Ben Madden is home in Richmond again, having pedaled his bicycle across the country — coast to coast, 4,300 miles in 44 days, finishing 61st in a race among more than 100 competitors — and, goodness, that’s only half the story.
His $4,000 bicycle and all of his gear were stolen three days into the race when he went into a Safeway in Eugene, Ore., for a doughnut, of all things. He bought a new bike, but lost four days of riding time.
Then as he pedaled through the Rockies in Colorado, the high altitude of Hoosier Pass made an abscessed tooth throb, and he rode briskly downhill like a man possessed so he could have the tooth extracted. “Great dentist in Pueblo,” he said.
Madden persevered through it all, and he reached the finish line of the Trans Am Bike Race in Yorktown last week — after stopping for a slightly premature celebratory beer at The Cheese Shop in Williamsburg, a treat the craft brewer had promised himself.
Then he turned 55 last Friday.
What a long, strange, eventful trip.
Before I knew about any of the extracurricular activities, I asked Madden if anything had not gone exactly as planned on the trip.
“Nothing went exactly as planned,” he replied — and he wasn’t kidding.
Madden, who lives in Manchester, has been a serious cyclist for 35 years, but had never competitively pedaled anything more adventurous than a weekend event, though he spent a year basically living on his bike in Hawaii a few years ago, riding and camping around the islands. It wasn’t a race, but it turned out to be great preparation for what was to come.
Then last fall while on a ride, he was involved in an incident with a car that left him with five broken bones in his upper body. As he healed, he did something that might have seemed a little odd for its timing: He signed up for the Trans Am Race, an annual cross-country road race that begins in Astoria, Ore., and concludes at the Yorktown Victory Monument, and challenges the endurance of even the most enthusiastic cyclists.
“Motivation to get back in shape,” he said.
He flew to Oregon and left from the starting line with everyone else on June 2, one of only two Virginians in the event (the other, according to race director Nathan Jones, was Bruno Dedet of Arlington). Madden made it midway down the Oregon coast before he got a hankering for a doughnut — and an actual store in general, as the Trans America Trail, which the race follows, is largely off the commercial path — so he veered off the route a few miles to Eugene, and promptly got his bike and gear stolen when he went into the supermarket.
The theft made the news in Oregon, and the Eugene community rallied behind around him. Two stores helped outfit him with new gear, and members of a local bicycle club searched for the bike, eventually finding it near the Willamette River, according to news reports. However, the bike was too damaged to use, so Madden went with a less expensive replacement.
He was dead last at that point in the race, the rest of the field long gone down the road. However, he never thought about dropping out after the support he received in Eugene.
“I just said, ‘I can’t quit,’ ” he recalled. “Too many people are pulling for me.”
On he went, gradually catching and passing other riders as the seemingly endless road unfurled before him. For the 39 days he actually rode, he averaged more than 100 miles a day. Many other riders did not finish the race, and several were still on the course Wednesday.
The route is largely rural and lovely and lonely except for the many trail “angels” along the way — people who live along the route and greet riders with cold drinks, kind words and friendly waves. There were moments, Madden said, when he was brought to tears simply by the beauty of his surroundings and the grateful realization that “I couldn’t believe where I was and what I was doing.”
However, the harsh reality was always just around the next bend: The often-narrow roads of rural America are not always hospitable to cyclists. Besides the basic hazards of traffic, Madden encountered more than his share of “middle fingers and trucks that just don’t slow down even though they see you and know you’re there.”
Encounters between motor vehicles and cyclists turned deadly in this year’s race and last. In June, a 64-year-old participant pedaling through Kansas was struck by a motorist from behind, suffered severe injuries and died three weeks later, according to news coverage. During the 2017 race, a 61-year-old cyclist was fatally struck, also on a Kansas road.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t do it again,” Madden said of the race. “It’s too dangerous.”
For Madden, his toughest days on the road included a snowstorm in Montana and a stretch in Kansas where he pedaled into a 30 mph headwind on an empty stomach first thing in the morning.
“A quantum leap harder than anything else,” he said. “I rode 20 miles and collapsed.”
When Madden pedaled home last week, his load was considerably lighter than when he started, and not only because his original gear was stolen. He started in Oregon with 80 pounds of gear, but replaced only a small portion of what he lost — “I considered that an omen that the universe was trying to tell me I had too much stuff,” he said — and shed most of that by the time he reached Virginia. He mailed home much of his gear at various points to lighten his load.
He spent five nights in motels, but otherwise slept wherever he could (and often with nothing more than a thin liner as he shipped his sleeping bag home early in the trip): on concrete slabs and under cover of storefronts, in bathrooms (three nights) and once in a pile of mulch.
As he reached the Virginia Capital Trail to begin the final 50 miles of his journey, he was greeted by a familiar face: his mother, who was waiting at The Fork on 5 cafe. Then it was on to Yorktown, where a couple of race fans greeted him as they do for as many of the finishers as they can (which is no small feat considering the finishers are well-scattered by the end and reach Yorktown over a period of weeks).
But first there was the stop at The Cheese Shop in Williamsburg and that long-awaited beer, which he called a “prize.” I asked Madden, who has taught craft brewing at the University of Richmond School of Professional & Continuing Studies, when he promised himself that beer.
His answer: “Oregon.”
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