I've been thinking for a couple of days now about how to tell this story. No clarity has shown itself, so I'm left with the decision to just tell it like it is. The Trans Iowa or TI as it is known among racers and those close to the event, is very special and unlike any race I've ever been a part of. Even as you shuffle through your gear and make the final preparations minutes before the start you can feel that something is just different. There seems to be something in the air, a spirit all it's own; that is TI.
Ironically, I was extremely poised at the start while I consciously thought about how these really were the final steps I would take before I was simply riding. I had played it all out in my mind a thousand times throughout the year, all the details were covered. I'd had plenty of time to think it through while my training partner, Charlie Farrow and I, completed a series of DBD (Death Before Dishonor) rides throughout the winter. We had a plan and it involved viewing ourselves as front runners in Trans Iowa Version Five. I really believe that having Amy, my wife, with me for this year's race was a big part of my unusually calm demeanor. She has a way of letting me know that it's all going to be o.k. and she instills in me a sense of confidence that I may not otherwise have. In other words, she's relaxed, therefore I'm relaxed. It's like she knows something I don't. I guess she believes in me and when you're toeing the line with 320 miles of gravel in front of you that really means a lot. We took a few pictures and had some hugs, then it was to the start line. Oh, one more thing, "be careful", Amy said as we parted. She never forgets that part.
As Charlie and I lined up side by side it was all business. We had rehearsed this plan through and through. We knew how every step would unfold, at least we thought we did. Once underway I thought the pace was surprisingly fast. I did my best to stay near Charlie and toward the front, out of trouble. Soon enough the gravel proved to be loose and sketchy in places. More than one rider had near misses with another as the gravel would take a wheel and grind it into an unplanned direction. As we continued at a quickened pace things began to settle down and the twitchy movements of nervous riders seemed to subside. I began trying to introduce myself to some of the riders I'd heard so much about. Joe Gorilla, Charlie Parsons, Joe Meiser and George Vargas (all the way from California). To my surprise some of these riders already knew me, one even went on to explain that he felt Charlie and I were serious contenders at this year's TI. I found that comment interesting and flattering, but time would tell. I really felt like there were about 7 or 8 guys that this race could go to this year and I had included myself and my partner in that group. Approximately two hours in I took note of the sudden changing conditions of the road. At times the gravel would suddenly change from quarter sized rocks to loose ping pong balls that tossed your bike any direction they wanted, not to mention caused frame jarring hits. It was these hits that I began to worry about, but being trapped in a crowd of riders moving at high speeds does not provide a lot of options for tactical maneuvering. Needless to say at about the 30 mile mark I felt and heard a hit ring through both my wheels, the frame of the bike, and through my bones. Immediately I knew there was a good chance one of, if not both my wheels, were going down. In a state of panic I called out to Charlie as if there was something he could do about it. "Charlie, I think my back wheel is going down", I yelled. "What! NO!", was his response. In an instant he shouted, "YES IT IS, GO GO!" while he violently pointed to the side of the road. I pulled over immediately with a sense of purpose and went to work on the tire. I got sick to my stomach as everyone in the main field rode past me as it felt like the TI was betraying me. My thoughts began to entertain the notion "that all was lost, everything I'd been through over the winter, would I ride the whole of the race alone?" I tried to switch my thinking; "Stay focused, it's a long race, you WILL get back in it" began to reign supreme in my head. I felt I had a fast change and I had a nice hard tire going back into the bike. I was on my way, low on the bars and pushing hard. Once the "dust" settled and I began to calm down I realized that here I was in the super bowl of my bike racing career playing catch up with the main field. How could this have happened? This would be Charlie's race now, not mine, but there was still hope. All I needed to do was regain contact with the main field and surely there would be a strong rider willing to attack with me in an attempt to catch the leaders.
As I approached the first check point 40 miles from the start after riding alone for 10 miles I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw other riders milling about the town square of little Washington, IA. I screamed into the check point like my pants were on fire instantly asking about the main field and the leaders. Sensing my urgency the volunteers worked in concert to get me out of the check point as quickly as possible. It was nice to see a familiar face checking me in as well. A veteran of TI III (Cale) that I shared many miles with was manning the clip board and recording times. He told me that the two riders just rounding the corner on the other side of the square were the back of the main field, "Follow them", he yelled as I rolled out. I was back! I couldn't believe that I had caught them in 10 miles, now I needed to recover. As I hooked back on I noticed the legendary Dave Pramann, repeat winner and record holder for the Arrowhead 135, Minnesota's epic winter race, moving fluidly with the group. I briskly rode to his wheel, knowing that it was he that I needed to be with. Pramann had the killer instinct that I wanted to be a part of. I would not let him out of my sight. Little did I know that I would end up bonded to him for life (more on this later). As luck would have it my group of 10 to 15 riders quickly became confused among the twisting streets of Washington, IA. Soon we were lost. The minutes were slipping away and so were the leaders.
