to get closer to this number than the possible 34 hours we had to finish, a number that seemed daunting in comparison. There had been a moment or two during this part of the race where I was a bit curious to know what would happen if I rode ahead to try and chase down someone that lay ahead, but I was happy with our pace and quite concerned about the state I could find myself in if I had tried to push too hard. But I enjoyed the company and also felt it in the spirit of the race to keep together for as long as possible. Somewhere along the way, my memory does not serve me well, a new rider and singlespeeder Mark Johnson would join us. Where had he come from? I cannot say. The details of Mark’s race up to that point escape me, but I recall he was riding strong, often surging at times we relaxed, definitely working around the different approach that a singlespeed would offer. We were now a powerful group of five! I think I started singing at some point in here, but it may have all been in my head.
Descending loose gravel in daylight while fresh in the start of a typical bike ride is hard enough when done on any bike. This becomes much harder at night, when your eyes are bug eyed, retina’s rattled out of their core, complete with the thick fog of 20 odd hours of riding and the stone cold stare. The urge to go fast down them is strong, so you can gain speed for the next roller, but risky at best, and race ending at worst. I was pretty cautious during this stretch as the mind and body didn’t have much extra to give to bail me out of a bad situation during these times. There were close calls with all of us during this time, I remember Dennis was hauling ass, this wasn’t his first gravel rodeo.
I took a fair bit of espresso gels during these hours to keep the fire lit. I think we all had troubles keeping the bike upright…Not to mention the complete and utter shortage of pizza! Hell, I’d go for a taqueria truck right then if I had my choice! Monika had been surviving off Advil-laced cinnamon rolls all day, and seemed eager for something different and asked about pizza. I mentioned I had one slice left, which she seemed dumbfounded by. We split it sometime soon thereafter. It was amazing, but the supplies were limited and I wasn’t too interested in the energy food I had left. We were approaching the 24 hour convenience store sometime in the next 20 miles and I dreamed of creating a four course meal out of the deli isle, junk food, hydration, and fried foods selection. What if it weren’t open?
The hours blend into one another, the gravel all seemingly the same. Loose and hilly. And endless. My thoughts turned to cyclocross racing, and how short and awesome the pain is, and how the pain in my legs felt something on the order of having done about twenty of these races back to back. Uggg… not good! Somewhere around 3am we get to a small town where we all thought the last convenience store should have been. Turns out there was an open bar here, so perhaps this was closer to 2am, and a few people were mingling outside thinking we were definitely a few beers short a six-pack. And we were. All of them! I most certainly could have gone for one, and there were none present, and our minds had pretty much left the building too! We keep rolling, without much talk of stopping. We then come to a train crossing and ironically get stopped here by a passing train. We wait just outside the barriers, 15 feet from this rushing mass of steel, pretty numb to our senses and laugh at the delay. The noise seems harsh, but almost wakened the mind a bit. It won’t matter in the end, but stopping at this point is bad. Perpetual motion is key. Every second that passes you must get closer to the finish. At the end of the town, confused by a lack of a store, we all sorted out the cue sheets to find that the store was listed in the directions, but ten miles further. This may be the first point where I recall following cue’s was difficult.
Aaron had been falling asleep at the wheel for a bit now, and was really struggling just to stay awake. The fatigue had got him, despite him pulling an impressive pace for the group for quite a while. We were at mile 270 or so. So close! But his day was not to be. Dennis, who a few miles prior I’d pointed out his rear wheel was not looking terribly round, decided to pull the plug when it became apparent that it would not hold out for the rest of the race. He stayed with Aaron and made the call to Guitar Ted that they were out. A setback for sure! It seems odd to depart from recent friends made in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, and it was. I was sad that we’d lost two of five, but eager to keep moving. I put on some warmer clothing then and passed around the Bold Party Blend, a key member of the salt food group. Dennis gave Monika the last of his water and we rolled out, Monika, Mark, and I in the total and utter darkness. The temperature was likely in the lower 30’s by this point, a bit colder than I thought it may get. This seemed a dry stretch, chock full of horrible hills, but I knew there would be many more. Did I mention loose gravel?
It’s around 3:30 am and we have 40 odd miles to go. We are nearly 24 hours into this race, and had powered on pretty good to get to the much needed 24-hour convenience store. Wow! And what a store. Options, all of them good. Mind rushing at the possibilities, I settle for three rolled tacos that’d likely been spinning in the fried food deli for longer than we’d been awake, a cup of black coffee, enough water to make it another few hours, and a hotdog. Coffee and a hotdog at 3:30 and no, we weren’t driving a semi-truck all night, but we might as well have been! We were on a roll!
