Meaghan Hackinen is a Kelowna-based writer and ultra-cyclist whose two-wheeled adventures have taken her from Haida Gwaii to Mexico’s high plateaus, across Canada and the United States, and from North Cape to Tarifa along some of Europe’s highest paved roads. Meaghan loves to compete and doesn’t shy away from pushing her limits. She is a Trans Am Bike Race, Transcontinental Race, NorthCape4000, and Paris-Brest-Paris brevet finisher.
She’s written a book, Shifting Gears: Coast to Coast on the Trans Am Bike Race about her experience crossing the US. We highly recommend you check out the excerpt below, and then go read the entire book!
Meaghan has an MFA in Writing and has also written South Away: The Pacific Coast on Two Wheels. You can find different options for purchasing either book at the bottom of the excerpt.
June 1-2, 2017
Two days before the fourth edition of the Trans Am Bike Race rolled out of Astoria, Oregon, I found myself among a handful of prospective riders converging at Fort George Brewery under the pretense of a meet-and-greet. In reality, it was the promise of settling our collective pre-race nerves with the aid of free-flowing craft beer which drew us out—or at least, that’s how I felt about it. The brew pub would hold another gathering the following night—on the eve of the race—though I wasn’t planning on attending that second meetup. Consumption of liquor directly prior to a cross-continental sojourn didn’t appear to be a wise strategic move. Yet two days beforehand, anything remained fair game.
Race organizer Nathan Jones was clearly onto something when he devised the Trans Am Bike Race in 2014, setting riders out with a goal as simple as it was daunting: get on your bicycle and ride across the country, as fast as you possibly can. Hailed as America’s premier self-supported road race, the Trans Am takes participants from Astoria, Oregon, to Yorktown, Virginia, following the American Cycling Association’s oldest bicycle route: the TransAmerica Trail. Covering 4,264 miles, ten states, several mountain ranges—from the Western Cascades to the Appalachians—and over 150,000 feet of vertical gain, it is, as Trans Am finisher and Inspired to Ride-star Juliana Buhring succinctly put it, a race “only for the crazies.”
Aside from a modest entry fee and a GPS tracker, there are no prerequisites other than a willingness to venture into the unknown, and an inclination toward boldness or stupidity. Unlike stage races, like the Tour de France, the Trans Am operates as a continuous event: after rollout from Astoria, the clock doesn’t stop ticking until you reach the Atlantic Coast. No drafting, stages, or non-commercially available support permitted. Media attention is minimal, and the only prize up for grabs is bragging rights. Unless you’re lucky enough to have friends or family fly out, no one will even be there to hand you a beer when you cross the finish line at Yorktown Monument, Virginia.
The Trans Am isn’t for everyone, but to those craving an experience outside the norm, the race harbours an allure—a mystique. The promise of something so epic, it resonates more as aspiration than description: the opportunity to venture into the beating heartland of America and discover what you are really made of. Mere mention of the Trans Am has become a siren’s call ensnaring the mind of the intrepid, adventure-seeking cyclist. You can probably guess, dear reader, that I was one of those starry-eyed cyclists.
Now, however, I was second-guessing. At Fort George Brewery, I sat somewhere in the middle of a long table of prospective racers. Across from the Crossleys, a perpetually upbeat father-daughter team who also hailed from Canada (Halifax), and next to a bristly-bearded Californian named Eric Fishbein staying with the same local host as me in Astoria. Wafts of hops mingled with the aroma of grilled meat from the kitchen; the room held the optimistic golden light of late afternoon. I glanced down the table—past amber pints and plates of thin-crusted pizza topped with prosciutto and arugula—examining the racers, mostly men over forty. Farther afield, tables displayed a similar age/gender breakdown: of the 131 entrants, only thirteen were women. While others discussed gear setups and expected finishing times, I remained tight-lipped. Intimidated by the sea of beards and expensive Rapha cycling jerseys, petrified a single word might reveal my complete and utter ineptitude.
“What’s the riding like in Saskatchewan?” asked Eric.
My mouth opened and closed like a gasping fish. A sip of beer finally released the floundering words from the net of my tongue.
