From Zero to 629.4: Tackling the North Star Bicycle Race — Part 1

Eli Radtke poses for a portrait with his Trek bike // Photo by Ryan Radtke

Eli Radtke poses for a portrait with his Trek bike // Photo by Ryan Radtke

When I announced to my family in February that I intended to participate in an unsupported, 629.4-mile bike race this September, they started planning my funeral.

When I get up in the morning and look in the mirror, I see an oft-unemployed 25-year-old man, roughly 40 pounds overweight, balding and out of breath from climbing up the stairs.

Let’s just say I’m not on any shortlists for endurance racing events.

So, when my friend told me about the North Star Bicycle Race (NSBR), I politely said I would think about it, fully intending not to. But I was curious. So, I investigated.

The NSBR is a solo, unsupported endurance race following U.S. Bicycle Route 41 from St. Paul to Grand Portage and back. This race is especially remarkable because it is unsupported: there are no stages to rest, refuel, and regroup. No gear vans. No coaches for moral support and advice. No hotel reservations before the race begins or sending supplies forward. Just you, whatever you can carry on your bike, and the road. For 629.4 miles.

Easy, right?

That night, staring at the mountain my stomach made under the blanket, I thought about the race. A feverish energy gripped me. I needed to shake things up, do some living! The small masochistic part of my brain banged its proverbial fist in approval. Satisfied with my new life plan, I fell asleep with triumphant visions of the new and improved me.

My delusions of grandeur had not faded by the morning. The race was so far away I would surely be in the best shape of my life by then, ready to tackle the challenge. Before I could change my mind, I emailed the organizer of the race and gave them my information and my intent to participate. That’s how, in the midst of the polar vortex, I found myself on the roster of the second annual NSBR.

As any nerd-gone-athlete story goes, I started with research. I looked up bike schematics, documentaries, and all-things endurance bike racing. I discovered life-changing anecdotes from similar events. My family, on the other hand, found stories of bikers struck by cars and killed. I decided to stop bringing it up around the dinner table.

Thankfully I found other outlets in which to discuss my plans. A group of friends had also signed up for the race and we all agreed we should train together. As we sat down to talk about the journey, it became clear we had different ideas about pace. In unsupported races, participants can pedal as long and as far as they like with no restrictions. This was great news to me: slow and steady wins the race! My friends did not share my sentiment. We would be aiming to finish the race in six days, because anyone who didn’t was a scrub, according to them. Based on this bravado, I began putting together some time tables, looking at last year’s participants for some inspiration. Jon Lester, last year’s winner, biked all 629.4 miles in 44 hours and 50 minutes.

Naturally, this made me a little nervous. I took another look at just how far 630 miles is. Minneapolis to Madison is only 274 miles. To Chicago, it’s 408. St. Louis gets close at 537, but to Wichita is the closest to the mark at 635 miles. My butt hurt just looking at the map.

Maybe it would be better broken up. Splitting the race into six parts yields 104.9 miles a day. Assuming I will have to stop to resupply, my plan began to take shape around biking roughly 12 hours a day. I (generously) assumed that I will be averaging around 12–14 mph during the race, which, given all the other calculations meant that on a flat road at that speed, I would burn an estimated 9,600 calories per day. Clearly, consuming calories wouldn’t be my problem. Conditioning my body to be able to expend all that energy is another story.

Eli Radtke poses for a portrait with his Trek bike // Photo by Ryan Radtke

Eli Radtke poses for a portrait with his Trek bike // Photo by Ryan Radtke

I looked over my notes. Most people take months to train for just a single 100-mile ride. I am doing six such rides wrapped into one. It was then I realized what an enormous task it would be to turn my plushy body into a highly efficient machine in a little over seven months.

With February in full swing, road training was out. I pulled out my dad’s old road bike and set it up on rollers in an unfinished room in my basement. Illuminated by a single bare light bulb and surrounded by discarded objects, I went to work.

To start, I wanted to build endurance and work toward general fitness. I set my goal weight at 190 pounds on race day, and to get there I started biking 30‒60 minutes four to five times a week, with supplemental strength training. All done inside, in my basement. I decided to forgo a strict diet plan and instead be more conscious of what I ate. Dropping 30 pounds in seven months wasn’t going to be fun.

Now that I had my physical training started, it was time to find a bike. I needed to upgrade to something I could push to the limits without it falling apart on the side of the road. Additionally, I had to find that perfect bike on a part-time writer, part-time cook’s salary. This turned out to be harder than I thought.

I spent February exploring different Craigslist posts for bicycles. From this experience, I learned that: 1) Craigslist photo vs. reality is almost as bad as Tinder; and 2) bargaining with Minnesotans is about as fun and direct as running backwards.

Shady meetings in fast-food parking lots felt more like a hostage exchange than shopping. The sellers watched me hawkishly to ensure I wasn’t going to ride off into the sunset. My testing tracks were slushy Burger King drive-thrus and laps around Walmart shopping-cart corrals. None of the bikes felt right, but in weather barely above zero with five layers of clothing on, nothing felt quite right.

I decided that I would try a different approach, and went to The Hub Bike Co-Op in Minneapolis. There, I learned that the worst thing you can do if you are looking to buy a bike on a budget is to ride an expensive one.

The difference was like hearing your friend try to hum a song they are thinking of and seeing it live in the front row. Goodbye worn-down brake pads, hello disc brakes. Instead of scouring the depths of the web for parts, everything was brand new and perfectly assembled on the bike right there in front of me. I thought I had found the perfect solution—until I saw the price.

I went back to scanning Craigslist.

As snow emergencies littered the early days of March, training continued in the basement. I am still desperately out of shape and not looking forward to the 70-mile training rides I have planned in the spring, and still feel clueless.

But: I can feel myself getting stronger. For now, Craigslist bike-suitors will still have to watch me wobble around, dodging parked cars and potholes, before shaking my head and driving back home. I’ll just focus on what’s in front of me and take it one mile at a time.

This is part one of a three-part story about the NSBR. The next installation will be after the summer training period and before the race begins on September 11. To follow Eli through the doldrums of training and get a play-by-play of the complaints, follow him on Twitter at @Eli_ektdaR.