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Grit and Gears

A Richmond biker gets ready for one of the most ambitious races in the world.

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Before he became an ultraendurance athlete, Brantley Tyndall's first passion was playing the guitar. He'd play for six hours at a go, just focused on the sound.

"I was kind of a couch potato," he says, laughing as he talks about how far he's come since he bought his first bike in 2008.

Tyndall still spends hours and hours sitting, but now it's on a bike saddle, chasing increasingly fantastical long-distance cycling goals. His next challenge, the Trans Am Bike Race, may be the most ambitious event of its kind in the world, and it'll be his first ultradistance race. On June 2, Tyndall will line up alongside 85 other contenders for a self-supported race across the nation, starting in Astoria, Oregon. After the riders depart, the clock won't stop until they cross the finish line in Yorktown, some 4,200 miles away.

If Tyndall can ride at the pace he's planned, he'll spend 18 or 17 days crossing the nation. He'll sleep in ditches, he'll eat in gas stations and above all, he'll ride his bike nearly all day, every day.

Or as he says: "Ride and sleep, but probably not a lot of sleep." Tyndall, who has an impressively diverse set of cultural references, compares the towns that dot the race route with Radiator Springs, the fictitious setting of Pixar's "Cars."

Richmond biker Brantley Tyndall will line up alongside 85 other contenders in Astoria, Oregon, for the Trans Am Bike Race to Yorktown, arguably the most ambitious of its kind in the world. Rule No. 1 is you can’t receive any support. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Richmond biker Brantley Tyndall will line up alongside 85 other contenders in Astoria, Oregon, for the Trans Am Bike Race to Yorktown, arguably the most ambitious of its kind in the world. Rule No. 1 is you can’t receive any support.

"I call it a tour of America's forgotten gas stations," he says, describing it as "the hardest summer vacation slash road trip ever."

It's an unusual event, especially in comparison to traditional bike racing with its team structure and byzantine rules. The Trans Am eschews all of that, focusing on the purity of a solo effort and a simple set of rules.
"Rule No. 1 is you can't receive any support," Tyndall says, before correcting himself. "Actually, rule No. 1 is you can't complain about the rules."

From that core maxim, the various rules serve to clarify that solo means solo. Outside of emergencies, riders can accept no help. They must buy their own food, carry their own gear and race under their own power. There is no prize money. There are no checkpoints. According to the official website, it's a "do-it-yourself challenge based on the purest of wagers: the gentleperson's bet or agreement. Nothing to win or lose but honor."

Of the handful of ultradistance races, it's the Tour Divide, an off-road race that follows the Continental Divide from Canada to the Mexican border, that's closest in spirit to the Trans Am. Both races follow routes developed by the Adventure Cycling Association, a 42-year-old nonprofit that promotes bicycling safety. The older of the two races is the Divide, founded in 2008, followed by the Trans Am in 2014.

Unlike the Divide, the Trans Am is a road race, with bicycles that aren't that different from what you'd see at the Tour de France or on the streets of Richmond during the 2015 UCI Road World Championship. The fixed course follows the first bicycle touring route to cross the US, the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, over 10 states, two mountain ranges, and 160,000 feet of climbing, or five times the height of Mt Everest.

Although this is Tyndall's first ultraendurance race, he's not new to racing or endurance cycling. He began seriously racing in 2011, but got started in 2008, competing in unsanctioned urban races called Alley Kats, held on open streets.

His mother, Lisa Sheffield, remembers the first bike he bought while studying at Virginia Commonwealth University was a thrift store special.

"It was a red Schwinn," she says, "And I remember thinking how cool it was that he'd be able to get around campus, but I had no idea how passionate he'd become."

That bike was the next step in a transformation that began when his uncle gave him a copy of Al Gore's 2006 climate change documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."

"He went from wanting to make money, to wanting to make a difference," she recalls. "It was a huge turning point." From that moment on, she watched as her son took his innate drive and resilience, and dedicated himself full-time to making a positive difference in the world around him.

Tyndall understands the safety concerns of the Trans Am Bike Race: Riders have died in each of the last two years, both times in Kansas. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Tyndall understands the safety concerns of the Trans Am Bike Race: Riders have died in each of the last two years, both times in Kansas.