Reversing direction and returning to a point that coincided with our cue sheets re-oriented the group and we were back on course finally, but the question remained, "how much time had we lost to the leaders?" Nervously, I floated among the group checking the resolve of my competitors and trying to establish a connection with one or two of them that would be willing to launch an attack with me in an effort to get to the front. I had no takers and was even turned down by Pramann who flatly told me that he "wasn't going to make a big push now". My heart sank. I checked in with local strong boy, Jeremy Frye who finished an impressive 3rd place in this year's Ragnarok 105, would he be willing to work with me? I sensed that he was more concerned about the long haul at this point. I would need to settle in, stay calm, and wait for situations to unfold that would play to my grand plan. It wasn't long before we approached the first "B" road (unmaintained access roads used by the farmers primarily to move between fields) and riders were spotted in the distance. Could it be? Were they the first two to "pop off" the lead group. After making contact with one of them I threw down a flurry of questions. It was cycling coach, ultra endurance rider, and veteran of Race Across America George Vargas from California. His report was that he had the leaders in sight up until a few minutes previous, but for him it was about conservation and he was content to let them ride away. However, this recent development seemed to cause a little jump in Pramann's stroke and he began to bring the pace up. I quickly jumped on his wheel in an attempt to inspire the group, but they weren't having it. Dave and I were taking the majority of the pulls while the others were sitting in and looking long term. We tried to explain to the group that if we could just work together we could bridge to the leaders, still no takers, save one. A tall lanky strong man from Lincoln, NE began to take lengthy pulls at the front while Dave and I sat in, allowing him to drag us along while we conserved. Occasionally, we would move to the front to give him a break, but before long he'd be right back up there pulling for us and looking strong. I took a quick glance back to see why no one else would get involved and there it was, a tiny gap, maybe 50 feet. I shouted to Dave, "We're getting a gap!" The pulls were shorter and harder, the gap began to grow, 100 feet, 100 yards, a quarter mile, a half mile... then they were gone!
The effort it took to separate from the main field in order to get the leaders in sight exhausted an enormous toll on me. I had been "on the rivet" for the second time in a short period and both attempts were lengthy. Needless to say I was teetering on the edge of being in serious trouble. As we let off and were pulling into North English, approximately 55 miles from the start, there was talk in my group (Dave Pramaan, Lincoln, NE. and myself) of a quick stop at the general store in town to refit. I agreed with the stop, because honestly at this point any respite from what I had been experiencing for the last 2.5 hours was welcomed. As we rolled closer and crossed the highway I noticed a small congregation near the doorway of the store and there were bikes! I strained my eyes until I saw the familiar jersey. It was Charlie and he was with Joe Meiser, we had caught the leaders! My body released another shot of adrenaline as I came upon them refilling water bottles and getting organized. Charlie's eyes were like saucers when he saw me, "Eki", he yelled, "It's so good to see you!". I inhaled a banana in front of Guitar Ted (race director) and started pleading with Charlie to depart the store immediately. Confused by my arrival, my partner started expressing the need to top of my fluids, I refused, conveying to him that I was good to go and we needed to get moving. I knew this was the break we needed in more ways than one.
Disorientated from being in a red lined state for so long I started to roll out of the parking lot in the wrong direction and was even considering relieving myself in a culvert next to the highway when Charlie yelled to me "Eki, this way". I quickly regrouped and jumped on his wheel. Joe Meiser, Charlie Farrow, Dave Pramaan and Tim Ek were now the break away 4. The intensity ratcheted up as we began to exploit our lead. The three I was with seemed fresh while I toiled at the back, struggling on every climb to hold the wheel in front of me. I was astonished at the ease in which they all seemed to float up the huge rollers that we would deal with for the next several hours. A pattern started to emerge. At the top of every climb I found myself at least 40 - 50 feet off the back of the group and out of the saddle trying to gain the wheel in front of me. How long could I keep this up before I was completely dropped and alone in the wind? I distinctly recall Charlie and Dave aggressively pointing at their back wheels behind their backs ordering me to get there. At times closing a distance of 3 feet seemed nearly impossible as I could not muster any more speed.
We, or I, was riding at my limit and our gap was growing. Slowly the doubt began to creep in as I questioned my membership with this group. I wondered if I had given too much to get to them and not staying "hooked on" would be the high price I paid. Had I mishandled this whole thing? Would I end up riding the majority of the Trans Iowa alone? I knew navigating alone would be a significant problem for me so I was determined to stay with them. Charlie kept encouraging me to ride 4th wheel and to never take a pull as he knew it would destroy me. I tried to remain positive and remind myself that this hurt tank I was in would pass and as soon as I could get some calories on board I'd bounce back.
The problem was getting calories in. I was so busy that I couldn't take the time to eat or I'd lose the group and extended exposure in the wind would ruin me. It was when we hit the next "B" road that it all began to fall apart. I battled dizzy spells and the three strong men began to establish a large gap on me. It happened, I was dropped. I took that opportunity to force down another banana and a few gel packs. I simply could not climb with them. However, like a blessing from above, things began to turn in my favor. I bridged back to them and found respite in an easier pace. They were getting tired. I had done it! They were settling down and slipping into a more manageable rhythm. It was time for me to focus on recovery. I began to eat at every opportunity and forced fluids in. I felt my body turning the corner, I began to take pulls at the front, and more importantly I began to try to show the group that I was still there and wouldn't be going anywhere. I rode very close to them, tried to talk to them, I wanted them to know that I couldn't be broken. The second check point was coming and we would be 151 miles into this monster. The group began discussing big meals and an extended session of reloading our bodies and our supplies. It was the break I needed. I just had to make it to the second check point with the leaders. What an accomplishment that would be!