Adventure cycling at the Trans Am bike race with Mike Hall and Ed Pickup

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Adventurous spirits: Mike Hall, Ed Pickup, and the Trans Am bike race

“People who know me know that I get distracted very easily; pretty much by anything and everything. There’s loads of cold cups of tea, and put down pencils, and 5mm Allen keys all over my house. I find that’s difficult when I’m trying to do stuff, but when I’m on the bike, my mind is kind of racing along. I don’t care what it does. That’s one of the things I love: all the time, you’re still riding a bike. All the pain or discomfort, or whatever it is when you’re pushing on a bike and doing long distances, fades into the background and your mind races along and does whatever it wants to do. In the World Cycle Race, I kind of got to the end of all the things I was going to think about...” – Mike Hall, adventure cyclist

Adventure cyclists are a special breed. The scale of their endeavour is vast. Distances inconceivable to the ordinary cyclist are covered in a spirit of gentlemanly competition, ingenuity, and sheer courage. Bleeding saddle sores, encounters with bears, racing in cross winds strong enough to blow lorries from their wheels – all are grist to their peculiar mill. This is racing at the opposite end of a scale from a bunch sprint: drafting is forbidden, sleep is an indulgence, typically measured in minutes rather than hours, and the presence of a film crew on the route is a legitimate topic for debate about the true nature of unsupported racing.

Mike Hall is an expert on the topic. Winner in 2012 of the World Cycle Race, winner in 2013 of the Tour Divide mountain bike race, and winner last month of the Trans Am road race, his is a rare talent. Ed Pickup, ten years Hall’s junior, and third in the Trans Am at just 23, is a rising star in a fast-developing sport where regulation extends little further than a single sheet of paper and a handshake, and in which information is still readily shared by competitors, once the racing is done. It is amateur sport in the finest tradition: neither lacking in talent or sophistication, but where money and its attendant evils – drugs, corporate agendas, and rampant commercialism – seem gloriously absent.

Racing, not touring

Understand, however, that this is racing. Machinery is sophisticated and lightweight, and the accoutrements necessary for survival are kept to the barest minimum. Carbon fibre chassis and wheels and electronic transmissions are deployed here as readily as in the WorldTour peloton (and unlike in the cycle industry’s sporting showcase, disc brakes, too). A down jacket might be worn at night to save the weight of a sleeping bag, not to mention reducing the time between stopping and sleep; a ‘bivvy’ will perform the same function as a tent at a fraction of the weight and bulk. Panniers are increasingly the preserve only of the touring cyclist: the adventure racer is likely to opt instead for frame bags.

RideLondon will command the headlines this second weekend of August, in the cycling press as well as in the mainstream media, but the capital will host the start of an altogether greater challenge than a 100-mile sportive or even a 1.HC road race. Almost 100 adventure cyclists will roll off a Westminster Bridge closed to traffic, bound for Istanbul on a journey that will take them through Paris and across the start line of the inaugural Tour de France outside the Café au Reveil Matin, over Italy’s iconic Stelvio Pass, onto Montenegro’s Mount Lovcen, to a finish line adjacent to the narrowest section of the Bosphorus Strait and the very tip of Asia.

Hall will change hats to become race director of the Trans Continental, and Pickup will be a very interested observer. With the effects of a race across north America still in their legs (Pickup claims to have finished the ordeal not only about 10lbs lighter, but shorter too), neither is ready to race again so soon. The Trans Am is not easily forgotten.

The Trans Am

Ed Pickup does not recognise the word quit. He is 23 and hungry for success. His is not an ambition that can be quenched by financial reward, however. There is no money in adventure racing (yet) and he hopes there never will be, despite the comforts that would unquestionably come his way, such is talent. The youngest rider in last year’s inaugural Trans Continental race, he finished fourth. At the Trans Am, he went one better to claim third place.

Such bald statistics, however, do little to describe a capable young man who combines astonishing feats of endurance with studies for a law degree at an American university and visits home to southern England where final race preparations might involve riding from Wiltshire to Yorkshire, or from London to Rome.

