Helter skelter!...Helter skelter!" U2 is blaring from our pace
van's two rooftop speakers as I and two other Team Alaska crew
members drive slowly down the eastern side of Mount Hood in
Oregon. One of our bicyclists, Bob Voris, is riding 20 feet in
front of us, bent low, grasping his racing handlebars like a
World War II tail gunner.
This is how I am spending my lone week of summer vacation 2000:
driving nonstop across the U.S. at 18 mph while listening to
jackhammer-loud music and staring at the butt of my 50-year-old
brother-in-law. The strange thing is, I am enjoying it. I am
getting an inside look at one of the world's most grueling
events: the 19th annual Race Across America, or RAAM, a
2,975-mile, balls-to-the-wall bike competition from Portland to
Pensacola, Fla. RAAM has two divisions, solo and relay. Team
Alaska, made up of Bob and three riding partners from Anchorage,
is a relay squad intent on beating a rival team from Minnesota
and finishing in less than 6 1/2 days.
Adrenaline and testosterone have made the first 60 miles
startlingly intense. All four riders on our squad have taken
turns doing three-mile pulls up and over the mountain, through
air redolent of pine and scorched tractor-trailer brakes. The f
word has flown, decrying flaws in our relay exchanges.
I realize that I could easily become the whipping boy of this
operation. I am a bike-racing greenhorn--no doubt the only RAAM
crewman in history who had to read Bicycling for Dummies to
prepare. "Don't touch that!" screams our crew chief, former
Marine staff sergeant Michael Hayes, when I reach for the pump
during a gas stop. Self-service is banned in Oregon, he explains,
and RAAM slaps time penalties on teams that break any law. I
slink back to my spot on the floor of the partly stripped-out
pace van. I kneel there, feeling useless. For the next hour I
chat with our riders as they rest in the van between pulls, and
clang a cowbell out the window to encourage them when they're
May 27, 2001
Suddenly a crisis hits. In the high desert of eastern Oregon,
with the late-day sun beating down, Bob starts waving at us
frantically. His left hamstring is cramping. Michael, who is
driving, looks back at me and shouts, "He needs food with salt!"
As I look beside me at a bin filled with bags of chips, peanuts
and pretzels, I am stricken with guilt. I have failed to feed my
rider, and he is breaking down. As Bob will say later, "There are
times in this race when everyone is going to feel like s---." For
me, that time has arrived.
Fortunately, Bob is as sturdy as an Alaskan grizzly; he works
through the cramp. Back in the van at the end of his pull, he
guzzles Gatorade, munches pretzels. No one seems to blame me for
my dereliction--not openly, anyway--and as we roll down the road to
the throbbing beat of Alice in Chains, I vow to redeem myself.
Horrific stories about RAAM abound in extreme-sports circles.
Soloists ride themselves to near-delirium, pedaling 22, 23, even
24 hours a day. Some begin to hallucinate. A soloist once became
convinced that his crew members had been replaced by alien
doubles who were out to kill him. Another locked up his brakes on
a desolate highway, screaming to his puzzled crew, "Look out for
the brick wall!"
Riding a bicycle 3,000 miles virtually nonstop can be dangerous.
In 1985 Wayne Phillips, a Canadian soloist competing without a
support crew, was struck late at night in New Mexico by a
hit-and-run driver. Phillips, who was left paralyzed from the
waist down, was found on the roadside with tire tracks up the
back of his jersey.
Since then, RAAM organizers have required at least one support
vehicle and three crew members per rider. Team Alaska has three
vans (two for pacing riders, one for scouting the route and
buying supplies) and an RV, plus a crew of 12. It is a motley
crew, comprising 10 men and two women, ages 16 to 60. My wife,
Pamelia, and I are virtually the only non-Alaskans.
"Everyone should do something like this," Pamelia said two weeks
before the race. We were flipping through a camping-gear catalog
in our Manhattan apartment looking for his-and-hers handheld
urinals because we'd been told the vans wouldn't stop for
bathroom breaks. "This will be great," she said. "We'll see the
country, help Bob and have a really different kind of vacation.
At least we'll be together, right?"
These last words were cooed, not spoken, and they betrayed our
ignorance of what lay ahead. We would soon be rolling across 11
states (rarely in the same vehicle) in a sleep-deprived stupor,
peeing on roadsides and living with 14 other people out of one
29-foot motor home. Our trip would be an MTV reality series
waiting to happen.
