The tale of mixed gender racing often goes something like this: the top men are out the front battling for the lead, while further down the field the women are competing for a spot on the female podium, with not even a moment’s thought of the battle for the overall. But this year’s 7,000-kilometre-long Trans Am race tore that scenario to pieces.
The playbook was re-written as two women ignited the racing in the overall category of the self-supported solo race across America this year. Australia’s Sarah Hammond provided the initial spark in the first week and America’s Lael Wilcox fuelled the flames with an exciting drama-filled push to the finish line. In the end, Alaskan bike-packer Wilcox chased down Greek rider Steffen Streich to become the first women to ever win the Trans Am, and the first American too.
Three women finished in the top ten overall with Hammond in sixth and American rider Janie Hayes rolling across the line in tenth. It was a complete contrast to last year, when no solo female riders completed the race.
So what’s it like then to race more than 7,000 kilometres unsupported in one unrelenting stretch? And what did it feel like to be one of the women behind this paradigm shift? We talked to Hammond, the first women to ever lead the Trans Am, to find out.
Adrenaline, shock and turning the competition on its head
The 36-year-old Hammond is well-known in her local cycling community as a tough nut who revels in endurance challenges. She is no stranger to pushing her own limits, but the Trans Am was a whole new level. For one, Hammond had never actually raced before. Secondly, her previous cycling tests, like various Everestings or chasing a team 24-hour record, had only seen her ‘compete’ for a day. This time it was going to be three unrelenting weeks, in one very smelly kit where sitting down to eat would become a luxury and sleep a rarely succumbed to necessity.
Hammond turned to last year’s Trans Am winner, Jesse Carlsson, to help her prepare, work out what she did and didn’t need to pack onto her Curve bike and basically to find out what this bike-packing race business was all about. Starting the race, she was initially surprised not by how hard it was, but by how good she felt as she tore toward the front of the field.
“So much of it was fuelled by adrenaline, so much of it was fuelled by absolute shock. I wasn’t riding at my max either, I was pushing myself but I felt good,” Hammond told Ella CyclingTips as she got ready to board a plane for the long flight back home.
By the second day of racing, Hammond had taken the overall lead, prompting a groundswell of excitement that sparked a widespread race perspective change.
“We usually always put both genders in a category because that’s the way it’s always been,” said Hammond. “All of a sudden you go from saying there is a women’s race and a men’s race and that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s just a race and that’s how it should be.”
But then, due to an error in navigation, Hammond went off course, adding more than 120 kilometres to her journey on the fifth day, and losing the lead.
That extra 120 kilometres meant that in the first week, she had clocked up an average of over 400 kilometres a day, with thousands of metres of climbing. The massive distances, combined with a lack of sleep, soon started taking a toll on her body. Her lips blistered, there were saddle sores on saddle sores, her mouth became a mass of ulcers and her neck started to suffer because of the long hours bent over the drops and aero bars.
“Everything was just on rotation. You’d get on the bike and it was like, my arse hurts, my fingers are numb, ah my neck hurts, argh my lips are bleeding again, ah my butt hurts, my hand is swollen and you would pretty much do this all day,” said Hammond.
But these were all things Hammond was prepared for. She knew that there was a reason this race had a reputation for being brutally tough and that many who took it on never made it to the end. Hammond was impressed that her body was functioning quite well despite sleeping for only one to two hours per night as she stuck to her plan of staying on the move as much as possible and never sitting down to eat. She even managed to chase back to the head of the race after her 120 kilometre diversion.
And then it got hard …
In Wyoming, the altitude sickness started to kick in. Even watching over the Internet from afar, it was clear to her friends and fans that the bubbly smiling Hammond was gone. To make things worse the timing of her menstrual cycle was also working against her. So much else was hurting that the normal discomfort didn’t even rate a thought, though the heightened emotions it can bring combined with the altitude sickness, sleep deprivation and the huge and growing lists of pains meant way too much time was spent riding in tears.
And when she pushed on into the even higher terrain of Colorado, where she was riding at close to 3,500 metres, the altitude sickness became completely debilitating.
“All the years that I’ve been riding and loving climbing I didn’t ever think that I was ever going to have an issue like that,” said Hammond, who lives in Australia where even the highest mountain reaches just a little over 2,000 metres.