Pickup is four days into the Trans Am and the odour radiating from his battered body is a cause for consternation even in the salubrious surroundings of a truck stop in Grangeville, Idaho. He has not showered since leaving Astoria, Oregon three days earlier and he knows from the intense pain that has forced him to stand through all the switchbacks of the White Bird Pass that his saddle sores have worsened since the previous evening when, in the relative privacy of a sleeping bag positioned at the side of the road, he discovered that the skin below his waist was raw. The truck stop is aware of his peculiar scent, even if he isn’t. “I got chatting to a guy while I was waiting for my order and he basically said, you stink,” he laughs.

Faced with over two weeks of riding an average of 200 miles a day, the temptation to quit must be strong, but armed with a mentality more robust than his wrecked skin, Pickup takes advantage of the truck stop’s shower facilities, eats a hearty breakfast, and sets about softening his steed’s torturous perch with arm and knee warmers.

He has, in short, sacrificed too much even to be here to contemplate giving up. Hit by a car and hospitalised during a training ride in Tenerife, and having lost his custom made titanium Qoroz bike to thieves in Lyon, he has no intention of allowing saddle sores to force him from the race.

Bear essentials

Highs and lows will follow in abundance. Inexplicable mood swings, searing heat, cloying humidity, brutal headwinds, and one memorable encounter with a brown bear await him. A ten-mile stretch of private land between Yellowstone National Park and Teton National Park provided ample opportunity for safe camping, Pickup believed. “I was close enough to Flag Ranch that I thought wildlife would be scared off by the tourists.”

The spacious toilet facilities in America’s national parks typically provide clean and safe harbour for the adventure cyclist, but Pickup’s selection left him out of luck. “It stank.” Too tired to ride further, he headed into a nearby section of woodland, set his alarm for 4am, and fell asleep.

“I woke up and was staring right into the eyes of a brown bear. It was about six feet away. I could see its eyes. I’ve never been so scared in my life. I yelled at it. The adrenalin really kicked in. I thought, If I’m going to be eaten, I’m not going to be eaten lying down, so I tried to get up, but got tangled in my bivvy bag and fell over. I think the really weird movement of trying to get up and falling over just completely freaked out the bear. It visibly jumped and ran away.”

Fluid strategies

While Pickup was escaping bears, Hall was far up the road, having solved a puzzle that had threatened his strategy for the race. After a period of preparation disrupted by a trapped nerve, he had rolled out of Astoria in good form and, despite taking a wrong turn after just 10 miles and suffering a series of punctures, rattled off more than 300 miles on the first day before stopping at a US Postal depot in Redmond, Oregon at 3.30am for a 90-minute sleep. “I woke up the next morning in the post office 12 minutes before my alarm went off to the sound of a plastic cleat going into a road pedal,” he remembers.

Pedal and cleat belonged to one Jason Lane, a rider, Hall says, known by those who contest the Ride Across America (RAAM) as The Hammer. He had noted Lane’s presence at the start line: a rider aboard a Cervelo aero road bike equipped with deep section wheels, but carrying a back pack – an unusual method of transporting equipment for an adventure cyclist. Except Lane wasn’t carrying equipment.

“It became apparent to me with the whole back pack thing that he was on a liquid diet,” Hall explains. “The back pack was heavily loaded. He had two or three days of powder in his bag. He didn’t need to stop for food in the way that we stopped for food. He just needed to stop, put some water in his bottles, put some powder in, put them back on the bike. I thought, that’s mental, but it appears to be working for him.”

Hall’s suspicions were confirmed, indirectly, by an elderly couple running a store in the small, back country town of Mitchell, Oregon. “I said, ‘Have you seen a cyclist?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, we saw this one guy – he came in about 20 minutes ago and bought two gallons of water.’ I thought, ‘That’s him.’

“He was steadily moving, not stopping for food and not stopping for sleep. I thought, I’m going to have to keep up with him now, and he’s going to spoil my dinner, and spoil my sleeping,” Hall deadpans. “But I didn’t think about not [keeping up with him] because I thought, if he can do it, I can do it. If somebody else is capable of doing it, it can be done, and therefore you’ve got to keep up with him, and that’s it.”

Long ride to victory

While Hall would later rue following such a brutal early schedule, his prognosis that he could draw on his own experience to exceed Lane’s rate of progress would prove accurate. It was Hall who arrived first at the finish in Yorktown, Virginia after 17 days, 16 hours, and 29 minutes, and by some margin over Lane: enough to allow himself the luxury of a night’s rest on the porch of an upmarket hotel at the Blue Ridge Parkway, and to ride enjoy the Parkway’s spectacular scenery at dawn – a decision he’d make again “in a heartbeat”.