The cashier lady didn’t seem to think it too odd, given our circumstances and all, and mentioned that there was only one other rider she’d seen go through there about an hour and a bit ahead. Interesting…That meant further attrition ahead, and it turned out to be Chris Schotz who’d pulled the plug near mile 280, I think, after a bold and fast affair that left him out of the race. I then put on a pair of booties on the shoes, a thicker set of gloves and maybe a warmer wool cap. I sent another message to Suzanne to let her know we’d likely be at the finish in a few hours. (Turns out she had been awake nearly the whole night too, nervous, so heck, why not just race it next year, Sue?) The support crew(s) for every racer become a hidden safety net at this point, a blessing and a curse. Almost bad for the mind. What you need is full commitment and the balance is hard to find. I will be endlessly thankful for her being there. It was getting a bit cold at this hour, but the thought of those behind the scene gave an odd warmth.
We’d thought there may be another rider behind us when we hit gravel again, and felt that they’d taken the slight detour of ¼ mile to the convenience store after us, so perhaps at least a few minutes back. This was a point of conversation, and Mark thought it was perhaps another singlespeeder. I was reminded we were in a race, and our group of three seemed to dissolve for a while. The hills were endless. These miles were dark and eeiry, both in the sky and the mind. Mark and I pushed a pretty fast pace during these next twenty miles or so, and I recall seeing some large hills ahead in the pre-dawn twilight. I’m not sure how many there were, but they were far too many, and steep! And lots of fresh chunky gravel. Just dark forms juxtaposed against a sea of blackness and the odd light of a farmhouse. And there were plenty of dogs barking in the dark as we passed. The hounds. Not much energy left at this hour to do much if they gave you chase except offer up a rolled taco in payment if you have the wherewithal to do so. Fortunately this was not needed.
At some point close to nearly 20 miles to go, we were still thinking we’d seen the lights of another racer behind us, which turned out to be confusing as we’d later find that nobody was within one hour of us. It must’ve been our minds playing with us, and we trudged onwards and hit a horrible 5 mile loose section of flat gravel. And then a two mile stretch of pretty rutted out rough B-road. I was pretty shelled. This is where my vision went to shit and it was pretty much a blur until sunrise. The effects of 300 miles of this stuff had taken their toll. Of the 19,000 or so feet we’d climb during this race, over half of it was in the last 150 miles. Monika was putting in an effort that seemed heroic at the time to keep up the pace, as Mark kept turning on whatever that single god-awful gear he had on him.
I considered briefly leaving with Mark for the finish, still worried about a possible rider close behind. I was excited about getting to the finish in the top three. Our group of three was broken up and we let Mark head out ahead while I stayed with Monika. We were all pretty delusional by this point, and I think the navigation and pace had taken their toll on Monika who clearly wanted to finish with the group. I hung back a bit and we rode together, with a close eye to any followers.
As the sun emerged from likely some huge hill we’d just crossed to the east, I was stuck by a powerful sense of awe and appreciation for where we’d gone. The stark endless fields coming to life with the light of a second sunrise is a surreal experience to endure while racing one’s bike. This is the moment I’d come for, and it all made sense! We were within ten miles, a distance I was sure I could stumble across with a broken bike if something had gone wrong in that final stretch, as I’ve heard others have done in years past! We would get there. I had a renewed sense of energy that felt like it could take me further all day if I needed it. I stopped to take a few photos and take in this moment. I really didn’t want this to end. It was like a really good book that gave you escape from every other complex situation in life, and it all boiled down to the simple joy of nearing the end, hard work, and the satisfaction of an insurmountable goal nearly complete. It was amazing!
The rest of the miles were gravel, hilly, and sandwiched between fields of farmland just outside of Grinnell…… That’s all I know. We rolled up to the finish, a small group of folks huddling around a fire pit outside of a red barn in the foggy haze of a sunrise on a day you know will be warm, despite that it was near freezing at this early hour in the day. Monika and I roll to a stop and I gave her a high-five at the finish line and Guitar Ted is there to congratulate us at the finish.
It felt so amazing to stop moving, yet so unnatural. At this point moving was the only thing I knew how to do. Stopping immediately left me with a sense of confusion, but the sense of accomplishment and feeling that crept in quickly filled the void. I knew this moment would be both incredible, yet was scared to get to it. The time is about 6:30 in the morning, we’d just ridden for over 26 1/2 hours and climbed about 19,000 ft of rolling hills over the course of 323 miles of gravel. I’m still not sure how we did it. Turns out that lone racer Rich Wince had come in about an hour and a half before us, riding an incredible race, our friend Mark was just a few minutes ahead, and we were the third ones to finish! A record 30 or so more racers would make their way to the finish out of about 90 starters. How awesome! There would be a record high number of finishers due to the good weather and lack of serious wind, but there was still about 50% attrition even late in the day. Nothing for certain on this day.
