RAAM or the Race Across America is advertised as the world’s toughest bicycle race. It starts on the shores of the Pacific Ocean in Oceanside, California, and finishes in Annapolis, Maryland on an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Race route covers 3020 miles with approximately 170,000 feet of climbing and passes through twelve U.S states. The route has been described in concise fashion as “a couple of big hills with some flat stuff in between”. It crosses the Coast, Rocky and Appalachian mountain ranges and the Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers.
In order to beat the cut-off time, the racers have a total of 288 hours in the male category, and 309 hours in the women’s. The riders are fully supported, according to the rules, with no drafting allowed from other riders or support vehicles.
This year, Shu Pillinger from St. Albans, Herts, was attempting to become the first British woman to complete the race within the time limit, and I was one member of her crew of nine. As one of two bike mechanics on the team, I was responsible for the care and maintenance of Shu’s three bikes, a Trek Madone, Trek Domane and Trek Speed Concept 7.5, respectively named Trevor, Mississippi and Wiggo.
This narrative focuses on an incident at Tuba City, Arizona. By which time, Shu had cycled 628 miles in 52 hours. She had crossed the Coast Range at 4400 feet, and descended into the Anza Borrego Park situated below sea level. It must have been like riding into a hot wok. The flat, hard desert is encircled by unforgiving mountains which trap the sun’s heat. After riding through the night, she then spent a further 8 hours in the saddle enduring an average daytime temperature of 97 degrees fahrenheit before a short rest in Congress, Arizona.
The time station at Congress was manned by Jim Pettet and the Bullshifters Bicycle Club. They had erected a swimming pool for racers and crew alike. We jumped in fully clothed and dried off within minutes under a scalding sun. The stultifying, unrelenting heat assaulted us from all angles, cutting off avenues of escape. It must have been hellish for the riders, many of whom rested in the afternoon before leaving the Mohave desert to tackle Yarnell Grade in the slightly cooler evening sunlight
Many racers shared the road during the night time section, the flashing lights of their support vehicles strung out like Christmas decorations over the vast landscape surrounding the towns of Kirkland and Iron Springs.
During the dark hours, she encountered a series of climbs which rose to over 7000 feet via Prescott, Jerome and Cottonwood before a torrid stretch of road into Flagstaff. The crew turned her around quickly and efficiently at this time station. Other crews were doing the same for their riders. Per Kyed Laursen from Denmark was also in Flagstaff. His team had shared the same hotel back in Oceanside two days ago. It seemed like a hundred years had passed since then.
The stage from Flagstaff to Tuba City saw the riders descend from 7200 feet to 4800 feet over 72 miles. The road could have been built by the Romans. It was dead straight, and guarded by Humphreys Peak to the west, and Black Mountain to the east. A terrible side wind buffeted our girl as she sped down off the Coconino Plateau into a vortex of hot pink rock. Shu arrived at Tuba City around 5 p.m on Thursday evening, 12th June. It was 92 degrees Fahrenheit. The team cooled her down in the camper van with ice cubes. Matt took core temperature readings. She was in good shape and within 45 minutes had departed with the follow vehicle along the Navaho Trail, Highway 160, towards Kayenta, 72 miles away.
Soon after, Per Laursen rode into the Time Station. He looked grey like tarmac, had vomited while riding. The strong sidewind had blown the vomit down his left arm. His team effected a change of clothing, but suddenly Per collapsed on the forecourt. Our paramedic, Erica Ley, rushed to assist him, and swiftly diagnosed extreme heat exhaustion and dehyrdration She immediately called the emergency services and an ambulance was with him in minutes.
The RAAM circus travelled on without Per. Shusanah ascended to 11,000 feet at Wolf Creek in the Rockies and was rewarded with a stinking headwind on Cuchara Pass at 9,900 feet before descending to the Great Plains of Kansas, dotted with grain silos, which could be seen from miles away. She reached the Mississippi after 2050 miles with 9 hours in hand, before a well-deserved sleep in a motel. Our girl stormed the next section, but by mid-morning she was sleepy again, and after 2150 miles she clipped the tarmac/soft shoulder partition and fell heavily, breaking her collar bone in the process. Ironically, the camper van was parked up less than 1 mile away at a designated sleep stop.
For Shu, the race was over. Initially, I felt like we were ten individuals clinging to the flotsam of a sinking ship, but we had a few drinks in Effingham that night, and formulated a plan that the crew would ride some of the race route in fancy dress to raise money for Shu’s chosen charity, Essex and Herts Air Ambulance Trust. The ship may have capsized, but it had rapidly righted itself. But that’s another story.
Three days later, we arrived at the finish line by Annapolis marina and decided to spend the whole night cheering home Joan Deitchman and Angela Perin, and their crews, who were due to arrive in the wee hours of Sunday.
This project required liquid refreshment in Armadillo’s bar, handily adjacent to the finish line. At some stage during festivities, a group of familiar faces appeared in our company. It was Per Laursen’s team, led by the man himself. He had spent four days in intensive care with heatstroke and dehydration. Doctors in Flagstaff had informed him that Erica’s swift decision to call the emergency services had almost certainly saved his life.
It was an emotional reunion, the pain and suffering of RAAM is shared by riders and crews alike. We supported each other on the road day and night with a friendly toot of a horn or a round of applause from the passenger window. A quick chat with other crews when sharing a time station car park kept the connection going.
From a crew member’s viewpoint, RAAM is an intense experience both physically and emotionally. Responsibility weighs heavy and the pressure to perform is tempered by sleep deprivation, dehydration, nutrition issues and the ability to get along with strangers for twelve days, living cheek by jowl.
Team Shu met these demands and finished as a cohesive team. In itself, this is a great achievement.