Racing Across America

In 18 days, 23 hours and 12 minutes, Jesse Carlsson, long distance cyclist, rode across America to win the 2015 edition of the Trans Am Bike Race.

An unsupported, round-the-clock race along the 4,233-mile TransAmerica Trail, the ‘Trans Am’ spans the United States, From the Pacific to the Atlantic coast. Now recovering at home in Melbourne, Jesse spoke to Rapha about his achievement, the challenges he faced, and the long road to recovery that awaits him.

Congratulations on your win. How is the recovery going?
It’s a bit of a rocky road, with good days and bad days. It’s almost like having some sort of nasty illness that lasts a long time. You can’t physically eat enough food during the event, so your body starts to use muscle as fuel. As all the muscle starts to recover, it feels a lot like growing pains. I’m aching a great deal, and my metabolism is still raging.

It must have taken a great deal of food to fuel the race.
As a cyclist, I’m used to eating a lot. But in these events, after a couple of days, it hits another level. The ideal situation is finding one of those diners like you see in American sitcoms. The guy in overalls at the bar, the waitress serving coffee refills. I’d go in and order three chocolate milkshakes, double servings of French toast, omelettes with extra cheese, hash browns, and then motor through it. The regulars look at you as if to say, “what’s that skinny dude doing eating so much food?”

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How familiar were you with the ‘Trans Am’ route before you joined the race? Did you know anything about its history?
I knew of the Adventure Cycling Association and the TransAmerica Trail, and really liked the idea of racing their flagship route. I was particularly attracted to this event while marvelling at the feats of those crazy pioneers who tore it up in years past. I have a respect for them that is hard to put into words and think that maybe, just maybe, I could be one of them.

What were the biggest challenges?
The heat was a big factor. It was unseasonably hot when the race started, so I would start riding at 10pm to avoid the sun, and ride until 6pm the following day. My GPS equipment failed so I couldn’t get temperature readings, but someone I spoke to said it was hitting 45 degrees Celsius. Riding through the cool of the night really helped, and finishing in the early evening meant that I’d avoid the nasty electrical storms that were occurring. It’s not fun rolling the dice with a storm, so you might as well use that time to rest and wait for it to clear. In conventional races you can deal with nasty weather by rationalising that it’s the same for everyone, but that’s not the case in events as long as these. While I was losing traction on pinch climbs in the heavy rain, the chasing riders were traveling behind the storm. It’s a situation that’s tough to deal with mentally.

How did your gear hold up to the conditions?
The humidity was intense in the first week of the race, and the Rapha Brevet Jersey I was wearing really helped. The merino blend is perfect: it holds its shape, and keeps odours to a minimum. Psychologically, that’s so important, because you don’t feel uncomfortable and don’t smell like a farm animal. It also regulates your temperature whether you’re wet or dry. I think the most important discovery I’ve made since I started riding multi day races is merino garments. It’s magical stuff.

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What was your routine? How did you keep going?
I would sleep for around four hours each night. I was prepared to go with less if needed, but didn’t have to. Often I’d finish riding in the early evening, eat a meal, sleep, and then start riding again at around 10:30pm. During the race I would try to remind myself that I was also touring. At times the mountain vistas were jaw dropping, with high alpine grasslands surrounded by snowy peaks, and sometimes the only feature was the road you were following as it snaked off into the distance.

Now it’s over, what’s your overall feeling about having won?
It’s all a bit of a blur. Montana was a highlight for me – the high alpine vistas were spectacular. I take away special memories of the short interactions with other tourers, race followers, and people in diners along the way. I’m very proud to have found a way to work through the problems I faced along the way and get to the finish. The win was simply a bonus.

What’s next?
Recovery is going to take a while. Regaining strength after losing quite a bit of muscle will probably take a few months. The mental aspect of recovery may take even longer. In an event like this you’re driving yourself forward day after day when your body just wants to stop, and to recover, you need to let yourself off the hook for a while. After a couple of months I’m sure the motivation for new challenges will emerge. If I can source the right funding, I’d love to one day make an attempt at the round-the-world record.

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Black and white image courtesy of Adventure Cycling photo, shot on the TransAmerica Trail in 1976.