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Hell on Two Wheels
An Astonishing Story of Suffering, Triumph, and the Most Extreme Endurance Race in the World
By Amy Snyder
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Amy Snyder
All rights reserved.
The Race Day Scene
Oceanside Pier, June 17
This was the day each participant had circled on his or her calendar at least a year earlier. The men's race was set to begin at noon from a sunny beach in Oceanside, California, a short drive north of San Diego. The racers began arriving with about an hour to spare, peering expectantly from the windows of their support vehicles as they pulled into the shoreline parking lot. Their transports mixed with minivans ferrying vacationing families for a day at the beach, beat-up convertibles stuffed with bronzed teenagers, and tricked-out pickups belonging to Marines stationed at the nearby Camp Pendleton.
Surrounded by the other colorful Southern California subcultures drawn to the inviting shores of San Diego County, nobody paid any attention to a handful of elite ultradistance cyclists strutting around in colorful spandex and sporting $5,000 bikes.
The toughest cycling race in the world was about to start, but hardly any of the 20 million residents of Southern California seemed to care. There were no tickets sold, no journalists present, and no local politicians on hand to celebrate the event. In recent years, most local papers barely ran even the smallest mention. San Diego is a cycling and triathlon hotbed, but the local cycling and multisport communities were largely unaware of the race that was about to go off just up the coast.
The racers themselves — the best ultradistance cyclists in the world — weren't hounded by fans seeking autographs, nor were they escorted to the starting line in chartered buses. The athletes didn't even receive any help negotiating their trips from nearby hotels. Some of them even got lost, finally stumbling on the staging area only because they knew it was literally in the shadow of the towering Oceanside Pier, one of the longest on the West Coast, stretching almost a third of a mile into the blue waters of the Pacific.
No, these athletes had traveled from around the world to be here, but they had to scrape and scrounge to purchase plane tickets and deliver their crews to California. They maxed out their credit cards buying race supplies. They crammed their crew members into rooms in tired motels around town that normally catered to families visiting loved ones stationed at Camp Pendleton. To save money while waiting for the race to begin, they cooked their own meals in the motor homes most racers had rented to follow them across the country, vehicles that would soon double as their medical stations and command centers.
ULTRADISTANCE CYCLING IS AN OBSCURE SPORT in the U.S., and even though RAAM is the baddest race of them all, it is virtually unknown outside the ultracycling community. The race enjoyed far greater visibility years ago when ABC's Wide World of Sports televised the action in Emmy-winning broadcasts. But the TV crews are long gone, and with them the big-name sponsors have all vanished, too. Today there's almost no advertising or sponsorship money to be found. No prize money is awarded to the race winner. The only tangible reward the winner receives is the same medal every other finisher receives. In this sense, RAAM has more in common with, say, amateur rowing than with its cousin the Tour de France. Even the obscure Iditarod dog sled race is sponsored by large corporations, while ultradistance cycling — for better or worse — is imbued with the purest amateur spirit.
A Harvard rower once called his sport "a hermetically sealed world." In describing rowing's culture, the journalist David Halberstam writes, "Failing to get their deeds and names known to the world of outsiders, [rowers] become the custodians of their own honor, their own record-book keepers. ... Because their deeds were passed on by word of mouth rather than by book and newspaper, the sport gained a mythic aura."
The same is true for ultracycling. It's a small, eccentric subculture loosely governed by a sanctioning and record-keeping body run by a cabal of ultracyclists. The early RAAM pioneers did a decent job documenting the first few years of the race in book form, and today a RAAM finisher will occasionally write about his own experience. As far as media coverage goes, only the RAAM organization itself makes a sustained effort to chronicle the race, but it doesn't have the resources to do an in-depth job. Amateurish stories appear in a grab bag of cycling blogs, and glossy cycling magazines sporadically run pieces about RAAM or long-distance races held in Europe. General interest media hardly ever do.
Since nobody is around to document the races, ultracyclists pass down their stories and lore from one racer to another — just like ancient myths — and they are content with impressing only one another.
THE SCENE AT RAAM HEADQUARTERS THE DAY BEFORE the race began was even more low-key. There were no camera crews, no newspaper reporters, no crowds, and little fanfare. One had to work hard to pick out the registration area among all the beachgoers, surfers, and vacationers parading about. A "Race Across America" banner flapped in the breeze in front of some tables selling race merchandise, and that was that. Nobody paid it any mind.
All the action was taking place behind the scenes. Each of the 28 solo entrants was decamped at a local motel along with his or her crew, busily preparing vehicles, staging and testing bicycles and other equipment, and buying supplies. Each had spent years preparing body, mind, and soul for this moment, but in these last few days there was still a lot to do. All but eight starters had come from outside the U.S., and they faced added logistical and financial challenges.
