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An Australian woman little known in the world of endurance racing claimed the spotlight at the Trans Am during the first week of racing, clocking up over 400 kilometres a day in mountainous terrain as she battled for the overall the lead of the unsupported race across the United States. Melbourne rider and Ella regular Sarah Hammond asserted her influence early, when on the second day she became the first woman to lead the brutal 7,080 kilometre race as she combined a solid pace with a relentless determination to “just keep moving”.
Taking the lead was an achievement in itself, but what’s more impressive is that even a wrong turn that added an extra 120 kilometres and chewed up five hours, wasn’t enough to knock her out of contention.
To deliver this performance she had to spend about 20 hours a day on the bike in the first week, snatching only a couple of hours of sleep most nights as she grappled with saddle sores and wolfed down whatever take-away she could find on the move. One recent meal was two fillets of fish crammed together with the chips stuffed in the middle.
Hammond is no stranger to pushing her body, having tackled a 24 hour Australian team time trial record and completed four Everestings – clocking up 8,848 vertical metres by repeating one climb. However, multi-week bike packing and racing are not her usual spheres. Though, one could argue that squeezing in her Trans Am training, a full time job and extra hours taking indoor cycling classes left her well-practiced at the art of constantly riding around on minimal sleep.
That’s proven a crucial skill, with the hours at rest pivotal in shaping the race so far. At the start it was the first night without sleep that helped Greek rider Steffen Streich get a decent gap on the rest of the field, but then during a lengthy rest the next night he was overtaken by Hammond and women’s Tour Divide record holder Lael Wilcox. Streich, who won the Trans Afrika race last year, wasn’t going to hand over the front of the race easily though, so he and Hammond spent a couple of days continuing to swap the front position, until Hammond appeared to be get the upper hand and created a buffer early Thursday. Never one to take the easy path, Hammond then took a wrong turn – at Wisdom of all places – and Streich rode on past as she realised her mistake and made her way back to the course.
Hammond, though, is also one never to give up, so after clocking up an extra 120 kilometres, rather than throw her hands up in the air and bemoan her lost lead she, with relief, saw she had only lost one place and plodded on determinedly. Bit by bit she kept making up the lost ground, until late on Friday she again briefly regained the lead while Streich was resting.
Though, the unrelenting pace came at a price.
“Today was hard. I had moments of sleep bonks on the bike, my hands are both swollen, my mouth is full of ulcers, my lips are blistered…. and this is all normal stuff in these races,” Hammond said in a message last week. And that was only the start.
Last year’s Trans Am winner Jesse Carlsson, who has also spent plenty of time helping Hammond prepare for this huge challenge, said that in the first week you are just running on adrenaline.
“I don’t know if you have ever had one of those nightmares where you feel like you are being chased, but its just living that the whole time,” Carlsson told Ella CyclingTips. “The riders are not getting the rest that they want so the challenge really becomes trying to make good decisions when you are in that state. Holding that state for a week is incredible.”
And holding that state can have a price.
Hammond finally succumbed to the need for a long break on Saturday afternoon. Over ten hours of rest allowed Streich to establish a substantial lead and also meant Wilcox and US rider Evan Deutsch could close the gap and overtake Hammond. By Sunday night the order of the race was Streich in first, Wilcox in second, Deutsch third and Hammond fourth.
“With Sarah’s brutal regime in the past week, she is paying for that right now,” said Carlsson. “It will be interesting to see how Sarah handles this latest set back. She obviously needed rest but we are hoping she will bounce back and see Steffen dangling off the front there as a carrot through the plains.”
Hammond has made her name as an endurance rider with the climbing challenge of Everesting, but the race is now shifting out of the mountains and onto the long flat roads of Kansas. Surprisingly, Carlsson thinks this is where Hammond has the upper hand.
“She is really strong on the flats, stronger than she knows I think. It’s a really good combination, she loves climbing but she rides in a smart way on the climbs as she is not going to push herself too hard, but on the flat she is really fast,” said Carlsson.
While anyone who knows or has ridden with Hammond wouldn’t question her determination, strength and commitment, her speedy start has taken some by surprise, probably even Hammond herself. We spoke to her before the race about what she was hoping to achieve, how she was feeling going into the race and her strategy for getting through it.
“I feel good at the moment, but honestly how do you prepare. I think after three days I’m going to be so exhausted that it’s going to be managing everything else … and I don’t think you can train for that,” said Hammond before she left Australia. “Just try and manage everything as it comes and just keep moving. The one thing I’m going to try and hold close at all times is to not sit down. I want to keep moving as much as I can physically handle, but that is easier said than done.”
In the first week, before her long break, she on average spent around 20 hours on the bike every day so you’d have to say she’d been managing to stick to this plan and it put her in a position better than probably even she expected.
“I want to finish, I also want to do really well,” said Hammond. “But I need to remind myself that turning up to the start line, let alone getting to the finish line is good enough. But there is my personal demon, or that voice in the back of my head that is always at play, that says I haven’t been fast enough or I haven’t performed hard enough – I need to manage that really, really well and I need to accept that it doesn’t matter what happens at the end. Getting over the finish line is good enough. So if I place (in the women’s), hey that’s a bonus.”
No matter what happens next you’d have to say after the first week, that little voice in the back of the head – no matter how demanding – could never be justified in saying that she hadn’t tried hard enough. She led the entire field in a race that only a few women have finished and taken mishap in her stride.
Hammond has long been a supporter of and contributor to Ella CyclingTips and many women’s cycling initiatives, so if you are in the United States and she passes by a town near you please give her an extra cheer for us as she rolls on by. You can find the latest positions of all the riders on the live tracker. There is also a car on the road taking pictures and providing updates which can be found on the Trans Am Facebook site, you can find regular updates on Hammond’s Trans Am supporters Facebook page and, of course, stay tuned to Ella CyclingTips for more.