Meet Some of the Race Favorites Featured in HELL ON TWO WHEELS

Marko Baloh. Slovanian. 42 years old. Top ultra-distance cyclist and a world record holder at 12h and 24h races. This civil servant and doting father of three is known for his consistency and humility.

Baloh is tall and lanky, and as soon as you see him you know you’re looking at a world-class athlete. His slender body was reminiscent of a cheetah’s—taut and leggy, with the high-waisted look of an Olympic middle-distance runner. This RAAM veteran is one of the most formidable ultra cyclists in the world. He comes across as soft spoken and even a bit deferential, but this doesn’t belie his burning desire to compete. Baloh will look you directly in the eye and declare slowly and confidently, “I’ve come here to win,” but then with a slight shrug of his shoulders he’ll quickly glance away and give a furtive grin, as if to say, “don’t worry, I’m not taking this too seriously.”

Baloh is a study in contrasts—at once humble, but also dignified and self-important. He’s easygoing, but also a fierce competitor. He’s prepared to suffer to win the race, but wants to have fun in the process. So, for instance, his race moniker is Tweety Bird. But this man doesn’t always act like a happy-go-lucky cartoon character. He is dead serious in his race preparation, sometimes heading out for all-night training rides after putting his kids to bed. Baloh admits to having been excruciatingly shy as a boy, and even today you can see him struggle to find the correct balance between modesty and ferocity, fun times and grueling racing.

Gerhard Gulewicz. Austrian. 41 years old. One of the small handful of elite, full-time ultra-distance cyclists in the world (road and mountain), and known as a ferocious competitor. Set a world speed record for the fastest crossing of Australia in 2007.

Gulewicz is a serious-minded 41-year-old Austrian back to for his fourth time at RAAM. Gulewicz placed third in 2007, the same year he made his record-setting crossing of Australia. The following year, this compact, powerfully-built Austrian was at the peak of his cycling career as RAAM began, but he was spirited off the course by a Navajo Nation ambulance after a bad crash near Tuba City, Arizona. That year, he was forced to withdraw while second on the road. In this year’s race Gulewicz had unfinished business to take care of, and he came to win.

Franz Preihs. Austrian. 31 years old. Professional ultra-distance cyclist. Late-blooming endurance athlete ran 54 marathons in three years. Rose rapidly through the ranks of ultra-distance cycling.

This full-time ultra cyclist worked hard to cultivate a bad boy image, and he had a knack for self-promotion. When he stepped from his vehicle about an hour before this year’s race was set to start, it was impossible to miss his heavily-tattooed arms and legs.

Preihs had burnished his tough guy image at RAAM the prior year. In the middle of the race he crashed into a road sign after dozing off and was rushed to the hospital with a broken collarbone. He returned to the race course hours later and finished—in fourth place no less.

But bad boy Preihs was a softie at heart. The night before his departure for Oceanside this June, he lay in bed in his wife Michaela’s arms and asked her whether he really had to go. Couldn’t he just stay here with her, safe and warm? Preihs needed his wife’s encouragement to give him courage.

Preihs was gunning for a podium finish this year. It was impossible to underestimate his commitment—on the inside of his left forearm he sported large, red tattoo of the RAAM logo.

Jure Robič. Greatest male RAAM champion in history and quite possibly the world’s greatest ultra-distance endurance athlete in any sport. Wins almost every ultra cycling race he enters. Renowned for pushing himself to the edge of mental breakdown during races. Full-time ultra-distance cyclist and member of the Slovenian armed forces.

Robič was the odds-on bet to win the 2009 race. The king of ultra cycling was back for his seventh consecutive year in 2009. Having begun his love affair with RAAM in 2003, he was the most experienced racer in the field by far. At the time, this 44-year-old Slovenian Special Forces soldier was the only man ever to win four solo championships. Robič is the Lance Armstrong of RAAM and a legend in his own right. Some call him the best endurance athlete in the world, and even well into his forties he still wins most of the ultra-distance cycling races he enters.