Suzanne was there and it felt amazing to see her and get the best hug of my life! I shook Guitar Ted’s hand at the finish. He was just standing there with a big grin on his face. It had been a long night, and a long day prior. It’s not every time you get to shake hands with a race promoter anytime during a race, let alone at the finish line of a life changing event by a guy who’s been driving around in his pickup truck for over 24 hours trying to make sure everything is in order, the gravel loose, the hills still there. What a guy! Guitar Ted, thank you very much for what you do! You’ve changed my life and given me the biggest challenge I can think of overcoming. Trans Iowa is something that will never be forgotten and it will be hard to avoid going back. The mere idea of the race is as inspirational as the feeling I got when I got to that huge red barn. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever been able to accomplish in my whole life, and just thinking about it today gives me the same tears that crept into my eyes upon getting to the end.
I stood around the fire with Suzanne and a few folks as the sun crept over the myriad of hills surrounding Grinnel as the fog slowly lifted. Somebody offerred a cold beer, and it didn’t take long to toss back two PRBs for breakfast, which didn’t seem too odd on this particular morning. The next group of finishers rolled in about one hour later. It was cold but the mind was warm. Body and mind were completely destroyed, I could barely walk, yet the spirts were high. I tried to hold onto the feeling in this brief moment in time.
And that’s it. That was my experience of racing a bike 323 miles across rural Iowa! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!
THANKS TO THE FOLLOWING PEOPLE IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER: Tony at Tonic Fabrication for building me a sick bicycle. Suzanne for believing in me, and being there! Chris at Rapha for keeping me warm, cool, and comfortable. Caveman, for the endless inspiration. Nick, for being stoked about TI, even though it’s the last thing he’d want to do. Joe, for the advice, I told you I’d come back! Josh and Christine at Roam Life, hey, this is their blog site! My family, for being so awesome. Kate, for the massages and keeping my body working. And everyone else, thanks for everything!
Hey there! It’s been a while. Sort of fell off the deep end and got lost somewhere along the way, but the last two months have been a handful! Definitely one of life’s biggest balancing acts. Isn’t is always this way? The last two months have been a long hard road, one that is nearly complete, but really hasn’t even started yet.
In ten days time I’ll find myself a couple thousand miles away in the other side of the country, -er, more like the middle, for a, shall we say,” little” bike race. My mind is already there. Spirit also. But the bags aren’t packed yet, though most of the planning is all sorted out. Seems like a long haul to go just to ride your bike around, and it is. But the journey once there will be far greater that just getting there, and nearly as long as the preparation itself.
Last fall I committed to “toeing the line” at the 9th annual Trans-Iowa 323 mile unsupported continuous gravel bike race, the longest of it’s type on the planet. For some early details, refer to my first post on the affair. The long and short of it, is that this will be the second year of joining about 100 fellow nut jobs on the start line of what I persoanlly feel to be the biggest challenge I may ever undertake in this lifetime. The goal is quite simple: race one’s bike for 323 miles across the gravel roads surrounding the town of Grinnel, Iowa, and finish in less than 34 hours.
You have no support.
You have nothing but directional cue sheets and a route planned by the promoter, a nice fellow named Guitar Ted.
The race is free to enter, though virtually nobody signs up.
You only know the first 52 miles of the course when you depart, the rest you figure out at checkpoints along the way, assuming you get there in time. You have nothing but what you can carry on your person or buy or request from a local convenience store, farmer, or fellow racer. Items may include a bicycle, clothing to survive up to 34 continuous hours in the bleak windstruck thundershower prone rolling farmlands and the sub-freezing temperatures these can deliver, food, water, lights, a map, emergency supplies, probably something to keep you alive if you’re 24 hours in and mentally collapse in a ditch, and ideally a huge sense of willpower and spirit! All you have to do is average 10 miles per hour, for nearly a day and a half. It doesn’t seem so bad, until you factor in the wind, endless hills, the unkonwns, and the percieved limitations in one’s mind.
By my quick account, there are likely tens of thousands of miles of rolling gravel roads in the state of Iowa. The race will pick an odd assortment of them to create a fantastic journey through them, while the mind and bodybecoming victims of the whole affair. This will be my second year of lining up at the start, and barring a tornado, a few too many viscious farm dogs, errant tractor, or a ground lighting shower, I plan to finish this race! Last year I did not. Gear and sleep related issues, and heck, I don’t think I was tough enough. But that was then… Trans-Iowas is not a race you “win”, although there is a winner. I see it as a task so immense the thought of doing it all quickly overwhelms you, and the only way you’ll start it is if you pay less attention to the end result, and focus on the process. And this is what the last two months have been about.
