TransAm Bike Race 2017: The Divide Is Crested

As riders at the front of the TransAm Bike Race reach the half way mark, we reflect on the geography of the race route so far.

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TransAm Bike Race 2017 The Divide Is Crested apidura

On Saturday 3rd June 2017, 131 riders took to the start line of the TransAm Bike Race in Astoria, Oregon. With their backs to the Pacific Ocean, front wheels pointing east, and over 6,800km of the USA ahead of them, they were at the start of a journey that would take them through some of the world’s most fabled landscapes, and along one of the oldest long-distance bike trails. Now, almost ten days into the race, the Great Continental Divide – one of the main cornerstones of progress along the route – has been conquered by the leaders.

The TransAm route follows the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, which was originally mapped and ridden by a mass group of riders (dubbed Bikecentennial, which would later become the Adventure Cycling Association) in 1976. The trail runs from Oregon to Virginia, through ten states and an entire continent’s worth of geography, from the rolling roads of America’s far northwest, to the high mountain passes of the Great Continental Divide, the barren plains of the Midwest, and the forested hills further east.

‘When I did the TransAm, I could feel that I was going across a whole continent,’ we were recently told by Adrian O’Sullivan, a veteran of the 2015 TransAm and organiser of the TransAtlantic Way. ‘Through every state there would be changes, and each of them felt very different, geographically and climatically, from the last,’ he explained, highlighting the intimate relationship with the land that these events naturally instill within their competitors.

After the Grand Départ in Astoria, the race immediately started taking shape. 22-year-old Andrew Suzuki became the early pacesetter as the race crossed the Cascade mountains of Oregon, backtracking along many of the same pathways that were first pioneered hundreds of years ago by early European settlers. But if the Cascades were something of a final frontier for those pioneers to overcome in their push west, for the riders of the TransAm, gradually moving east, they are merely an introduction of what is to come.

After a relentless opening slog of over 20 hours, many of the leaders stopped to rest in Baker City, a border settlement between Oregon and Idaho, before introducing themselves to state number two, and the longer, higher climbs of the Rockies proper that lay beyond. With the new terrain came a change in leadership too, as abandons at the business end of racing and a change in sleeping patterns elsewhere left Benjamin Colwill the new leader of a group of front-runners that also contained Jon Lester, Peter Andersen, and Evan Deutsch.

The race – now fully on – was over a week old, and with fatigue, sleep-deprivation and undernourishment all beginning to take their toll on competitors, it entered the Great Divide Basin. Closed basins like that of the Great Divide’s in Wyoming are a feature of topography that allows no outflow to external bodies of water such as rivers or oceans, sealing the fate of whatever water enters to a swampy, boggy demise – or complete evaporation. There is no escape, and coming at such a point in the race, when the effects of the preceding kilometres are starting to be felt with full force, this fact must have been painfully apparent for the cyclists – with their bogged-down legs and evaporating strength – traversing it.

The TransAm’s path through Wyoming, and both the Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, soon gives way to the high altitude landscapes of Colorado though, and the highest pass of the entire route – the Hoosier. From one perspective, the Hoosier in its entirety is a 70-mile climb when tackled from the valley-dwelling town of Kremmling, taking riders gradually up to the appropriately-named Summit County, before a final 10-mile haul from Breckenridge to the 3,518m summit itself.

Jon Lester was the first rider to reach the top, during the mid-afternoon on the 10th of June, with Benjamin Colwill and Evan Deutsch in hot pursuit. Behind the leading trio were Apidura rider Sofiane Sehili, Michael Wacker, and leading woman Janie Haynes – riding ahead of Lael Wilcox’s record schedule – forming a front group of five riders, from which the eventual winner will surely come.

In some ways, the top of the Hoosier is the challenge that must be conquered in order to break the back of the TransAm; get over it, and you’ll be well on your way to finishing one of the hardest ultra races in the world. The climb, which marks the crossing of the Great Continental Divide, signals the end of the mountainous first portion of the race, and when riders pass through the city of Pueblo, located at the bottom of the descent, they will have officially entered into the second half of the 6,800km route.

But with the Great Plains of the Mid-West, and the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky and Virginia beyond them still to cross, the race – far from being over – still has an entirely different geography, and accompanying set of challenges, for its riders to overcome.

Apidura rider Sofiane Sehili was in 5th position at the time of writing, eventually finishing 8th overall.