Trans Am: The race that makes a grand tour look short

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There may not be a three-week trial like the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the Women’s WorldTour, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t females out there displaying the incredible endurance and mental toughness required to take on an epic multi-week race. On Saturday nine women lined up among the field of 63 racers in the solo category of the Trans Am, an event that makes a grand tour look short.

Plus, doing it solo means there are no teammates to hand you a bidon or sit behind, no cars or support to bail you out in the case of a mechanical and maybe not even a warm bed to climb into at the end of a long hard day in the saddle.

The 7,080 kilometre (4,400 mile) course follows America’s most popular touring route from Astoria, Oregon across to Yorktown, Virginia. The physical demands of riding hundreds of kilometres day after day for weeks on end are combined with sleep deprivation and the dangers of the open road – which can vary from traffic to bears.

This completely self-supported race has traditionally been male dominated, with only the odd woman taking it on. However, this year that has changed, with not only increased numbers, but also an impressive show of strength. The early pace set by a couple of the women has made it clear that the men vying for the top overall positions would be wise to keep a close watch on the female competitors.

But more on that later, first, to give you a perspective on how truly brutal this race is, let’s have a look at how it compares to the biggest bike race in the world, the Tour de France:

Tour de France Trans Am
 Distance  3,520 kilometres 7,080 kilometres
 Rest Days 2 0
 High Point 2,200 metres 3,300 metres
 Time 23 days 17 – 40 days
Daily average 170 kilometres 370 kilometres (2015 winner)

The women to watch: A perspective from last year’s winner

With numbers like this it’s no surprise that it captures the imagination of some of the most determined women in cycling. In the first couple of days a few have marked themselves out as ones to watch. Last year’s Trans Am winner Jesse Carlsson  has put together a preview of a few of the notable riders in the women’s field. You can find the full preview on the Curve Cycling website, but here are some highlights:

Sarah Hammond

And here she is… and @flexgoogly too. Go you good thing.

A photo posted by Cycling Products & Adventures (@curvecycling) on

Origin: Melbourne, Australia

Bike: Curve Cycling Belgie – Titanium Road Bike

Insta: @flexgoogly

Gofundme: www.gofundme.com/xk97zztg

Supporters: Jaggad, Spinroom, Curve Cycling, 4SHAW, SP Dynamo

Sarah is no stranger to endurance cycling. As far as we know, she was the first woman to “Everest” a mountain by bike. She did it by riding up Mount Buffalo eight times in 18 hours, notching up 9,031 metres of climbing along the way. Since then she’s completed a few more everesting missions, both on and off roads. In late 2015 she rode non-stop 800 km from Melbourne to Adelaide in thirty-something hours.

“When I returned from the 2015 Trans Am race and spoke about my adventure, Sarah was one of the few people who “got it”. I could tell that she was eager for adventure and looking for a new mission to challenge her. There are very few cycling challenges left that would challenge Sarah. The Trans Am Bike Race is one of them. I’m so excited that she is taking on the challenge this year. It’s no secret that Sarah loves climbing, but I don’t think that’s where her real strength lies. She’s a far better time trialist than most people know. I think Sarah will come into her own on the great plains. I suspect her pace through Eastern Colorado and Kansas will surprise a lot of people and it’s there that she could do the most damage to her competition.

Lael Wilcox

Origin: Anchorage, Alaska

Bike: Specialized Ruby

Insta: @laelwilcox

Website: www.laelwilcox.com

In the world of bikepacking, Lael Wilcox needs no introduction. In 2015 she rode the Tour Divide route not once but twice – the first time destroying the women’s field and most of the men in the Tour Divide race and the second time, only a couple of weeks later, setting one of the fastest times ever (male or female) along the route in an individual time trial. For those who don’t know about the Tour Divide, it’s an unsupported, mostly off-road bike race, criss-crossing the continental divide from Banff in Canada down to the Mexican border 4,500 km later.

Why is Lael so good?  Three reasons; she has extensive experience, she’s fast and she doesn’t stop.

