Thursday, October 28, 2021

Great American Road Trip 2021 Part 1

Where to start. The race report is near the end, but I hope you'll read more than just that because honestly a lot of the coolest stuff isn't even in the race.

I think it was sometime in April on a random ride at North Park when Will causally mentioned that next year he wanted to do some 24 hour races. It was really just random conversation, but it got me thinking. That night I did some research and read about the WEMBO North and South American 24 hour Solo MTB championships out in Oregon in July.

I texted Will about the 24 hour race in Oregon, but since that race was the week before High Cascades (which we were on the waitlist for), I figured the 24 hour race was off the table. But, to my surprise, Will was like "why don't we just stay in Oregon for the whole week and do both?"

So, within a few days of me hearing about 24 hour races, we were now both signed up for a 24 hour race in Oregon. We started to do a little planning and thought for sure we would fly out there. However, after seeing the price of rental cars and the logistical nightmare of flying with bikes, we decided to drive. It's a 40 hour drive (one way), but I've never done a road trip, and both Will and I were completely free the whole summer, so we figured it would be a good adventure.

Fast forward to June 5, I race Mohican, and Will races Unbound XL in Kansas. I got 2nd singlespeed in then Mohican 100, and Will got 2nd overall in Unbound XL. But Will broke his hand while getting 2nd. I just broke my spirit in my race. So for a while it was sort of uncertain if he could even race the 24 hour race, but eventually, he was healed enough, so the trip was a go.

I headed over to his house on July 4, had some fun with fireworks and such, then we left around 3:30am the next day (a Monday). Will really likes the early starts to driving. He even has a euphemistic name to make them seem fun, "alpine starts". I just say call them insanely early.

Anyways, the first day of driving wasn't really too bad because we were excited to get going and being on a road trip with my friend was pretty fun. We had smooth sailing all the way into Wisconsin, except a little frustration at 8 lanes of traffic with no lane markers in Chicago under construction. Ugh. Then, once we hit Wisconsin, things turned ugly. Standstill traffic on then interstate. Get off the exit into a small town. More standstill traffic. Eventually we got through, and hey, we were in Wisconsin after all, a new state for me. Things could be worse. 

We didn't pick an exact place to stop that night, we figured we would just keep driving until we were tired then get a hotel. The stopping place ended up being Fargo, North Dakota for day 1.

We chose the (far) northern route on the way out, because both of us had never been to North Dakota, and since we had no school or work to worry about in the summer, we could afford to take the longer way. Totally worth it.

Fargo was a cool town, even if we (I) did have some navigational issues getting off the exit at 10:30pm after like 20 hours of driving. 

Will's fake Fargo accent, or rather, his way of saying "Fargo" with that accent, was pretty funny, and maybe the funniest thing about Fargo. I made him say it many times on the drive, haha. To make it even funnier, the hotel clerk had literally the same accent when we checked in.

The next day, we wanted to scout out a place to ride. I had read about the Maah Daah Hey trail before, and it looked cool, so we picked that to ride a little bit of. The drive across North Dakota, was, admittedly, not very crazy for the first bit, but it was still very exciting to me. Endless miles of dead-straight highway with huge power lines following the road and just open-ness everywhere you looked. Between me asking Will about every single classic rock song on the Sirius XM 4th of July countdown the day before and me saying "wow thats neat" every 5 minutes on the second day's drive, he was probably ready to kick me out of the car. 

After driving across the flat part of North Dakota for half the day, we finally got to the Badlands. They're pretty awesome, and fun fact, they're not just in South Dakota. The ride we did was really cool, some trail and some gravel roads. Other things of note and not pictured: Will chasing a train on his bike on a road, and some really cool scenic ranch type houses that are the kind of properties I dream of out west. Imagine the stereotypical ranch house with a long dirt driveway overlooking the most picturesque North Dakota badlands scenery. Yes, it was that cool.

The rest of the day we drove through part of Montana and then into Wyoming. I have to say, Montana is pretty awesome. The mix of mountains, pine trees, and open spaces is really special. I remember when I was younger seeing pictures of western landscapes, and the stuff I saw in Montana was exactly like that. I would love to go back to Montana and spend some more time on my bike (maybe next summer...).

