3,000 miles. Racing nonstop. If you sleep you lose.
Hell on Two Wheels takes readers inside a harrowing, 3,000-mile long ultra-distance cycling race and follows a handful of courageous competitors who test themselves, each other, and the limits of human endurance.
Hell on Two Wheels is a thrilling and remarkably detailed account of their ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies. This is more than just a race—it’s a monster, a crucible, an unforgettable allegory about the human experience of pain, joy, and self-discovery.
Contestants have died, been maimed, and spiraled down into the nightmarish realm of the mad. Half don’t finish this epic race that Outside Magazine calls “the toughest test of endurance in the world.” Despite this, each year the world’s greatest ultra-distance cyclists gather in California, hoping to be the first to reach the East Coast victorious. Along the way, they’ll test themselves, each other, and the limits of human endurance. This is their story.
One winner who also climbed the world’s highest mountain said, “Everest is more dangerous but RAAM is harder.” RAAM—the Race Across America—is a bicycle race like no other. It’s nothing like its more famous cousin, the Tour de France. RAAM is much crazier, more gothic, and even savage. Once the gun goes off on the Pacific Coast, the clock doesn’t stop, so if you sleep, you lose. The first rider to complete the prescribed 3,000-mile route—nine days later at the Atlantic—is the victor. Most racers manage two or three hours of sleep each day while the leaders get by on an hour and a half—or less. Sleep deprivation leads them to hallucinate, often for hours on end. This epic race is the most brutal organized sporting event you’ve never heard of and one of the best kept secrets in the sports world.
With clarity and compassion, Snyder follows a handful of athletes before, during and after the 2009 event—the closest and most controversial in history. Hell on Two Wheels is a thrilling and remarkably detailed account of their ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies. While the action is riveting, the real story involves the racers. As we come to know them we watch with ghoulish fascination as RAAM exacts its vicious toll, hour by hour, day after day. We hope for the best but the opposite is equally compelling.
Who are these people? What drives them to persevere in the face of such staggering punishment? Where is this place they go to where misery and transcendence are so closely intertwined? Contestants may be brutalized by this race, but through it they discover their essential humanity and with this, profound joy and completeness. By experiencing the race from the perspective of the racers themselves, Hell on Two Wheels breaks new ground in helping us appreciate how such a grueling effort can be so cleansing and self-revelatory.
Readers will be forever changed by the story of this race and its contestants. As with the racers themselves, everyone who encounters RAAM says it changes their relationship to their own limiting thoughts and feelings. This is more than just a race—it’s a monster, a crucible, an unforgettable allegory about overcoming personal limitations, self-discovery, and the power of the human spirit… and a story that needs to be told.
Copyright © 2011 by Amy Snyder
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The Race Across America (RAAM) is the most brutal organized sporting event you’ve never heard of, and one of the best-kept secrets in the sports world. The scope of this epic event spans a continent, starting at the Pacific Ocean near San Diego and ending at the Atlantic near Washington, D.C. It takes the winners about nine days to finish and the rest a couple of days more. The conditions are extreme and unpredictable, and nobody finishes this race unscathed.
RAAM is a bicycle race like no other. It is a 3,000-mile nonstop contest, and once the gun goes off the clock doesn’t stop. The first rider to complete the prescribed route—racing day and night through broiling deserts, over ragged mountains, across windswept plains—is the victor. 3,000 miles. That’s 114 marathon routes laid out end-to-end. Or 21 Ironman triathlon routes. Or the distance the average American will drive in two and a half months. During the race contestants climb over 100,000 feet (nearly 20 miles straight up—three and a half times the height of Everest), taking on the Rockies, the Ozarks, and the Appalachians. Temperatures range from 125 degrees in the desert to 30 degrees atop mountain passes. Exposed to the elements day and night, racers average between 230 and 250 miles every day just to make the time cutoffs. The winners cover 350 miles each day and survive on about an hour of sleep during each 24-hour cycle.
This race is nothing like its more famous cousin the Tour de France. It offers none of the made-for-TV splendor of this grand European stage race. It’s much crazier, more gothic, and even savage. It takes participants to the limits of their physical and mental endurance, and in contrast to the compelling visuals of the Tour, this is often not a pretty sight.
In researching HELL ON TWO WHEELS I spent time with a handful of the 2009 contestants prior to this year’s event. I got to know them and their families, then followed the race for two weeks in a minivan along with Les Handy, a long-time RAAM groupie and himself an accomplished amateur bike racer. Watching this relentless race unfold was considerably more disturbing than I expected. As it dragged on, I saw how RAAM transformed my new friends, brutalized them, and turned them into simpler beings. I bore witness to their suffering but it was their passion and grit that stuck with me most.