“Winters are rough,” I admitted. “But summers are outstanding.”
In fifteen minutes, I could be breezing along the highway away from the city. No stop signs or traffic lights. Saskatchewan doesn’t have hills, but we do have uninterrupted road that stretches for miles, and wind—the flatland cyclist’s ultimate training partner. The downside: my preparation had been on pancake-flat prairie. While I wasn’t sure how those miles would translate to more varied terrain—the Trans Am route accumulates enough elevation to equal six ascents of Mount Everest—I hoped my hours in the saddle might provide a requisite endurance base to weather the climbs.
* * *
I registered for the Trans Am before having ridden a road bike. Though aware of the race since its inception, I had no interest in participating myself until Alaskan ultra-endurance cyclist Lael Wilcox won the 2016 edition. Funny how inspiration plays out: seeing my gender reflected in a race winner instantly transformed how I thought about my own limitations. As I scanned online post-race interviews with Lael, I wondered if someone like me—with years of touring and commuting experience— could compete as well.
But I harboured no delusions of grandeur.
I knew from the start I had zero chance of winning. Instead, I became possessed by the newfound conviction that I was capable of more than I’d previously imagined. I decided to throw my hat in the ring, and use the race as an opportunity to test my limits.
By October 2016, I had paid my registration fee and purchased a membership at a local spin studio, where I planned to put on the bulk of my winter training. The bicycle came a month later: I opted for a Cannondale Synapse, a carbon road bike built with a relaxed endurance fit meant for long days in the saddle, and a price tag that exceeded my credit card limit. Luckily, I convinced my boyfriend to pay for it, promising to transfer the money later. My new bicycle was black and white like an elegant tuxedo and I named her Epona after the patron goddess of horses—also the name of Link’s horse in my favourite childhood video game, The Legend of Zelda. Unfortunate timing, however, saw Saskatoon’s streets buried under snow just days after Epona’s maiden ride, and I thrust my precious steed into storage until spring thaw.
* * *
Eric and I continued to discuss riding conditions in our respective homelands. Both transplants from elsewhere, him from Boston, me from Vancouver. He was sixty-one and vibrant, flashing an easy smile that exuded a Californian warmth I imagined came from living down the coast in San Luis Obispo—though he hadn’t lost the outspoken nasal of his Boston hometown. While Eric had come to the West Coast, I had left it to complete a Master of Fine Arts in Writing in Saskatoon, staying after I’d landed a position at a non-profit and a prairie boy to settle down with.
When Eric disappeared to the washroom, I ordered another beer from the bar and found myself in easy conversation with a racer from Portland named David Barstow Robinson—DBR, for short. DBR was infectiously likable, an in-person manifestation of grungy-bike-courier-cool: aloof, gifted with an insider’s cheeky smile and calm demeanour, and chest hair that purled from his collar like the love-sick curlicued doodles of a teenager.
DBR had organized a group ride from Portland to Astoria that morning. Around thirty riders took part, including myself. Trans Am participants hail from all corners of the globe, and because Astoria lacks an international airport, most opt to fly into neighbouring Portland. Aside from being the thriftiest option, cycling the 120 miles to the coast felt like less of a logistical headache compared to renting a vehicle, or interpreting complicated bus schedules.
I suffered a series of frustrating setbacks upon my arrival in Portland, however.
After landing, I unboxed my bike in PDX Airport to discover that in late-night packing haste, I’d forgotten both my helmet and my cycling gloves. Then I managed a flat en route to the hotel. After patching it, I spent the remainder of the afternoon hunting down replacement gear. Tangled up in Portland’s rose-studded roundabouts as I navigated between shops, all I could think of was how much I missed my boyfriend, Tyler, and the cycling friends in Saskatoon who I too often relied on to guide the way.
For me, the pre-ride wasn’t simply about getting to the start, but a chance to let go of the previous day and arrive in Astoria with a clean slate.
We rolled out of Portland among early morning commuters, careening en masse through backroads as twisted as the roots of the trees we’d later pass in moss-laden woods leading toward the coast. After a stint on the paved Banks-Vernonia rails-to-trails path, it was an easy haul through farmland—past charming red silos and emerald bursts of crops—before a series of hills deposited us in Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River.