That night we got a hotel in Cody, Wyoming. It turns out it wasn't as much of a hotel as it was an individual tiny cabin with it's own bathroom. It wasn't very expensive, but it was very nice. We walked around the town a little trying to find someplace to eat dinner, but a lot of stuff was oddly closed on a Tuesday. The one thing I will say about towns in Wyoming, is that everywhere you look is just so freaking awesome. I really cannot express how awesome it is to make a turn on a road, start heading south, and just go directly toward a massive mountain with the sun setting behind it. Then you make another turn, and guess what? Another mountain!

A funny way I judge towns is by the views of the grocery stores in those towns. I actually have a long history with it. First was out in Santa Clara, Utah in March. It was snowy, and seeing the snowy desert outside that Walmart was really cool. The grocery store in Cody, Wyoming, also had some amazing views. I think why its so amazing to me is that it just shows the views that people get in those towns every day. You don't see mountains like that in Pennsylvania (although PA is pretty awesome in its own way).

The next day, we drove out of Cody, Wyoming, to head toward Yellowstone. Even the drive right out of Cody was incredible. The road weaved around mountains and went alongside the Buffalo Bill Reservoir. We even went by this little school that, as luck was have it, was the exact school that Will was telling me about just weeks early. They had to put up a fence to keep grizzly bears away from the children.

Driving through Yellowstone was honestly one of the coolest things I had ever seen in my life. Endless mountains, blue sky, lakes, alpine trees, everything was so epic. We even saw some buffalo and some elk. Then...


Ok, so this is maybe the highlight of the trip so far. Literally minutes before this, Will was telling me about how the grizzly bear is his favorite animal. We're driving along the road in Yellowstone, and we see a group of cars pulled over. I pulled over also, and we looked off to the side. Sure enough, a GRIZZLY BEAR is meandering out of the woods. It walked literally 10 feet behind our car. I've seen bears in the zoo before, but this was something else. Seeing it so close and in its natural habit was amazing.

After driving out of Yellowstone, we continued to the Grand Tetons. The Grand Tetons are, to put it mildly, insane. Will had been telling me about them for hours (days?) and they definitely lived up to the hype. I had never seen such big mountains, and the open plains before the mountains were sweet.

Part of the reason why the Tetons and Wyoming in general is so cool to me is because of a movie. One of my favorite westerns is called "Shane", its a 50s movie, and it takes place in the Tetons area. I remember watching the movie years ago and thinking, "wow, I wish I can go to that place sometime in my life". Well, now I've been there, and it's just as amazing as I thought.

Now onto the bike riding for the day. After Yellowstone and the Tetons, we continued south to Jackson, Wyoming, where I found a cool MTB loop online to try out. We parked at the trailhead, made some PB&J's with my Leatherman tool, then headed out for the ride.

The ride was basically a 8-9 mile climb of about 1800 vertical feet, then a 8-9 mile descent of the same vertical feet down.

Even though the climb was long, and at like 7000 feet elevation, and I was 34x20 singlespeed, I can honestly say I did not suffer one bit the whole way up. Both Will and I were pretty amazed by the views. Literally every turn was something different. Wide open spaces with views of ski resorts, massive pine trees; the most stereotypical western riding you could imagine. The trail crossed over an open area every mile or so on a switchback and each time was totally breathtaking.

As you can see, the views were something else. The downhill was also incredible. Imagine a twisting, dirt trail flying through aspen forests, pine forests, open meadows with views for miles, and crossing quaint little streams on bridges. It was almost like something out of a dream. After the ride my brain was sort of like mush. Sensory overload, I was totally spoiled.

Luckily, the amazing ride sort of made us not as upset when the hotel we checked into in Nampa, Idaho, that was total trash. It smelled like a giant cigarette, and vagrants and drug addicts hanging around the place did not give out the best vibe.

That night in the hotel room, Will expressed concern about staying in a smoking hotel room in Oregon for 9 nights. Haha. So, we decided to bail on High Cascades, and instead spend 9 days after the 24 hour race traveling across America and seeing the coolest stuff we could find.

It was pretty unreal to sit in the hotel room and look at a map of the US, and literally point to a place and be like, "we should go there". I don't know if I'll ever have another opportunity like that in my lifetime, and I'm very fortunate to have had this chance this summer.

It was sort of the perfect storm of being in college, not having a job, and of course having a friend who was in the same situation as me and was totally in for just driving across the country for over 2 weeks. It was all pretty epic, and I can say with certainty I will never forget any of it. It's definitely one of the high points of my life so far.

