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