Bike Nonstop 2022 Recap
In my last post, I talked about my plans for racing in Bike Nonstop again. My goals for this year were to ride across the country faster and improving on my experience based on my lessons learned from last year. In this post, I'll share how my adventure went and what led to me scratching from the race after 4 days of riding.
Unlike last year, I didn't need to buy a brand new bike weeks before arriving at the start line. Everything came together as planned and I would be riding the same bike I used last year to complete the 3,500 mile route of pavement, gravel, and rail trail.
The only last minute concern was getting food poisoning less than a week before the race started. I had never felt this internally destroyed before. Days of nausea followed by perpetual exhaustion and sleepiness, all encompassed by a lack of appetite. I was most concerned about how long I'd lose my appetite for. One of my best skills for long rides is to eat a lot of pretty much anything, and if I couldn't do that, it would be a non-starter. Fortunately, I felt back to normal before the race but with only a couple days to spare. Note to self, never eat at an empty restaurant, especially if it's during the lunch hour in a busy part of downtown.
The part I was most excited about was the weather. 70 degrees and sunny with minimal wind for the first week of racing, if I had been holding my targeted pace. Compared to the triple digit temperatures from the start of last year, I was so relieved we'd be starting on a good note.
Just like last year, all racers and the race director, Nathan, met at a bar near downtown Portland the evening before the race. It was a good opportunity to meet everyone in a neutral setting and compare our plans and preparations, as well as make sure the GPS trackers are setup correctly. There were about a dozen racers, similar to last year, which makes for a personable and unified group to interact with before the start of the race.
Day 1: Portland to Sisters, Oregon
The next day, we all lined up at Tilikum Crossing on the east side of the Willamette River in downtown Portland. The biggest differences in the route this year was Oregon and Missouri. Instead of taking us east out of Portland and immediately over the mountains and into the desert, the route went directly south to meet up with the Transamerica route, a popular touring route for cyclists. Talking with Nathan the night before, it sounded like the main reasoning for this was to avoid a situation like last year, where racers were in remote, hilly, unshaded regions of Oregon with very few services, all during record-breaking high temperatures. Of course, the weather would've been perfect for that kind of riding this year, but the new route through Oregon was just as fun.
Nathan escorted us through Portland (via bicycle, of course) to Oregon City to have a neutral start. The first 155 miles took us through the Willamette Valley towards Eugene. I had packed enough food and water that I didn't need to resupply for the first 145 miles.
One of my strategies this year was to have more empty space in my bags to use for food. It's also much easier to pack when everything doesn't need to be packed exactly right, without any room to spare. I bought enough food at the first resupply to make it to the next day.
It's always fun to ride with other racers, especially on the first day when we're all packed together. One of the racers, Aleš, and I would sometimes ride together and passed each other several times through Oregon. Aleš later went on to win the race, finishing in a little over 18 days.
After riding through the valley, the route turned directly east to start the gradual climb following the McKenzie River towards McKenzie Pass. I was now on the same route that I used to finish my tour from Wisconsin to Oregon in 2020, just going the opposite direction this time. The scenery and communities along the river were much different though, due to the wildfires in late 2020.
The sun was slowly going down as the route diverged from following the McKenzie River and now started the climb up to McKenzie Pass. The pass is closed seasonally for winter, but cyclists can enjoy car-free travel in the short window when the snow is gone but the gates are still closed. Oregon DOT had scheduled to open the gates the next day, so my goal was to make it over the pass on the first day of the race to take advantage of having the road to myself.
After completing the 418 mile Willamt Nonstop in May, I had some knee soreness and swelling that I had never experienced after biking before. I had been taking it easy between Willamt Nonstop and Bike Nonstop to let my knees fully recover, but there would occasionally be some minor soreness after a long training ride. Before climbing the main part of McKenzie Pass, I pulled over to do some stretching and use my hard Nalgene water bottle to roll out my legs. Nothing hurt at this point, I was just trying to perform some preventative maintenance.
I eventually made it to the top of the pass around midnight, a little over 5,300 feet above sea level. I was in the front of the race at this point, but that didn't really matter since I was only 7% into route. I stopped at the top of the pass to enjoy the moment.
At this time and place, I experienced one of my most memorable moments of feeling alive. I was completely alone in complete darkness and there was no wind. There was no light pollution, I could see more stars than I've ever seen before. It was the most alone I've ever felt, at the darkest and most quiet place I've ever been. It was such a cool feeling.
I put on my wool tights, jacket, and winter gloves since it was pretty cold at this point and I had a fast descent ahead of me into Sisters. Once I got into Sisters, I was cold from the descent and looked around for a hotel.
Thankfully one had vacancy and wasn't too far off the route. I checked in and cranked the heater, showered, and fell asleep.
Day Two: Sisters to Prarie City, Oregon
My alarm woke me up 4 hours later and I hit the road. Aleš had passed me while I was sleeping and seemed to have slept by the side of the road not far from Sisters.