Next day, we set off from Nampa, Idaho to head to Bend, Oregon. I remember getting to a gas station in Oregon and being surprised by the attendant filling up our tank. In Oregon, you're not allowed to fill your own gas tank. I think at that same gas station, Will noticed the guy next to us had a teardrop tattoo on his face. Maybe he killed someone. We did not want to find out, so we made haste to be on our way.

We stopped somewhere in eastern Oregon along a creek/river to get out and stretch. It was surprisingly one of my favorite places we stopped. Much of eastern Oregon was desert-like, with big mountains of sand/brown dirt that were totally barren; no trees or vegetation. It was actually pretty cool.

This place we stopped, pictured above, was especially cool because it was literally in a canyon. Huge brown dirt mountains on either side of us, and the road just weaved through the mountains. The shadows across the road from the mountains were really cool.

Early afternoon, and we finally roll into Bend, Oregon. We drove to the race start area to do a pre-ride of the course. It was fast, dusty, loose, dusty, and oh, dusty. There were one or two rock gardens, and a little stretch of dirt road near the end. None of the climbs were steep, so I thought, oh, I'll just stick with 34x20 gearing. 

The next day, my mom and brother arrived. They flew out from Pittsburgh to Portland, and then drove to Bend to meet us. The 24 hour race requires you to have a pit crew for support during the race, so my mom and brother agreed to be the pit crew for Will and me.

On the Friday before the race, we pre-rode the course again and my brother joined us.

After the pre-ride on Friday, it was go-time to start final preparations. We hit a car wash to clean off the North Dakota-Wyoming-Oregon dirt and mud off our bikes. We stopped at Walmart to get a cooler, food, drinks, and other supplies. Then we went out to dinner at a fairly nice Italian place with my mom and brother. Some pasta was eaten. Some legs were squozen in the hotel room. Some bikes were prepared.

When I did my first races of the season back in March with Will and Thad, I was really nervous the night before. However, as time went on, I got pretty calm before races. TSE, Mohican, Stoopid 50... I was pretty chill.

The night before this race, though, I was definitely a little nervous. I mean, 24 hours is a long time to race my bike.
The morning of the race came around, and we drove to the start pretty early to get stuff set up. My mom and brother helped get the table ready, and we mentally prepared to ride for the next 24 hours straight.

We racked our bikes for the Le Mans start, and we got into the start area. The clock hit 9am, and the gun went off. It was about a 1/2 mile run to the bikes before getting on to ride. Some dude was going hard on the rude, but Will and I managed to stay in 2nd and 3rd position in the run to the bikes. Not that it mattered at all, we were going to be racing for 24 hours straight.

We headed out of the parking lot up the first mini climb before bombing down a fast singletrack section into the woods. My heart rate was pretty pinned, just trying to stay with Will and the lead group. The whole course was pretty singlespeed friendly early on, so I was able to stick with the group. Eventually someone broke away I think, and Will maybe followed. I tried, but ended up backing off. We finished the first lap and Will was maybe 20 seconds ahead of me. Average heart for me on Lap 1: probably like 170ish. Ouch, only 23 hours to go.

Lap 2 started off pretty hot again as I tried and somewhat succeeded to catch back up to Will. I think about halfway through this lap I asked myself, "what the hell am I doing?"

I promptly cooled off the pace and didn't worry that there were like 5 or 6 people ahead of me. I was first place singlespeed. I think I was partly in the lead singlespeed because I was geared 34x20 like for a short race, and other people were like 30x21 or something super easy for the long haul. I could go fast in the short term, and they were betting they would be less fatigued and could go faster in the long term.

At about 1pm, the temperatures started to get uncomfortably hot. It was straight sun, and easily in the mid 90s. Thankfully, Will's coach has the idea to put extra jerseys in a cooler with ice to switch off every lap in the heat. I was reluctant at first, but after about 7 laps/80 miles, I was pretty much dead from the heat.

I rolled into the pit station in a pretty bad place mentally and physically, and asked my brother to get me my cold jersey from the cooler. My mom handed me some cups of cold water to dump on myself, I took off my jersey and put on the cold jersey, ate some food, then rolled off. Instantly, I felt so much better. The ice cold jersey and cold water dumped on me was a life saver. 

I started to feel pretty good again and got into a rhythm. The laps seemed to be ticking off pretty easily. but the time remaining was still intimidating. I remember rolling into the pit station about 8 hours/90 miles in, and jokingly I said to my brother, "well, 8 hours down, only 16 to go".

