Ultra endurance racing sounds really badass. It sounds mechanistic. Like athleticism to the tenth degree. Robotic efficiency.
But there is a humanity as well. A softness. A beauty.
When Amy Lippe signed up for her first Trans-American Bike Race, she had never done anything like it. She had toured a bit, leisurely. She didn't consider herself a cyclist.
"I just decided to do it. I don't have enough of the fancy gear or the experience to really be a cyclist. I just want to challenge myself and see what I can accomplish."
Amy’s voice is warm and friendly. I can see immediately why her students like her. Amy teaches social studies in Denver, CO. Well she did, up until the end of last school year when she embarked on her first TABR. She rode across the entire United States, from Washington to Virginia, in 22 days, 21 hours, and 10 minutes. 15th overall, second woman, and 6thfastest time for a woman – ever. Not bad for someone who’s “not a cyclist.”
She drops this self-observation casually, as if it’s a given. But it stops me in my tracks. At this point it’s about a month out from TABR and she’s slammed finishing up the school year before she’ll take off on this huge, life-changing journey. She’s cramming in training miles after school days, packing up gear and making lists, and grading final projects. When school lets out on May 31, there won’t be much time for last minute adjustments: she leaves just 1 day later to fly to Astoria, OR, and re-build her bike. Just 1 day after that, she’ll clip in and head out to ride 4,200 miles.
Amy laughs. “I love riding my bike but I’m not… Well, I’ll ride most any bike. I’ll wear any shoes. I’m not out here for the gear, or the bike, or anything. I’m here to have a good time on my bike. I guess I’m not fancy or experienced enough to call myself a true cyclist. I have a spirit of adventure and I love riding, but I don’t know that I fit in.”
Anyone who not only dreams of a bike tour, but plans it out, trains for it, and flies to Oregon without looking back, is a cyclist. But I understand Amy’s hesitation. Cycling has been exclusionary in the extreme for decades. Show up to a group ride riding the “wrong” bike or wearing the “wrong” shoes, and you’ll understand immediately why someone may feel they need to check off a certain number of boxes before daring to claim the title.
But that hesitation never bled over into the trip itself. For Amy, it was an unparalleled opportunity to face her fears.
“I know I can tour by bike.” She states it confidently, matter of fact. “But can I maintain a certain pace for a certain amount of time? Can I be alone for 3 weeks?”
Ultra endurance bike racing is certainly a lonely endeavor.
Amy expected to be alone for extended periods of time. And she knew it would be scary. Amy was embarking on the TABR along with her brother Max, but she knew they would split up early on. Max has a different style of riding: faster, but with more breaks. Amy can ride seemingly forever, at a steady pace.
But each day would be spent alone. And, each night. This Amy knew. She felt scared by it, but also, prepared. Bike touring teaches you to trust your instincts to find a safe place to sleep. And if there isn’t one, you just keep riding. Through the night, if necessary.
“I find biking at night to be totally terrifying and surreal,” Amy explains, her words quickening. “There are few cars on the rural roads, vast distances between tiny towns, and my light was often flickering (although it would somehow last 4-6 hours in the dark).” There are myriad decisions to be made at every moment: the weighing of pros and cons, safety vs. necessity. Riding unsupported through rural areas, at its most fundamental, often means finding water.
Gas stations are a must-stop, because you never know how far the next one is up the road. But often, riders aren’t that lucky. Amy would often find herself creeping around the perimeter of an empty church, in the middle of a dark night, searching for a spigot. Would the decision to leave the relative safety of the road to possibly find a source of water be worth what may be found instead? For Amy, nothing too dire was waiting for her beyond the tree line, shaded from the moonlight or amongst the spider webs. But the possibility loomed.
Once, in desperate need of water, Amy came upon a high school. “The doors of the high school were unlocked, and we briefly debated going inside to find water, but decided against it because the building felt so eerie at night. I guess this probably doesn't sound that weird, but thinking about it now it feels totally incredible.”
“Throughout the night, we could see heat lightning in the sky, which made it seem as if we were biking through a silent war zone.”
Some nights she’d be sleeping under the stars with just a bivvy between her and the earth. Once, she needed cover and found shelter in a US Post Office. “The people dropping off the last mail of the day were extremely kind. And undisturbed by my camping in the middle of their post office!”
The kindness of strangers is a theme that comes up again and again for Amy.
“A man in Ash Grove, MO, waited up for me until midnight to make sure I found shelter there, and he and his wife gave me food. Crazy Larry (who runs Crazy Larry's hostel in Damascus, VA) also waited up for me after I'd been cycling in the pouring rain and made us eggs, pancakes and sausage. Dot watchers came out at all hours to say hello, and offer snacks, drinks, floor pumps and kind words. A friend from Denver sent out her friend with a sign to greet me in Kansas. Strangers posted regularly on my social media page with encouraging words. Gas station employees let me sit on the floor if there weren't chairs, and were unperturbed when I took naps slumped over tables or tubs of sno-melt.”
And while strangers offered help and home-cooked meals, fellow riders offered guidance and encouragement, and she even fell in love, it was Amy who rode over 4,000 miles. Amy, who learned how to decide which dogs would chase her and which were friendly; who trained after school and between lesson plans to make sure she was ready.
Cyclist, or not, Amy freakin' did it.
And now, one year later, she just completed her second cross-continent ultra-endurance race, the Transcontinental. This time she raced 2,500 miles through Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Czechia, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania and Greece (in that order). She completed the race in 14 days, 20 hours, and 27 minutes, this time with a partner (remember when we mentioned she fell in love?), subsisting mainly on gas-station, Nutella-filled croissants, Haribo gummies, and Fanta.
Safe to say Amy is an ultra-endurance athlete, but one who completely upends the image that term may bring to mind. Evidence that the term "athlete" doesn't only mean one thing, and "ultra", as intense and unforgiving and extreme as it sounds, can also mean compassionate, brave, and open. Open to the challenge, open to experiencing fear and pushing through it, open to connection.