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What goes into training for Race Across America?

Journalist and author Rupert Guinness embarks on RAAM after two delays and 70,000km of training.

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The Race Across America, cycling’s ultimate ultra-distance event, clicks into gear Tuesday.

The roughly 3,000-mile (4,800km) race starts in Oceanside, California, and ends in Annapolis, Maryland. Riders will cross deserts, mountains, forests, and plains. A mix of solo riders and teams will race nearly non-stop to reach the Atlantic Ocean within a time cut.

Among the starters will be Rupert Guinness, who already raced twice across Australia. So what was the next challenge for the journalist and author?

Racing across America, of course, as in the Race Across America.

The former VeloNews European correspondent and author will be among the approximately 50 starters in the solo category Tuesday in California for the ultra-distance bicycle race that spans a continent.

Guinness will be racing in the individual category but will bring a full support crew to help attend to his needs before, during, and after each racing leg.

Guinness was based in Europe for VeloNews in the 1980s and 1990s before starting his career in Australia. Now a self-confessed ultra-distance racer, Guinness is taking on RAAM both as a personal challenge and to increase awareness of mental health issues.

VeloNews caught up with Guinness before he embarks on his journey:

VN: So Rupert, when did you first hear about RAAM?

Rupert Guinness: I first heard about RAAM in 1987, when I was working at Winning Magazine in Belgium. I remember Jonathan Boyer did it twice, and he won it once when I was the European editor, and we had Jock Boyer on the cover. And it struck me, what’s a Tour de France road pro doing RAAM? I was thinking, what a crazy eff-ing event that is.

VN: What was the seed planted to actually want to race it?

VN: So fast forward to 2017 and 2018. That when I did the Indy-Pac Road race, that was my entree into ultra-distance riding. That was such an intense experience and I wanted to find out what’s harder or more challenging. Indy-Pac is more pure bikepack-style racing, with your own packs and you’re not supported. That’s a purer genre of ultra-rider scene.

The journalist in me always wanted to find out what it would be like to race RAAM, the hardest of these solo-supported events. I very quickly realized how expensive it was, with the dynamics of getting the right crew and the other costs. In RAAM there is a time limit of 12 days. In bikepacking, you go hard and fast, but when there is no time limit, you can go at whatever pace you want. But at RAAM, you just can’t stop for a beer and talk to people. I wanted to see how that would be.

VN: What is your realistic goal?

RG: My goal is to make the time cut. I am not racing with a mindset to stay within the time cut. If you do that, you’ll race to the slowest possible time and if something goes wrong, then you’re caught out. I will race it as well as I can, and with that in mind, I can try to stay ahead of the time limit. If there’s a problem, I have a buffer for the time cut. Anything could happen, I could get sick, or days 2-3-4-5, you’re struggling.  There are big mountains, then you drop to the desert where it’s 50C plus across the Mojave Desert, have to get through that, then you go through the Rockies, across the Great Plains, and the Appalachian at the end. A lot can happen.

VN: Do you have a bit of a structure or schedule?

RG: If you do the basic maths, if you ride 20 hours a day at 20kph you will do 400km a day, and you will finish in the time limit, and that includes all the stops. It sounds simple, but it’s a lot more complicated due to the terrain, the conditions, wind, rain, roadworks, and your own personal mental and physical degeneration. The record for a soloist is seven days, 15 hours … I won’t be threatening that mark.

VN: You wanted to do this in 2020, but the pandemic canceled the race in 2020, and last year, you were not allowed to travel, so now fingers are crossed?

RG: COVID postponed everything. Everyone is sick of me talking about training for RAAM and having a fundraiser at so and so pub. This is three years in the making. I was originally going in 2020, trained for that, 2021 trained for that, both times COVID ended that. In the end, it’s been a good thing, because I’ve learned you do need at least three years to prepare for it. I wouldn’t have finished in 2020 or 2021 looking back at my fitness. It does take a lot longer to be in condition to even start RAAM than to even finish it.

VN: What kind of training goes into preparing for RAAM?

RG: Right now on Strava I’ve been training 780km a week. The last two years, I’ve done about 33,000km to 34,000km a year. I never did think I’d be doing that at the age of 60 as a cyclist.

VN: There’s more to RAAM than spinning the pedals. What else goes into the effort?

RG: The financial cost and organizational factors make getting to the start line a real challenge in itself. The entry is about $3,500, and then you have to have a crew. I have a total of seven people supporting me, so with airfare and costs, that’s about $80,000. There are different categories, with two, four, six and eight-rider teams. I am in the solo category, and I think there are about 50 starters.

VN: You mentioned a crew, what’s involved with that?

RG: I have crew chief, who is like a DS. You give the crew chief full authority even over yourself. There are times in the race when I won’t be in the best condition to make a decision for my own wellbeing. We’ll have seven people on two different watches, one will be on and one will be ahead of the race and resting up, so two crews to rotate. There’s also a second crew chief, and I need a physio, someone working on management because things will breakdown. Someone on the nutritional side as well as social media. In this day and age, you have to commit resources to provide a return on investment for investors, plus a couple of drivers.

If I stop for something, each person has to have a certain focus of what they’re doing, looking after glasses, helmet, refilling drinks, fixing my bike. I will have only one person talking to me. It’s a lot more complex than the solo unsupported riding that I’ve done.

VN: So you’ve done a few simulation events because the event was canceled?

RG: Because we couldn’t get to RAAM last year because of travel bans with COVID, we did Darwin to Adelaide with a loop around Uluru, and that was 3,777km. And because of COVID, I did a virtual RAAM in 2020, so we created our own 12-day event, so your body can learn from the stresses. I’ve learned so much from those experiences, and I learned from my mistakes.

VN: Good luck, Rupert!