Benefield: Healdsburg bike enthusiast goes coast to coast in Trans Am race

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.

“I woke up and there was bird poop and mouse poop everywhere but I was dry,” he said.

The flip side of Stark’s solitude was the unexpected generosity of people along the way.

He got a flat tire (one of eight) somewhere in Kentucky and he pulled onto private property because that was the only way to get off of the road. As Stark crouched over his hobbled wheel on someone’s manicured front lawn, a man in a truck rolled up. Stark remembers thinking, “Here we go.”

“Instead, he hands me a bottle of water and a snack and asks me if there is anything he can do,” he said.

Another time, a woman tracked him down after seeing him drop a bag from his bike. No big deal, the bag just contained his wallet, identification, credit cards and cash.

“The ride really boiled down to the people,” he said. “Not just the riders, but the people.”

Even the drivers who sideswiped him - there were two - stopped and took care to see that he was OK. That was not altogether expected.

When the guy in Kansas nailed him, Stark remembers saying, “Let’s learn from this. I didn’t die and you didn’t kill someone.”

“He ended up being a normal kid who made a mistake,” he said.

Still, that was the night Eric Fishbein died, a guy Stark had camped with one night and who he’d seen on the road. That was the night he considered quitting. He thought about his two kids and his girlfriend and a life too good not to come home to, he said.

But he wanted to finish. He also wanted to finish in one piece, so he adjusted his riding patterns. And because he couldn’t adjust the roads he traveled - the Trans Am requires riders to follow the exact route established in 1976 as a touring route, he adjusted how he rode it.

He stopped when traffic got hairy. He stopped riding at night even when the heat of the day was suffocating.

His caution cost him some time, and he missed his goal of finishing in 24 or 25 days, but he’s OK with that. Twenty-eight days after he started pedaling in Astoria, Oregon, he rolled into Yorktown, Virginia.

The caution hard earned on the Kansas plains followed Stark home. He acknowledged that his pursuits sometimes feel selfish. Does he ride too much? As a father of two teenagers, is he putting himself at too much risk?

“I’m not going to stop riding my bike, it saved my life,” he said.

And for Stark, who works as a sales manager for a low-voltage electric company in Petaluma, riding his bike keeps his travels inexpensive.

“I love riding my bike and I love traveling. The more frugally I travel, the more of it I can do,” he said.

But he does think about riding differently. He’s eyeing some epic off-road rides. Away from the cars and the traffic.

He may not do the Trans Am again, but he’s glad he did it.

“I’m really glad I rode across my country,” he said.

And Stark sees the value in what he does, both for him and for his kids.

“It’s a selfish, solo endeavor,” he said. “But I also feel like I’m showing them something.”

Like what, I asked.

“That you don’t have to win, you don’t have to get the best grades,” he said. “Just do your best and finish.”

Sounds like a pretty good lesson, hard earned over 4,300 miles.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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