- By Vin Cox
“It’s almost impossible”… “So difficult, sometimes no-one finishes”… 300 miles of gravel* in a distant land is the kind of challenge I can’t leave alone.
Due to my background (ultra-endurance adventure riding and cyclo-cross racing), I heard of the mother of all ultra-endurance gravel races some years ago. A few social media friends said this was a big deal, so I rather too casually thought I’d join in. I’ve picked out some lessons for the aspirational ultra-distance or gravel cyclist.
TransIowa is a quirky/cult event: No-one knows the route or how much over 300 miles it is until the evening before. The guy in charge is known as “Guitar Ted”, but his name is Mark. Entry is via postcard to Guitar Ted, which must arrive on a precise date and include a code word. The event website is a crazy stream of consciousness which riders must learn to live by. Riders are allowed no support at all – just sustaining themselves from occasional convenience stores and whatever they carry on route. And… the start is at 4am and the finish closes 34 hours later.
Somehow I got the entry organised and had my first go at TransIowa in it’s 9th edition (#TIV9 for short)… and I failed. After 220 miles, in the middle of the night I found myself getting dangerously cold in a freezing night. I raided the bins in a town and insulated myself with newspapers inside my clothes, but I couldn’t ride hard enough to warm up, and there was nowhere to shelter, so I called for help and quit. It was a real pity because #TIV9 was “an easy year”…
1) Traveling too light can catch you out.
2) Anticipate how slow you’ll be going after 24 hours of effort.
3) Don’t underestimate. Believe organisers warnings and descriptions.
For #TIV10 I was better prepared. I was fitter and lighter. I had a new bike and I knew what I was in for; or I thought I did. I at least understood that literally the WHOLE 330 MILE RACE would be on hilly gravel roads. I knew about the gravel being loose, dangerous and energy sapping. I had learned that rural Iowa has a lot of rolling hills and that 10mph was HARD to sustain. The weather was different this time though; we slogged into a gale for the first 160 miles, maxing out on effort just to reach the cut-off point in time to receive instructions to the finish. Then lightening and rain moved in. In a town close to our route a tornado killed someone. I slowed on the soggy roads, struggled to navigate, and eventually realised I couldn’t reach the finish before the time limit. So I quit again. Just a handful finished the race.
4) Both helmet and handlebar lights are needed for night riding and navigation.
5) Aerodynamics matter even going slowly on gravel.
6) Respect that mother nature is in control.
#TIV11 was an epic which I thankfully skipped. No one finished. Only one man made it to the first checkpoint (at 50 miles) in time to be allowed to go on, and then he couldn’t make the next check point, so he quit. The weather is the event’s most notorious participant.
7) Mother nature is REALLY in control.
I couldn’t resist returning for #TIV12. The community had claimed me, and the challenge was taunting me… I had to make TIV12 the one I finished. I flew out with days in hand to recover from the journey. A 150 mile shakedown ride to race HQ at Grinnell on race-type roads was good for me.
The weather was dry, but the wind was strong and some roads were still damp from past rains. We got very lucky that the first 60 miles headed into the wind – lucky because at 4am when the race started the wind was relatively gentle. The next 100 mile leg was a solo effort for me, carefully controlling my effort to leave energy for the 180 mile long slog to the finish through the night and into the morning. A group caught me up at the 200 mile point and we celebrated sunset together.
Iowa’s “B roads” would be called bridleways or white lanes in my home country. They’re unmaintained rights of way. The route always has a few interesting B roads to add excitement to the gravel normality. In the middle of the night my group traversed a beauty of a B road which had us walking and dropped our crucial average speed.
I found the B road strangely motivating, but then at 3am when we finally found a convenience store for the first time in 7 hours I was really shaken up by the experience. It destroyed my rhythm, got me too cold, and I struggled to keep down the food I’d force fed myself. This was my bad patch, everyone goes through something bad in a TI, so I did the important thing; I carried on slowly, and eventually I got over it as the sun started to come up.