Each starter had earned the right to be in Oceanside by doing well in a sanctioned qualifying race. Their RAAM training regimens consumed ungodly amounts of time. Many logged more than 10,000 training miles in the year leading up to their race, and some topped 25,000 miles — the circumference of the earth at the equator — sometimes riding for more than 24 hours straight. Racers from cold climates forced themselves to train indoors, spinning inside 100-degree saunas for hours at a time to acclimatize their bodies to the heat they'd have to endure during the race.
Each had invested tens of thousands of dollars in travel expenses, vehicles, equipment, food, and bicycles. Even more, they had to convince six to 12 of their dearest friends to devote up to three weeks supporting them — living without creature comforts, financial remuneration, or sleep — out of cramped support vehicles. The racers' spouses and family members make perhaps the biggest sacrifices of all.
Clearly these athletes had a lot on the line, and the pressure to not fail weighed heavily on them as they fell asleep in their hotel rooms the night before the race.
On their last day in Oceanside, solo racers reported to race headquarters to have their vehicles and bicycles inspected for safety. If you had managed to spy any of them milling around the Oceanside Pier that day, you never would have known it. They aren't easy to spot. One journalist observed that, "In cycling, which is all about enduring pain, a lot of the toughest riders ... don't seem particularly tough at first glance ... this is because they exist in a world beyond normal conventions of toughness. In their world ... the toughest ... is the one who is so deeply tough that he seems almost bashful, or in extreme cases, sleepy."
Take Slovenian racer Marko Baloh. Tall, lanky, and 42 years old, Baloh is a RAAM veteran and one of the most formidable ultracyclists in the world. While he comes across as soft-spoken and even a bit deferential, he doesn't hide his burning desire to succeed. Baloh will look you directly in the eye and declare slowly and confidently, "I've come here to win." Then with a slight shrug of his shoulders, he'll quickly glance away and flash a shy grin.
Baloh is a study in contrasts — at once humble, but also dignified and self-confident. He's easygoing, but also a fierce competitor. He's prepared to suffer to win the race, but wants to have fun in the process. Fittingly, his race moniker is Tweety Bird. But Baloh doesn't always act like a happy-go-lucky cartoon character. He is dead serious in his race preparation, sometimes heading out for all-night training rides after putting his children to bed. Baloh admits to having been excruciatingly shy as a boy, and even today you can see him struggle to find the right balance between modesty and ferocity.
Michele Santilhano's toughness is equally hard to spot. The 39-year-old South African has run 135-mile ultramarathons, swam the English Channel, and finished a quintuple Ironman, but there's no swagger in her. Being of average height and build, she doesn't look like the warrior goddess her athletic résumé implies. She settles into chairs gently, as if trying to occupy as little space as possible. She admits to being socially awkward, and sometimes it seems she doesn't want you to notice her.
RAAM soloists don't have to wear their toughness on their sleeves. Nevertheless, they're desperate for you to know how much it hurts to compete in this race. To the individual experiencing pain, the feeling is overwhelmingly present, yet the sufferer has difficulty conveying his experience of it. Pain is the most difficult of all human states to explain, in part because of its resistance to language. But describing a painful sensation to someone else helps diminish its intensity. This is one reason RAAM participants hunger to stay connected to the outside world while racing.
Close family members keep tabs through late-night phone calls, whispering tender words of encouragement to keep their loved ones pedaling in the middle of the night. A brief call from home creates a fleeting, private oasis that gives the racer a safe haven for releasing pent-up anxieties, an experience that often leaves him weeping. The best way for friends to let a racer know they're watching is by posting words of encouragement on his blog. Crew members access these posts from their support vehicles and read them to the racer as he peddles. Racers yearn for that extra burst of energy that can come from an encounter with someone who shows even the vaguest appreciation of what they are putting themselves through. Ultracyclists are tough as nails, but as human as can be.
ABOUT AN HOUR BEFORE THE START of the men's race, a small crowd milled around the staging area. Besides the racers' crew members, there were about a dozen RAAM staffers on hand, a few startled beachgoers who happened to get caught up in the mix, and maybe two dozen wizened ultracyclists and RAAM groupies.
As they waited, the old timers talked amongst themselves, handicapping the field and discussing rivalries as each racer's vehicle pulled into the parking lot. This year's field was considered to be the deepest in years.
