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Race Across America: Inside the world’s toughest bike race

Joseph Delves
20 Jun 2017

Racing 3000 miles in eight days, with less than an hour's sleep a night ultra racers are the freaks of the cycling world

Today sees the start of the 3000 mile long Race Across America. Almost certainly the most gruelling bike race in the world, the fastest competitors will ride for 23 hours a day, for eight days in a row.

Last year Bikes Etc caught up with two-time finisher Jason Lane to find out what on earth would make someone subject themselves to such a challenge

The ultra man

Somewhere just across the Cheat River in West Virginia, Jason Lane is floating above the road watching a man who looks very much like himself ride a bike down the highway.

He can feel his hands hurting but they feel like those of a different person. As the miles roll by he’s becoming ever more irritated by his inability to wake up from the dream.

In his mind he’s resolved that at some point earlier he must have been hit by a vehicle and is now in a coma. Worse still, he’s not sure what the people following behind him are up to.

Sitting on his wheel in a large silver people carrier, they seem familiar but somehow different, as if friends he once knew have been replaced by imposters.

Increasingly, he’s convinced that their intentions might not be entirely benevolent. Until he can figure out what’s going on, he decides it’s best not to accept their offers of food or water.

Ascending into the remote mountains on the eastern side of the river, he’s overcome by the sensation of having climbed the same corner over and over again, only to emerge in the same spot without ever getting closer to the summit.

We spend around a third of our lives asleep and if we don’t get enough very strange things start to happen, just as it had with Jason Lane.

Our immune system suffers, we can become depressed and in the short term frequently leads to disorientation, hallucinations and bouts of paranoia.

Having set off on his bike next to the Pacific in Oceanside, California, eight days before, Jason had managed just seven hours sleep in the course of the 4,000 or so kilometres he’d covered on his way east across America.

Inaugurated in 1982, the Race Across America (or RAAM) runs non-stop from the Pacific to the Atlantic, traversing 4,800 kilometres across the centre of the USA.

That’s well over a thousand kilometres more than the average Tour de France. Yet, rather than taking three weeks, the winning rider will complete the course in as little as eight days.

To accomplish this they’ll spend less than an hour off the bike each day. That’s 23 hours rolling at a time. Some will even go as far as Kansas, over 1,500 kilometres into the Midwest, before pausing for the first time.

To achieve this feat, each competitor is followed by a support crew whose job it is to care for and motivate their rider, helping them to eke out every last bit of performance from their screaming bodies.

When Jason’s crew eventually persuaded him to climb off his bike someway up Cheat Mountain, they realised they might have pushed their man a little too far.

Still suspicious, and eager to get on with the final stretch to the Atlantic, he wouldn’t trust them near him while he slept, so they had to watch from a distance as he got a solitary hour’s shut-eye, one hand still holding his bicycle.

‘The hardest thing about riding a supported race is the sheer simplicity of it,’ a more lucid Jason tells us.

‘The crew sits behind you in the van and does everything for you, like preparing food, clothing and taking care of navigation. Their goal is to keep you on the bike 24 hours a day.

'With their help it’s possible to count the time off the bike each day in minutes not hours. Therefore the limiting factor becomes me, how long can I stay on the bike?

'Mentally how long can I keep going? It’s not even about speed, just how long can I keep moving forward.’

Under normal conditions, when Jason does hop into the van for a few minutes rest, his crew jump into action. As he tries to sleep they massage his body, run tests, monitor his sleep patterns and sometimes even plug in an IV drip to get essential salts and fluids back into his system.

It is a huge physical, logistical and financial challenge, but despite the huge scale of the undertaking, Jason’s first RAAM attempt came about almost by accident.

A multidiscipline adventure athlete with nearly 20 years' experience, in 2010 he underwent extensive reconstructive surgery on both knees to treat a genetic abnormality.

Barred from running as part of his rehabilitation he found himself spending increasing amounts of time on his bike.

The year after his surgery he entered the Adirondack 540, an 875km ultra race in the Appalachian Mountains. Riding unaided against a slew of riders with support crews he nevertheless finished first.

As a qualifying event for the Race Across America, Jason’s unexpected win catapulted him into the hardest ultra event of all – the RAAM.

Even among experienced ultra racers it has a fearsome reputation, along with a 50% dropout rate. For most entrants, simply finishing within the 12-day cut-off limit is challenging enough.

Yet many actually come to compete.

A war of attrition

Racing over such huge distances means that riders’ strategies are vastly different from the cut and thrust world of stage racing. For a start, competitors set off at intervals and are prohibited from drafting one another.

Also compared to a conventional race, where a rider might attack up a single climb, riders in RAAM will instead attack across a whole mountain range, a state, or even by simply upping the tempo for a couple of days at a time.

