Race Across America puts cyclists to ultimate test

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For Rob Morlock, pursuing his dream means putting up with some sleepless nights.

Driven by the goal of finishing the Race Across America in less than nine days, he shudders at the thought of starting undertrained in ultracycling's main event: a 3,000-mile race against the clock that begins at the Pacific Ocean and ends at the Atlantic.

“This race intimidates you to train,” says Morlock, a police office from Danbury, Conn. “I think about showing up unprepared and it gives me nightmares.”

To combat this fear, Morlock trains obsessively and prepares meticulously — like many of the riders in the RAAM. And, in fact, they have to. This is a journey that pushes solo cyclists and relay teams to the limit of their endurance.

Fewer than 200 solo riders have completed the event since it was first held in 1982. About half who enter don't finish, dropping out because of mental or physical breakdowns, or because they are pulled from the course by organizers for safety reasons or because they failed to beat three cutoff times along the way.

Morlock is a case in point, having finished the race twice in four tries. What's atypical is that the 46-year-old had his best ride when he was a rookie. He finished in nine days, 21 hours, 34 minutes in 1996, coming close enough to the hallowed nine-day benchmark that achieving it has lodged in his mind ever since. He embarks on his fifth RAAM on Wednesday.

“There have been only 11 guys who have broken nine days,” he says, his voice taking a reverential tone. “I've been chasing that dream since my first year. Of course, you train year-round for it.”

Whether riding solo or on a team, that usually means building up base miles before mixing in midweek speed and interval training, and 100- to 200-mile rides on the weekends. Most riders ramp up their mileage in April and May to include a few 24-hour treks of 300 to 500 miles. Then they taper off to let their bodies rest up for the road ahead.

The route the race takes and the distance it covers have varied over the years, but it always goes from west to east. The 2010 RAAM is starting at Oceanside, Calif., and finishing in Annapolis, Md., for the third straight year. It will cover 3,004 miles while traversing 14 states, taking riders through the searing Western deserts, up lung-bursting ascents in the Rockies — the race tops out above 10,000 feet — across the wind-swept plains, and into the heat and humidity that mounts just as the riders encounter the seemingly endless ups and downs of the Appalachian Mountains.

All on two to three hours of sleep a night.

Mark Pattinson estimates that he slept a total of less than 24 hours during the 2008 race, when he finished second, completing the 3,014-mile trek in 9 days, 17 hours, 35 minutes.

Like most soloists, he rode straight through the first night. The second night he tossed and turned for two hours before getting back in the saddle. Things changed after that.

“As you get further into the race there is typically no problem sleeping,” says the 40-year-old Pattinson, a financial consultant from Connecticut. “The issue becomes trying to stay awake on the bike.”

It's hard to accuse race organizers of exaggerating when they call RAAM the “World's Toughest Bicycle Race.” They point out that riders in the Tour de France, regarded by many as the planet's most grueling sporting event, cover about 800 fewer miles in more than twice as many days.

RAAM “really is the ultimate physical challenge,” Morlock says.

It's also not without danger. The race has had two fatalities in its 28 years, both in collisions with vehicles.

To earn the right to put themselves to such a test, solo entrants must meet a time standard in one of 30 qualifiers around the world, usually a 24-hour ride.

Five women and 24 men are entered this year in the solo category. About one-half to two-thirds of solos typically come from outside the U.S. with many Europeans attracted by the lure of the transcontinental crossing.

“There's nothing like it. You get to race a bicycle across the United States. How many people can say they've done that?” says Fred Boethling, the RAAM president.

Boethling speaks from experience. Inspired to get in shape after a brush with prostate cancer, the Boulder, Colo.-based CEO of CapSource Financial became the oldest solo finisher in 2006 when he was 61. He bought the race about six months later.

Teams first began competing in 1994 and there are now two-, four- and eight-rider categories for men, women and mixed squads. Unlike the solos, team riders don't have to qualify and are allowed to draft. Teams have nine days to finish — riding in shifts — after starting next Saturday, while solo riders get 12 days to make it to Annapolis with the women leaving on Tuesday, a day ahead of the men. Their progress can be followed on the race's website.

“The team aspect is, frankly, where a lot of the great stories are,” says Boethling. “That's what allows an average athlete to compete.”

Depends on your definition of average.

Jill Gass of Santa Barbara, Calif., leads a four-rider Kalyra Women Race Team with more than 50 years of combined racing experience.

“Everyone has that moment when they wonder, 'When's this going to end?' ” said Gass, whose team last rode the race in 2007. “But we always had fun.”

The teams, 37 are entered this year, use different strategies to maximize speed and sleep.

Kalyra has two members ride while two rest, eat and get massages. The riders alternate 15-minute intervals, with one shuttling ahead in a car and taking off once her partner's front tire overlaps her rear wheel. They'll ride for about two hours before the other two members get on their bikes.

“It's a little like NASCAR on bikes, complete with rider and equipment changes every 15 minutes for 6½ days,” says Gass, 54, a critical-care nurse.

All the riders, whether solo or on a team, are unanimous in pointing out that none of this is possible without a strong support crew.

“They're crazier than we are,” Gass says of her 16-member group, half of whom are back from 2007.

They also provide inspiration.

“There was no point I ever thought I'd quit. It didn't ever cross my mind,” says Pattinson, who was driven by the desire to not let down the people who had volunteered their time to help him realize his goal as his support crew.

The teams have also played a role in helping RAAM raise its profile as a fundraising vehicle. Collectively, the racers have raised more than $4 million over the past four years, with medical- and health-related charities being the primary beneficiaries.

With crews of nine to 10 for solo riders and more than double that for an eight-person team, participants also face a financial challenge. Morlock, who is sponsored by Blue Ribbon Restaurants, estimates that he spends $30,000 to compete, with $3,000 of that the entrance fee and the rest to pay the expenses of his support crew.

For teams, which pay $11,000 to enter, it obviously costs much more.

“Funniest thing is, money doesn't determine who wins,” Boethling says. “You cannot win the race without having a good support team.”

That even goes for a four-time winner like Jure Robic of Slovenia, who is back this year in an attempt to recapture his crown and break the overall speed record.

Robic was within striking distance of challenging the mark last year, but dropped out near the end when he had to serve time penalties levied on riders who break traffic laws or race rules, something support crews help their riders avoid.

Since Pete Penseyres set the record of 15.40 mph in 1986 — it's expressed as average speed because the distance and route of the race vary — no solo rider had managed more than 15 mph until last year, when Dani Wyss of Switzerland won at 15.28 mph.

Finishing the race offers plenty of prestige but no prize money. Riders face random drug testing, but Boethling believes the lack of financial incentive keeps his race free of the drug problems seen in pro cycling.

“Most all of these people have regular full-time jobs,” he said. “They're not pro athletes. They're ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

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