Her whole body swelled, her clumsy fingers meant undoing food and doing up zips become a battle and changing a tyre was a tiresome 45-minute process. The breathing difficulties just got worse and worse.
The Hammond that I’d been riding with less than two weeks prior that had seemed to effortlessly powered up slopes with a gradients of over 20% – while I had to resign myself to a walk – was now forced to get off and push her bike up gradients of just 6%.
That was the turning point in the race for Hammond, it was now beyond being a fight for position and had become a battle of body and mind to just keep rolling.
“There was no way I was pulling the pin. I would find reasons in my head why I could possibly walk away, because I had a really bad chest cough too after the altitude sickness, but I was never going to pull out unless I snapped something or broke something,” said Hammond. “I’d put too much into getting there. I was always going to finish – it was just how I was going to finish.”
“After I got sick, my mindset changed. I was like it would be great to get past this person but at the moment I’m just trying to keep pedalling and not cry,” said Hammond. “It became about how you manage everything that is thrown at you, about how you overcome it.”
By the time she had started to descend out of the heights of Colorado toward the flat plains of Kansas Streich, Wilcox and Evan Deutsch had pulled out a considerable lead. But even though she may have lost some of the edge from her competitiveness it was clear her fight was far from gone.
She rode on through vicious thunderstorms. “I watched lightning set a paddock next to me on fire. People were stopping their car, and saying ‘you need to get into the car to get out of this lightning storm’. But I just had to say ‘I’m in a bike race so I can’t stop.’”
The altitude decreased, but the swelling in her body took time to subside and was only starting to ease as she was halfway through Kansas. Hammond opted for a long rest at the riders haven of the Newton bike shop, which left her feeling a little recovered but also meant that fourth place slipped away, as Kai Edel rode off into the distance as she recovered.
Making it to the end: roadside naps and blue feet
With the worst of the altitude sickness behind her, Hammond still had the lingering impact to deal with for the remaining 3,000 kilometres. Her feet were blue and bruised from squeezing them into bike shoes while swollen, her body depleted, and a horrible cough lingered.
“I never bounced back fully after that weekend and I could beat myself up over that forever,” said Hammond. “But I’m not going to!”
She finished off the flat roads of Kansas, got through Missouri and Kentucky, mainly camping out so she could rest whenever she needed, and finally hit the final state of Virginia and the relief of its tree shaded roads.
“The mornings were horrible. You would wake up and you would move and every sore that has started healing through the night would just reopen,” said Hammond.
When the intense fatigue, got too much, Hammond would nap in parks under a tree to try and refresh enough to find a sliver of energy to push through those final kilometres to the finish line.
After three weeks averaging around 330 kilometres a day and clocking up more than 7,000 kilometres she completed her first bike race, making it to the Yorktown finish in sixth place overall.
She spoke to CyclingTips just after she finished:
There’s more to speed than strength
Despite all she went through to get to the end, Hammond’s overwhelming sentiment was excitement that she had found the place in the sport that seems her perfect fit.
“I loved the experience and I am really motivated about the next race. I’m hoping that the next one I do I can come out stronger, learning what I have from my first race,” she said.
Next on the cards is potentially a proposed 5,000 kilometre unsupported race across Australia in March called the Indian Pacific Wheel Race and the around the world record is also in her sights.
But for now it is all about recovery, enjoying the welcome back of a community that was transfixed by her efforts and the satisfaction of being part of a phenomenally competitive and exciting Trans Am which saw three women finish in the top 10.
“If anything I think we have opened up the possibility of it being achievable and women being able to win this type of event,” said Hammond.
The key to why women can compete at the same level in the Trans Am, said Hammond, is because there is so much more to the race than pure strength. Wilcox is a classic example of how a combination of positive attributes can work together to make a rider a real force to be reckoned with.
“Lael is incredible,” said Hammond. She is the world’s best in her category … she is physically strong, mentally strong and just keeps moving,” said Hammond.
Hammond’s final word: “I hope with the three of us (Hammond, Wilcox and Hayes) finishing where we did it encourages more women to take on this kind of thing.”