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Race Across the West: my American cycle race for MS

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Chris Orfeur in his custom MS Trust cycle top

Chris Orfeur took on a gruelling 860 mile cycle race from Oceanside in California to Durango in Colorado to raise funds for the MS Trust.

He rode over mountains and through deserts in fifty degree heat to raise over £6,300 to support people who, like his mum, live with multiple sclerosis. Here is Chris's account of this epic cycle challenge.



Pre-race prep in California

Arriving in San Diego late at night and driving to Oceanside, the first obstacle to contend with was finding a place to stay for the night. Oceanside hotels were full of tourists and Race Across the West riders and crew already! We then had four days before the race to pick up vehicles, crew and race supplies, as well as attending meetings and inspections. It left little time to chill before the race.

I admitted to some of the race organisers that I was incredibly nervous and overwhelmed, but this was calmed by having a crew that never questioned what was asked of them and had a ruddy good laugh along the way.

With one hour thirty minutes ‘til I had to hand in my documents to get clearance to race, I called the crew only to be told they were stuck at a Walmart waiting for a locksmith, having locked the keys and the paperwork inside our car! Credit to Emma and Tilly who managed to prevent me having a full meltdown as I was about to ride down there and put my cycle helmet through the car window!

Chris and his crew

The race begins

Then came race day. Donning rugby shorts and my custom MS Trust cycle jersey, which perfectly matched the custom paint job Enigma Bicycle Works did on my bicycle, I rode down to the start line. An American rider called Danny Warner exchanged numbers with me in the event I crashed and needed spare wheels or a bicycle - I was running on one bicycle and one set of wheels. Unfortunately all I had to offer in return were a couple of Werther’s Originals and some poor jokes!

I felt rather chilled until hearing my name being called to the start line, then a few butterflies appeared, but in all honesty I was stoked. Six months of preparation and sacrifice were done and now I was going to be riding my bicycle across the West of America in an international bicycle race. What cyclist wouldn't be stoked for that?

The first twenty miles or so were to be ridden alone with no support from the crew, so it gave me time to relax and get in good motion. As soon as crew support is available the pace picks up and my four friends basically kept me laughing the whole way.

Chris cycling in the Desert

Temperature rising

Once you turn off Oceanside beach, the sea breeze dies and the temperature ramps up before you start climbing, heading towards the steep drop down the “glass elevator” some fifty miles ahead. This is where we'd meet up with the rest of the crew in the RV. When I got to the RV I opened up my cycling shoes with a Stanley knife as the heat was already getting to my feet and we hadn't even hit the Arizona Desert.

Riding on from there was a balance of pushing it and keeping my food and water down as the temperatures just increased the further inland we got. The sun soon set and for me the hard part began. When the sun dropped, the night time was pure jet black, not a light seen anywhere. There is nothing to take in apart from headlight dazzle which, when you have been riding for a solid 12 hours, is incredibly tiring.

Into the Arizona Desert

After a two hour kip parked in a custom inspection area, I set out on my bicycle bang on 6am, still with a big grin on my face. That morning riding into the Arizona Desert gave me memories I'll have forever. Listening to Led Zeppelin and having a phone call with my mum and dad whilst in the middle of nowhere was just amazing!

Then the fifty degrees came, along with my first feeling of being ill. One of my crew also fell ill due to the temperature. The heat hits you and it comes not only from above but also up from the black asphalt beneath us. My only option was to chuck a mattress from the RV outside in the shade of a shop veranda and snooze for an hour until it cooled. I'd only had two hours’ sleep in over twenty four hours, having ridden 287 miles.    

My crew would fill a couple of bright pink socks full of ice that I would wear around the back of my neck, tucked in the collar of my jersey. This was so simple but so effective in keeping me cool, as well as making sure I never had an empty bottle of water.

Chris cycling with mountains in the distance

On to Congress

That night whilst riding to the Congress time station we had wild dogs chase us, scorpions in the road, great big hares and then a mouse that chose to run under my wheel. This was where a second crew member fell ill, leaving my mate Flinn to direct me single-handedly through the night. Once at Congress we were given lemonade and there was a pool to jump in which felt an absolute pleasure, even though it was around three thirty in the morning.