Since January and the hibernation that inevitably comes after a long fun year of riding and racing bicycles, when the days are nearly the shortest of the year, when the weather is cold, the rain incessant, it’s time to kick start training for Iowa. My local habitat of Oregon delivers a pretty awesome assortment of the type of shit one is looking for to prepare for the unknowns of racing gravel roads in the remanants of the last ice age. So it starts with an off the couch century or two, just to shock the system and maybe scare myself off. That didn’t work. Sweet. But man, those hurt! The miles quickly build. The routes get longer. Feeling tougher. A typical week would involve doing a handful of rides in the middle of the week, many at night, and then a long slog usually going from near daybreak to when the sun goes down on a cold dreary weekend. Sometime I can con a few friends into a good ride, most times not. Noboby else wants to do this, not generally, and definitely not in february.
The pieces start falling into place.
The body feels stronger, day by day. What used to seem like a long ride at 5 hours in January is merely a warmup for a good 12 hour adventure a month later! Rule of thumb is to make sure the halfway point is the furthest away from home, necessitating full commitment, no bailouts here! Most rides are road rides that mix in some uncivilized terrain, rural gravel roads and some logging roads in the coast range of the Willamette Valley. The biggest challenge to riding becomes not doing the miles, but figuring out where to go! Leave the house with $20 for whatever kind of gas-station burritos you can find in a remote rural town far from home to help get you back! New routes emerge, and this is really what has driven me to enjoy this whole process. Planning on racing an event that is so far from home has forced me to see places I never knew existed right in front of me. All you have to do is go seek them out.
Two rides, and much of what you see in these photos stand out and have really prepared me for what lies ahead. Nearly 6 weeks ago I managed to put together a 170 mile loop from Portland and out the Columbia River Gorge all the way out to the Dalles and a beautiful surrounging loop back to Hood River. Places not normally connected in one ride, yet alone in one day. That one was after no sleep at all the night before. …Nervous energy. The beers tasted good after that one! About a week ago, I managed a final shakedown of the bike and gear exactly as I will put to the test in my race, a custom steel adventure bike by local friend and framebuilder Tony Batchellor from Tonic Fabrications called the Crusher!
I packed up all the bags and clothing, somewhere close to 15 lbs of weight on the bike, and headed out at 4am for a rather harsh 12 hours and 155 miles of some of the worst rain I can imagine. That one felt good when it was over, and was pretty fun while it lasted, but took some effort. The thousand yard stare was in effect that day. And yet this is perhaps only half of what I am preparing for…..
Somewhere along the 2,000 miles of riding in some of the worst weather I’ve ever faced in the last two months, lessons have been learned. There has been an uncomfortable amount of hours to think to oneself: why? I don’t yet know why. Challenge, yes. Stupidity, likely. But why? I hope to answer that question sometime during the wee hours of the morning past mile 250 or 300 on the 28th of April, after starting to ride my bike about 20 hours prior, and then figure out what will take me to the finish. Until then, stay tuned…
Drew Edsall is an understated guy that should be over-stated. He works hard at being good at what he does and it makes him really good at stuff. Drew has incredible work ethic and for every race he’s won he’s spent ten times as long preparing for it. From helping out on his family’s orange farm during the off-season to traveling around in his Sprinter RV from race to race, Drew still finds time to reach out and support others that are passionate about cycling. We caught up with Drew during a Starbucks break in the middle of his training ride on a Wednesday night.
So, we did a little Internet stalking on you and prepared some questions.
I bet you found my crash, right? Did you see the crash? It’s the most popular thing people look at. That video got the most views out of anything. Everybody likes extreme sports.
On Mountain Bike Radio we talked about the “Best of 2012” and I wish they made cross-country racing more extreme. They should make the downhills more difficult. The pros crash more on the downhills and people want to see other people crash. It makes it more of a spectator sport. [Editor’s Note: Drew started hosting a mountain bike show on MTB Radio in 2012]
Being as you are in your off season right now, I’m assuming your crash liability has gone way down. Other than training the Roam Life crew, what else do you have going on?
Off-season for me is insane. Let’s go back 10 years. I went to college in Gettysburg, PA and studied exercise science and I was a decathlete. I’ve dropped 40 pounds since then and transformed my body to a skinny cyclist. After college, I got stuck in the family orange business.
I like to work hard and a lot.
I was planning on doing the complete opposite. My dad called me and said that out of the three brothers, I fit the job the best. My dad was asking me a favor and I took the offer and got pulled down into Florida. It was the last place I wanted to be because I had just gotten into triathlons and I wanted to be in Colorado. I went full time into the orange business and started mountain biking. Two years later, I went pro.
I told Dad I would do the orange business in the off season while coaching [athletes]. Since then, I’ve been living on the road.
Coaching seems to be your calling and we like you quite a lot so far. What have you learned from athletes you coach?