Yes, MTV. Even the gray-hairs on our team had what smelled like
teen spirit. "I want to be riding when I'm 80," said Bob before
the race. A special-education teacher, he had taken up
long-distance cycling in his early 20s to satisfy a childhood
wanderlust. While he and teammate Jim Mendenhall, 42, a civil
engineer, were by their own accounts just normal guys who loved
to bike, our two other riders were more serious athletes. George
Stransky, 56, a gynecologist, had completed seven Ironman
triathlons and played goalie on the 1964 U.S. Olympic water polo
team. Lawyer Peter Lekisch, 59, a former offensive and defensive
end at Ohio Wesleyan and a national masters champion in
cross-country skiing, looked at this as a dry run: If it went
well, he might do the 2001 solo race as a 60th birthday present
The 2000 solo race was already three days old by the time we
gathered at the starting line, in a Holiday Inn parking lot in
Portland. "Leader Wolfgang Fasching of Austria has gone through
Steamboat Springs, Colo., 1,250 miles into the route," RAAM
director Lon Haldeman announced. "He is averaging about 400 miles
a day and has an 85-mile lead. Also, one of the riders had an
accident last night. Pete Bajema of Bellingham, Wash., was going
down a hill near Ogden, Utah, when he hit a black cow. Pete had
to go to the hospital for four hours, but he's back in the race."
Haldeman paused. "So watch out for black cows."
I smiled. Little did I know that our team would encounter not
only cows but also deer, moose, roadrunners, prairie dogs,
route-blocking freight trains, hair-raising lightning storms and
spoke-clogging tumbleweeds. But that would be part of the fun. A
moment later the starting pistol fired, and we were off,
hell-bent for Pensacola.
Fourteen hours into the race, I am finally earning my crewman's
stripes. It is 2 a.m., and I have been driving a pace van for
four hours, rumbling through rural Oregon to the jarring lyrics
of Foo Fighters and Limp Bizkit ("...I just might break your
f---in' face tonight!"). I stay 10 feet behind Bob, keeping the
road illuminated for him with my headlights. At one point two
large deer leap in front of Bob, then bound alongside him,
forcing him--and me--to veer to avoid a collision.
The near miss leaves me shaken as I crawl into an upper bunk in
the RV at 3 a.m., 200 miles from the Idaho border. I am tired but
can't sleep, perhaps because I am literally shaken (and flung and
bounced into the air) by the motor home as it lumbers and sways
down the road.
The Team Alaska RV is a world unto itself, a cheap
motel-locker-room-24-hour-diner on wheels. There is farting,
burping, snoring, the occasional yelp when one of the riders
receives a massage in the back bedroom. Bodies are sprawled
everywhere. Sweaty jerseys hang off cabinet latches. The
refrigerator is packed solid with baked potatoes and bags of
cooked pasta. Geno Cherry, Bob's best friend, is running the
show; he's the modern equivalent of the wagon-train grub master.
The riders, who are burning up to 8,000 calories a day, come to
him not for meals but for feedings. They are weighed three times
a day, like livestock, to make sure they're not wasting away.
After 90 minutes of semisleep I am pulled out of bed and put back
behind the wheel of a pace van for what will turn out to be a
17-hour driving stint. With me as navigator is free-spirited
Gerry Tatrai, 36, a two-time RAAM solo winner from Australia whom
Peter has brought in to serve as our race chief. I will rarely be
apart from Gerry from here--just outside Unity, Ore.--to the finish
Gerry is known in RAAM circles as the Wonder from Down Under. He
took up cycling in 1983 after a motorcycle accident cost him his
spleen and a kidney. In eight solo RAAMs he overcame a range of
bizarre misfortunes, including salmonella poisoning that he says
he developed when one of his crewmen, a reptile breeder, brought
along a pregnant iguana and kept it in the cooler with Gerry's
Gerry is an unforgettable carmate. "When you start throwing up,"
he advises Peter, who has puked twice, "keep it in your mouth and
make yourself swallow it. Otherwise, you're throwing away
calories." Gerry is an expert at the 20-second roadside bowel
evacuation (a RAAM necessity) and a creature of impulse. At
different times he dashes into a field to cool off under an
irrigation sprinkler, strips down and showers with a jug of
drinking water as cars whiz past and climbs out to tinker with
the roof speakers while the van is traveling at 25 mph.