Pickup concurs with Hall on the beauty of the Parkway and also on the brutality of the finish: a wilfully circuitous route to Yorktown with the final 35km conducted on a bone-jarring surface that forced Hall to deflate his tyres. “I nearly quit then,” he laughs. “I pulled over and let all the air out of my tyres. I literally had about 20psi.” Pickup attests to a soul destroying finale that “shook the life out of me.”

Yorktown provided a finish as unassuming as the start line in Astoria, more than 4,000 miles earlier. Hall remembers arriving at half-past-midnight to a low-key welcome from two members of a film crew that had recorded the race, and a couple on a motorcycle who invited him to stay, but later transpired to have nothing to do with the race.

“I was more than happy to be finished. It was great to win, and it was great to have Jason as a competitor – it was really interesting with his strategy of not having to stop for food. But it was a real stressful race, and we were just glad it was over.”

Pickup arrived a little over 46 hours after Hall and just under 27 hours after Lane, to be welcomed by Hall and by the family of competitor, Billy Rice. “Heat, hills, and humidity,” were his greatest challenges in the closing days, and, of course, the brutal surface of Yorktown’s Colonial Parkway.

Tools of the trade

There is much about adventure cycling for the sports fan to admire and to intrigue the bicycle lover. As with any form of cycle sport, a combination of athletic prowess and technology lies at its heart: the first, an obvious component, but the latter perhaps less so. Significantly, the regulation of the races, which might accurately be described as light, lies well outside the governance of the UCI and a set of technical regulations frequently criticised as unnecessarily restrictive. Disc brakes, a lightning rod for the entire debate surrounding sporting regulation and technical development, are an obvious feature of both Hall and Pickup’s Pivot Vault cyclo-cross machines.

Hall believes the adventure cycling market holds an increasing significance, and that the disc brake issue has forced the industry to reassess its fixation with the needs of elite professional cyclists, a commercial philosophy that might be summarised with the phrase, ‘If it’s good enough for (insert name of WorldTour rider here), it’s good enough for you.’

“There’s a move away from what the pros use,” Hall says. “I think the whole disc thing has broken the, ‘all the big manufacturers do what the pros race on’. A lot of people say, ‘I don’t care what the pros use. I don’t race, I do sportives and I want disc brakes.’ Big manufacturers have cottoned on to the fact that there’s so many people out there who want to ride a bike their way and they don’t want to race.”

Pickup believes that the criteria for adventure racing bikes is changing, too. “Ten years ago, people were looking at something that had to be super durable and overbuilt, and now people are looking at lighter stuff: bikes that are fun to ride and good for taking anywhere.”

It’s a branch of the sport that offers a more interesting avenue for technical experimentation than professional road racing, both for its freedom from UCI regulation and for the demands that come with riding hundreds of miles each day for weeks at a time, day and night, in often inhospitable conditions.

A close inspection of the pair’s machinery reveals a range of electronica from USB ports to satellite navigation and tracking systems, and high-powered lights, all powered from various sources, including a sophisticated dynamo hub.

Hall believes that closer integration of electronics and chassis would represent a field of development that would benefit Adventure cyclists and leisure cyclists alike. “I think that’s something that over the next 10 years you’ll see more of, particularly if you get widespread adoption of electronic shifting – autonomous charging for that. Dynamos could come back.”

He continues: “We’ve all been under the umbrella of the UCI. The consumer has to buy things that the UCI dictates. Disc brakes are on cyclo-cross bikes now because the UCI have accepted it. That has pushed the whole disc brake thing forward. We’re getting disc brakes on road bikes now because they’re confident it’s coming. I think a few years down the line people aren’t going to worry what the UCI are or aren’t going to do. They’ll just make bikes people want.”

The choice of the two British riders to ride carbon fibre chassis may seem odd, but Hall rejects the notion that metal frames offer a more forgiving ride characteristic – a vital quality for races of several thousand miles. An engineer, he places greater store in the quality of the manufacturing process and believes that tube sections have a more significant influence than material on how a bike feels.