As a coach I’m a listener and a lot of times I’m learning from what my athletes want and how they are by asking questions.
Coaching allows you to learn about all different types of personalities. Some people are extremely organized with high work ethics and then some people can do extremely well but are the complete opposite. I try to accommodate to each individual athlete, learn who they are, and use that to help build them stronger and also build future athletes stronger from what I learn.
I had an RV at the time and always thought it would be so cool to live on the road.
This last year I learned a lot about myself and try to use that to apply those learning experiences to coaching also. I was so obsessed with building my career on the new team and coaching that I think it hurt me. I was so set on “gotta get results” that I raced so much I hurt myself more than not. For 2013, I’m more relaxed but I want to be more focused this year on getting really, really good results and less on tons of racing around the Nation.
You seem like a happily busy man. Describe your average day.
I coach about 20 to 30 athletes during the year and professionally mountain bike race. In the off-season, I combine those two and take on a third job of working in the family orange business, which adds another 40-90 hours a week of work. The last six weeks consisted of waking up at 6am to do coaching. Then, grab breakfast and do coaching work at the same time. After that, I start my other job in the orange business at 8am. I’ll work until 4:30pm or sometimes 8 or 8:30 or even 10, then I go straight from that job to walking the dog and hop back to coaching and then ride the bike. I go to bed sometime between 10pm and midnight and then repeat. No breaks to watch TV, relax, or do anything else.
We lived with two dogs in an RV for two years straight. We spent a lot of time in Wal-Mart parking lots with Redbox DVDs or parked by the train tracks.
In the off-season, how much riding do you normally do?
This week I got 20 hours of riding in, but most of the time it’s closer to 4-10 hours. I try to make the most out of the time I have. January is the toughest month because I get lots of new clients, work at the orange business is still busy, and I am trying to get ready for my racing career putting hours in. Tough!
You have been traveling with your dogs and girlfriend during the race season in an RV for the last couple of years. What’s that like?
We [Dyan, Drew, and dogs] lived in Durango for a few years and I was building a business coaching, I had this job in Florida in the off season, and pro riding. I was doing pretty good but then Dyan lost her job because the place went out of business. I had an RV at the time and always thought it would be so cool to live on the road. First, I was racing a lot and all over the place. If I wanted to race that much, I had to live on the road. There was no way we could afford it if I didn’t do that. So we sold a lot of things, packed everything we could in the RV, and went off. Awesome feeling!
Dyan just got a new job in St. Louis which means I don’t have to be on the road anymore which is nice but I will probably travel a lot, too. Once you find the good trails you have to go back sometime!
I saw so many trails and now I know where I want to ride. There are so many amazing places.
What’s your home on wheels like?
We are in a Sprinter right now. It’s great on gas at 14-15 mpg and easy to drive. It’s got everything in it from a stove, to microwave, small bathroom, and sink. We enjoy it while on the road but aren’t living in it 24/7. When we were, we’d even rent hotel rooms occasionally just to get out of that because it’s hard when you are in there 24/7, without running water and all the little things that add up. I always wanted to do it and I did and I’m so glad for that but living full time in an RV is tough. We never took time off. It was two years straight with no break. If you take a couple of months off then it isn’t as bad.
Most people don’t realize that biking is a business. I do it because I love it but it’s also a job.
We traveled from Florida to Arizona to Texas to California, then back to Pennsylvania, then back out West. We went all over the Nation. We visited so many different states where we got to ride. I saw so many trails and now I know where I want to ride. There are so many amazing places. Everywhere has their cool trails that separate them from other places. Even Florida has cool trails. Not a lot of views, but cool trails…and alligators!
Your vagabond life has slowed down and you’re living in a city now. How have you accustomed to the change?
I never thought I’d want to live in a big city but we’re really enjoying St. Louis. We’re going out to eat and enjoying learning about the city. Lots of coffee right down the road including my regular quad espresso. Love that.
One of the downsides of living in an RV is that it’s such a small space so it’s hard to recover. We were always trying to find places to stay. In California it was ridiculous. RV parks were $60-70 a night so we would park in random areas and I wouldn’t sleep as well. Living in an apartment in the city is much nicer than expected.
Let’s switch gears. (Get it? Switch gears…) You were just signed on to Kenda/Felt again for 2013.
Getting re-signed on to Kenda/Felt was a really good feeling. I was hesitant about what might happen at the beginning of 2012, but after that I had some pretty good results. I had two mechanicals in my first race which gave me a bad start. I had another mechanical the next big race so things turned all horrible. I refocused, stayed positive, and pressed on. I put things in gear after that and had some wins in endurance racing, which surprised me, and I focused on endurance racing from then on. I also worked on promoting myself on Facebook, mtbracenews.com and now on my own show “The Dirt with Drew Edsall” on Mountain Bike Radio.
