Meet Some of the Rookie Racers Featured in HELL ON TWO WHEELS

Christopher Gottwald. American. 38 years old.Pro criterium racer in the 1990s. Untested ultra-distance cyclist doing RAAM for charitable and spiritual reasons. Professional pilot and father of two.

Gottwald was a wild card in the race. Similar to his predecessor, the cocky Tour de France racer Jonathan Boyer, this 38-year-old airline pilot came from a road racing background but had a slim-to-nonexistent ultra cycling resume. Gottwald wasn’t even an acclaimed road cyclist like Boyer and Spilauer had been, never making it past one of Colavita’s regional teams, and that was back in the 1990s. Still, road racers had proven their mettle before, and Gottwald had a secret plan for how to win in his rookie attempt.

This plan? Bank a lot more sleep than anyone else early in the race – perhaps as much as four to six hours a night – then go much faster while racing. Uncork one, massive attack late in the race and claw his way up the field by cutting back on sleep and hoping that he can overtake the leaders as a result of feeling fresher.

Kevin Kaiser. American. 41 years old. Mild-mannered pharmacist manager and veteran ultra-distance cyclist. Dedicated student of RAAM history and race tactics.

Most rookies arrive at the starting line having already raced RAAM on a two or four-person team. But solo RAAM is an entirely different beast. Even two-man RAAM pales in comparison. Rookie Kevin Kaiser, a low-key pharmacist from Georgia, had done RAAM as a two-man team the previous year, when he and his partner became the first ever to go the entire distance on fixed-gear bikes—machines where the pedals are directly connected to the rear axle and rotate at the same speed, so you can’t change gears or coast. Even hard-core cyclists have a difficult time comprehending this preposterous feat.

Despite his prior year’s triumph, Kaiser explained that, “Two-man RAAM was all about having fun. Even getting the crew together was a breeze, because you have two sets of friends to draw from.” Then he paused and his lowered his voice. “I’m usually optimistic, but lately I’m more scared of solo RAAM than anything else. Scared about biting off more than I can chew. This race scares me, really it does.”

Like many other elite cyclists, you would never have picked Kaiser out of a crowd. This slender 41-year-old is of average height and build, and when you meet him he doesn’t blaze with energy like some of the others. Kaiser is a reserved, taciturn man who lets his cycling accomplishments speak for themselves. Chit-chat doesn’t come naturally, and he prefers answering questions in short, declarative sentences. So for him, admitting to feeling afraid was a big deal.

As a 41-year-old rookie, Kaiser brought an enormous amount of ultra cycling experience to this year’s solo debut. The year before his fixed-gear attempt, he had taken part in a RAAM simulation tour led by two RAAM pioneers from the 1980s, cycling across the U.S. in 17 days (he would need to go almost twice as fast during RAAM). Previous to that, Kaiser had completed the 744-mile Paris-Brest-Paris ride, as well its equally-long cousin, Boston-Montreal-Boston.

And that’s not all. Kaiser is a dedicated student of RAAM who had poured over every aspect of race strategy and lore before this year’s solo debut. He knew the race’s history better than most, and he had studied this year’s field more carefully than anyone else.

But all this experience and planning didn’t ward off the feeling of dread as race day grew near. A few weeks before the race when I asked Kaiser what he feared most about his solo debut, a veil of worry swept across his otherwise placid face. Kaiser knew his strengths and weaknesses, and cycling in desert heat was definitely a weakness. “Falling apart 200 miles into the ride,” he whispered as his doe-like, brown eyes opened wide. “You know, many great athletes have done it. If I blow up in the desert it might psychologically kill me.”

Kaiser was one of 14 rookies in this year’s race. Like his peers, he would be racing for Rookie of the Year honors, hoping to be the first of the bunch to cross the line in Annapolis.

Michele Santilhano. South African. 39 years old. Pediatric oncology nurse, mountaineer, adventure racer, and widely-accomplished ultra-distance endurance athlete with accolades in swimming, running, triathlon, and cycling.