After riding for a few hours, I stopped at a McDonald's in Prineville and ordered one of the biggest meals I've ever purchased from a fast food restaurant. I dumped the giant paper bag of various breakfast sandwiches onto a table outside and ate most of it, and stuffed the rest into my bags. Starting the climb towards the Ochoco mountains, I caught up to Aleš and we stayed together until reaching Mitchell. Mitchell is home to the Spoke'n Hostel, an old church converted into a hostel for cyclists.
Similar to last year, the hosts track the races that pass by, welcome racers with cowbell and refreshments, and post pictures to the Bike Nonstop Facebook group. And just like last year, a giant buffet of pasta awaited us in the basement. Aleš and I filled up on pasta. I left shortly before Aleš, and this would be the last time I would see him for the race.
I continued east and booked a hotel in Prairie City, Oregon. I stayed at the same hotel last year and remembered they were so welcoming to cyclists. About 20 minutes out of Prairie City, I called to put in an order at a Mexican restaurant across the street from the hotel so the food would be ready to pickup when I got to town. It was the same restaurant I ate at last year, but I was much more looking forward to it this year since my appetite hadn't been destroyed by heat exhaustion.
At this point, my knees were sore but not painful. With yesterday and today, I had just ridden the same distance as Willamt Nonstop and in a similar timeframe, but we were just getting started. I took some time to stretch and ice my knees before going to sleep.
Day 3: Prairie City, Oregon to Crouch, Idaho
The next morning, the route put us back into the forested mountains immediately after leaving Prairie City. I recall doing this section last year around the same time of night, except the temperatures were near freezing this year. 130 miles into the day, my left knee was starting to bug me, approaching the upper limit of soreness and now into pain territory. I bought a knee brace at a Walgreens in Ontario, which is right along the Oregon-Idaho border. After filling up on Subway, I crossed into Idaho where the route meanders through farm country before joining a stressful no-shoulder highway.
The highway leads to one of the more memorable roads on the whole route, a background with a gravel section leading to an old narrow bridge with concrete barriers on each side. My left knee was feeling better at this point. Maybe the knee brace helped.
The route joined another stressful highway, but this one was worse. A busy, winding highway sandwiched between a canyon wall and a river. No shoulder, and there was often a concrete barrier right along the road, eliminating any bailout option. This section sucked.
My left knee was starting to give me grief again, but a little worse this time. The night before, I had set a goal to make it to Crouch, Idaho, which was a little off route, but was the closest full-service town after Ontario, Oregon and aligned with my daily mileage goal. In retrospect, having a "short" 130 mile day and staying in Ontario probably would've been better. There was really no need to push a 190 mile day and jeopardize my knees this early in the race.
Nevertheless, I powered through some knee pain and made it to Crouch and headed towards the grocery store to resupply. I ran into another cyclist there, who just got done with a bikepacking trip around Idaho with friends, focused on visiting hot springs. I've never seen another cyclist like him before, carrying a hunting knife on one hip and a revolver on the other. He recommended a restaurant, "Fusion Mexican Asian Cuisine", down the street where he and his friends were eating. He was buying a pack of cigarettes for the restaurant owners, who let him park his car at the restaurant while he was biking, in exchange for cigarettes. I bought groceries and headed to the restaurant.
When I walked inside the restaurant, the lady at the register immediately broke her attention with the customer she was helping and yelled towards me "Get the fuck out of here!", followed by a friendly laugh and said "Just kidding". A younger woman took my order at the counter, who I had just heard her yell "I quit!" several times when serving food. She told me one of the reasons she quit was because they ran out of Dr. Pepper. She was happy to recommend one of their biggest burritos after I asked what I should eat after biking all day. She asked me "What color would you like it? Red or green?".
She proceeded to quit several more times on the job before letting me know she'll bring my food to me outside.
It might've been due to my sleep deprivation, hunger, physical exhaustion, or everything, but I took a second to think about that restaurant experience after leaving the building. I felt like I was in another universe, like I just walked into a movie scene. What a bunch of characters! It may sound like a hostile environment, but it was the opposite. It was all fun. No one was taking themselves too seriously. A great way to end an otherwise stressful and slightly painful day.
The restaurant was behind on orders, so the younger server came outside to bring me a free beer and offered to put my groceries in the fridge while I waited. I was laying down on the porch with both knees elevated on a bench.
The server eventually came out with my dinner and groceries. I headed across the street to the mini cabin I had reserved the previous day. No refunds for the reservation, which was part of my motivation to make it to Crouch for the day. The owner was gone but left my key in the mailbox.
The rest of the evening consisted of eating a giant burrito and pint of ice cream while elevating and icing my legs on the bed. I was also reflecting on that restaurant experience. It's hard to explain, but it was one of the most hospitable and entertaining establishments I've ever been to. A truly unique and memorable human experience. Unfortunately, as I write this, I discovered that the Fusion Mexican Asian Cuisine has permanently closed according to its owners on their Facebook page.
