Racing Across America by Bike
For the past 36 years, Race Across America – or RAAM for short – has been pushing ultra-cyclists to their physical and mental limits. It’s not hard to see why: starting in California, this 3,000-mile race is 30% longer than the Tour de France, crosses 12 states and four of the longest rivers in the US, climbs the Sierra, Rocky and Appalachian Mountains and swings by the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, Monument Valley, Great Plains and Gettysburg.
Photo courtesy of Colin Cross
The race is unusual in that it is open to professional and amateur cyclists. Solo racers must qualify to compete, but anyone can organise a team of two, four or eight. But, what really sets RAAM apart is that it is a race against time, as well as each other. Unlike the three big European Grand Tours – Tour de France, Vuelta a España and Giro de Italia – there are no stages, no rest days. In other words, once the clock starts it doesn’t stop. Individual cyclists have just 12 days to get across the continent. Team riders get nine.
If you’re not exhausted just reading all that, then it is one of the most extraordinary experiences a cyclist will ever have.
It all started in 1982, when four individuals raced from Los Angeles to New York. The race captivated public imagination and within a decade relay teams were introduced. Today, people from all over the world take part with race ages ranging from 13 to 75 years old.
In 2016, Tim Robert was one of them. The idea to sign up had come up two years before, when Christoph Strasser broke the individual race record, completing the course in just seven days, 15 hours and 56 minutes. “It was amazing,” says Tim. “I thought this is something I need to give a go.”
This was not a completely random decision, though. A retired US Marine, Tim had already built a triathlon career by this point, including participating in the Ultraman event in Hawaii, where he now lives, which sees participants swim 6.2 miles, bike 261.4 miles and run 52.4 miles. “Cycling was always my weakest of the three events so it was beyond my capability to do a solo RAAM, but I thought entering a team would be fun,” says Tim.
“It seemed like a good way of testing and improving my ability.”
To begin forming a team, Tim thought of a friend who also happened to have been following Strasser’s progress in the 2014 race and – serendipitously – his friend called him to see if Tim would be up for entering the race. They agreed and decided on 2016. Each of them recruited a second team member – all active or retired Marines and RAAM novices. And, thus, Team Marines4Warriors was formed.
“We really wrestled with how we were going to do this,” says Tim. “At first, I thought, this will be great, we’ll just get one RV, pile into that, send one guy out on his bike for six hours and keep switching. Then reality hit and we checked the rules. You have to have a vehicle following your rider at all times, but it was clear that the RV couldn’t be the chaser, so that meant additional vehicles and crew. Then we read a couple of books and talked to some other people and it quickly became clear that shorter intervals were the way to go. So, we split ourselves into two sub-teams and planned to do 15-20 minute sessions for roughly eight hours apiece. That way, we didn’t have to carry anything on our bikes, you just focused on the ride. Overall, my race partner, Felipe, and I biked about 800 miles each.”
Photo courtesy of Colin CrossPhoto courtesy of Mike Flartey
Obviously in an event like this, a good training programme is critical and, just like the race itself, Tim broke his plan down into smaller chunks. “I figured I would be biking around 100-150 miles a day, then recovering, so rather than worrying about the full 800 miles – which would have meant doing a 300-mile training ride – I figured I just needed to be able to perform well for around 100 miles on consecutive days. So, early on in the training I started doing 50 miles, three days in row, building that up to a peak of about 115 miles.”
Of course, with three major mountain ranges along the way, hill climbing was always going to be a big challenge and Tim admits he was concerned about what lay ahead. “I think West Virginia is known for being the steepest climb of the whole course, so everyone is super aware that this hard climb is coming. As it turned out I was pretty decent on the climbs and the views were spectacular.”
Indeed, it was a climb that turned out to be his best moment: “Felipe and I summited the mountain pass at Colorado. We weren’t supposed to, based on our race plan, but it just worked out that way and I’m so glad it did. It was crushing, each of us doing less than a mile at a time with more frequent switches, but we got to the summit, took a break and some pictures – it was the middle of the night but we stood there with our bikes over our heads!”
What Tim couldn’t have fully prepared for, though, was the sleep deprivation. Although each team member got eight hours ‘off-duty’ while the other two-man crew hit their intervals, it wasn’t a simple case of getting his head down. “You’re pretty pumped when you come off your shift. You’re tired, but the adrenalin is going and you need a shower and a lot of food and liquid. We also had a masseuse travelling with us and so by the time you’ve done all that a couple of hours have passed. Then it’s the middle of the day and you’re in the back of this RV and it’s really bumpy. Obviously the desert areas were hot. Next thing you know, you need to start getting all your stuff together and getting ready to go on your shift. So, there are all these reasons why you don’t end up getting much sleep.”
Photo courtesy of Mike Flartey
Luckily, Tim and the team had incredible support from their 11-strong crew, all ably led by his friend Jen McVeay. “Jen was fantastic. Everyone on the team was new to RAAM but she really pulled everyone together.”
But, with a crew comes cost. Tim’s team was raising money for a Marine Corps charity called the Semper Fi Fund, which provides support for post-9/11 wounded, critically ill and injured members of all branches of the US Armed Forces and their families. The team raised $8545 in total and was adamant that they wanted all the money to go to the fund, which meant that all the day-to-day costs fell to them. “It’s a heck of an effort as a race goes,” Tim explains. “It’s fairly expensive and you need to put everything together yourself. Our RV was donated to us, which was a huge saving. This group donates one RV a year and they chose our team, which was great.”
Tim and the team eventually completed the race in an impressive seven days and seven hours, a moment he describes as exhilarating. “Felipe and I had the last leg of the race and really pushed each other. We went across the finish line together, which was super cool. Then the four of us met up and you go through the city and cross an unofficial finish line as a team.”
So much so, Tim’s already thinking about doing it again. “Pretty much right after RAAM I said this is one I definitely could do again because it was such an amazing experience. Next time, I’d like to put together the most competitive team I can get. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.” Marines4Warriors did win the Armed Forces Cup, so we’ll see what’s next for Tim and his team.
Photos courtesy of Colin Cross
TIM’S RAAM PREPARATION TIPS:
- Get a good crew chief. Jen sorted 90% of our logistics, recruited most of our crew and really ran the whole show.
- Don’t get overwhelmed – don’t think about it in terms of having to do 300-400 mile training rides. You won’t have to do that in the race, so there’s no need in training. That said, you will need to do it back-to-back, so be aiming for several consecutive 100-150 mile rides during your big 400-mile training weeks.
- Make sure your team is of similar experience and preferably has the same goals. We were all about the experience rather than the competition, but I think if we’d had different goals, it would have led to frustration.
- Train together, if you can. Geography prevented us from doing so, but I think it would have been a huge advantage to plan to our race strategy and train together.
- Do shorter intervals during the race. It's without question, the fastest way to get the miles in.
- Be ready to spend a few dollars, it’s not cheap.
Check out the Team Marines4Warriors Facebook page for more information on their ride and photographs, or if you would like to get in touch.