Riding on from Congress you have a serious mountain to climb, leaving the desert plain behind you. I am happiest riding up the mountains rather than on the flat so this was a lovely start to the day. Although at this point, my feet were getting rather uncomfortable.

A friendly face along the way

This was one of my longest and hardest days in the saddle. The heat had dropped a degree but the terrain and road conditions worsened. As I rode on I heard a voice from behind and it was Danny, the cyclist I’d met at the start of the race. This really lifted me up as I was starting to think I was the last rider left behind.

We made the most of the fifteen minute time allowance you get to ride alongside each other before he slowly pulled away. This was where I knew it was time to ride hard and up the pace. Along came busier roads and more mountains. I had to climb over seven and a half thousand feet above sea level before dropping down the other side.

Down the mountains

I find descending the mountains more tiring than the climbing. You have to try and keep yourself fluid, but it’s hard not to tense up as you’re shooting head first at speeds of around fifty miles per hour for 15 miles down a mountain. It soon takes it out of you and isn't helped when you pick up a puncture and have to concentrate on not losing your rear tyre.

At the bottom we road along a dual carriageway and the heat hit me again, along with a touch of fatigue after riding over four hundred miles with only four hours’ kip. I made a call to the crew and we found a church to sleep at. Before we set off again the priest mentioned that this was unusually hot weather for the time of year. With a little prayer from him, we pushed on.

Chris cycling along a desert road

Running on empty

We separated from the RV as we climbed through some beautiful mountains and towns. My spirits were high, the sun had dropped and I was in my element climbing quite happily until I made a call for a Cliff Bar (I lost count of how many of these I ate, but they are amazing!) and was told by the crew that there weren't any left. I could feel my tank emptying fast so I ended up having two boiled eggs in a packet of Doritos, before climbing through the mountains in complete darkness.

The eggs and crisps soon wore off and the hunger started again. This wouldn't have been a problem if the RV was at hand, but they were on the other side of the mountains. So began what cyclists call the BONK. This is the one occasion when the laughing stopped.

Getting our wires crossed

I would ride a couple of miles before collapsing over the handle bars, my body eating into what little reserves it had left. Flinn would jump out and stick an arm around me and on I'd push again, after asking him how much further I had to go. This is where wires got crossed. I meant how far to the RV with food, change of cycle gear and a cup of tea; Flinn thought I meant to the top of the mountains.

So when I asked how much further and he said four miles, I pushed on for two miles more thinking of food before collapsing again. When I found out how far it really was to the RV I rode off in a strop, effing and blinding for seven more miles!

Foot problems getting worse

Once at the RV we ate and the smiles returned. We rode on all through the night, seeing a beautiful sunrise over the rocks of the desert leading us into Utah. By this point my shoes were more like sandals and it felt like the inner sole was made of red hot pins. My toes were numb and bleeding. 

We rode to Tuba City and there we knew we were tight on the time limit, but after a motivational chat at the Utah welcome sign we decided to push on. I rode on and it became a real grind, hearing that ahead of me Danny was unwell. I started to wonder if it was such a good idea to keep going. 

Chris carrying his bicycle

Death Valley and the end of the road

As I got to the top of the aptly named Death Valley, I knew I had to call time on my attempt. My feet were beyond numb by now, so up came my white flag. It was a hard call to make as health and fitness-wise I was good to go, but my feet were done in.

I have to admit I did shed a small tear. I was gutted, but also incredibly overwhelmed with how far my crew and I had come. We were the youngest and most inexperienced crew there and we beat half the field to that point.

Why did I choose to raise funds for the MS Trust? Well, to be brief, in 2007 my mum’s life completely changed when she was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis. So after seeing how much a person’s life can change in a moment I thought it was best I put being a young keen cyclist to good use and raised money for a charity close to my heart!

Race Across the West route map

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