Felt Bicycles has a few new bikes out including the Felt Nine Hardtail and the Edict Nine. And Kenda has some new tires out including the 24 Seven Race I will be using along with my trusted Kozmik Lite II. All in all, very exciting to be a part of the team again.
Most people don’t realize that biking is a business. I do it because I love it but it’s also a job. I work hard at it so I can keep it. Getting ready for 2013, a lot of the relationships with sponsors and teams developed all the way back in August. If anyone is reading this and looking for sponsors, you have to start early. Biking at the Pro level is a business. Teams and companies look for resumes and have an idea of who they want back in September through November. After that you are going after the leftovers.
You have to have the results, and then also make the most out of every minute you are on and off the bike.
I treat this as a job. If I’m not on the bike I do things off the bike that will help me. I take control of what I can control. Racing isn’t always in my control. But coaching, promoting myself, talking to sponsors, MTB Race News, advertising are…I try to network as much as possible and establish relationships and coach.
Getting over that small hump at the beginning of the year was challenging, but once I did I was fairly confident I would be back on the team for 2013.
Is it hard to stay in mountain bike racing? Do you have to work hard to stay in it?
I think it is. Like any job everyone is fighting for your spot especially at the top tier of mountain bike racing. I raced way too much this past year which was good, but I didn’t rest enough. I was riding too much and I wasn’t recovering enough. This sport is very competitive. Everyone is fighting for the top spots. Once in, it’s easier to stay in if you do your work. By getting on the Kenda/Felt Team, I was able to network a lot easier and I was meeting all these new people. Before you know it I was going to Sea Otter and talking to people all over the place. You have to have the results, and then also make the most out of every minute you are on and off the bike.
If you get on a team and you want to stay on it, don’t just think about it as getting on a bike and riding. It’s more than that unless you are someone like Todd Wells. Results help, but it always helps to have good relationships with bike companies and work hard off the bike. Being a proactive advocate for the companies you race for can really help you keep your job.
My dream job would be for a team to come and say, “Hey, all you have to do is stage races this year.”
One of the things that Dyan (Drew’s girlfriend) helped me with the most in 2012 was helping to develop my websites and she has been doing all the photography. Almost everything on Mountain Bike Racing News is from her. I wouldn’t have made it without her helping me. It all goes back to marketing, and promoting myself, my team, and the companies I race for.
What’s your dream event that you’ve never done before?
There is a lot out there, not a single one I can narrow it down to. Stage races are awesome! I want to do BC Bike Race. Definitely. Awesome singletrack. I normally do really well when I am extremely challenged so La Ruta de Los Conquistadores is on my bucket list also. I like the challenge of waking up at 5am and working hard every day. I used to surf as a kid and I was the first kid up and out on the surf. Early challenging mornings get me going. I see La Ruta as a big challenge but I also might move toward something like the Cape Epic: a big challenging stage race with the best competitors in the world there.
My dream job would be for a team to come and say, “Hey, all you have to do is stage races this year.” You are riding hard but aren’t riding so hard you can’t talk to a person. You get to talk with guys like Jeremiah Bishop who I used to watch videos of. In my first stage race in 2009 at the Transylvania Epic Stage race, I was talking to that guy and racing side by side. You eat at the same table as the pro riders, you get to talk to them, share experiences, meet them and learn that they are all just really cool guys. We are normal people doing the same thing you do, which is riding your bike and having a good time. Other than the pain at stage races, you are really enjoying it.I got hooked and have been back every year. The Transylvania Epic is a lot of challenging East coast single track, 7 days in a row. It’s a vacation on wheels. Instead of paying to ride by yourself on a vacation, you ride on single track with others, and can race if you want…or drink beers if that’s your style.
You started being a part of the MTB Radio scene. What’s that about?
This last year, at TSE, they wanted some pros to get on MTB Radio. I thought, “This is so cool.” I know all these pro riders and have these connections so I thought, “Let’s run it by them and see if I can start a show.”
I ran it by Mountain Bike Radio and they said “Absolutely!” and we got started on it. It’s been a way to create more exposure, help out friends of mine who are pros, and promote sponsors’ equipment while helping the average person by talking about nutrition, equipment, and training. It also gives me something to think about while riding countless hours!
The Transylvania Epic is a lot of challenging East coast single track, 7 days in a row. It’s a vacation on wheels.
Finish the sentence: “When the going gets tough…”
Go harder?!? From a coaching and rider perspective, stay positive. Everyone is different. I talk to myself and will yell at myself. If I’m yelling, that means I’m hurting. Positive self-talk is huge for whatever sport you are in. It’s the most beneficial thing you can do when you are hurting. In a 100 mile mountain bike race you are going to hurt no matter who you are. Whether you are the best or the worst biker out there, you are going to hurt. When you start to hurt, you have to know what to tell yourself. You’ve got to get yourself thinking positive. “Come on.” “Let’s go.” You have to tell yourself to go faster and not focus on the hurting. The mind is a crazy tool if you use it right.