At this point, both of my knees were sore, with my left knee being worse, and my right achilles was starting to get sore, and the tendons in the back of my right knee were also sore. Not good. Despite the early onset health problems, I was still in a good mental state. I was starting to make plans to have the Postal Service forward my package of a new tire and chain to the start of the Cowboy Trail in Nebraska instead of immediately after it, where it was currently waiting for me. My thinking was that the Cowboy Trail gave me so many flats last year that it would probably be better to have a fresh tire at the start of it.
I didn't make any concrete plans for the next day, though. I would've liked to make it to Mackay, Idaho to align with my daily goal, but I knew that probably would be a bad idea. I decided I'd get some extra sleep and just see how things felt the next day.
Day 4: Crouch to Challis, Idaho
I hit the road in the morning a little before sunrise. Today I would ride up one of the highest mountain passes on the whole route, Banner Summit. This is where my knees really started to go south. Climbing up Banner Summit was one of the most painful experiences I've ever had while biking, and possibly ever in general. What made it worse is that it hurt too much to stand while biking. It's hard to keep a good mental state in these situations. Just the day before I had been thinking about 1000 miles down the road, and at this point, I could barely think past the end of the day.
After a couple hours of climbing, I reached the summit and took a long break at a picnic bench to elevate my knees while eating peanut butter M&M's. I was just happy to be done with that hill. I knew making it all the way to Mackay could not happen. It was too far and involved another mountain pass just as high as Banner.
As I started descending the pass, I recall having the most incredible change in emotions I've ever felt. Just sitting on the bike and enjoying the wind while coasting downhill was now the most ecstatic thing I felt in days. I started smiling and laughing for no reason. It was an odd but welcomed sensation.
Smiling and laughter soon wore off as the pedaling started again. I rolled into Stanley, Idaho and found a food truck to get lunch from. Two bagel sandwiches, a milkshake, and a lemonade. I hung out in the shade while some dogs came to visit.
I started making plans to stay in the next town which was a little off route. I could've stayed in Stanley, but it's an expensive tourist trap with little tent camping options, and expensive hotels. Maybe it's just me, but Stanley just gives off some strange vibes.
It was an overall downhill grade to the next town, following the Salmon River. Despite the easy terrain, my knees were getting worse. It still hurt to stand, so my ass was taking a beating. I had to pedal in my climbing gear on the flat parts.
A short climb and a couple miles separated me between Challis. This was just as painful as Banner Summit and felt slower than walking.
I checked into a hotel for the night after picking up some dinner. I didn't set an alarm and planned to evaluate how I was feeling in the morning. When I called the front desk to see if they had an ice machine, the host said they didn't have one accessible for guests, but offered to bring me some ice to my room. A few minutes later she brought ice in plastic bags along with towels, since she knew I was having knee issues. Another example of the amazing hospitality that exists in these small towns.
The next day, I woke up a biked a mile down the road to a grocery store to see how things felt. Not good, I knew it was going to be worse than yesterday. I ate breakfast and thought about what I should do next.
Take the day off? Maybe, but returning to the daily mileage I wanted wasn't a real option, since that's what got me in trouble in the first place. That, and this didn't feel like something that was going to go away after a day off the bike (and it definitely didn't). I wasn't looking to do this route in 24 days again. I wanted this year to be different, to be better. I didn't care about winning, I just wanted to improve on myself.
After the physical issues I had after Willamt Nonstop, I made a promise that I wouldn't inflict that much damage on myself from a bike ride again. I need these same legs for the rest of my life.
With that, I decided to scratch from the race and cut my losses. My dad came to pick me up the next day, and we drove back on a lot of the same highways of the route, and saw a few racers along the way.
In the end, I'm content with my decision to scratch. Despite the pain, it was some of the most fun 4 days of biking I've ever experienced. The weather, the scenery, the people - all perfect. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Every emotion.
The rest of the summer consisted of recovery, some physical therapy, a bike fit, and some nice long walks to take a break from biking. I was even able to recover enough to do an Everest with a couple friends. That experience might deserve its own post.
In terms of what's next, I'm not sure. I'm currently in a lull for my interest and motivation in bikepacking races. Part of that is also due to the culture. All of these races are extremely male-dominated and I'm a little tired of that. Many of these races have their respective Facebook groups and discussion boards, and it seems like every time someone posts an innocent picture of their bike/gear setup, some white dude in his 40s feels the need to chime in with unsolicited advice.
Even though I'm not training for or doing any multi-day races, I'm still biking all the time, just ending my days in the same place I started. I've been really into single-day gravel races lately, and just got done with doing 3 of them in October all over the midwest. I'd like do more casual bikepacking trips with friends, too.
I also think I'm done with Bike Nonstop. It's a great route, but my tolerance for biking next to cars seems to go down every year. Bike Nonstop has some great backroads, but it's also meant to be doable in a reasonable amount of time. Highway miles next to cars suck, but they are a much faster way to get from point to point. If I bike from coast to coast again, I'll probably do it on my own schedule, and my own route. It might take three times as long, but anything to avoid biking with cars.
This might sound like a negative ending to this post, but let me reassure that I don't regret my experience on Bike Nonstop this year at all. All things considered, it was a great summer.