Alone again, I was a real “gravel grinder” churning along in a slightly detached mental state. Tiny points of beauty and interest captivated me; a gnarly old fence, a puzzled looking cow, the star spangled banner fluttering perfectly from a flagpole beside a barn. Fresh gravel, big lose difficult rocks of it, absorbed all my complaints. One thing I always focused on was the route card telling me where to go – it’s a self navigated event and one of the easiest ways to fail is to go off course.
With 10 miles to go and nearly 4 hours to do it I dared to begin believing I was going to finish. It still wasn’t guaranteed, and people have broken their bikes that close to the finish in the past, but I hoped that I could walk it in that time if needed. I was a physical wreck by that time, and I stopped to stretch out as my back started spasming.
At 5 miles to go I was lying down in the road to relax my back enough to finish when another rider caught me. I can tell you that after 30+ hours of shared torture and adventure, fellow riders are not rivals, they are comrades. My comrades helped and encouraged me along that road to the finish, where Guitar Ted and the huge TransIowa community were waiting for every finisher. I came 17th.
8) Catching up on sleep before an ultra is important.
9) Holding back something for the tough times is vital.
10) Friends will motivate each other.
11) If at first you don’t succeed…!
The 13th TransIowa #TIV13 is a day or two from now and the weather forecast is worrying my buddies over there (check it at https://www.wunderground.com/q/zmw:50112.1.99999). It’s going to be a tough one. Follow them on the race radio station http://ridinggravel.com/transiowaradio/ and the race website http://transiowa.blogspot.co.uk/
Ultra-endurance events are an exciting new frontier in British cycling too. There was a gravel ride last weekend; the Dirty Riever https://www.dirtyreiver.co.uk/ . I’ve entered a massive 3330 mile race around the country next year; Baa Baa Bikepack http://www.bikepack.cc/ . And this weekend in Plymouth at 9pm I’ll be cheering riders starting the Trans-Kernow challenge around Cornwall https://www.facebook.com/events/1799113573703765. I hope my experiences help other people succeed!
* The word “gravel” has a polarising effect on my cyclo-cross friends: Firstly, it’s a label which is now used to sell bikes – it’s a trend – which naturally creates cynicism. Secondly, most of my friends will never comprehend the scale and character of the gravel roads which sired the gravel scene in the USA, so some see it as nonsense. A third more positive note is that plenty of my friends only care that this word means a go-anywhere adventure bike or event, which many of us like.
Massive thanks to Guitar Ted and the community which has developed around TransIowa. Particular thanks to Steve Fuller for being my host, adviser, organiser, and inspirer. Other key inspirers include Sarah Cooper, Greg Gleason, Jim Philips, Bill Graves and Trenton J Raygor.
Thanks too to Genesis Bikes for this tough and adaptable 853 steel adventure and cyclo-cross racing beast. Also to Alpkit for the frame bag which held all my supplies and spares. My local bike shop Pave Velo in St Austell were also very supportive.
- By Vin Cox
13th April. 51.6 miles cycled.
Booked on flight for tomorrow morning. Stopped clock today [for Guinness World Records rules between ports] at 11:55.
Gorgeous descent after short climb out of Bukittinggi between two volcanos. Only a couple of landslides and bridges out.
Made the airport without issue, but finding a bike box and hotel was more tough. A man called Hendra helped with cardboard after I found a room in the hotel next to his shop. He also bought me dinner and declared us friends. I spent some time in the circle of his friends enjoying the natural normality of people winding down in an evening.
The dinner was Satay Padang – that’s barbequed chicken guts and rice.
51.6mi @ 14.3mph
There’s some great video from this day which captures the full story; so watch and enjoy this:
- By Vin Cox
12th April. 107.1 miles cycled.
Didn’t get good sleep or that early start. Sweated soooo much [in bed]!
Good old climb in the morning – then when I expected a plateaux it was a great descent. Just after Rao I stopped at a shop and met a guy called John who gave me a coffee and told me the equator was at Bonjol – a place I could ride to in the same day. That spurred me on!