You are sitting at a Starbucks at 8:30 at night with only a portion of your training ride done. I can’t help but think, “Man, I hope he is lit up like a Christmas tree.” When we heard of Burry Stander’s accident, we were floored. We had spent 7 days getting to know him as an athlete at Cape Epic.
What happened to Burry was horrible. He was an incredible rider and a great person. My prayers are with him and his family, and to every other rider out there that has ever been hit. It happens far too often.
Riding on the road can be a bit of a nightmare at times. I just do everything possible to avoid any close interactions with cars.
Here are a few things I try to do: Use bike paths off the road as often as possible including sidewalks if needed, at night I use two back lights and one 1,000 lumen front light. I try to ride only safe/well known areas, and I try to remain a very defensive/aware rider at all times.
If a car wants to be a dick, I let them, give them a sarcastic wave, and continue on my merry way!
So far, I have only been hit once and that was when I was actually riding the sidewalk trying to commute from one bike lane to another. No serious damage other then an insurance bill for the car driver for the $6,000 bike frame!
One trick I think leads to less encounters with cars for me is that I tend to ride my mountain bike on the road a lot. This helps me feel comfortable riding sidewalks and off road when needed. When things get crazy, instead of freaking out and being stuck on the road, I hop onto a curb or off road on the mountain bike! I play a super defensive position on the road even when in the bike lanes, and try to respect the cars. We have every right to be on the road, but we also can be shattered to pieces with one small mistake. I don’t take that for granted and would rather be safe then sorry.
If a car wants to be a dick, I let them, give them a sarcastic wave, and continue on my merry way! You just can’t control some things and getting pissed off about it only makes the situation worse. Relax, stay alert, and have fun on the bike! Don’t let a crazy driver destroy your ride by pissing you off!
We ask everyone: Do you Crumple or Fold?
[Laugh]. Fold. I guess. Yea, I’m an organizer. Big time. I have to have things organized. Even e-mail. One of the coolest things about coaching is that I get to work with a lot of people and become friends with them. A lot of then are business savvy and I’ve learned a lot from my 40-50 year old friends who have developed their own businesses. They taught me how to organize my e-mail. When I have organization it’s so efficient. I don’t know how I could do all of this without organization. I wouldn’t’ get anything done.
I’ve never had that question. Very interesting…
Drew Edsall is a professional mountain bike racer for the Kenda/Felt Team. He is also an athletic coach that has helped athletes reach the podium more than 150 times in two years. He is now calling St. Louis home and lives with three dogs, his girlfriend Dyan and Dyan’s 15 year old daughter, Sabrina.
Emma Frisch’s joy is contagious. Her big smile jumps through the phone and makes you think about her delicious cupcakes and the good work she’s doing through her organization, PEAKS. Just married and having just attended her twin sister’s wedding in the same year, Emma’s had a lot of reasons to smile, laugh, and celebrate.
Your wedding photos looked like they were straight out of Wedding Magazine – you couldn’t have had a more fun and gorgeous time. Tell us about the event.
I’m lucky to have married my partner of eight years, Bobby Frisch. We met while we were both at University of Pennsylvania. He is my fellow business partner and project dreamer. We’ve travelled all over the world together and created all sorts of cool things. He started a hotel that I helped him work on and that’s where I opened my first and only restaurant, to date. He’s now getting an MBA at Cornell, which is how we came to Ithaca. It’s a place we both love.
Did you know you’d be planning such a large wedding?
Absolutely not. I thought it would be small with an intimate group of people. It just didn’t turn out that way. We both come from enormous families that we love. We had 125 people attend and the majority were family members. We still managed to stay true to our values. We had the wedding at Millstone Farm, a place I worked at for several years and I’m really close with the owners and farmers. All the food was prepared by our friend who is a chef that partners with the farm and uses food grown from Millstone. All the guests were given a tour of the farm. The wedding tent was made out of used sail cloths. We were married in the horse field amongst horse jumps with a blue grass band playing. We celebrated until the morning with all the people we loved the most.
Your identical twin sister just got married in the same year?!?
Yes! This was a totally unexpected coincidence. Her husband, Nolan, was planning to propose the same day Bobby proposed to me but Bobby got to it first. So, Nolan pocketed the ring for another four months. Neither of us were expecting it so it was really special to share that process. She had the opposite wedding: a city wedding, half the size of mine, at the Brooklyn Winery. We enjoyed great food and drinks with a multi-cultural and eclectic, amazing group of people.
Twins: is it true that they are telepathic with one another?