‘It’s a race, and everyone on the start line wants to win, regardless of how likely that is,’ says Jason.

‘However, once underway you have to settle into your own pace. The monumental distance and the terrain will eat away at you and force you to ride like that.

'Sometimes you’ll want to attack, but it’s not always possible. The frontrunners will tend to keep track of each other. You want to know how the other riders are going, when they’re sleeping.

'You plan around it, perhaps deciding to not sleep one night to close down a gap. It’s very competitive. When you decide to attack that could mean increasing the pace by a mile an hour but you’re going to do that for the next 12 hours.

'It’s all about chipping away at the person in front. It’s a long-term sport.’

To this end, a fair bit of spying and forward intelligence tends to go on at RAAM and other ultra events as the support crews try to ascertain the location and condition of their rivals.

With riders stretched across hundreds of miles they can frequently go several days without seeing another competitor.

‘When you see each other out on the road there’s definitely a rush of adrenaline,’ Jason explains.

‘You’ll acknowledge each other and maybe even chat for a bit, but other times you’ll want to attack and pass quickly. There are always little individual battles going on between riders throughout the race.’

The attritional nature of the racing is compounded by the realities of spending hundreds of near continuous hours on the bike.

‘Physically, anything that touches your bike is going to start to hurt. Depending on the condition of the roads that really begins after a day or two.

'Saddle sores are something everyone has to deal with. By day two or three things will hurt and they’ll hurt for the rest of the time you’re riding.

'Mentally, as long as you expect it and you’re prepared to accept it as part of spending a week or 10 days sat on your bike, it’s manageable.

'Knowing that it’s part of something that you really want to do and accepting that fact that lets you push through.’

Being able to deal with physical discomfort is a crucial part of what makes an ultra-distance champion. While raw physical fitness will see riders through shorter races, the sheer magnitude of RAAM means it requires equal amounts of planning, luck and mental toughness to be in with a chance of winning.

Not that luck has always been in abundant supply for Jason. During his first attempt at RAAM in 2012, just three days into the race he was hit, run over, and dragged by a vehicle while riding through Kayenta, Arizona.

He was rushed to hospital where, after seven hours, doctors finally ascertained that he’d escaped without breaking any bones, despite the perfect car-tyre mark imprinted across his back.

Beaten up and way behind schedule, most riders would have called it quits. Instead Jason pushed on, slowly clawing back his deficit over the remaining 3,700 kilometres to finish in eighth place, the same position he was in before the accident.

It’s testament to the obsessional attitude needed to succeed in these sorts of events.

‘Some riders might find themselves a way back from where they want to be and decide to call it a day and look ahead to the next race. That’s never been my attitude,’ says Jason.

‘I always want to finish and do the best I can do on that given day and if you achieve your goals, that’s awesome. If not, I don’t think giving up is the answer.’

Even without having to deal with being run over it’s impossible to compete over such huge distances without experiencing at least one ‘dark night of the soul’-type moment.

‘It can be tough staying motivated on such long races. But if it’s something you really want to do you just have to keep returning to that basic goal.

'Ask yourself: “What started you off a year ago thinking that you wanted to do this?” You have to go back to that first motivation.

'Things may hurt now but in 50 years' time are you going to be OK with this decision if you give up?

‘Sometimes you have to break the challenge down into the smallest increments. After I got hit by the car I was telling myself I’d just work at riding the next tenth of a mile because that was the smallest distance my computer would register.’

A true adventure

Not that ultra racing is just about suffering. Crossing an entire continent means there’s at least plenty of incredible scenery to distract the riders.

‘You go from the Pacific and the coastal mountains to the Arizona desert, then Utah and Monument Valley, Colorado with its big mountain passes, the grasslands of Kansas and the farm country of the Midwest.

'Then across the rivers and rolling hills of the central states before ending in the mountains of West Virginia and the Atlantic coast.

'You go through so many climates in such a short time. From the 40C heat of the desert in Utah to the Colorado mountains where at night it’s freezing.

'It’s about as close to a true an adventure as you can get in this day and age. There might be a lot less left to explore, but you can still challenge yourself to get on a bike and ride across the whole country.’

As much as simply exploring, racing also provides an escape from the everyday. The culmination of months of training and planning, once on the road and with the support crew to back them up, it’s the one time of the year where the competitors can concentrate solely on riding.

Consequently, when he’s racing, Jason tends not to let his mind wander too much.

‘In my head it’s a constant numbers game. How far is the next person up the road? What do I need to do to catch them? How many calories have I taken in? How many am I expending? Am I drinking enough? How far away is the next climb?’

Allowing Jason to focus on the riding is his four-person support team consisting of driver, physical therapist, crew chief and motivator, all of whom volunteer their time.

