RACE ACROSS AMERICA
The World’s Toughest Bicycle Race
A million miles from nowhere, is better than going nowhere, a million times.
Just How Tough do You Have to be?
The Race Across America is the longest running ultra-endurance events in the world – it tests the rider’s speed, endurance, strength and teamwork. It’s known to be the longest time trial and the toughest cycling event in the world. It’s the pinnacle of ultra-racing.
Unlike the Tour de France, Vuelta a Espana and Giro de Italia, the Race Across America isn’t a stage race. It’s 30% longer than the Tour de France, has no rest days and must be completed in half the time. And as if that wasn’t enough, team riders have been known to finish the race in just over 5 days!
Distance: 4960 Kms
It was a really long way to ride in a very short time. I rode with team mate Phil Theodore and crossed 12 states, 4 time zones, 4 of America’s longest rivers, 3 iconic landmarks, 3 major mountain ranges, and 2 deserts. The total cumulative ascent over the route was in excess of 170,000ft – equivalent to climbing the height of Mt Everest almost six times!
Elevation: Sea-level – over the Sierra Nevadas, Rockies and Appalachians – Sea level
It didn’t look as long on the map as it did on Day 1. At first, I thought it would be a good way to see the country but I saw more tar than anything else.
Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland
Raced in June to give riders the maximum daylight hours available, the word ‘day’ is still a bit of a misnomer as we did a lot of night cycling to reach the finish line in 8 days, 15 hours and 1 minute.
Number of Rest Days: 0
The race started under one of the longest piers in California and ended at the east coast sailing mecca of Annapolis.
My Riding Partner
I met Phil Theodore during the build-up to the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. While I rowed solo, Phil rowed as part of a pair. Phil, myself and my wife, Sarah in London at the memorial for the adventurer Ernest Shackleton and his men.
The Long and Winding Road
If you search for the world’s toughest bicycle race chances are you’ll end up looking at RAAM. It goes across America from the Pacific to the Atlantic and It’s been on my bucket list for a long time.
It starts in Oceanside, California and ends some 3,000 miles (almost 5,000 km) later in Annapolis, MD. Unlike many other long races, which are broken into stages, with RAAM the clock doesn’t stop. As a team you have just 9 days to get across, irrespective of unscheduled detours. We knew we’d have our work cut out to cross the finish line in that time…or suffer the dreaded DNF (did not finish).
An Adventure Shared
During my last big adventure, rowing across the Atlantic, I’d been alone and had to be entirely self-sufficient. Not this time.
I teamed up with friend Phil Theodore and we raced as a two-man team under the banner of Team Beyond with the help of a full-on support crew. A real highlight was having my wife, Sarah, as part of the crew. It was the first time she got to join me on one of my adventures.
Never Underestimate an Adventure
Knowing not to underestimate an event like RAAM, I’d been training hard for months before we arrived in Oceanside for the 17 June start.
We knew that the first couple of days through the desert would be hot and were not disappointed – the mercury reached 115° F (46° C). It was scorching and we ended up packing ice into socks and draping them around our necks to try and cool down.
We were glad to leave the extreme temperatures behind as we climbed into the Rockies and the sunrise ascent of Wolf Creek Pass (the highest point of the race at 10,857 ft or 3,309 m) was spectacular. Heading across the plains of Kansas, we got hit by strong side winds and had to just keep pushing through.
From here on my detailed recollection of the race is a bit fuzzy. While I’m not a great sleeper at the best of times, it turns out that less than an hour a night is definitely not enough when riding across a continent!
Snapshots of beauty and Excitement
I have some incredible memories of the latter half of the race, but they are only ‘snapshots’; like an epic downpour in Illinois – so good after all the heat, riding through Gettysburg at dusk or bombing down steep hills in the Appalachians at 2am hoping not to meet any wildlife on the road.
After 8 days, 15 hours and 1 minute we rolled in to Annapolis, 3rd out of the original nine two-man teams.
We’d been baked in the desert, fought winds on the plains and suffered through seemingly never-ending climbs in West Virginia. We’d got all that we bargained for in this the world’s toughest bicycle race, and more.
And now I’ve qualified to ride it all again…
as a solo…
History of the Race
One of the first to ride across America was newspaperman George Nellis. In 1887, on a 45-pound iron high wheeled velocipede, George followed the railroad routes – which, considering he didn’t have GPS was the best way to ensure he didn’t get lost. It was an incredible feat. It’s hard enough cycling up a mountain on a modern, streamlined, built-for-racing bicycle that comes complete with a huge number of gears, a support team and intensive training, the mind boggles to think of doing it on your own, on a penny-farthing! According to George, bananas and molasses cookies go down a treat by the time you get to Indiana. It took George 80 days to complete what was more of an exploration than a race. It was inspirational and every ten years or so, his record would be broken.
In the 1970’s, John Marino decided to see just how fast he could do transcontinental bike ride. In 1982, the Great American Bike Race began with 4 riders, John Marino, Lon Haldeman, Michael Shermer and John Howard, racing from Santa Monica to New York. It has been run every year since then and is now known as the Race Across America.
George Nellis in New Bicycle Suit, San Francisco, August 1887. Source: Collection of Gordon D. Riedell.
Some trips are more than distance travelled in miles.