Ghost Rider of the Trans North

I sat down with Doug Williams, a dear friend, two days after he returned from racing the Trans North of California. I woke up the next morning still thinking about his story. All photos are Doug’s and where truth blends into legend, all errors are mine.

The Ghost Rider's bike.
The Ghost Rider’s bike, handbuilt in Oakland by Cleaver. Front and rear bags are Revelate. And Flaming Bike stitched that not-quite-the-right-size framebag.

The Ghost Rider is one of the great untold stories of the first Trans North of California. This 400 mile backcountry mountain bike race transects Northern California from Reno to Mendocino. The route is remote, mixing in as much dirt road and singletrack as possible. Riders cross the high desert from Reno over the granite scarps of the Sierra Nevadas, down the clear pine foothills, across the Great Central Valley, over the folded and refolded Coast Range, then finally to the ocean.

Doug Williams finished the Trans North in three and a half days, but you won’t find his track on the leaderboard. Following the example of Tour Divide and the other great backcountry races, the Trans North live-tracked its riders using Spot Trackers. They called Doug the Ghost Rider because nobody knew where he was until he rode in out of the night to gas stations along the way, joining other riders stopping for candy bars and Gatorade.

Although Doug was following the route by GPS, his Spot tracker failed to relay his position. There was also the other micro-disaster when Doug snapped a rail on his saddle just 50 miles into the race. By the bottom of the rocky singletrack descent, the other rail had snapped as well. He caught up to the guy in front of him and said he thought his ride was over. The other rider showed Doug how to push the saddle forward on the seat post and clamp it down on top of the broken rails like a splint. He would finish the race 350 miles later on the same saddle.

The Ghost Rider also got a full night’s sleep every night of his race. The difference between not sleeping at all and sleeping some is drastic — the winners rode straight through and finished in just two days. But for most of the lead pack, the difference between sleeping the full night or riding half the night seemed to be a wash. On the second night, Doug and a few others in the lead pack rolled out from the Chevron gas station in Maxwell — a dry, flat stop in the dead middle of the Central Valley. Across the other half of the great valley, a singletrack ascent laid ahead of them leading into Mendocino National Forest. Doug slept the night on its outskirts.

By mid-morning, Doug caught up to the rider in front of him, Isaac Chilton, who had spent the night riding until 4am. “He had incredible blue eyes, fighter pilot eyes.” Doug said. After riding all night, he had that thousand-yard stare, Doug said, and he was just going to keep riding until he got to the coast.

Isaac was the other great Ghost Rider of the race — he is also missing from the Spot tracker leaderboard. Not only did Isaac not carry a Spot, he navigated using only the cue sheet, a set of digital maps on his phone, and the brains inside his skull.

“He couldn’t have done it without those eyes,” Doug said of the only rider to get complete the race without GPS. He said this with the incredible admiration that men have and sometimes can only express for each other when they’re pushing the extremes. Isaac would arrive at the coast Tuesday afternoon, coming in 5th.

Dense, overgrown singletrack in the Coast Range.
Dense, overgrown singletrack in the Coast Range.

Doug was not far behind. Just miles from the finish on the fire roads following Big River into Mendocino Woodlands, Doug caught up to Troy Hopwood, the only rider on a full-suspension bike. For a while it was an open question whether they were going to cross the finish line holding hands or race it out to the end. But Troy was from Washington, and when they hit the overgrown singletrack under redwoods and dripping ferns, Troy found himself on home turf and dropped Doug hard.

Doug saw him and lost him again on the fire roads leading into Mendocino. In sight of the ocean, Doug crossed under a freeway overpass onto the beach where the organizers had promised to camp from Monday to Wednesday awaiting arrivals. He rolled his packbike onto the sand. He was a scant 14 minutes behind Troy, but there was nobody there waiting for him. He circled around a while. Finally, he dipped his front wheel into the waves and yelled into the ocean. Then he called his ride, went into town, and ate a entire pizza.

In today’s ultra-endurance backcountry races, we can follow the progress of our friends — our heros — across a state, across a continent, and even around the world, all from the palm of our hand. Refresh the browser and they make a pixel of progress. We can even replay an entire four day race in under a minute.

But those flags on a Google map give no hint of the splendor and awe of riding a transect of California from desert sagebrush to the redwood canopies of the coast. Or how the distance between towns creates a camaraderie on the road centered around small town gas stations along the way. How a competitor helped Doug fix his saddle and saved his ride.

Some Spot Trackers failed and others didn’t carry one at all. The leaderboard won’t tell you some of the great stories of the first Trans North race across California — like Isaac Chilton, the rider with fighter pilot eyes who navigated by map and compass, or Doug Williams, the Ghost Rider of the Trans North.

Doug placed 7th after riding 400 miles in under four days from Reno to Mendocino.

Doug Williams, Ghost Rider of the Trans North.
Doug Williams, Ghost Rider of the Trans North.

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