Almost equally sleep-deprived and crammed into a confined space for days on end, relations within the team can at times be fractious as they seek to insulate Jason against the chaos that can result from a missed turn or a mechanical problem.

As well as providing emotional and logistical support they’re also there to monitor and fine-tune the crucial factors that dictate their rider’s physical performance, like calorie intake and hydration, and help decide upon a strategy as the race develops.

The freaks of the cycling world

As a sport, ultra-racing reached its peak of public recognition in the mid-’80s, with national TV coverage in the States. It even managed to attract Tour de France rider Jonathan Boyer, who won the RAAM in 1985.

However, since then it’s slipped into relative obscurity, becoming a niche even within the cycling world. Perhaps the extreme nature of the racing, far outside the experience of most riders, coupled with the long duration makes it hard for the casual observer to get a handle on the discipline.

This lack of exposure means that most racers have to make do with little funding despite the logistical complexity of assembling a support crew and launching an attempt on the race, usually while simultaneously holding down a full-time job.

With Jason’s four-person support team all having to prepare as well as give up their time, it’s definitely not a sport for dilettantes.

‘We plan from a long way out, months ahead. We have target speeds mapped out for almost the whole route along with where we’re going to attack or ease up.

'The same with nutrition and sleep, we know what, where and how long, and we usually pretty much stick to it, adapting only for unforeseen stuff like weather.’

Or getting hit by cars. Following his somewhat scuppered rookie attempt, Jason returned to the race the following year. Competing against the strongest field in RAAM history he knocked a massive 30 hours off his time, yet only improved his overall position by a single place, to seventh.

That year Austrian Christoph Strasser and his team set the record for the fastest crossing of the RAAM course, averaging a continuous speed of 26.43 kmph and covering the 4,860 kilometres in seven days, 15 hours and 56 minutes.

It’s a record that Jason wouldn’t mind claiming for himself and he’s currently weighing up a third attempt.

Given the huge amount of preparation and the gruelling nature of the racing most would be happy to tick the event off their bucket list and move on to new challenges.

However, despite the suffering and sleep deprivation the 36-year-old Canadian can’t help but be drawn back to the race and wanting to build on his previous performances.

‘There’s always points in any race, either of a thousand miles or a hundred miles where life can feel a little tough,’ says Jason, 'but overall I always find there’s more time when I’m enjoying the experience.

'There are definitely some valleys but the peaks tend to outweigh them. And when you look back at it you forget the tiredness and all the pain and that’s how you convince yourself to go back and do it all over again.’

To follow this year’s race, which is already underway, see: raceacrossamerica.org

A film of Jason’s exploits can be found here: thehammermovie.net

The Race Across America: All you need to know

What is it?

The Race Across America (RAAM) is one of the longest endurance events in the world. As its name suggests, it sees cyclists traverse the entire expanse of the North American continent. Starting in the city of Oceanside in California and ending in Annapolis, Maryland, it sees riders literally pedal from coast to coast.

When did it start?

In 1982 when four riders came up with the idea. The original race saw them ride from Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the Empire State Building in New York City.

Is it only open to professionals?

Not at all. Unlike the three European Grand Tours this is not a stage race and anyone can enter it. Although solo riders need to first qualify to prove they can hack the entire course, the race was opened up to relay teams in 1992 making the event accessible to any reasonably fit cyclist. Cyclists come from all over the world to do it, too. In 2015, for example, there were riders and teams from over 27 different countries, with 58 of the 340 riders making the solo attempt. In the past, racers have ranged in age from 13 to 75. Throw in over 1,000 support crew trailing the race in campervans and minibuses every year and you’ve got one heck of a travelling circus.

How does the team thing work?

There are three different divisions you can race in not including the solo division. These include two-, four- and eight-person relay teams. The riding can be split any way the team sees fit although typically an eight-person team will see each rider racing an average of three hours per day.

Ok, how far/hard/high/long is it?

Racers have to cycle 3,000 miles across 12 states, conquering a total of 170,000 vertical feet of climbing. Team racers have a maximum of nine days to finish – meaning they have to tackle between 350-500 miles a day between them without taking a break. Solo riders like Jason Lane have a maximum of 12 days to reach the Atlantic meaning they have to smash out between 250-350 miles a day grabbing sleep when and wherever they can.

So it's effectively one big time trial?

Yes, you could see it like that as unlike, say, the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia there are no stages. It’s more a simple case of riding against the stopwatch which starts ticking as soon as riders set off in southern California, and doesn’t stop again until they cross the finish line on the other side of the continent. This beast is also 30% longer than the Tour de France and to save you whipping the calculator out, that time limit of 9-12 days mean riders have roughly half the time Messers Froome and Quintana have to do the Tour in.

Where can I signup?

See: raceacrossamerica.org for more details

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