Lael has been traveling the world by bike for almost a decade now. Her adventures have taken her through Eastern Europe, South Africa and the Middle East. It’s an impressive bank of experience but it’s really Lael’s race strategy that sets her apart from the competition. She just doesn’t stop. She doesn’t stop for sit-down meals – she buys food to take away and eats on the bike as she continues to ride. She doesn’t stay in motels; Lael camps out every night. That’s why she’s the favourite for the Trans Am Bike Race in 2016.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though. Some of Lael’s adventures have definitely not gone to plan. Ultra-endurance racing is tough on the body and unfamiliar environments can trigger unexpected issues. Breathing issues were a factor in one of Lael’s Tour Divide rides. Breathing issues also forced Lael to call it quits when attempting an Arizona Trail Race individual time trial. Let’s hope Lael’s body cooperates this time around on her race across the US.

Janie Hayes

‘Merica, here I come! #tabr2016 #absolutebikessalida

A photo posted by Janie Hayes (@janieseestheworld) on

Origin: Salida, Colorado, USA

Bike: Specialized S-Works

Insta: @janieseestheworld

Website: www.janiehayes.com

Twitter: @plainiejanie  Other Supporters: Absolute Bikes

A quick look at Janie’s Strava page shows some very long rides in March and April with some solid, consistent big mileage training weeks. Living at an elevation 2,000 m above sea level will help Janie power through Colorado and ride at a good intensity through the plains.

Janie is no stranger to suffering with most of her race experience coming from triathlons over the last 15 years. She’s got an impressive triathlon resume at full Ironman and Ironman 70.3 distances, including a good result at the Kona Ironman world championships in 2014. He race experience extends to distance running as well. Janie is also a running and triathlon coach. She has also held workshops on mental toughness and tolerance for adversity.

With Janie’s triathlon experience, she should be very strong in the time-trial section of the course through Eastern Colorado and Kansas. While Janie has suffered through Ironman-duration events, time will tell how her body and mind fares over extended periods. Suffering for 12 hours is very different to enduring a close to three weeks of racing. I’m sure this part of the allure for Janie. It will be a different aspect of mental toughness that Janie will need to draw upon in the Trans Am – she’ll need the sort of toughness that keeps her moving when her plans fall apart, when the weather turns ugly, when an overuse injury flares up, and when she has to ride into grizzly country at night. I hope she manages to rise to the challenge.

The race so far

They are now into day three of racing and already there have been a heck of a lot of miles covered, a lot of sleep missed and a trip to hospital for one of the competitors.

Right from the start the pointy end of the women’s race was about Hammond, the only Australian in the race this year, and Alaska’s Wilcox. The two quickly pulled out a gap on the competition in hot conditions and had been swapping the lead, though recently Hammond stretched her advantage. Hammond had covered just over 1,128 kilometres (701 miles) by around 5pm (PDT) Monday while Wilcox had covered 1,057 kilometres (657 miles).

They are also currently vying for top overall positions, with Hammond running second to Steffen Streich who is 27 kilometres (17 miles) ahead and Wilcox is fifth. There was a stage in the early hours of the morning when the two women were leading the overall. There is a considerable gap back to the third women, Janie Hayes who is at 836 kilometres (520 miles).

Laura Scott is near the back of the field at 309 kilometres (192 miles) after having an incredibly tough start. She ended up in hospital on the first day with a busted up bike after being hit by a car.

She is on the road now, but only time will tell what impact her injuries will have.

What next?

The race has only just begun, and there is plenty of action to unfold as the competitors wind their way through the high mountains of Colorado, take on the long flats of Kansas and then finish off with the shorter climbs of the east coast. We will be updating the race on Ella CyclingTips, with catch-ups from on the road with Ella regular Hammond, along with insights from last year’s overall winner Carlsson, who inspired Hammond to take on the race.

“When Jesse did the race I started getting ideas … It’s just insane. There is the physical challenge and there is the mental challenge and I’ve got no illusions I’ve got any idea what that is going to entail,” said Hammond before the start last week. “But for me it’s mainly about taking a really big risk, stepping outside of my normal bubble.”

We will find more about how she’s coping with the “brutal challenge” she has set herself in the weeks to come, as she settles into the race and battles sleep deprivation, the aches and pains, the unrelenting pressure to keep moving and that growing stench from riding day after day in one kit.

There is live tracking of the riders and even in the early stages of the race I’ve found this surprisingly addictive – its amazing how exciting it can be watching dots on the move. There is also a car on the road taking pictures and providing updates which can be found on the Trans Am Facebook site and on Hammond’s Trans Am supporters page there will be a Facebook live feed with Carlsson on Thursday at 9pm (AEST).

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