“Nervous?” DBR asked me now.
“Yeahhh,” I drawled.
Those Portland mishaps were glaring back at me: my forgotten gear, navigational errors, and flat tire.
“I still have to grab some stuff,” I explained. “I don’t have lithium batteries for my GPS tracking device yet, or snacks for day one.”
“You mean day zero,” he corrected me. I’d forgotten that the race clock begins with zero, and only after twenty-four hours—an entire day—did day one commence. It was a confusing concept I struggled to wrap my head around, as if the first day somehow didn’t count at all.
“Right, day zero,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” said DBR, raising his glass to meet mine. “There’ll be plenty of time for all that tomorrow.”
* * *
Suddenly, everything became easier.
With DBR’s reassurances echoing in my ears, I threaded through a dozen conversations. Names and faces changed, yet I was reassured to discover—in most of my fellow racers at least—some degree of uncertainty that paralleled my own. It might be masked by false bravado or laughed aside, but I sensed the shadow of apprehension lurking like a sea snake beneath the surface. Yet as the night wore on, it became easier to forget what we were up against. We raised our glasses to adventure—“To the Trans Am!”
The time for training and preparation was over. We were ready to celebrate, scream a last goodbye to our quotidian lives and nine-to-five jobs. On the cusp of the American continent, we spoke of the next month in heroic terms, something bigger than ourselves we couldn’t yet comprehend.
* * *
Before picking up my cap and tracker on the eve of the race, I headed along the waterfront and veered uphill just before the Safeway where Eric and I had stocked up on protein bars a few hours earlier. A left on Franklin Avenue, then a few easy pedal strokes until I eased to a stop in front of John Jacob Astor Elementary. For most, the elementary school wouldn’t register as a tourist attraction, but the location held personal significance. John Jacob Astor Elementary featured as a set location for Kindergarten Cop, the 1990 cheesy blockbuster crime-comedy starring my all-time favourite action hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as Detective John Kimble.
Ever since my days as a video store clerk in high school, I have harboured an obsession with Schwarzenegger. Despite a general preference toward musicals and comedies, I found myself drawn to machismo, the fantasy of a larger-than-life hero who could end any conflict with a few punches and well-placed kick—or, failing that, a loaded bazooka. Schwarzenegger’s muscular silhouette has decorated more than a few of my birthday cakes over the years. I went so far as to rename myself after his likeness when I took up flat-track roller derby (a full-contact sport played on old school quad roller skates) in my twenties, choosing the pseudonym Schwarzemegger as my skate name—Schwartzy for short. Sure, I was 5’6” and barely capable of a chin-up while Schwarzenegger was 6’2” and built like a tank, but I hoped that by taking on the Austrian bodybuilder’s namesake, I could channel his strength.
I parked my bicycle on the grass in front of John Jacob Astor Elementary and snapped a few photos before settling on the steps. All day my mood had fluctuated between pulse-quickening excitement and stomach-churning doubt, a vicious entourage of tiny voices hissing nasty self-criticisms besieging my confidence whenever my mind had a moment to drift. Now, it was time to shut them up—and what better inspiration for a pep talk than tough-city-cop-turned-school teacher, Detective Kimble. I imagined him stomping around the entrance way, hyping me up like the kindergarten classroom for a weekly fire drill, veins bulging like massive rubber worms on his neck and forehead.
“You can do this, Meaghan! You’ve been training for months and now look: you have calves of steel; quads so huge, they’re liable to shred your shorts to pieces. America is nothing but a puny, insignificant hiccup on the globe—forget about it. You’ve got this, girl.”
With my inner doubts silenced by the imagined encouragement of an entirely fictional character, I set a determined chin and whizzed off toward the hilltop column to pick up my kit.
NeWest Press (publisher): https://bookshop.newestpress.com/products/shifting-gears-coast-to-coast-on-the-trans-am-bike-race
NeWest Press (publisher): https://bookshop.newestpress.com/products/shifting-gears-coast-to-coast-on-the-trans-am-bike-race
Find at your local bookstore (Canada): https://shoplocal.bookmanager.com/isbn/978-1-77439-080-1
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