"Brantley was always independent," she tells me, remembering one particular trip to San Francisco when Tyndall, now 32, was 15 or 16. Sheffield was suffering injuries related to a car crash she'd been in the previous year, and didn't think she could accompany her son to the Metallica concert they planned to see. She sent him on his own over a multimodal route, in a city he'd never been to before.

"My mom and sister didn't talk to me for a month," she says. "'How could you do that?' they asked me. Well, that's Brantley. I knew he'd be fine."

While Sheffield remembers the documentary and the Schwinn, for Tyndall, it's the car crash that stands out in his mind. His mother was at a stop sign when a drunk driver plowed into her car at 45 mph, causing serious nerve damage that led to other injuries and complications. She still inspires him, and he wants to make streets safer after her tragedy.

"She's currently wheelchair-bound and she's been in and out of hospitals for 15 years," he says. "She still has her mind, she's never lost her hope in the world, but her body continues to fail."

Tyndall says it led him to work at Bike Walk RVA, a program by local nonprofit Sports Backers. Sports Backers, which produces running races like the Monument Avenue 10k, started Bike Walk RVA to advocate safer biking and walking infrastructure. Most recently, the group saw success when an attempt to block the construction of new bike lanes on Brook Road fizzled out in the face of widespread public support for lanes.

Talking about his mother's story makes Tyndall feel a little self-conscious, and he says he prefers to zoom out and talk about how safe streets impact everyone.

"That's her story and my story, but 40,000 people die each year, and 2 million or more are seriously, permanently injured," he says. He wasn't in the car with her, but the collision impacted him, too, and he says the majority of crashes have similar ripple effects.

Tyndall believes we’re not doing enough in Richmond about bike safety. Here he is in the 2014 Collegiate Nationals race in Richmond. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Tyndall believes we’re not doing enough in Richmond about bike safety. Here he is in the 2014 Collegiate Nationals race in Richmond.

"Millions of people in America are impacted by this. We have a moral imperative to prevent it. Without being anti-car, the only solution is to provide viable alternatives to cars."

Tyndall says we're not doing enough in Richmond, citing problems like drivers failing to yield to pedestrians. Many cities have tackled this with in-road signs and narrower intersections. In Richmond, he says part of the problem is a perception created by the ease of getting around by automobile.

"You can exist only in your car," he says, and because many people don't have to walk, it affects their view of pedestrians. "They don't yield to pedestrians because pedestrians are only ever [perceived as] a barrier."

Although he's using vacation time for his bike race, that too will be a sort of advocacy.

"If I can do this ridiculous, epic thing, I hope that makes someone else say, 'I can ride my bike across town.'" He also hopes it inspires him to think of new programs and solutions on his return. "I'm going to be spending 18 days racing across the country thinking about vulnerability." He's asking that people donate to the League of American Bicyclists, a 139-year-old national organization, similar to Bike Walk RVA.

A rider has died in each of the last two years, both in Kansas. Tyndall is aware of the dangers, but not overly worried.

"I could be killed in Richmond," he says, returning to his mother's crash. She agrees.

"I worry more when he's just out there getting around, because people feel invincible in a car," she says, adding, "But this is who he is. I'm not going to stand in his way, I'm his biggest cheerleader."

If Sheffield is his biggest cheerleader, his former boss at Bike Walk RVA, Max Hepp-Buchanan, is his second biggest. Hepp-Buchanan, who left his post as executive director for a job with Venture Richmond in December, started a GoFundMe to support Tyndall.

"There's a community in Richmond that has his back," he says. "We want to support him and we're all rooting for him. I'm kind of living vicariously through him."

Endurance athletes need to be comfortable with long periods of alone time, and have the mental fortitude to endure constant pain. Hepp-Buchanan and Sheffield use almost the same phrases to describe Tyndall, saying he's someone who does what he intends to do, with a singularly intense focus.

"It's zoning out or maybe it's zoning in," Tyndall says about his mind-set. "At the extreme end, they start to overlap. That's a big part of why people get into the ultraendurance world, because there's a clarity there. It's like meditating."

Tyndall learned to entertain himself as an only child, on hour-long bus rides to school. "I was the first one on, last one off," he says.

Local sponsor Outpost Richmond provided bike components for Tyndall’s long solo journey. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Local sponsor Outpost Richmond provided bike components for Tyndall’s long solo journey.