After two amazing weeks traveling the back roads of America from one coast to the other, I was forever changed my experience of this race and its contestants. Everyone who encounters RAAM says it changes their relationship to their own limiting thoughts and feelings. This is more than a race—it’s an unforgettable allegory about the human experience of pain and joy and self-revelation…and a story that needs to be told.
But I soon discovered that telling the story of RAAM isn’t easy.
For one thing, it’s impossible to comprehend what it feels like to propel oneself over a distance of 3,000 miles. Here’s one way to think about it: it would take the average jogger who runs three miles five days a week close to four years to cover this distance.
Another reason its difficult conveying the monstrous nature of RAAM is because this race in a different league compared to better known extreme sporting challenges. Take the Tour de France. RAAM is half again as long as this 23-day-long spectacle but condensed into a far shorter time frame.
The toll this event takes on mind and body is equally difficult to convey.
RAAM participants can gradually lose the use of their hands during this relentless race because of nerve compression in the wrist; neck muscles can fail because they must continually hold up one’s head; life-threatening pulmonary infections and organ failure can hit at any moment; muscles and joints can self-destruct; and cyclist’s minds can be shattered by a lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation causes deficits in reaction time which can lead to violent crashes. Lack of sleep also induces behavioral problems, including depression, confusion, and anger. Riders become paranoid and suggestible. They hallucinate, seeing things that aren’t there, conversing with animals, recoiling from monsters, jumping off their bikes deep into the night to do battle with invisible beasts.
Every struggling rider draws us in like voyeurs as we watch him teeter on the brink of calamity. We hope for miracles but the opposite is just as compelling.
It might seem as though RAAM finishers are a different breed, invested with superhuman constitutions that help them overcome the unimaginable brutality that RAAM dishes out. But that’s just not so. Racers feel every ache and pain just like a normal person would and they don’t want to suffer, either. They point out that persevering in this race is mostly a mental challenge. So how does a racer maintain the will to go on, sitting on a narrow bicycle saddle and churning his legs for up to twelve days straight, especially toward the end when physical discomfort blots out everything else and his sleep deprived mind falters and sputters?
Actually, not a single racer maintains his resolve. Each comes close to quitting more than once during his odyssey. Racers sob and scream and curl up in fetal positions along the side of the road, but then pull themselves together again. In their bleakest moments on the bike (or on the ground), each racer finds his own reason to keep going. Every reason is unique but all finishers share two things in common. The first is an unquenchable curiosity to see what happens when they challenge the limits of their own endurance. RAAM winner Franz Spilauer said, “What kept me going was my overall fascination with what I was doing and how it affected me, the testing of my body and seeing how far I could push myself.” The second reason is the unfathomable sense of joy and completeness they experience while on their bikes. These fanatics just crave cycling—the farther and longer the better.
These characteristics give racers determination, but they’re insufficient to ensure success. There are two more pieces to the puzzle. One has to do with how RAAM finishers experience pain. The way ultra-distance athletes relate to pain is different from you and me. They are able to dissociate from it, observe it, work with it, and calmly accept it as a necessary part of the race. To them, pain is information. The other way RAAM contestants are different has to do with their capacity to endure thousands of hours of grueling training, through all types of weather, at all hours of the day and night, almost always alone.
All of this suggests that, for ultra-distance racers, the balance between pain and pleasure might not be as out-of-kilter as it first seems.
When Kirk Johnson ran Badwater, he was filled with “eye opening wonder” watching meteor showers in the night sky of the open desert, when “the simple act of moving through was a source of joy.” Johnson was a self-described seeker who thought “there might be a way—through the unfathomable post-apocalyptic wilderness of racing in Death Valley—to reach the veil and touch something beyond me and my life. A place where misery and transcendence were so deeply intertwined it couldn’t be without meaning.”
As RAAM began one sunny June day in Oceanside, California, 28 men and women started resolutely pedaling, driven by a force few of us can comprehend. They didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the closest and most controversial race in history. Through their ordeals, some racers would find their bliss and others would be crushed by the crucible of RAAM. Moving steadily across the country, they would all learn the lessons of a lifetime in scorching deserts, ragged mountains, and windy plains as they conquered a continent on two wheels.