I had a good lunch in Panti [how often can you say that!], where there are hot springs and many banyan trees. The big town – Lubuk Sikaping – was only a challenge to make sure I was on correct road. Then I arrived in Bonjol: I had the GPS out to look for 0 latitude, but it wasn’t needed as there’s an arch over the road and a visitor centre. There are also many [annoying] T-shirt sellers! One thing there isn’t though, which I thought there would be, is hotels! Ah! I had to ride on to Bukittinggi up a massive hill [2500ft]. It got dark and rained, but I got there and to a nice hotel.
Got okay from GWR [Guinness World Records] to transfer to Java ASPA. Good for my chances on the record!
Oh, and the Garmin… I watched it on the long climbs and the altitude gained [on the day’s ride] does not go up with the altitude [read instantaneously]. Sometimes it’s 90%, sometimes it’s <80%. Erratic, wrong, crap!
107.1mi @ 10.3mph
The Equator, the half-way line point between the North Pole and the South Pole, was a big part of why I had come to Sumatra. I felt cycling over the conceptual boundary between Northern and Sothern hemisphere’s of the Earth was something an around-the-world cyclist ought to do, even if the rules didn’t require it and it was hard.
Garmin troubles were very frustrating. If it had been a reliable piece of equipment; if it were accurate, or even just repeatable/reliable in it’s wrongness, I’d have loved the Garmin. To know my location, altitude, route taken so far, climbing done on the day, collect evidence for the record, and even be guided all by a one device is wonderful proposition. My wife had spent a lot of money getting me the top-of-the-range model, so not only was I frustrated by it actually doing none of it’s jobs well enough, I was distraught about my ungratefulness.
The chap John I mentioned had been just a random friendly fellow on the street when I stopped for snacks, but he had good language skills and boundless energy. He invited me a few doors down the road to his house and we sat on the veranda for coffee. It was only there that I realised quite how close I was to the equator. I had different lines drawn on different maps, so all I knew before then was that I’d cross it eventually.
I remember being very disappointed at the lack of hotels at the equator, but actually it brought the best out of me and the day. The extra thirty miles, mainly climbing in tropical rain-forest, reminded me what I was capable of and allowed me to see jungle monkeys in the wild (until then I’d only seen them in sad dirty cages as I past street markets).
Over dinner in the pleasant resort hotel, I plotted my new course for the morning: Just fifty miles to the airport, mostly downhill! It would be fun, and I knew I was back in the game for the record!
- By Vin Cox
11th April. 69.8 miles cycled.
Garmin can’t add altitude up right. It’s about 10% under – I watched it.
Got phone bill: £680! – need to cut back on that!
Met local police chief today and was offered stay at police station in the town I wanted to go to as there are no hotels… Decided on a shorter day instead.
Also checked GWR rules and think I’m stuck with Sumatra now I’m here.
Very early start planned tomorrow.
69.8mi @ 11.1mph
The police chief was summoned by a deputy who spotted me fixing a puncture, thinking the chief would want to check out the strange visitor. He was very friendly, probably because he was campaigning for re-election to his office. He used me to show how popular and cultured he was by having a photo taken and a quick interview. The offer of shelter in the station’s cells was genuine and generous, but I worried that whatever the intentions, it would only take a change of staff and lack of communication for my shelter in the cells to be extended wrongly.
Everyone in Sumatra was friendly and interested in me. The adventure opportunities were endless – oh to have the ability to follow advice or take up offers of accommodation – who knows where it could lead.
It wasn’t as tougher day as the previous few – they had worn me down despite the small distance travelled. My bike and body were suffering, so a shorter day let me at least maintain the bike and rest my aching bits. It also gave me time to eat as much as I needed to re-fuel a bit. I crossed the road from the hotel and found a locals café where they served me a noodley broth with a strange purpley-brown boiled egg in. Knowing that the food was simple, local, and natural is all I could hope for in rural Asia: Knowing what it actually consisted of was not an option.
