A TransRockies tale

When I participated in the 350-mile TransRockies mountain bike stage race up in Canada in August, I felt like Lance Armstrong. I'd trained to a perfect peak. My nutrition and strategy was perfect. I pushed hard but not enough to blow through my lactate threshold. My handling skills were honed razor-sharp; I rarely fell and when I did, I'd do an injury-preventing tuck-and-roll.

Immediately crossing the finish line after each grueling day, I stretched and massaged (to restore flexibility and remove lactic acid); did the Utkatasana Fierce Warrior yoga pose (to unkink cycling-corrupted posture); frantically shoveled down a half-pound of turkey, sardines and beef jerky (to rebuild muscle protein); and drank down 20 tablets of vitamin C and E (for antioxidant protection), calcium (to prevent sweat-loss-induced bone-thinning), and glucosamine and chondroitin (to repair worn joints).

Result: My recovery was perfect. I awoke every morning fresh, recovered, ready to rock and roll again for eight hours.

All my years of writing about training in magazine articles and for my new book, Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100, had paid off. Although deep into my forties now, I felt like a finely tuned machine -- faster, stronger and better than I'd ever been in my life.

So given all that, it struck me as ironic when I'd ride into the checkpoint to see my partner on our two-man team, Roman Urbina, sitting there -- wet, freezing and shaking so badly he could barely talk.

"Dude -- w-what took ya?" he'd say. "I've been here half and hour!"

It's all relative

Oh, well. Everything's relative. Compared to the other crazy multi-day mountain bike races I'd done -- the TransAlp Challenge (400 miles, eight days, 61,000 feet of climbing from Germany to Austria to Italy) and Roman's own La Ruta de Los Conquistadores in Costa Rica (250 miles, 25,000 feet in three days from Pacific to Atlantic across sweltering rain forest and sub- freezing 12,000-foot volcanoes) -- I was Superman.

Instead of my usual position at the back-of-the pack, I was just two-thirds back. I could sympathize with Roman somewhat -- he's a world-class athlete who could have finished with the leaders, yet here he was stuck with me, finishing two hours back in 21st place in the 80-plus age-group division. But I couldn't feel too bad. Heck, I thought he knew what he was getting when he asked me to be his teammate and actually would be impressed by my improvement.

"Hey, do what I do when waiting at the top of cold mountain passes," I'd advise him with a rush of positive energy that would make him roll his eyes. "Do push-ups. That'll warm you up!"

Roman sent me an e-mail from Costa Rica a week after he got home. He still had a terrible cold. Tactfully, he blamed it on the fact that we had to sleep in tents in the TransRockies, a deep wilderness experience that's a far cry from his brutal but plush La Ruta race, which destroys riders in the daytime but puts them up in four-star hotels every night.

We both knew his sneezes came from those two hours a day he waited for me in the strikingly beautiful, endlessly challenging, often freezing Canadian Rockies, as we pedaled, pushed and carried our bikes across the Continental Divide from Fernie, British Columbia, to Canmore, Alberta.

Everyday heroes

When I tell people I biked 350 miles with 38,000 feet of elevation gain over seemingly endless single track through dense rivers of mud, dusk-to-dawn rain and several hail storms for about eight hours a day for an entire week, the reaction is always the same: "Are you trying to work out some issues from your childhood?"

It's nothing that complex. I sign up for ultra-hard events like the fourth annual TransRockies precisely because I'm not a complicated man. I'll never discover a cure for cancer, or invent a car that's fueled by household garbage that emits a pollution-eating aerosol enzyme that will reverse global warming.

Sure, I'd like to do these things, and capture Osama bin Laden too. But the fact is, my overriding interest and only real talent in life is riding my mountain bike as far as I possibly can, hopefully in some place beautiful and historic and awesomely grand. The TransRockies gave me and 320 others the chance to do that. It was everything mountain biking should be: cold, hot, beautiful, painful, exhilarating and, in a word, epic. So epic that it brings the hero out in you.

On day two, Tom Zidek waved goodbye to his partner as a helicopter whisked her and her mangled knee to a hospital, then rode the final 40 miles of rough single track with her bike strapped to his back. James Shellard, with his partner in the 80-plus age-group division, continued to race despite the clavicle he broke on day five, which prevented him from lifting his left hand higher than his belly button.

And the biggest hero of all, undoubtedly, was "Greenland Harry." Harry Petersen was a 41-year-old Greenland fireman who'd never ridden a mountain bike until the first day of the race. In fact, the six-foot-two Inuit Eskimo had barely cycled at all. He saw the TransRockies on TV, found a Canadian partner on the event Web site, then flew bikeless to Calgary the day before the start and bought a $3,000 Rocky Mountain dual suspension. He'd never used clipless pedals before.

On day one, 30 sunny miles of smooth, easy single track that I did in four hours, took Harry eight hours as he fell dozens of times learning to clip out and shift gears. On day seven, as the organizers were tearing down the finish line in Canmore, he finally arrived, alone. His teammate, tired of waiting, had abandoned him back on day four.

Fortunately, Roman's too classy for that. He pushed me when he could, pulled me in his draft past dozens of teams on the flats and occasional road sections, and showed me the perfect lines to follow as we screamed down endless 3,000-foot technical descents at speeds that would have scared me out of my jockstrap back when I was young and crazy.

On to the Grand Slam

Ultimately, he left me with an opportunity to reach for the brass ring that I've been dreaming of for the past three years: The Grand Slam.

The Grand Slam of mountain biking is the new mark of mountain bike manhood: doing all four of the world's ultra-tough, ultra-long, multi-day mountain bike events: La Ruta, the TransAlp, the TransRockies and the latest one (founded in 2004), South Africa's eight-day, 400-mile, 1,000-strong Cape Epic.

Roman now has a Slam, as does Brett Wolfe, the renowned one-legged rider. Keith Bontrager, the famed cycling components maker, will have two with another La Ruta next month. With my TransRockies finish, I now have three-quarters of a Slam -- and a lofty goal: a mid-pack finish. See you in Capetown.

Roy M. Wallack is the co-author of Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100.

Reprinted, courtesy of Competitor Magazine. For more articles and information for Competitor, please visit www.competitor.com.

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