South African über-athlete Michele Santilhano was one of a handful of rookies who had never raced two-person RAAM before. She had competed on a four-person team the prior year, but sharing the load with three others is a far cry from what she was up against now. And while rookie Strasser had already notched a big ultra cycling win, Santilhano’s ultra cycling credentials didn’t place her at the pinnacle of the sport. She knew she was facing the biggest challenge of her storied athletic career. Thanks to her ultra-distance running and swimming successes she also knew she had the mental toughness to persevere. She had cemented her reputation for grit when she swam the English Channel in a raging storm, struggling for 19 hours and feeling so nauseous she was only able to consume mint tea and bananas for fuel.

But her cycling endurance was untested at anything close to this distance. Throughout her RAAM training she felt unsure and tentative. She distrusted her own intuition so was relying heavily on coaches and crew members for guidance. Like Kaiser, this race scared her. So much so that she lacked the self-confidence to manage her own training program or develop her own race plan. So unlike the other rookies she leaned heavily on coaches and her support crew to guide her.

Santilhano suffered from ADHD as a child, which destroyed her self-esteem and isolated her socially. She felt lost and suicidal during her teenage years, like she didn’t fit in anywhere.   At 17 she stumbled into adventure racing, and to this day credits sports with saving her life. She thinks all the training and racing somehow resets her brain chemistry, flooding her system with happy chemicals that squelch the dark feelings lurking below the surface.

You can still see some of her youthful troubles in Santilhano today. Sometimes she seems tentative and maddeningly self-critical, and other times you can sense her deep strength and spirituality. Santilhano is a contemplative, philosophical person. For instance, when she wants to say something really important, she speaks slowly and seriously, with long pauses between words as if she was having a debate with herself before selecting the perfect one.

She may have been tentative about RAAM, but as a devout Baptist, she knew she could always pray for salvation if she got in trouble out there. Santilhano believes that through her passion for sport, she is able to express her love for God. She hoped this “fire deep inside me” would carry her through.

Ben Popp. American. 35 years old. Multi-sport athlete, and Ironman triathlete with a background in Nordic skiing. Stay-at-home father of twin boys and part-time athletic coach.

Ben Popp prepared fastidiously for his rookie attempt. This affable, good-looking Minnesota native grew up competing as a Nordic skier, so endurance athletics have been in his bones for a while. These days cycling is his passion, and he has the small, slender body of a rider who excels at climbing. When this enthusiastic, loquacious man comes speaks the words simply gush out of him, going in three directions at once before settling on the point he’s trying to make.

When he wasn’t cycling or caring for his twin toddlers, earlier this year Popp burned off what remained of his abundant energy by hashing out his RAAM race plan. This amped-up, live-wire of a man wasn’t going to leave anything to chance.

Popp fears the unknown more than anything and needs to be in control. He’s always been a fastidious person. As a measure of this, Popp explains that before he goes to bed, he likes to set the table for the twin’s breakfast in a particular way: their cereal bowls go here, their cups here, and so on. On nights when he’s busy, his wife Megan sets the table instead. This usually drives Popp around the bend; she never seems to be able to get the table organized just how he likes it.

Popp is even more finicky about his bicycles, dialing in his equipment with the precision of a diamond cutter: seat height, stem length, saddle angle, cleat position, wheel selection, gearing ratios—he sweats every detail. He approached his RAAM preparation with this same care, and like Kaiser, Popp became an avid student of the race.

In his early 20s, Popp crewed for his father-in-law Bob Mackie when Bob raced two-man RAAM. Popp also sought out ultra cycling legends Lon Haldeman and Allen Larsen for their advice on how to survive the event, keeping them on the phone for hours while he figuratively sat at their feet. Also like Kaiser, Popp had raced twice on a two-man team himself, and he had digested and analyzed every aspect of the race. But unlike Kaiser, because of all his planning, Popp arrived in Oceanside feeling confident that he had a bullet-proof approach.

Copyright © 2011 by Amy Snyder