Finally, I was told that the roads I’d just successfully but slowly navigated through the mountainous jungle were officially closed and impassable due to earthquake damage. That made sense, and made me feel better about my slow progress. Guinness World Records would have no way to take it into account though, and having double checked the rules I believed I was just stuck with this tough route for as long as it lasted…That was my diary from precisely four years ago. I’m writing up each day on it’s fourth anniversary as a motivation to get this long overdue task done. These days I’m to be found spending my working days at a brewery, my leisure time cycling, and my family time with my wife and baby daughter. I hope this entertains, informs, or motivates you.
- By Vin Cox
10th April. 74 miles cycled.
I pressed the panic button at lunch: Asked the team how to get out of Sumatra fast… Not that Sumatra isn’t great, no; very friendly people, beautiful landscape etc. Just such hard going!
Many punctures today on road very very broken or not there in places. Sometimes it had been washed away, other times it was never fully there to start.
Plan now to go for Kota Padang 230 miles away south. Ferry or fly from there to Java.
Today saw: Chocolate trees, rubber trees, bananas, coconut palms, pineapple, rice paddies (so many terraces), Dorian, chillies, and peanuts.
Took 1 mile off total due to search for hotel. Also disbelieve cat-eye today as I saw it go mad when I was slogging away super-slow (<4mph). Garmin okayish – just thinks I’ve stopped when under very thick tree canopy.
74mi @ 10.9mph
“The panic button” was my terminology for phoning home and asking my family to see if Guinness World Records would sanction my using a port other than the one registered in the plan to leave Sumatra. The pendulum had swung too far from speed to adventure, and if I kept going like this I might miss the record. I did find myself thinking “if only I had an MTB and less time pressure, this would be paradise”. I had to return to Sumatra, but for now I had to find a way to limit my losses. Approval from Guinness WR would take a while to get, and I’d still have to reach a port, so the rugged adventure riding would continue.
A loaded touring bike with tyres fit for the road is simply not fit for mud and gravel tracks. My shoes, with their carbon fibre soles and large plastic cleat were also not suitable for hiking with the bike. It did all remind me of my cyclo-cross and mountain bike racing days – but the Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross was never anywhere near this hot! I was barely a hundred miles from the equator.
I really enjoyed passing through the villages and small-holdings where people were working their strip of land between road and jungle. Chickens would dash for cover and farmers would wave their machetes at me as I waved hello to them – it could have been threatening, but I convinced myself they were just returning my greeting gesture. Children in Sumatra would usually recognise me as a westerner and shout “Hello Mister!”, except in one village where they’d been taught wrong and all shouted “Hello Miss!”.That was my diary from precisely four years ago. I’m writing up each day on it’s fourth anniversary as a motivation to get this long overdue task done. These days I’m to be found spending my working days at a brewery, my leisure time cycling, and my family time with my wife and baby daughter. I hope this entertains, informs, or motivates you.
- By Vin Cox
9th April. 67 miles cycled.
Hilly, hot, then rain so bad the locals were panicking – trees down, crops flattened… I took shelter at a shop/café, then got invited into the house to stay dry with the family. The children practised English on me and I gave them one of my cards to take to school and look me up on-line.
Also made late start due to misunderstanding at breakfast, then punctured.
67mi @ 10.9mph
The storm was the big deal of the day. People in the area were not wealthy, and I could see that a crop being lost or roof destroyed could make them destitute. I was just glad to be sheltering in the only suitable place for miles while the weather had this sudden fit.
I’d started to see more evidence of the earthquake which had hit the area the day before I flew in to Medan. Mostly I saw landslips, from cracks/steps in the road surface, right up to major areas of hill-side collapsed and bridges smashed. It made me take the descents more carefully.
This was very hilly land, with broken roads, not many places to stay, and nothing else to make life easy for me. It was the adventure I’d been seeking for sure – now I just had to make sure the adventure didn’t slow me down too much and cost me the record.That was my diary from precisely four years ago. I’m writing up each day on it’s fourth anniversary as a motivation to get this long overdue task done. These days I’m to be found spending my working days at a brewery, my leisure time cycling, and my family time with my wife and baby daughter. I hope this entertains, informs, or motivates you.
- By Vin Cox
8th April. 108.7 miles cycled.
Nice first day. Went a bit mad and altered route to come over to this lake/caldera. Probably made this whole leg harder now.