I kept a pretty consistent pace throughout the day, hearing from my mom and brother how Will was slowly gaining time on me. But I was still 1st place singlespeed on the course, so that was good.

As night approached, I put the lights on my bike and prepared for 7+ hours of pitch black riding. To my amazement, the night made everything seem so much better. I felt so much fresher, and my legs suddenly felt good again. The temps dropped, and that felt good, too. Until it didn't.

By midnight or so, the temps were now in the high 30s. Yep, that's right. High 90s in the day, high 30s at night. Will and I were both getting super cold, I put warmer gloves on, a vest, and other gear. But even though we had some cold gear, we were woefully unprepared. Eventually, I had to put my moms sweater on to keep from freezing, especially on the fast dirt road section. If you don't know this, high 30s at night going 25mph in dry air feels pretty dang cold. Especially when you've been racing for 16+ hours and have ridden almost 200 miles of singletrack.

The night was pretty fun all things considered, though, and I was having a blast ripping the downhills with my headlight. I knew I was in 1st place singlespeed, and I knew Will was in 1st place overall. I thought there were a few people in between us, though.

Around 5am, after hours of thinking every headlight coming up behind me was Will, I finally saw Will at the top of a descent. I ripped the descent all out just for fun, and at the flat spot on the bottom, Will caught up to me.

I think we were both pretty glad to see each other, and he told me I was the last person he had lapped. That meant I was actually 1st SS/2nd overall as of then. Pretty cool. We decided just to ride together the last 4 hours, which would make it way more fun.

We rolled though the pit station, quickly ate and drank some stuff, then headed out for another lap. Then we rolled through the pit station again, and headed out for what we thought (correctly) would be our last lap before the time was up. It was a pretty brutal lap, I'll be honest. We were both totally smoked, and every little hill was a struggle. My whole body was hurting. After what seemed like hours, we made it to the last downhill, rode though the sandy field, past the pit stations, and rolled across the finish next to each other. Will was 1st overall, and I was 1st singlespeed and 2nd overall. 

I seriously could not have imagined a better possible ending to this race. Getting 1st place SS was my goal, and getting 2nd overall behind Will was more than I could have imagined. Also, getting to ride the last 4 hours with my friend who I just drove 3500 miles with across the country was pretty special, definitely another thing I will never forget. 


After the race, we hobbled back to the pit station, drank some liquids, and waited for the awards. Will pretty much passed out on a blanket I set down in the dirt, and I think I fell asleep sitting in the back seat of my car waiting for awards. Will woke me up just before awards and we walked over to get the pictures.

It was pretty funny, because all of the people on the podium were sort of like zombies, having been awake for 24+ hours and racing their bikes the whole time.

The picture on the left is the overall podium, with Will in 1st and me 2nd. On the right is the singlespeed podium, where apparently the 3rd place guy must have been passed out in his car or something. Totally understandable.

After the podiums came the less majestic parts of 24 hour racing: cleaning up the pit station and packing up the car. It was pretty miserable; we were both so tired and my brother and mom could only do so much by themselves. Finally, however, the car was loaded.

I convinced everyone I was good to drive home, so I got in the drivers seat with Will in the passenger seat. Just after pulling out of the parking lot onto the main road, there was a cyclist on the road, so I carefully moved into the other lane to give him plenty of room as I passed him.

However, my Subaru beeped at me as I changed lanes, and Will, half-asleep, asked me if I was ok to drive. He must've thought I was falling asleep, but I assured him I was just moving over to give cyclist plenty of room as I passed.

The hour drive back to our hotel in Madras (just outside of Bend) was pretty terrible, not gonna lie. We got back, unloaded a little bit of stuff, then got some Mexican across the street for lunch.

We were both totally spent and pretty much sleep walking at this point. I won't go into details, but things were pretty rough. After lunch, we went back to the hotel and slept for like 5 hours.

I'll never forget waking up in the hotel room and being totally at a loss for what time it was or what day it was. Turns out it was 6pm. Sunday. I have never woken up at 6pm before after sleeping for 5 hours, that's for sure. I honestly was completely confused about what day it was. But anyways, we got some dinner, relaxed a little, then went back to bed for the night. It was a pretty successful couple of days, and yet, with all the cool stuff still to come on the trip, it felt like the trip had just begun.

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