Northampton Cycling Club team completes WOW Cyclothon relay race in Iceland

  • Carson Poe, left, and Eric Baumann change shifts in a headwind in eastern Iceland during the WOW Cyclothon in late June. COURTESY CARSON POE

  • The scenery in eastern Iceland during the WOW Cyclothon in late June. Three Northampton Cycling Club members participated in a relay race around the country. COURTESY CARSON POE

  • Eric Baumann rides through the clouds on Oxi Mountain Road in eastern Iceland during the WOW Cyclothon in late June. COURTESY CARSON POE

  • Trevor Plum opened the RV hatch to grab a bike during the WOW Cyclothon in late June in Iceland. The Northampton Cycling Club team stored two bikes in the hatch and one in the cabin. COURTESY CARSON POE

  • Eric Baumann and Roger Stawasz try to recover between shifts at the RV’s dining table during the WOW Cyclothon, a relay race around Iceland, in late June. COURESTEY JONATHAN O’KEEFE

  • Carson Poe and Roger Stawasz climbing out of Akureyri, a city in northern Iceland, during the WOW Cyclothon race in late June. COURTESY CARSON POE

  • Roger Stawasz of Northampton, left, Jonathan O’Keeffe of Amherst and Carson Poe of Northampton, shown June 19 in Northampton, traveled to Iceland in late June to take part in the WOW Cyclothon, a relay race around the country’s perimeter. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

@kylegbrwsk
Published: 7/13/2018 8:29:13 PM

The whale’s tail submerged as the sun sat low in Iceland’s early morning sky.

Carson Poe focused his gaze on that spot from his bike saddle, the Atlantic Ocean to his left and mountains on his right. The whale resurfaced for air a couple more times before disappearing.

“People go on these whale watching tours, and they pay a lot of money. They go on the boat and they freeze,” Poe said. “Here I am, comfortable on a bike, and I’m the only person on the planet seeing this whale at three in the morning.”

Poe, who lives in Northampton, saw that whale during a graveyard shift at the WOW Cyclothon, an 844-mile cycling relay race over 72 hours around

Iceland in late June. Poe’s Northampton Cycling Club team took 48 hours, 38 minutes, 45 seconds to traverse the outer rim of Iceland. Poe, Roger Stawasz of Northampton, Jonathan O’Keeffe of Amherst and Eric Baumann of Quincy finished 11th out of 12 teams in the A category. Airport Direct won in 39:53:05.

Focusing on finishing

“When we set out to put a team together we weren’t trying to win. One of the guys is 69 years old,” Poe said. “From a team gratification and satisfaction perspective, we did really well. No one left disappointed.”

They focused more on the spirit of collective achievement and the small moments of solace. When Poe was alone on the road at 2 a.m., or 3 a.m., it didn’t matter much. He had an open road, no cars and beautiful scenery.

“The only noise was your own breathing and your bike tires on the road,” Poe said.

Riding the WOW Cyclothon was its own white whale for Poe since it began in 2012. He traveled to Iceland eight times before this and heard about the race, but never could assemble a team. This past winter, he connected with Stawasz through the Northampton Cycling Club. Stawasz was aware of O’Keeffe, who served on the NCC board.

Wally Hudzikiewicz of Southampton volunteered to drive after hearing Poe talk about the race over dinner. The other driver, Trevor Plum of Cincinnati, was Poe’s best man at his wedding. They’ve known each other since 2003 when they started a band in Boston. Plum knew Baumann and suggested him.

“A lot of us never met each other,” Hudzikiewicz said. “It was really rewarding how we came together.”

Some of the crew arrived in Iceland a week before the race to sightsee and take in Iceland’s final FIFA World Cup match at an open-air viewing party. Others landed a few days before focused on the race, which began June 25. Baumann rolled out of a north suburb of Reykjavík at 6 p.m. with his cyclocross bike, which has a wider frame and larger tires, at the starting line. The other three members brought road bikes. Each man cycled for 90 minutes at a time, covering roughly 25 miles per shift when conditions allowed.

“Dealing with the wind was pretty rough,” O’Keeffe said. “Depending on what direction you’re going it can be brutal. That affected our timing in some sections.”

