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It was a fast fifth edition of the Trans Am Bike race in 2018 with not one but two riders finishing the 7,000 kilometre ultra-endurance race ahead of the previous year’s record pace.
However, in 2018, it was a different type of pedal-powered vehicle that was first to reach the finish line. Riding a three-wheeled velomobile – with its laid back position and fairing – Marcel Graber set a huge new benchmark and showed just how quickly the bullet-shaped human powered vehicles can traverse the popular touring route across the United States.
Graber rolled up to the Yorktown victory monument in just 16 days, six hours and 40 minutes, more than a day faster than last year’s two-wheeled record setter Evan Deutsch. It was Californian rider Peter Andersen who rolled in next — the first two-wheeled rider — finishing in 16 days, 20 hours and 41 minutes.
Here’s how the challenging race across 10 states unfolded.
This year’s Trans Am Bike Race had over 100 entrants from around the globe, with riders fairly evenly split between seasoned ultra-endurance racers and enthusiastic first-timers.
They set off from Astoria, Oregon, at 6am on June 2, with a couple of unusual additions to the field standing out. Swiss rider Marcel Graber and US rider Dave Lewis were the first to take on the race in their velomobiles. It was a whole new ball game, watching how they would cope with the climbs of Colorado, wicked winds of Kansas and the rising heat of the flat lands. As it turns out, they were pretty well suited to the task at hand.
The riders all rolled out together but it wasn’t long before the field started to split. Those determined to make their mark at the pointy end of the race took off.
An aero early leader
Four days into the race and it was a tight trio of American riders out the front with Peter Andersen, Steens Mazama winner Kraig Pauli, and the unusually aero vegan triathlete Michael Rushton. Rushton, a father of 10, was looking powerful as he continued to swap the lead with Andersen on the fourth day of riding, but it turned out the ride would soon be over for the Trans Am first-timer.
“I had some stomach problems going into the race, a little flu,” Rushton told CyclingTips. “I was consuming very few calories and was suffering from dry heaves, heartburn, nausea, belching, hiccups that would just get worse everytime I ate, especially in the aerobars. I kept thinking that it would get better if I could just stay on the bike. It didn’t.”
After a little over four days of riding Rushton stopped in Dillon, Montana, and watched those he’d been swapping the lead with ride off into the distance. He knew he couldn’t continue if he couldn’t eat properly.
“It wasn’t hard to see it wasn’t the year for me. I gave it 24 hours in Dillon, trying to rest and eat, but with much difficulty could only keep a few thousand calories down, so I officially sent in my notice to withdraw.”
Nervertheless, the 48 year old from Baker City Rushton said it was an incredibly positive experience and that he learnt a lot in his 1,100 miles of racing. Rushton said he felt his set-up was comfortable. Although, if he does it again, he’ll opt for a gear ratio more suited to climbing, especially as problems getting into his rear cog made the climbing “doable but difficult.”
Into the Bermuda Triangle for pink dots
The leading pink dot, Tanja Hacker, was putting in a powerful showing in the early stages of the race too, floating around the top 10 and making watchers wonder if Lael Wilcox’s 2016 women’s record could potentially be under threat. But then Hacker took a little extra tour in Montana as she headed toward Wisdom, an area which hasn’t been too kind to some of the Trans Am’s leading females. Sarah Hammond also went astray around that area while out the front in 2016.
It all started to go wrong for Hacker at Lost Trail Pass and then a series of backtracks and wrong turns turned what should have been a simple couple of hours of riding into Wisdom into a 16-hour ordeal. Many riders passed as Hacker found her way back to the route, with the Austrian rejoining the race just ahead of the second-placed pink dot, Simone Bailey.
The detour certainly set Hacker back and put aside any early thoughts that she may be able to challenge Wilcox’s time, but she is still the leading pink dot.
Spread far and wide
As the days progressed in the race, the riders were spread far and wide, in multiple states separated by hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometres. They all have their own individual targets, reasons for riding, and challenges to face along the way. Here we cast our eyes across the field.
Memories and hopes
Riders may have been in the midst of their own challenge, but they still found a way to remember Eric Fishbein, who was struck and killed by a vehicle while racing last year. Irish rider Donncha Cuttriss set up a memorial of flowers and cards on the route for all the riders to sign as they went through.
Sadly the race hasn’t been incident-free this year either — one rider is in hospital fighting through serious injuries. A friend has arranged a gofundme account to help with the rider’s medical expenses.
So what’s with the velomobiles?
It wasn’t until the second week of the race that the velomobiles really came into play, but by then it was clear their introduction to the event has opened up a whole new element. The duo of Marcel Graber and Dave Lewis steadily worked their way through the field till Graber hit the front in the mountains of Colorado. He then hammered home his advantage over the flats of Kansas and continued to stretch out the lead. It was then that the other velomobile also worked its way up to the front end of the race, with Lewis at times shifting into second ahead of Peter Andersen. For a while it looked like it could be a 1,2 for the three-wheeled vehicles. But then the two-wheeled rider Andersen pulled back into second and Indiana Schulz also rode on by.
Their performance isn’t the only thing that’s whipped up a bit of discussion, with some hitting the discussion boards to question whether they should be racing against bikes in the same category.
If you look to the rules it seems pretty clear: “Any bike is allowed, even those that aren’t allowed in traditional grand tours (HPV etc..)” Still wondering if that seems right? There’s another rule that covers that: “Rule #1: No complaining about the rules.”
However, there has still been plenty of discussion as to whether the results should be directly compared and there’ll probably be plenty more.
The final stretch
When Graber’s gap stretched out from Kansas and it quickly became clear that he was bound to be the first to the line, but there was no slowing down for Andersen. He held his nerve and pace in the final days, continuing to track well ahead of Deutsch’s record and fend off Lewis in the other velomobile.
But it was more than that — he had his own targets to meet.
Andersen came back to the race this year with unfinished business. It’s not that the 50-year-old Californian didn’t complete the route last year, but things certainly didn’t turn out as planned. In 2017 Andersen had been at the front of the race in the early days but ended as the lantern rouge after winding up in hospital with pneumonia and restarting his ride again after he recovered.
From the very back to the front of the field in one year; an impressive turnaround indeed. That he then also knocked more than 12 hours off last year’s record time in the process makes it an even more imposing feat.
The rest of the riders are still making their way to the finish, with Indiana Schulz looking set to arrive next and then Lewis in the second velomobile. You can follow the rest of the riders as they ride in to Yorktown through the live tracking.