By Steve Medcroft, Special to VeloNews.com
The solo riders in the 2003 Insight Race across America rolled out along San Diego’s Harbor Boulevard at 7 a.m. Sunday, escorted by police motorcycles and several hundred local cyclists and supporters, beginning a cross-country competition that will end more than eight days later on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
In the 18-rider field rode Rob Kish, a 17-time finisher, ultramarathon cycling legend and inspiration to anyone who has attempted the RAAM since he first lined up in 1985. Beside him rode Allen Larsen, last year’s Rookie of the Year and a definite contender for this year’s solo title.
Rolling along with the veterans were first-timers from all over the world, including 54-year-old retired U.S. Marine pilot Paul Bonds, 33-year-old Liechtenstein police officer Marcel Knaus, and 43-year-old bricklayer Attila Kaldi, all of whom hope to be cooling their heels in the Atlantic Ocean in little more than a week.
For most, RAAM is not about winning, but the experience itself.
Bonds is motivated by thoughts of his late daughter Jennifer, who was killed by a motorist as she waited with her father to cross a road.
“I’m riding for the Jennifer Bonds Memorial Scholarship Fund, which will help a few children get started in their college lives,” he said.
Kaldi, the1994 quadruple-Ironman world champion, who also claims a world one-hour pushup record (1013 in one hour on fingertips), has already achieved his goal by becoming the first Hungarian RAAM rider.
And Knaus – well, he just wants to finish.
Facing the test
For the next week and more, competitors will be testing themselves over 2970 miles, through 14 states, and up and over more than 82,000 feet of climbing.
The solo riders will sleep as little as two hours a night and keep an average speed of around 15 mph. The teams, which start Monday – two-man, four-man, four-person-mixed, and corporate-challenge – teams – will get a little more rest and strive for the four-man average of just over 23 mph. And whether they’re riding alone or as part of a team, the competitors will depend heavily on their support crews – two or more support vehicles and a crew of masseurs, cooks, bottle and clothing washers, navigators and cheerleaders.
The third day provides a key checkpoint for many a rider, says race director Jim Pitre. With the race nearly half over, and as much road in front of them as behind, many RAAM entrants have simply not had the will to continue, he says.
The tension can break a good crew as well, Pitre added. “We once had one team get so pissed off at their rider they left him on the side of the road,” he said.
Tensions aside, the real challenge is one of simple physical endurance. For Rob Kish, the first 24 hours provide a good gauge of how the race will unfold for him.
“If I’m feeling pretty good, I’ll keep going (without a rest stop), sometimes through the second night,” he said.
As for Team Vail/Go-Fast leader Zach Bingham, he said passing the three-day mark saw his body make the transition from being racked with muscle soreness and pain to an altered state of endurance.
“In 2002, I was just locked up after three days,” he said. “But it went away. By the time we reached the end, I didn’t really feel sore any more at all.”
Over the next few days, the contenders should separate themselves from the pretenders. In the meantime, here are some ideas of who to watch for in the front of the race
Solo men: Rob Kish is the only past winner in this year’s field. After 18 starts, 18 finishes and three wins, he’s clearly the most experienced and capable rider on the road. And he’s not riding just to finish.
“I’ve done this so many times now that it definitely is a race for me any more,” he said. “But you can’t get too distracted by what the other competitors are doing. You have to just put in your best effort.”
Who will challenge Kish this year? Allen Larsen is a definite threat, and Marko Baloh is another racer to keep an eye on, says Pitre. “He has a 286-mile 12-hour. That’s unbelievable.”
Solo women: As the lone women’s soloist, Rebecca Smith need only finish to claim her crown, and she seems well prepared. The 54-year-old qualified for RAAM by finishing second at the 2002 Race Across Oregon, and broke the course record for women at the Furnace Creek 508, another RAAM-qualifying ultramarathon.
Teams: The team race begins Monday at 1 p.m. Team Vail/Go-Fast won in 2001, but is not the only contender, says Pitre. Austria’s Team Harreither/VAV Verischerung is tough, he notes, adding that on paper, the young Team Arete from San Francisco “may have the best shot.”
The route: The race always runs west to east, shoreline to shoreline, though the start, finish and route changes from year to year. This year’s race starts in San Diego and finishes 2970 miles later in Atlantic City. Along the way are 54 time stations at which the crews for competitors must check in by telephone with race headquarters in Atlantic City to be officially counted. The guy who decides where everyone goes is Lon Haldeman, who is route director, chief official and a RAAM legend in his own right.
This year’s southern start presents a few unique challenges. “I see the potential desert heat being very hard on the riders who have not trained for heat,” says Pitre, who notes that previous desert RAAMs have sent more than one rider to the hospital with heat exhaustion. “We may be lucky and have a cool streak, but it is possible to reach 110 degrees plus in mid-June going through the California and Arizona deserts.”
In recent weeks, desert Southwest temperatures have run a little higher than normal, hovering just above 100 degrees throughout the long afternoons.
Much of the 82,000 feet of climbing comes in the Western mountains, which end after the Continental Divide. But it’s not all flat from there, says Pitre. “At the end there are some serious climbs; short, steep, and repetitive, but serious.”
This year’s route was carefully chosen to take it closer to major metropolitan centers than in years past. If you’re in Phoenix, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Amarillo, Dodge City, Wichita, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cincinnati, Baltimore/Washington, RAAM will pass close enough for you to see the athletes yourself.
RAAM is a time trial, and solo riders are not allowed to draft other cyclists or vehicles; teams may draft, but only off each other. To make sure everyone plays fair, a team of officials accompanies the race. “Most of the officials, 14 of them, will be traveling in vehicles and go across the country with the race,” Pitre says. “We’ll have some local officials, though – even some unannounced.”
What’s at stake: The top three solo, two-person, and four-person winners will divide a combined purse of $40,000. There will also be $500 primes awarded for a best time between two time stations that race officials will announce to competitors during the race. A standing $10,000 reward is up for grabs for anyone who can beat one of the existing average-speed records. Since she has no competitors to keep her sharp, this gives a little added incentive to soloist Rebecca Smith. Seana Hogan set the women’s average-speed record of 13.20 mph in 1995.
One of the more interesting stakes in the race is a standing challenge from John Howard, another ultra-cycling legend whose palmares include an Ironman triathlon world championship, national road, time-trial, cyclo-cross and mountain-bike titles, and the world cycling absolute speed record (152.2 mph).
Howard is still a hammer at age 56, and he’s promised a $2000 Computrainer to anyone who can beat him to the El Centro time station, 121.8 miles into the race. No one could claim the prize last year.
Check back on VeloNews.com every day for race updates.
Men: Rob Kish (1992) 8d 3h 11m
Women: Seana Hogan (1995) 9d 4h 02m
Men’s average speed record: Pete Penseyres (1986) 15.40 mph
Women’s average speed record: Seana Hogan (1995) 13.22 mphTeam:
Men: Kern Wheelmen (1996) 5: 06: 04
Women: Team Florida RAAM (1996) 6: 12: 28
Mixed: Team Ideo/Fat City (1994) 6: 04: 44
The finish line: RAAM finishes on the famous Boardwalk at Kennedy Plaza in front of Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, New Jersey. Racers will complete their last miles over the Expressway bridge with an amazing view of Atlantic City filled with neon lights. The route goes down the main road between Caesar’s Palace and the Trump Casino directly to the Boardwalk.