Some shocking driving in the towns.
Puncture just before the finish.
From breakfast onwards locals enquired about my route and if I was going to “Lake Toba”. I didn’t know, but answered yes because they all were encouraging it. Before lunch I looked it up…
A 100km long 30km wide lake in the crater of a supervolcano which erupted 70,000 years ago killing everything for thousands of miles around and probably altering the course of human evolution. My kind of place! It was west of my main planned route on back roads, which also attracted me because the traffic was scary.
So after lunch I left the main road and headed up the side of one of the biggest volcanos on the planet.
The climb was unrelenting, steepening in fact as I got higher up the 4000ft ascent. My Garmin had it’s true inaccurate nature revealed by the unusual nature of the mountain – telling me I’d started the day at sea level, had climbed 1600 metres, and was now at 2000 metres!
The best bit of the day was the 1000ft descent down from the crater rim to the lake. As a tourist attraction I knew there’d be a choice of hotels by the water, so I hurried down in the evening twilight. It was a cyclists dream down-hill; twisty, spectacular, fast, with just the occasional vehicle to overtake for satisfaction.That was my diary from precisely four years ago. I’m writing up each day on it’s fourth anniversary as a motivation to get this long overdue task done. These days I’m to be found spending my working days at a brewery, my leisure time cycling, and my family time with my wife and baby daughter. I hope this entertains, informs, or motivates you.
- By Vin Cox
7th April. 2.4 miles cycled.
Just rode from airport to town. Most of day in Singapore with Liz; visit Doctor, bike shop, restaurant, bike shop, electronics shop, then airport with Peter too.
Singapore very pretty. Not as ‘fake’ as I had feared, but not at all messy or nasty either.
Liz must have spent a fortune on me. I owe her!
The Guinness World Records rules said the clock was stopped while I waited and prepared for my flight in the evening, but the pressure was still on for a very busy day.
Breakfast news said a serious Earthquake had hit Sumatra, with it’s epicentre very close to the town of Medan where I was due to land that evening! Simultaneously, I read messages from supporters pleading with me to stick to the faster places and make a race of it with Alan Bate.
For me, this was a key moment, and I saw it as a straight choice between adventure or racing. Alan cast himself as the racer, and although I have a racing background too, I definitely saw myself as an adventurer. I decided that unless my flight was cancelled or my seat was needed by an emergency relief worker, I was going to Sumatra. Alan and I could both set the record, but I could also have an adventure.
Liz took me to a bike shop “Rodabike” in Singapore, where rather than replace my cracked wheel rim I was given new wheels courtesy of Shimano. New tyres, brake pads, and chain all refreshed my ride too, and the team packaged it for flight double quick. My old tyres (Schwalbe Durano 28mm) had made it all the way from London – amazing when you think about that!
Next on the agenda was a doctor, who looked at my worn-out bum-skin with pity. Then I picked up some memory for my cameras and a new diary book (the old one was posted home). And finally Liz took me to the airport, where Peter joined us for a good-bye and good-luck meal.
By the late evening I was reassembling my bike in Medan airport, with a nice airport official practicing his English on me. He spoke really well, and used words which kept me thinking because they didn’t fit conventionally. For example, as I put my rear wheel in the bike, he called it the hind wheel. He gave me his phone number in case I needed any help, and he was my witness for Guinness World Records.
Medan is a rough town, where a lot of westerners apparently get mugged. I got lucky by quickly and safely finding a hotel to rest in ready for my first full day on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
That was my diary from precisely four years ago. I’m writing up each day on it’s fourth anniversary as a motivation to get this long overdue task done. These days I’m to be found spending my working days at a brewery, my leisure time cycling, and my family time with my wife and baby daughter. I hope this entertains, informs, or motivates you.
- By Vin Cox
6th April. 161.9 miles cycled.
STUPIDLY long day. Stopped the clock at 2 mins after midnight.
