Alf Alderson looks at what it takes to complete the ‘world’s toughest bike race’
The hard-as-nails Race Across America is, according to its promoters ‘…a pinnacle of athletic achievement’; indeed, the promotional blurb goes on to inform us that ‘Race Across America is the World’s Toughest Bike Race’. Even the acronym RAAM is as macho as a rusty old pick-up truck.
But when you look at the race stats you have to admit that they may have a point. Three thousand miles of riding, 170,000 feet of climbing, all in one continual stage, the whole lot to be completed in less than twelve days. And not even any prize money, just the glory of finishing and the warm glow from earning some bucks for the good cause of your choice (most competitors do the race for charity).
Yes, few would argue that it isn’t a tough call even by the sado-masochistic standards of your average professional racing cyclist.
That said, you don’t have to do the event solo, although that’s the only way you’ll earn the distinction of becoming an official ‘RAAM Finisher’, of which there have been fewer than 200 since the race started in 1982. There are also competitions for two-, four- and eight-person teams, the latter of which actually makes the race feasible for mere mortals since it involves an average of just three hours per day on your bike.
This mix of professionals riding in the solo category through to keen amateurs racing as teams – and the lack of prize money – makes the whole shebang a very different creature to the Grand Tours and other major stage races. But whichever way you look at it, taking on RAAM, particularly as a solo rider, is a daunting task.
If you’re in any doubt, simply ask the fourth place finisher and Rookie of the Year from 2011, Alberto Blanco.
Despite the name, Alberto doesn’t hail from some bicycle worshipping Italian hill town but is a hearty young Californian sponsored by NeilPryde Bikes. Alberto completed the 2989.5-mile route of the 2011 RAAM from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland in nine days, seven hours and twenty-seven minutes (average speed 13.38mph) and hopped off his bike in rude health apart from swollen feet, blurred vision, a lack of feeling in his fingers, nasty saddle sores, “a general feeling on my body like I had a concussion” and a bad case of ‘Shermer’s Neck’, which we’ll come on to in a minute.
Pictures of Alberto taken immediately after finishing the race show an exhausted man who looks like a cross between an earthquake survivor and the Tour’s lantern rouge at the end of an especially cruel day in the Alps.
An intensive training programme of individual rides of up to 450 miles, daily commutes to work of 45 miles each way and an average weekly mileage of 600-700 miles (100-150 on rest weeks) are partly what allowed Alberto to complete this mighty challenge, although like Mark Cavendish he’s always keen to point out that he simply couldn’t have done it without his team mates – in this case not fellow riders but an essential back up crew of two drivers, two navigators and a doctor (it’s also worth remembering that even for these five non-cyclists this is a tough assignment, with only three hours of sleep a day).
Those three hours of kip were pure indolence compared to what Alberto got, however – he slept an average of 1.5 hours per day, with the luxury of a “very refreshing” five-minute nap in the afternoon of the final two days.
Since they were crossing an entire continent Alberto and his team experienced a variety of extreme weather conditions – severe thunderstorms in Illinois, close to sub-zero temperatures whilst climbing and descending eight-per-cent Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains (at 10587 feet the highest point in the race) and in Kansas forty-degree heat with the delightful addition of 65 kph headwinds.
But as ever it was other road users who proved the biggest danger along the way (clearly it’s impractical to hold a race of this length on closed roads). “There was one particular stretch in Colorado where the trucks and traffic were passing really close to me and direct team back up wasn’t permitted on this stretch so I had no protection behind me – I was scared going through there”.
Team camaraderie was key to Alberto’s success. “The only guy on the team who had done RAAM before was one of the drivers, Jim – in fact this was his seventeenth time of crewing at RAAM and he said after the race he would trade all of his previous experiences just for this one, he was so happy with the team spirit”.
However, even the least cynical of people would have to ask why you would endure this endless slog for little more than the satisfaction of putting it all behind you, but then again, for some cyclists this is enough. Alberto told me that his inspiration came from the likes of Roger Bannister, the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile, high altitude mountaineers Reinhold Messner and Ed Viesturs and RAAM record holder Pete Penseyres, who also happens to be one of his friends.
These are all men who would appear to have higher thresholds of pain tolerance, stamina and sheer determination than the majority of humankind, and I guess that when you consider that since RAAM’s inception in 1982 an average of less than six people a year have completed the race in the allotted time it would seem you perhaps need to be made of the same stuff as such heroes to emulate Alberto’s achievements.
If you’re in any doubt, consider this: the ‘Shermer’s Neck’ complaint I referred to above, and that Alberto started to develop on descending from Wolf Creek Pass, only about a third of the way into the race, would be enough to make most people forget about even riding their bike down to the corner shop, let alone another 2000 miles.
The malady is named after Michael Shermer, one of the original RAAM racers who suffered from the previously unknown and unnamed complaint in the 1983 race; your neck muscles basically stop working due to the constant strain of being in a riding position for up to 22 hours a day, so it becomes impossible to hold your head up, which is a bit of a disadvantage when you have a good slice of the USA to cycle across.
The condition doesn’t respond to anti-inflammatories, ice, massage or any of the standard treatments for exhausted muscles, so Alberto’s team solved the problem by constructing a makeshift neck brace from a backpack frame and various other bits of metalwork, bungee cords and strapping. He lost several hours whilst the brace was constructed but amazingly, once fitted, his speeds continued to be up there with the race leaders.
On a more prosaic level, Alberto also points out that “I didn’t get to see a lot of countryside after the first thousand miles because of the neck problem – all I could really see was my front wheel and the handlebars” – so not even the opportunity to enjoy the views along the way…
And there was one other rather bizarre issue which no one else in the race had to contend with. “When we hit the thunderstorm in Illinois, lightning was striking all around us. Conditions were so bad that cars and trucks were pulling over to sit it out – and there I was cycling through the electrically charged atmosphere wearing a makeshift neck brace with a piece of metal sticking out the top and acting as the perfect lightning conductor! The crew told me to get in the car and maybe wait it out, but I knew most of my competitors would be riding through it so we carried on regardless”.
Of course, the stress on the body of such a long and sustained ride is extreme enough without picking up such esoteric injuries as ‘Shermer’s Neck’. Racers need to eat and drink constantly and it’s a challenge in itself to take on board the eight thousand calories of food and three gallons of fluid required each day, and no one is going to climb down from their bike after 3000 miles of continuous riding and carry on as normal – certainly not for a few weeks, anyway.
The Tour is famously said to take most riders months to recover from, and when I spoke to Alberto a month after RAAM he said his neck was still stiff although almost back to normal, but he was still suffering from numbness in his extremities, had no strength in his hands and pain in his feet when he walked. “Oh, and I also lost three toenails”.
He didn’t appear to be unduly worried about any of this, and plans to “recover and be stronger in the future – some aspects of my health may not be quite the same as before, but it’s nothing that will stop me cycling across the USA faster next year”.
You kind of get the feeling that the man who uttered the immortal phrase “Put me back on my bike” would understand – even if the rest of us probably never will.