Check out this RAAM promotional video:
Copyright © 2011 by Amy Snyder
Everybody who learns about RAAM asks the same question about the racers: who are these people and what drives them to endure such staggering amounts of punishment? Whey I first heart about the race this was the first thing I wanted to know. To find the answers I spent time with a handful of Race Across America (RAAM) contestants prior to the 2009 event. I got to know them and their families, then followed the race for two weeks in a minivan.
Race insiders typically divide the solo field into several groups: the rookies (men and women), race veterans (men and women), and the race favorites (all European men this year). Each group experiences the race in vastly different ways. Below, meet a few of the racers featured in HELL ON TWO WHEELS.
Rookie solo racers have it tough because there’s no cookbook for how to prepare for RAAM. First time marathoners or aspiring Ironman triathletes have access to a vast cottage industry of how-to books and coaching programs. But once an endurance race moves from “long” to “ultra-long,” participants enter a realm where advice is sparse and often contradictory. Adding to this, in RAAM there are a spectacular number of ways a rookie racer can get it wrong. Finances, crew recruitment, training regimes, equipment selection, logistics—any of these can bring the whole enterprise crashing down before it even begins. “I spent hours on the phone with the old-timers, trying to learn everything I could about the race,” explained Ben Popp, one of this year’s most fastidious rookies.
Then there’s the race itself. Nothing can prepare a rookie racer for this. Most obviously, during training it’s impossible to simulate racing 3,000 miles practically non-stop. RAAM contestants rarely go longer than 700 miles at a time in training, and some struggle to fit in one 500-mile training ride prior to their first race (about 36 hours of non-stop cycling). The shock of racing beyond even two days is impossible to describe to somebody who hasn’t experienced it.
The veterans all had one thing on their minds: how to improve on their prior RAAM results. Everybody who returns to the race is driven this compulsion. This year there were 14 returning veterans in the field of 28 soloists, and all of them were convinced they were going to be faster this time around.
Even though RAAM is the longest individual time trial in the world, a racer’s time is only partially a function of his or her conditioning. In a race this long and punishing, even for these veterans factors such as team camaraderie, race tactics, and navigation errors can spell doom no matter how well-conditioned a cyclist is. So each veteran lined up at the Oceanside start line knowing that besting his prior finish time would require good luck, good cheer, and clear thinking.
The Race Favorites
This year the race favorites were all Europeans, and all men. Unlike in prior years, this year no woman was expected to crack the top five or even top ten places, and no American was expected to finish on the podium. The six European top-dogs all knew one another and had raced each other head-to-head. There were four German speakers in the bunch: three Austrians (young Strasser, bad boy Preihs, and determined Gulewicz) and one Swiss (the cool-headed Wyss). After that came the two Slovenians: defending champion Robič and the mild-mannered doting dad Baloh. Strasser was the only rookie in this bunch of podium contenders, and four-time winner Robič was the most experienced, with six previous RAAM bids under his belt.
A few weeks before the start of the 2009 event, RAAM CEO Fred Boethling said, “This is the deepest solo field in years—maybe ever, the men’s field, the women’s field, everyone. It’s going to be an exciting race.”
Copyright © 2011 by Amy Snyder
La Vale, Maryland, June 25, 5:30 a.m.
His legs were churning the pedals like massive pistons, pushing him along a quiet country road as the sun began to rise. His puffy, sun-scorched face was expressionless, and his lips were cracked and bleeding. He simply stared down at the road, barely able to turn his head as the pavement curved before him. There was nothing left physically. He was driving himself forward on sheer willpower. His crew chief radioed navigation instructions to him along with words of encouragement.
Left at the stop. Looking good.
He was digging so deeply he could taste his own bile. He’d been racing for almost eight days and nights with barely a couple of hours of sleep since leaving the Pacific coast on his transcontinental odyssey. Despite his staggering exhaustion, he was managing a steady pace over rolling terrain approaching the exurbs of Baltimore-Washington. He’d covered 2,800 miles. Only 230 to go. He’d see the finish line in less than 15 hours. He was leading the race but he was being hunted by a determined adversary, and his lead was shrinking.
A small climb ahead. Stay focused.
It was impossible to know what he was thinking. Was he present in the moment or was his mind blank? Maybe he was somewhere else—perhaps in the mountains near his home, or playing a game with his young son? He turned a huge gear, and his slow cadence seemed poorly matched to the frantic mood out on the course. Through his radio came one more command, the only one that mattered now.
Go, go, go.
Copyright © 2011 by Amy Snyder