The rider taking the next shift would set up down the road from their teammate, and when that person crossed the front wheel of the waiting rider, he would take off.

“It’s pretty much an honor system,” O’Keeffe said.

The order rotated from Baumann to Stawasz then Poe and O’Keeffe. Riders weren’t allowed to drive, and the drivers weren’t allowed to ride. Hudzikiewicz and Plum passed off the wheel every six or seven hours. Plum drove during the day, and Hudzikiewicz took over at night, or as close to night as it got.

“I kind of purposefully wanted to do the night shifts so I could see the sun set and sun rise because it’s within an hour,” Hudzikiewicz said.

Hudzikiewicz was comfortable on Iceland’s roads after spending 10 days there last August when his wife Julie Flahive ran the Reykjavík Marathon. Hudzikiewicz used to race mountain bikes in the 1990s, but injuries have stropped him from riding, so supporting the NCC team was a way to get back involved with the peloton.

“If it were up to me I would’ve tried to stay up for the whole trip because there was so much to see,” Hudzikiewicz said.

Fueling the ride

When a rider came off their shift, they had 4½ hours to rest, eat and prepare for their next ride. The team brought freeze-dried food, granola bars, dates and trail mix. The RV had a stove and a small refrigerator stocked with Coca Cola for an energy boost.

“It’s all sugar. Even though I don’t think I’ve touched a Coca Cola in 20 years, I did have one on that trip just to give me a little lift when I felt I was fading,” said Stawasz, who at 69 may have been the oldest competitor in the field.

Baumann was easily the youngest among the team at 31. Poe, 40, and O’Keeffe, 47, brought the average age to 47.

“If there were age-graded results, we would have done much better,” Poe joked.

The course traced north out of Reykjavík before turning east on Route 1, also known as the Ring Road. It followed that around nearly the entire country save a couple dirt sections.

“I am sort of reluctant to say highway because it’s not like a highway we envision here,” Poe said. “It’s a two-lane road for the most part around the perimeter of the island.”

Once on Route 1, the NCC team traversed the northern mountain range before descended toward the coastal city of Akureyri. O’Keeffe rode an overnight shift coming out of the mountains by a fjord, an inlet carved by glaciers.

“I was riding into the setting sun then into this dusk and watching the sun rise in front of me all in the period of an hour and a half or so,” he said. “Gorgeous scenery all around, beautiful light in the sun and the sky.”

Weather provided minimal problems for the team. The temperature stayed consistently between 45 and 55 degrees, but wind, sun and rain varied how those temperatures felt.

“It was challenging to get the clothing right. You don’t want to get cold so you end up putting on a lot of clothes — coat, gloves, hat,” Poe said. “Then you get out there and you start working and warm up only to stop cycling and cool down again.”

They avoided major mechanical failures. There were no flat tires, and luckily so because the team only carried one CO2 canister to fill new tires. Baumann faced a slight derailleur problem near the end of a dirt section on the Eastern coast, but to save time Stawasz began his shift early so they could keep moving.

That kind of communal commitment to the goal kept tensions low in the RV’s cramped conditions.

“There wasn’t really any friction, which can be a problem when you’re all packed into a stinky RV for four days in a competitive atmosphere,” O’Keeffe said.

Setting a routine

The NCC team traveled east out of Akureyri before turning south and west back toward Reykjavík. Iceland’s Southeast coast features fjords along the highway and the outskirts of the Vatnajökull National Park.

“There was something so peaceful and it was so serene and so beautiful,” Stawasz said.

By that time the team settled into the routine and the exhaustion. While they struggled to rest or sleep after the first few shifts because of adrenaline, they dropped and rested as much as they could on the last push.

“Everything about it was a homestretch kind of feel,” Hudzikiewicz said. “It was epic.”

The team pulled into a southern suburb of Reykjavík around 7:40 p.m. June 27 after circumnavigating nearly the entire country.

“By the time we assembled in Iceland, the six of us, that was the first time we had all met in person. We all sort of knew each other one way or another, but it wasn’t like we were six friends from the start,” Poe said. “We were able to put together a team that got along and did this sort of crazy event just based on being kind and camaraderie and trusting each other that everyone was going to be able to do it. It actually worked.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com.


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