Next to fatigue, stomach bugs, undertraining and knee pain are the most common reasons people drop out of these races, but Tyndall feels prepared. "There's a lot of hay in the barn already," he says, describing his training regimen, which began in June 2018.

By race start, he'll have ridden 800 hours, many of them under the tutelage of Dave Luscan, a professional coach who is donating his services. He focused on building strength at first with shorter, intense sessions, but shifted to long efforts that represent a typical day on the Trans Am earlier this year.

Those training rides have helped prepare his body, but they've also prepared his mind. For an event like this one, racers must know how hard and for how long they can ride, but they also have to know how to pack and what to bring. To save on weight, he'll use a bivvy bag, not a tent: It's a micro-shelter originally designed for extreme mountain climbers. He's tested it on a four-day, 450-mile training ride, that took him up 30,000 feet of elevation, ending on a mountaintop summit at 1 a.m. "I learned what it was like to sleep on top of a summit in a bivvy bag, and I also learned that the first hour of the day is the worst. It's the worst if you start at 6 a.m. or 10 a.m., so just get it out of the way."

During the first half of the race, up to the Rocky Mountains, temperatures will be cold at night, and his sleeping gear may not be enough to keep him warm. He says that's OK.

"You're not looking for comfort, you're looking for a couple hours of shut-eye. If I get cold, I'll just keep moving."

He's found the transitions from sleeping to waking, from stopping to moving, are the big time killers.

"You can lose minutes to hours a day," he says, noting that he's still fine-tuning his gear. Stop times, too, can eat into your race. "That's time you won't get back. You're already riding at your maximum. I'd rather ride slower than have to stop for two hours."

Another big concern is the bike, and Tyndall has sponsors to make sure he'll have the best of the best in quality, aerodynamics and speed. His bike has traditional road drop bars and aero bars, which let him rest his arms out straight ahead in a comfortable tucked position that reduces wind drag. Typically, riders have to move back to the drop bars to shift, but his state-of-the-art Sram eTap wireless shifters let him stay in the more comfortable and aerodynamic position. He got his bike components through a local sponsor, Outpost Richmond.

"It's the best grocery store slash bike store in town," he says about the shop on Forest Hill Avenue, which his friend and riding buddy Braden Govoni owns. His steel-framed bike was designed by Richmond-based bicycling adventure company Endpoint, also a sponsor. The frame was selected for its speed, light weight, comfort and durability.

Tyndall is shown here with his mother, Lisa Sheffield, who was severely injured by a drunken driver about 15 years ago. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Tyndall is shown here with his mother, Lisa Sheffield, who was severely injured by a drunken driver about 15 years ago.

He's had the frame painted one of his favorite colors — pink —- and another sponsor, Charlottesville-based Cutaway USA, is providing him color-coordinated jerseys and bike shorts. He was allowed to customize the kit down to individual panels of fabric, opting for high-performance, moisture-wicking materials.

His biggest financial sponsor, Bon Secours Richmond Health System, will help with the cost of food, occasional lodging and other daily needs. He estimates he'll spend around $100 per day on food, consuming 8,000 to 10,000 calories. "You just eat as much as you can," he says. "Burritos, roadside tacos, and a lot of junk food." He'll be hoping to limit his caloric deficit and maintain his current weight.

With his sponsors set and nearly a year of preparation behind him, Tyndall's cautiously optimistic. He's set a goal of finishing in 18 or 17 days, but plans to stick near the main contenders for the first few hundred miles to get a feel for the tactics and strategy of the race. "When you stop, when you press on, those decisions matter," he says. In 4,200 miles, small decisions can have a big impact.

He also has a hometown advantage, and he hopes his familiarity with the route through Virginia will give him an edge. Even more important, though, are his local friends.

"I have this crazy thought that I'll ride home," from the finish in Yorktown, he says. "What's another 70 miles? And if my friends ride out to meet me at the finish, we can ride back together after it's over." He laughs. "Although I suppose it'll depend on how many beers I have at the finish line."

Win or lose, bike home or get a lift, Sheffield says she couldn't be prouder of her son. And despite the pain and destruction the crash has caused her, she says it's an acceptable price if it's what made her son the passionate safe streets advocate he is today.

"I'm just so proud of him. If I have to be in a wheelchair, I'll take it. He can't go back in time for me, but he can make a change for someone else."

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