Bootlegs, alleycats, and unsupported racing

Professional cycling, specifically the elite UCI WorldTour, provides a glamorous and often exhilarating showcase for technology and athleticism alike, but paid competition often comes with a price of its own. Adventure cycling, a form of racing that demands a comparable toll on reserves of courage and fitness, but which is contested on little more than a gentleman’s agreement – what Hall describes as “bootleg” races – can provide a refreshing alternative, but by its very nature seems destined to occupy an intriguing fringe. The Trans Continental, an event that casts Hall in the role of race director, rather than competitor, offers an interesting case in point.

“What we are, and what a lot of these races are, are unsanctioned, completely illegitimate, bootleg,” he says. “They’re like continent-spanning Alleycat races. Certainly as Trans Continental, we’ve picked up a lot of that vibe. We’ve become a bit of a cult ride, through some of the AWOL films and things like that.”

Both riders are comfortable with adventure cycling’s position outside the ken of conventional bike racing. Asked to plot their own position on a hypothetical scale marked at one end with the word ‘regulation’ and what might be defined as ‘spirit’ at the other, and both agree that maintaining the style in which the race is contested is more important than creating rules. This is not to over-simplify the issue, however. Pickup cautions against those who “want to regulate the hell out of it,” but accepts that technological developments will prevent events like the Trans Am from remaining impervious to broader change.

“At the moment, you get a list of 10 rules, which I think is probably enough,” he says. “Most people understand what you mean by that and what the spirit of those rules is, and that you try to race their unsupported race in that spirit, but there are always people who are going to try to take advantage.”

“I don’t think you need a hundred things that you can or can’t do. But equally I’m not in the complete purist camp with people that want to get it so pure that it’s almost the same every year, because technology is changing. You need to keep it open to development. I don’t think it needs to be nailed down.”

Despite the vast scale of the adventure racer’s parcours, and the enormous distances typically that separate the competitors by the conclusion, regulation is a more subtle issue than might be imagined. At its crux is the nature of ‘unsupported’ racing. For some, says Hall, even the traditional privilege afforded the Tour de France competitor, allowed to chip off the front of the peloton as the race winds through his home town to enjoy a brief roadside reunion with his family, would be considered a form of emotional support, and so present a challenge to the concept of ‘unsupported’ racing.

Hall offers a more tangible example from his most recent endeavour: “We were filmed during the Trans Am and that changes the nature of the race completely.” That the first five competitors were filmed helped to maintain a level playing field, he concedes, but the very presence of a crew, equipped with a car and with it a route to civilisation and safety, might be construed as offering a lifeline to, say, a competitor with hypothermia. The film crew becomes, in Hall’s words, a type of safety net that may encourage the competitors to push harder than they otherwise might have done.

Risk and reward

London, August 2014, and another chapter will open in the history of a discipline that is being written apace. Nearly 100 riders will take part in the second Trans Continental race, a route that will allow its competitors to reach almost the tip of Asia in a timeframe that might legitimately be claimed as annual leave. It’s an heroic endeavour, but one that should not require the sacrifice of paid employment. Such a sacrifice has already been made, however, by both Hall, who funds his endeavours with short term engineering contracts, and by Pickup, who fills periods between races by studying the law. He combined three years of undergraduate study with a full-time job, taking short breaks to attend lectures and spending all of his spare time in the saddle. Neither regrets his decision.

“It comes down to you can’t have everything,” Hall says, simply. “I don’t have a house or a nice car.” Pickup adds that every one of his adventures has been self-funded. His free time his limited, his social life suffers, and his time off the bike is occupied entirely by work and study. “The trade off is that you get these incredible experiences, and the more of them I do, the more of them I want to do, and that becomes a priority.”

The philosophical nature of the discussion offers another insight into the world of the adventure cyclist. The traditional road man, training in his spare time to beat his record in the club 10, does not have to think so deeply about his sport; on the one hand, because competing makes a far smaller claim on his time, but also because it does not require him to fundamentally alter his lifestyle. His rewards, likely to be personal only, unless he is Tony Martin, are concomitantly small. For the adventure cyclist, forced by the scale of his endeavour to examine his entire way of life, the recompense can be equally affecting.

“By putting yourself out there and winging it, you learn that you can get by with very little and that seeps into your own life, where you just don’t need things at home,” Hall explains. “You just need to be able to ride your bike and have a bit of freedom.” Few who have tasted the pleasure of two wheels and an open road will disagree.

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