Dead pythons smell very bad! [I pay attention to road-kill, especially tree-trunk sized snakes]
As the day began, in the cool well before dawn, I rolled through the town looking like I hadn’t slept at all. I know that’s how I looked because a man pulled along-side on a motorbike and said he owned a hotel just down the road if I needed it. He was amazed when I told him I was just setting off and had to reach Singapore that day. Grubby, red-eyed, stinking, and emaciated, I was a charity case.
In the day I remember beautiful orchards of Dragon Fruit cacti, then stooping for refreshments at a local café and being offered a strange delicacy of a sort of gazpacho featuring a lump of ice and various vegetables… I gave it a spirited try, but couldn’t adjust my taste buds.
By the time the sun went down I was closing in on Johor, the Malaysian city which is the gateway to Singapore. It’s a big and complicated place though, and frustrated me with navigational challenges. I think I frustrated my supporters quite a bit too – my on-line GPS tracker was showing me making progress and then following diversions, getting lost, and pausing. I stopped for some fast food and to check the maps and quickly received a phone call asking what was wrong!
I’d given my friends plenty of cause for concern due to tiredness and being at the very limit of lateness for arrival into Singapore. My focus was wavering and I couldn’t hold my head straight anymore. Rationality was leaving me, along with my navigational skills. At least the climate was benign in the dark and I was well lit.
Somehow I found the causeway connecting to Singapore and crossed the border. I was met by Liz and Peter Neely, my sister’s in-laws, at a rail station not far inside Singapore. Guinness World Records rules required that I obeyed traffic laws and therefore avoided motorways. Our solution was simple; take the train to the airport. “Scheduled public transport” was allowed to cross “impassable barriers” in the rules, which matched the motorways in my assessment.
We took the final night train to the airport at stopped the clock on the World Record by getting a witness at the airport. Then we headed to Peter and Liz’s flat to pack the bike for flight, and most importantly sleep.
I would have nearly 24 hours before the flight. But a lot to do in my ‘day off’.That was my diary from precisely four years ago. I’m writing up each day on it’s fourth anniversary as a motivation to get this long overdue task done. These days I’m to be found spending my working days at a brewery, my leisure time cycling, and my family time with my wife and baby daughter. I hope this entertains, informs, or motivates you.
- By Vin Cox
5th April. 150.8 miles cycled.
Hills and headwind.
Snooze on beach hammock at lunch…. And late finish: 10:15pm.
150.8mi @ 12.8mph
I had no time or energy to write a fuller diary than the above. But I had had an enjoyable tough day. The bike needed maintenance, finding food had become slower on the road, and I still needed to clean myself and my clothes, ready for another long hard day into Singapore in the morning.
There’s only 12 hours of cycling accounted for in the distance at that speed – so where did the rest of the time go? The answer is eating, cleaning, sleeping and mistakes. Eating takes time; buying food, waiting for food, and eating too slowly it when you feel rubbish. It takes at least five times the amount of food an average person eats to fuel such long days cycling, so it’s a big deal. Cleaning myself and my clothes was important to stay healthy, so each evening I’d spend an hour in the shower doing my laundry as well as myself ready for the next day. Sleep and mistakes are more self-explanatory.
That lunch stop will always have a special place in my memory: For the first time in a hundred miles of following the coast, I could finally see the sea rather than the back of a developed coastal strip or a palm oil plantation. No sooner could I see the sea than a Chinese restaurant presented itself, so I went in for an early lunch. Relaxing with a drink and some nibbles under a thatched picnic table beneath a row of coconut palms on the beach edge was heaven. As my main meal arrived I asked about the hammocks and was told I could sleep off lunch there! I probably only had 30 minutes, but it made a great deal of difference to me.
My little sister had tried to play some motivational games by telling me that I need to make it to Melaka in order to have an easy day into Singapore. I didn’t check up on that until I’d finished. Turns out I had to make it to Melaka to have any hope of reaching Singapore the next day. Singapore was still over 160 miles away!That was my diary from precisely four years ago. I’m writing up each day on it’s fourth anniversary as a motivation to get this long overdue task done. These days I’m to be found spending my working days at a brewery, my leisure time cycling, and my family time with my wife and baby daughter. I hope this entertains, informs, or motivates you.