Two hours after Clay Stark came upon the crash scene where fellow rider Eric Fishbein was killed, he was hit by a passing motorist.
Wearing a reflector vest, two rear lights and two ankle reflectors, Stark heard the thwack of the driver’s passenger side rear-view mirror hitting his left shoulder, heard the sound of breaking glass — all before he could process that he’d been hit.
“By the luck of the draw, I stayed on my bike,” Stark, 57, of Healdsburg said.
On a Kansas highway at night, alone and rattled to his core, it was unclear to him in the immediate aftermath that he would press on.
“That night, I got a hotel room and almost quit,” he said.
Stark was about 2,250 miles into the 4,300-mile Trans Am Bike Race when Fishbein, a fellow Trans Amer, was killed.
“It was awful,” he said. Being struck himself mere hours later shook his faith again.
But Stark believes in the power of bikes. After all, his bike brought him back from the depths.
Five years ago, Stark was 5-foot-10, 250 pounds. He was a guy who, as a younger man, had ridden through Mexico and Central America. As a younger man still, he did some amateur racing.
But at 52, Stark was out of shape. He also had throat cancer.
“My house smelled like a hospital because of all the meds I was on,” he said.
So he rode. A byproduct of being sick was he dropped enough weight to feel at least comfortable on a bike again.
“I started riding through radiation,” he said. “I felt great.”
He joined the Petaluma Wheelmen Cycling Club and later the Santa Rosa Cycling Club. He started out with the slow, no-drop rides, but he soon learned that he’s a guy who can grind all day. He started signing up for longer and longer events.
One year to the day after he finished his chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he rode the Joshua Tree Double Century. He’s been back every year since.
So when the four-year-old Trans Am race came onto his radar, he figured it was right in his wheelhouse. Self-supported, riders depart from Astoria, Oregon, on the west or Yorktown, Virginia, on the east and ride a set route until the end. Some riders camp, some stay in hotels, but no rider is allowed an advantage that not all riders can access.
Stark’s strategy was to try to get a good meal into his belly as often as he could, but he ate plenty of convenience-store burritos and too many PayDay candy bars to count.
He averaged 152 miles a day and he spent much of his journey alone.
“I welcomed the solitary part of it,” he said. “I was used to it.”
So Stark set up a loose routine: camp — or something close to it — two nights, find a cheap motel the third night, repeat. He had packed a down sleeping bag and a bivy sac and not much else.
Thankfully, Stark says he can sleep anywhere. He tested that theory on the Trans Am. He hunkered down in churches, post office lobbies and open fields of wet grass. One night, he took refuge in the doorway of a ranger station in Yellowstone National Park.