The Race Across America is always a challenge—nothing about riding 3000 miles from the West Coast to the East Coast could ever be considered easy. But this year it is going to be particularly tough for a solo to win as possibly the most competitive, most experience field to grace this 28-year old event is now on course. Among those on an eastward heading to Annapolis, Maryland are two past winners and several riders with top five rides in their RAAM palmares.
After rolling out at noon Wednesday from the pier at Oceanside, California, Slovenian Army major Jure Robic, the event’s only four-time winner, has already powered to the front in his bid for his fifth RAAM title.
Robic was the first at time station No.1 at Lake Henshaw, with another past winner, Daniel Wyss of Switzerland, rolling past just minutes later, with American RAAM rookie mere seconds behind Wyss. Back another three minutes was Austrian Gerhard Gulewicz in his fourth RAAM.
Gulewicz was Robic’s only real challenger in ’08. The two were together from the start, often within sight of one another all through California and into Arizona where Gulewicz finally took a break long enough to let Robic slip away and for another rider to get in between. It was moments after re-taking second last year that Gulewicz took a hard fall. He was taking off his jacket, which fell into the front wheel, sending him face-first to the pavement, ending his RAAM assault just outside of Monument Valley. At the riders’ meeting Monday he grinned as he pointed to the jagged line alongside his right eye and declared, “I have RAAM souvenir scar 2008.”
A minute later came Canadian Peter Oyler, hoping to better his eighth-place ride of 2007. Next was another Slovenian Marko Bahlo (second in 2006). He’s back after skipping ’07 and doing ’08 on a 2-rider team. Following in seventh is Spaniard Julian Sanz-Garcia, a stand-out from last year where in his rookie year, he stayed near the front, holding second place as far as New Mexico, before stomach issues and a fall dropped him back to eighth by Annapolis.
In eighth is Austrian Franz Preihs, fourth as a rookie in RAAM 2008 where he soldiered on for nearly two thousand miles AFTER breaking his collarbone when he clipped a road sign in Northern New Mexico. Anyone who would push on is, shall we say, “different.”
Asked what drives someone to want to do RAAM, he replied as if he’d never even given it any thought.
“I’m not sure exactly,” said Preihs, stroking his chin, “It started step after step. RAAM is very popular in Austria because of Wolfgang Fasching (a three-time RAAM winner) and Gerhard Gulewicz and Franz Spillaur. We have a big ultra-cycling scene in Austria with a big community with young riders. And RAAM is the ultimate race, so, here I am, and I’m glad to be here. We have a great crew.”
Indeed. His crew is among the best organized and equipped to have ever contested the race. And why not? Preihs and his crew have learned from some of the best in the biz.
Wednesday at noon also marked the start of the men’s 60+ age category and for women of all ages. Four women were on the start for the noon departure from Oceanside. All are tougher than nails. Three are in the under age 50 category; Daniela Figueiredo Genovesi of Brazil, South African Michele Santilhano, and Janet Christiansen, whose home is a ten-minute drive from the starting line. British rider Ann Wooldridge is riding in the age 50+ category. Joining them is the sole rider in the male age 60+ category, Paul Danhaus, a Wisconsin veterinarian.
These five riders enjoyed great conditions on day one, as the normally scorching temperatures of the Anza Borrego desert were well below the 90’s and above of recent years. And a tail wind from Borrego Springs helped all five make it to the time station in the desert town of Brawley well ahead of schedule.
Favorable weather continued, with cloudy skies and even a cooling cloudburst on the Yarnell Grade climb, west of Prescott.
Currently riding in first place, somewhere east of Prescott, Arizona, is Christiansen, back after last year’s heartbreak ride that saw her drop out while leading, just 270 miles from the finish. “The body just wasn’t willing,” she reflected prior to the start. But just hours after her ’08 defeat she was in a hotel room, “…making a list of what worked and what didn’t work, already planning for coming back in ’09,” she revealed.
Trailing her by around half an hour is Genovesi, an all-around athlete who competes in adventure racing, body board surfing and endurance cycling. Last year she took first place in the Brazil’s Desafio 24 Hour, riding 541.8 km (336.6 miles) in 24 hours to win the women’s category, and taking fourth overall against the men.
Santilhano follows about an hour back for third in the women’s under 50 category. Santilhano is a pediatric nurse with a long list of endurance racing accomplishments, including several Iron Man events and successfully swam the English Channel.
Wooldridge is trailing over two hours back, while Danhaus is holding his own, in between Christiansen and Genovesi.