It’s true that we are definitely connected. We think and feel the same way. When we share things, we are sharing the joy, burden or sadness. Our lives are uncannily in sync. An example of that was getting engaged and married at the same time. Similar things are always going on like that in our lives. We’re connected beyond being best friends. She is part of me. I feel that people don’t fully know me until they have met her.
You started an organization called PEAKS. How did it all start?
PEAKS started, quite literally, with the idea of reaching new heights and overcoming major obstacles. My colleagues and fellow mountain hikers, Steve and Chris, and myself saw a unique opportunity to raise money for EkoRural, a small non-profit in Ecuador working on climate change issues with indigenous mountain farmers. Thousands of adventure tourists were pouring into the Andes, with little awareness that the trails they hiked on were farmers’ footpaths. We found a way to bridge these two worlds by launching our first climb-a-thon.
In September of 2010, PEAKS was officially launched. I climbed to the summit of Volcano Cotopaxi, which is nearly 20,000 ft. Steve and two friends ran the “seven hills run” in the Netherlands. Another group of climbers in Colorado climbed a series of peaks. We shared our stories and pictures with family and friends through the PEAKS website, and collectively raised over $10,000 for EkoRural. For me, PEAKS was a way to combine two of my greatest passions: climbing and agriculture. After our launch, I took on the lead role for PEAKS development.
What have you learned from starting your own company?
The biggest lesson for me is this: you need to have a really committed and solid team working together to achieve success. I felt like I was flailing on my own alongside a full time job for quite some time; our volunteers and board members were incredible, but having salaried team members that you can depend on is critical for growth. The past six months of growth have proven this for me. But I am really appreciative of the people who have helped build PEAKS since the start. PEAK has been a team effort through and through.
What are the most successful campaigns on Peaks?
Sustainable Neighborhoods Nicaragua, a student group that is part of Cornell University’s Sustainable Design Program, recently raised $25,000 to build an ecological housing community in Nicaragua. Eight days into their PEAKS Campaign they raised over $5,000, and hit their $25,000 goal in less than 45 days. We didn’t have a single customer support question from over 60 Champions and nearly 300 donors!
Food is my biggest passion. More so than rock climbing or anything outdoors.
It’s my creative outlet where I can share food adventures I have with family and friends. I love cooking and I love eating even more. I’ve been involved in farming systems since I was 18 and in college. Cayuga St. Kitchen is a fun way to bring all that experience together and give myself an excuse to keep learning…and cook more food.
What has been the most fun dish you have created?
This past weekend we made vegan and gluten free cupcakes for a friend’s birthday. It was like learning how to cook for the first time. I had to use totally new ingredients. Gluten free cooking is a totally different pantry. I found myself cooking with potato starch and xanthan gum. I had to clear the whole food bank and start from scratch and use my own flavors. I was determined to not stick to the recipe. The frosting was supposed to be a vanilla frosting but I turned the frosting into almond cream. It was fun to light all of them with candles and eat them together and celebrate.
Where do you find your ingredients?
Food is so much about the story and where it comes from. It’s important to cook with quality ingredients; it makes a difference. The food I use always has story or is connected to people I know. I love going to The Piggery and I know Heather, the owner. She tells me about the meats and they raise these incredible pigs in environmentally and animal friendly way. I’m always asking where the best Brie is or where the best food comes from. I try to buy food from anywhere and everywhere: Asian market, Ithaca Farmer’s Market, I’m always looking to try something new. It’s an adventure every time.
What change do you want to bring to the world?
It’s hard to know if you are actually creating change. The change I want to create is helping people feel empowered to make change happen themselves. Giving people tools and space to feel confident in making their dream and mission come alive.
Through Peaks, it is those little encounters that happen now and then that make you realize you are making change happen. Sometimes there are weeks or months where I feel that this is a dream in my head and it’s not actually creating any change but then someone will write us a letter and let us know that they think it’s amazing and they met their goal and they’ll thank us. There are lots of moments that show it is the little things that matter and if you keep plugging forward with your dream then you can create change.
What is your travel essential when you are on the road?
My advice is to pack as light as possible and be open to any new experience. One thing I have to bring with me…[long pause]…I know!! My fanny pack. Dead serious. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that. I have the coolest one. Everyone should have a classy little fanny pack to store all your valuables and what you need on hand. None of that stuff under your waistband.
When in Ecuador…do you Crumple or Fold?
I’m a crumpler. I wish I was a folder. I’d probably use less. I guess I could be an in between but I’m more of a crumpler.
Emma Frisch is the Director and Co-Founder of PEAKS, an organization that provides the platform and audience for your fundraising campaigns. She also manages her food blog, Cayuga St. Kitchen and continually is experimenting with ingredients to make new dishes. She lives in Ithaca with her husband, Bobby.