A Conversation with Ken Ray, Rookie Trans Am Racer
A non-stop, self-supported, 4,300-mile road bike race across America in the middle of June chock full of brutal climbs through America’s greatest mountain ranges, 30-mph head winds, and vicious Kentuckian dogs. Sound like your idea of fun? If you’re Ken Ray, Bike Rack Racing Team rider and ultra-distance rookie, it does.
On June 3, Ken rolled out from Astoria, Oregon at 6am along with 132 other riders representing 25 countries for one of the greatest unsupported endurances races in the world, the Trans Am Bike Race. It would take just 19 days, 20 hours and 19 minutes for Ken to cross the finish line in Yorktown, Virginia in sixth place. I sat down with Ken to chat about his experience, his training, and his insights into ultra-distance riding.
Why ride the Trans Am?
Ken proudly admits his whole life is biking. By day he is a Senior Landscape Architect for Toole Design Group in Silver Spring, “the nation’s leading urban planning and architecture firm specializing in bicycle and pedestrian transportation.” He has been racing with The Bike Rack Team for three years, captaining the group in 2016. He had ridden in Gran Fondos and couple-hundred-mile races before, but never 4,300 miles in just over two weeks.
Thanks to a little prompting from friends and teammates, Ken discovered the documentary Inspired to Ride, which followed a handful of cyclists in the inaugural Trans Am. The film jokingly dubs these riders, “Crazies,” and Ken wanted to join their ranks.
“The unsupported nature of the ride was more my style,” Ken said. “I thought it would be interesting to ride the country that way, but also ride quickly, on a schedule. That worked better with work and life. It all sounded pretty enticing.”
What kind of training did you do?
“There really isn’t anything written about training for this ride.” Unlike riders in supported races such as Iron Mans, these unsupported ultra-distance cyclists are somewhat on their own when it comes to developing a training strategy. For Ken, it meant a lot of time pre-planning stops and getting to know the route via Google Earth, and, of course, miles on the bike. Long overnight rides to and from the Skyline Drive, camping in Sky Meadow, and 100+ mile loops a little closer to home in DC were great for testing out his carbon Giant TCR and the 20-25 pounds of gear he would be carrying. Team nights in the shop were great for picking up new gear and learning how to work on his bike mechanically. But there’s more to the Trans Am than biking long distance.
His goal throughout training was to reach Yorktown in 21 days – “Three solid weeks, a good round number,” Ken said. By the start of the race in Astoria, that goal had moved to 20 days.
“This ride is completely different from anything I had done or anything I had read about though. [Because the clock never stops], it’s actually about sleep deprivation and taking in the gas station diet.”
The gas station diet?
This one is not for the plant-based, organic, health-conscious among us. “When you’re taking in eight to ten thousand calories a day, you’re not thinking about that as much.”
A typical pit stop for Ken meant a Honey Bun and a Coke to start, “for the instant kick after the last three hours of riding.” Then he went for the Keebler cheese peanut butter crackers, at least three bottles of Gatorade, two sleeves of donuts to fit in his jersey pockets, and another Honey Bun, Moon Pie, or pastry. Next, he’d move on to the proteins; the hot foods like sausage, egg, and cheese sandwiches or hamburgers.
But when you’re racing, there’s no time to sit and eat at the gas station picnic tables. “Everything’s pre-opened and shoved in my pockets. I’m pulling something out every 20-minutes or so.”
“You could tell who was in front of you by the trash you’d see on the side of the road. Max liked Gummy Bears, but you’d see when he missed his mouth because there were little colored bears along the whole route.”
It wasn’t all processed gas station food, Ken admits. “There were two or three good pieces of pie,” he said. He also gave a hearty shout-out to the breakfast burrito and cinnamon roll at Brown Burro Café in Fairplay, CO.
Ken is only now able to really reflect on the places he saw and the people he met on his 4,300-mile race; riding past Yosemite, through the flatlands, meeting folks from all walks of life brought out by their curiosity of the sport.
“People were keen to ask what you were doing, walking through Walmart in my clip shoes, full kit, with my bike. Everywhere I went, people were asking, ‘how can we help.’”
There were even “Trail Angels” along the route, who would set out bagels, donuts, or Gatorade, replenishing it every evening for the next group of riders to roll through town. There were churches that opened their doors and post offices that remained unlocked for riders to find a dry place to sleep.
In Kansas, Ken saw the true American spirit shine. With a storm approaching, Ken was a few hours away from his next motel. He knew he wouldn’t make it to town in time to catch dinner at the local Sonic. While pedaling, Ken managed to negotiate with the motel clerk via cell phone to pick up some food for him. When he rolled into town, soaked to the core, and famished from a few extra hours on the bike, the clerk handed him two bags full of hamburgers and buns, chocolate milk, and water bottles. I’m friends with the night manager, the clerk told Ken. This was all the stuff leftover, so it was free.
“Had the motel been a chain, in a bigger city, I wouldn’t have eaten that night,” Ken mused remembering this lucky encounter.
Was it worth the sacrifices?
The Trans Am notoriously rolls a perilous road. The ride’s official Facebook page is littered with pictures of riders comparing dog bites in Kentucky, drenched riders coming out of massive rainstorms, and this year, even a somber tribute to Eric Fishbein killed by a vehicle nearly halfway home.
“I could have pulled the plug and flown home after that, but I was there for the experience. It does stick in the back of your mind. You’re a little more careful. That night I saw the message from the race directors, I hit a rainstorm and I stopped earlier than I had planned. It was too early. A little too eerie.”
By that point, Ken was two weeks into the ride.
“I asked myself, ‘Are you racing or riding?’” Ken did the math and started racing to reach Yorktown in 19 days.
“There’s only six or seven guys in the 19-day club, and that sounded fun.” Yes, fun! Twenty hours on the bike per day, averaging 215 miles each of the next five days, and powering through 305 miles the final evening (or early morning) to roll into Yorktown, Virginia at 5:20am on June 22.
“It’s more mental that physical at that point,” Ken noted. While the Trans Am is an unsupported ride, Ken credits much of his grit and drive to family, friends, and teammates. His aunt once caught Ken off course as she followed his dot through Missouri, quickly texting to let him know. His Bike Rack teammates sent texts, Facebook posts, and good luck videos.
“Getting watched keeps you going,” he laughed.
When asked if he would do the Trans Am again, Ken said “Oh totally, just not that race.” Ken was quick to say though there is temptation to complete this race even faster, “It feels good to be back on a bike and ride like a normal person, forty or fifty miles at a time.”
You can see Ken’s ride and stats online at TrackLeaders.com.