When a race favorite pulled in, the crowd peeled away from other riders and moved toward the favorite's vehicles, cameras snapping. The favorites shared a few things in common. Most arrived sporting neatly shaven heads (a full head of hair just means more grooming and less ventilation). Like ProTour cyclists, they showed up looking unnaturally thin, with hollowed-out cheeks and legs so sculpted you could see the muscle and sinew as if you were looking at the illustrations in an anatomy book that had come to life.
Arriving early that morning was Gerhard Gulewicz (GOUL-eh-wits), a serious-minded 41-year-old Austrian back for his fourth time. Gulewicz finished third in 2007, the same year he set the world speed record for cycling across Australia. The following year this compact, powerfully built man was at the peak of his cycling career as RAAM began, but he was spirited off the course by a Navajo Nation ambulance after a bad crash near Tuba City, Arizona. He was forced to withdraw while second on the road. This year Gulewicz had unfinished business to take care of, and he came to win.
Christoph Strasser showed up next. At 26, golden boy Strasser was an ultracycling sensation making his rookie appearance at RAAM. When this young Austrian emerged from his vehicle, the old-timers in the crowd nodded appreciatively. Strasser sported the same yellow-and-white cycling kit that his mentor, Wolfgang Fasching, had worn when Fasching dominated RAAM years ago. Strasser was making a statement that he was Fasching's heir apparent. "Wolfgang was impressed by my passion and my serious approach to my sport. He says he recognizes himself in me," Strasser explained. As he stepped from his vehicle with long strips of bright blue Physio Tape adorning his powerful legs, Strasser was a sight to behold and seemed supremely confident for a rookie.
Strasser had burst onto the scene two years prior, beating veteran Baloh at the ultracycling world championship in Austria and becoming the youngest man to ever garner that title. He had wanted to do RAAM since the age of 15, when he watched Fasching win it on Austrian television. As a rookie, Strasser was realistic about his prospects, and as a student of the race he approached it with the respect and humility it deserved. The betting line was that he'd finish in the top five.
Next to arrive was Dani Wyss (VICE), a 39-year-old Swiss. Everybody was delighted he had returned because he won the 2006 race in his first RAAM appearance — only the second rookie to do so. Wyss was known as a savvy tactician and a cool character. One would never have known how much he had on the line just by looking at him. The slender, small-framed man had a finely featured face and soft, brown eyes that didn't give away his toughness. He seemed relaxed and self-assured as he readied himself at the start while his young, energetic crew members flitted about nervously.
Baloh also arrived looking calm. Like Gulewicz, this was his fourth time back, so the pre-race scene was a familiar one. As soon as this Slovenian ultracycling legend stepped from his vehicle, it was clear this man was a world-class athlete. His tall, wiry body was reminiscent of a cheetah's — taut and leggy, with the high-waisted look of an Olympic middle-distance runner. Baloh's entourage drew attention because it was quite the family affair. Two of his three children were accompanying their father on his cross-country journey, along with his wife and stalwart crew member Irma. I watched as Baloh clutched his kids in his long, slender arms, seeking their comfort in these last anxious moments. Days later, as Baloh plied the roads of rural Ohio, some of his crew members questioned whether having his family along was helping or hurting his bid to win the race.
Franz Preihs (PRICE), another Austrian like Gulewicz and Strasser, was difficult to miss. The 31-year-old full-time ultracyclist worked hard to cultivate a bad boy image, and he had a knack for self-promotion. When he stepped from his vehicle, it was impossible to miss his heavily tattooed arms and legs.
Preihs had burnished his tough guy image at RAAM the prior year. In the middle of the race he crashed into a road sign after dozing off and was rushed to the hospital with a broken collarbone. He returned to the race hours later and finished — in fourth place, no less.
But Preihs is a softie at heart. The night before his departure for Oceanside, he lay in bed in his wife Michaela's arms and asked her whether he really had to go. Couldn't he just stay here with her, safe and warm? Preihs needed his wife's encouragement to give him courage.
Preihs was gunning for a podium finish this time around, and his commitment was obvious — on the inside of his left forearm he sported a large, red tattoo of the RAAM logo.
The last favorite to show up this morning was reigning champion Jure Robic, the odds-on pick to win. The king of ultracycling was back for his seventh consecutive year. Having begun his love affair with RAAM in 2003, he was the most experienced racer in the field by far. Robic, a 44-year-old Slovenian Special Forces soldier, was the only man ever to win four solo championships. Robic was the Lance Armstrong of RAAM and a legend in his own right. Some called him the best endurance athlete in the world, and even well into his forties he still won most of the ultradistance cycling races he entered.
Excerpted from Hell on Two Wheels by Amy Snyder. Copyright © 2011 Amy Snyder. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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