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MANSFIELD — Michalle “Mickey” Gilbert stopped at a small Catholic church along the highway one afternoon in Gallatin, Missouri.
The 54-year-old had been cycling for hours in the hot July sun, carrying about 50 pounds of gear on her bike. Part of her adventure that day involved using bear spray on a pair of pesky dogs that wouldn’t leave her alone. She had considered ditching the stuff because she hadn’t encountered any bears yet.
“It works for dogs, I will say,” she said.
But before this little break, Gilbert, of Mansfield, had pedaled 2,113.82 miles from Portland, Oregon as one of 12 racers in the “Bike Nonstop U.S.” race.
Gilbert rattled off tales like the dogs and the bear spray with enthusiasm and laughter, but also at a slower, pensive cadence — one that can only be developed by someone who has just spent nearly a month riding her bicycle under the sun, and the stars, mostly alone.
The self-supported race is a 3,500-mile trek that crosses 11 states, wrapping in Washington, D.C. At the start, her goal was to ride 100 miles every day in order to finish in 35 days.
“She’s definitely determined,” said Eric Peterson, general manager at Y-Not Cycling and Fitness. The bike shop sponsored her race and has been posting about her progress since she started on June 19.
“She knows she’s probably not going to win the female category, but she won’t shift her bike back — she’s going to finish it,” Peterson said.
Gilbert had a rocky start. She caught a head cold on the plane heading west, and as of July 12, she still nursed a dry cough.
Upon reaching Idaho, she broke a shifter cable on her 2019 Salsa Warbird. It was a setback, one that placed her at the back of the pack. She still had 63 miles to ride until reaching Riverton, Wyoming.
“I managed to get one gear working,” she said. When she reached Riverton, she rolled into a bike shop that fixed her up with a different gearing ratio that is more favorable to climbing steep hills.
“Things happen for a reason,” Gilbert said. “The new gears are a night-and-day difference. I would have continued to suffer if my cable hadn’t broken.”
Gilbert became a customer at Y-Not when she started cycling around 2010. She was a runner long before she jumped into the saddle, completing marathons, half-marathons and Iron Man competitions.
She retired in October 2015 after 26 years with the Ohio State Highway Patrol. She served in various roles at posts in Bucyrus, Van Wert, Defiance, Marion and Ashland. Her last role was working as a hostage negotiator for the Crisis Negotiation Team.
“(Eric Peterson) tells all us runners that we’ll eventually come to him for a bike once our bodies are all mangled from running,” she said.
Gilbert eventually became such a regular at Y-Not that Peterson hired her as a part-time employee.
Why do this?
She’s lost friends and colleagues — one to cancer and another after being hit by a car — as the years moved along post retirement. Then she watched a movie, one that inspired and moved her deeply. It was “Inspired to Ride,” a 2015 documentary that follows cyclists in the Trans Am bike race.
“It was one of those movies that just stays with you and you can’t stop thinking about it,” she said. “I watched it two or three more times. And so, you know, one day I told myself, ‘Maybe I do want to do this.’ ”
Gilbert was set to do the Bike Nonstop U.S. race in 2020, whose director is the same as the Trans Am. (The difference between the races is the amount of rail trails vs. open roads, the latter of which are the focus of the Trans Am.)
The pandemic struck and shattered those plans. She wasn’t able to do the race in 2021, pushing it out to this year.
Her training involved hiring Greg Grandgeorge, a trainer who helped Kraig Pauli win the Trans Am bike race in 2021 in 17 days, eight hours and 30 minutes. Gilbert said he helped her develop a strategy for efficient sleeping and figure out what gear works best for rides this long.
He also developed a strategy for riding for long periods of time. She said she’d have training weekends where she’d ride for five hours one day, and then two hours the next, and then eight hours the third day.
“You have to be able to be in the saddle every single day — cranking out miles,” she said.
Her gear, by the way, includes a small bivy, an air mattress, a blow-up pillow, a 3-liter water bladder, a change of clothes, arm and leg warmers, extra tools and toiletries.
“That’s pretty much it,” she said.
She also carries an extra inner tube and a pump. All the gear is carried in bags attached to the bike. She mailed home the cold weather gear she used toward the beginning of the race.
But she also carries the names of friends and co-workers she’s lost. They serve as motivation for finishing the race.
When she gets to D.C., she plans to stop at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial before finishing the race. It honors 23,229 U.S. law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty throughout American history.
“I figured they need to go across the country too,” Gilbert said of her fallen friends.
Passing through Ohio
The Bike Nonstop U.S. route snakes through Ohio, taking the majority of the Ohio to Erie Trail before cutting east near Massillon.
The closest she’ll be to Mansfield will be Mount Vernon, though she’s unsure on when she’ll actually be there. It might be during dark hours — her preference for riding.
“I don’t do very well in the heat. I typically finish early and sleep until about midnight,” she said, adding she starts the ride somewhere around 1 a.m.
You can follow Mickey Gilbert’s and other racers’ progress in the race by following this link.
But if she passes through Mount Vernon at a time more people are awake, she warned her supporters that she won’t be able to take any handouts.
“There might be some people who want to bring me things. I cannot have that,” she said.
Accepting resources that she does not provide for herself is against the race rules.
“So I cannot accept anything from anyone. It sounds silly, but that would give me an unfair advantage,” Gilbert said.
But she’ll take the support. She is, in fact, mostly alone out there. Simple gestures like text messages, cheers and waves make her day.
Her best guess is that she’ll pass through Mount Vernon between July 19 and 26. As of July 13, she still had the rest of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana to pedal through.
When she’s pedaling, she’s thinking — about her childhood, her good and bad life experiences. And so although the race is 3,500 miles of pedaling a 50-pound bike over hills, prairies and mountains, it’s an inward trek too. And she’s learning to slow down. To take in the scenery and the sounds.
“You know, a rest stop might be 30 miles away. That might be a three-hour bike ride. So there’s tolerance I’m developing. We’re a me, right-now society. And we get used to that.
“This is where it’s changing for me.”