Robič’s dedication to this race is a full-bore obsession. “I love RAAM,” he explained. “Something inside this race, it’s unique. It gets like a poison into you. It’s the greatest and the toughest. It takes all your life. It takes everything.”

When his van pulled into the lot an hour before the start of the 2009 race, the crowd surged toward it. It was adorned with dozens of sponsor’s stickers, but one stood out. It read “Slovenian Armed Forces.” First his crew members piled out, dressed in camouflage green and looking as intimidating as ever. Robič was supported by a large, dedicated cadre of fellow Slovenian soldiers, loyal as can be and ready to do anything for him.

Out climbed Robič. He quickly surveyed the scene, and with the slightest sigh, nodded in the direction of some acquaintances he recognized in the crowd. Robič is a good-looking man of medium height and build, with a large, weathered face; a prominent, square chin; and an easy smile that’s contagiously playful. When he’s sporting a thick stubble after a few days on the bike, he looks like the Marlboro Man. We all know dashing guys like this—the ones who wear black turtlenecks, faded designer jeans, and trendy eyeglasses. He’s easy to look at and attracts people like a magnet.

The first impression this ruggedly-handsome champion gave was of a venerable, dangerous warrior. The way he carried himself; the crinkles in his forehead; the rippling musculature of his potent legs. These were all signs of the mythic weight of his suffering and of how hard this man struggles to prove his worthiness. You could see all of this if you looked closely enough, opening yourself to his human complexities and yearnings.

Before long, Robič was straddling his bike and patiently fielding banal questions from RAAM media and the Slovenian reporters who followed him everywhere. In the moments before the race clock started, he was trying to make people understand—always trying.

Christoph Strasser. Austrian. 26 years old. Youngest entrant and a superstar professional ultra-distance cyclist in the making. Youngest ever to win the ultra cycling world championship in 2007.

Golden boy Christoph Strasser, a zealous young man, was the first of the European favorites to arrive in the California desert in June, several weeks before the start of the race. He knew he needed the extra time to adjust to the broiling temperatures since he’d never raced in desert conditions before. Besides, he was eager to get a taste of the U.S. and have an adventure with his friends.

He couldn’t believe it, he was really here. He had worked hard to secure the sponsorships, make his plans, do the training, and now he was plying the dusty roads of the Mojave Desert; far, far away from the alpine village he called home.

The year before he didn’t think he would ever make it to RAAM. When he unexpectedly became the youngest man to win the ultra cycling world championship in 2007, he thought he’d be ready for RAAM that next year. But this over-confident young lad trained too hard for his title defense the and learned a bitter lesson. “Two weeks before the race I felt tired, I was sick with a fever, and I had a stomach flu,” he said. “I quit the race at the half-way point. I was cold, and I raced the first half six hours slower than the previous year. After my withdrawal, I put the bike away and reflected on what I wanted to do next.”

Following a self-imposed time-out, he came back wiser and trained smarter. Now another year on he was finally in Southern California. He handicapped his prospects with humility, but deep down he knew he had it in him to do very, very well.

Strasser’s pre-race training plan called for riding the first 500 miles of the course from the coast all the way to Flagstaff, Arizona, cycling eastward over the coastal range, then through the scorching Sonoran desert, and finally up the formidable western slopes of the central Arizona mountains. During his first encounter with desert heat Strasser was able to fine-tune his techniques for staying cool. He wondered how difficult it was going to be to cross this foreboding terrain under race conditions.

After his long training ride into Arizona, Team Strasser decamped to Borrego Springs, a desert hamlet along the race route a few hours east of San Diego, and he continued cycling. During their downtime Strasser and his young crew mates goofed off, listened to music, and took in the rugged beauty all around them. They were having the time of their lives and bonding nicely as a team. One of Strasser’s crew members was a professional photographer and he kept their friends in Austria updated by posting his most picturesque shots on Strasser’s blog. In these photos everybody on Team Strasser is always beaming.

Copyright © 2011 by Amy Snyder