He also keeps track, by phone, of the race results, a matter of
growing interest as we pass through the gorgeous but empty miles
of Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. By the second day we are an hour
ahead of our Minnesota rivals, Team Heart, and almost two ahead
of Team IXL Greenspeed, four younger riders competing in the
human-powered-vehicle category. We're sure that Greenspeed's
54-speed recumbent tricycles will run us down once we hit the
flats of Oklahoma. But we secretly dream of beating them.
"This is a frickin' real race!" George yells on the third
morning. He and his teammates are holding up well, considering
that George has a queasy stomach and is still rattled from nearly
having lost control of his bike in stiff crosswinds on I-80 in
Wyoming; Jim has nearly taken a header while speeding downhill,
also in a crosswind, in Oregon; Bob is having back spasms; and
Peter is fighting bronchial congestion and saddle sores. The crew
marvels to one another: These four guys are amazing. They don't
complain, they don't slow down, they don't look back.
The team even makes short work of the Rocky Mountains. We cross
the Continental Divide at Colorado's Tennessee Pass (elev. 10,424
feet) and two hours later complete our first 72 hours on the
road. We're averaging 450 miles per day and 18.75 mph, right on
pace to finish in 6 1/2 days.
Peter slumps in the back of the van after each pull, squeezing
100-calorie packets of carbohydrate gel into his mouth. He seems
utterly spent, until a look of childlike joy comes over his face.
"Isn't this great?" he asks.
The crew has hit its stride, too. We whip bikes on and off the
racks, squawk on our walkie-talkies, pester the riders to drink
and eat. We have been switching riders every half hour, but on
steep hills we do it every few minutes, a frazzling task that
demands perfect coordination among vans and riders. We keep in
mind a RAAM maxim: A good crew can't win the race for you, but a
bad crew can lose it.
The rolling hills of Arkansas give way to dead-flat Mississippi
and endless expanses of soybean fields and catfish farms. We
learn that Team IXL Greenspeed is now only 60 miles behind us,
with Team Heart much farther back. We also learn that Fasching,
the 32-year-old Austrian, has already won the solo race, in eight
days, 10 hours, 19 minutes. From start to finish he slept
slightly more than six hours.
Bob has dedicated his race to his father, Robert, who died of
cancer in 1998. But as the race enters its final miles, through
Alabama and Florida, Bob is focused on the business at hand. He
fixates on his tiny bike computer, vowing to average more than 20
mph the rest of the way and help us beat Team IXL Greenspeed. He
does both. Near dawn on the seventh day, about 15 miles from
Pensacola, his teammates join him to ride the final stretch
together. Pensacola Bay appears on their left, as does a carload
of Bob's relatives who have driven in from Atlanta. Moments later
the riders pull into another Holiday Inn parking lot and reach
the finish line.
We have crossed America in six days, 16 hours, 42 minutes and won
the over-50 division. Team IXL Greenspeed comes in almost four
hours later, and Team Heart 14 hours after that. We soon hear
horror stories, of a rider separating his shoulder in a wipeout,
of a deer crashing through a support van's windshield, of a crew
member breaking her wrist in a fall. We feel lucky.
At the awards cookout with the amazingly tough solo riders--they
walk gingerly, most with at least one body part swollen, scraped
or bandaged--I find Pete Bajema, the cyclist who'd collided with
the black cow. A torn ligament in his right thumb forced Bajema
to drop out. I ask him how he feels about the cow that undid his
months of training. "Let's put it this way," he says with a
smile, "I just ate my first hamburger in 2 1/2 years."
Peter Lekisch is growing wistful at the thought of our team
members--16 new friends--splitting up and going home. "I think we
should start planning our next adventure together," he says. He
will soon be planning his own adventure. He will indeed ride in
the 2001 RAAM starting on June 16, hoping to become the first
60-year-old to finish the solo race.
As I lie down in my motel room, my eyes bloodshot from a week of
almost no sleep, my brain screaming the songs of Limp Bizkit, my
clothes rank and grease-stained, I can only conclude that my wife
was right: Everyone should do something like this.
The riders are weighed three times a day to make sure they're
not wasting away.