Race Across America: The World’s Toughest Bicycle Race
June 16-24, 2018
Start line, Oceanside, Calif. Finish line, Annapolis, Md.
3070 miles, 175000 ft elevation gain, 12 States, 4 major rivers, 3 mountain ranges, 4 tandem bikes, 8 cyclists, 3 15 passenger vans, 2 RVs, an All Star crew of more than 20 people, and we must complete it in less than 9 days
*Please be aware this is a longer than average race report. Please also be advised that there is some strong language.
“What is the hardest thing you can think to do physically?” Jack Chen asked Dan Berlin during a phone conversation.
“Riding a bike across the country,” was what Dan replied.
“Then let’s do it!” Responded Jack.
The air was chilled and damp after a furious rain and hail storm. The roads were slick and I could feel water flying up and hitting my legs and butt as I turned the pedals. I was tucked in behind Chris Howard, my pilot on this epic journey of racing bikes from west coast to east coast of the United States. We were somewhere in Kansas, I think just beyond Johnson City, closing in on the halfway mark. We’d just come off of a three hour weather delay while we sheltered in our vans as rain, wind and hail pounded down. The hail became so fierce that a window in one of our vans shattered causing us to get hold of some duct tape to patch the hole until we could come up with another solution. But we were finally back on the road racing with calm winds and mostly favorable conditions.
Chris and I were feeling super strong and were beginning to really push the pace. 20 mph, 21 mph, 22 mph and we were still well within our sustainable zones of effort. Then we rolled into a town and the sudden lights caused Chris to momentarily lose sight of what was on the road. Even our follow van didn’t see the railroad cutting across the road at an angle in time. Suddenly we were upon it and Chris didn’t have enough time to move left to square the bike to be perpendicular to the tracks to ensure safe passage over. The next thing I knew was that the bike had stopped moving forward and I was thrown sideways and forward. My right elbow and shoulder hit the ground hard and my knee drove forward into Chris’s back. The first thing I immediately thought was “Oh fuck! Is Chris ok? Did I land directly on him?” The next was “Get up! If you can get up and move then you can still race!” So I struggle to my feet.
Then I heard the panic shouts of our follow van navigator, Sheila S, as she yelled over the radio “Riders down! Riders down!” Our van driver, Panu was out of the car and running over to us as well as Sheila S. They checked on Chris and me but Chris and I just wanted to get the bike back up and rolling. We picked up the bike but didn’t immediately notice the damage. We saw that one of our chains had come off and in our delirious state we briefly forgot about our backup bike. Finally, we just grabbed our second bike and got back rolling on the road.
As soon as we started rolling again though and the adrenaline had worn off a bit I noticed that my right arm was not ok. It hurt like hell to put any weight on it and I found myself grinding my teeth to try and grit out the pain. However, there was never a question in my mind about whether I should pull out of the race. This was Race Across America, the world’s toughest bicycle race, I wasn’t stopping!
Getting to the Start Line:
I’d packed all of my cycling gear, including multiple pairs of shoes, helmets, cleats, shorts, jerseys as well as several pairs of regular hanging out clothes. My dad dropped me and my bike, a white Cannondale that I’d turned into a time trial bike for flat and fast sections of the course, in Glenwood Springs where I was picked up by our Assistant Crew Chief, Steve O’Leary, in one of the 15 passenger vans we’d be using as a support vehicle during the race. We spent all day on the road before reaching our destination of Camp Pendelton, where a team member and supporter, Michael Somsan, had arranged for us to stay for the days leading up to the start of the race.
Once at Camp Pendelton the race preparations began. We collected certain signage that all Race Across America support vehicles are required to have, we got checked in as racers, crew and media, our mechanics fitted each of us to our bikes and worked making the bikes truly race ready, and our amazing RV/Nutrition Managers spent several days prepping much of the food we’d be eating while on the road. We planned to only use the microwave in the RVs to heat up prepped food. There were also photos to be taken, reporters to talk to, and the Blind Stokers Club (a tandem cycling club to promote tandem cycling for the blind and visually impaired community in the San Diego area) hosted us for a picnic. All in all, it was a whirlwind of two-three days before the race even started. I had a hard time even believing that we were about to undertake RAAM. I just did my best to absorb it and let the excitement build inside of me.
The Start Line:
We arrived at the RAAM start line excited and ready to ride. We had all four tandem bikes with all eight cyclists there to do a ceremonial first mile. Dan Berlin (stoker) and Charles Scott (pilot), Jack Chen (stoker) and Caroline Gaynor (pilot), Tina Ament (stoker) and Pamela Ferguson (pilot), and finally Chris Howard (pilot) and me (stoker). Each RAAM team left in one minute intervals starting at noon. Team Sea to See was scheduled to roll out at 12:18. We lined our four bikes up straight across the line and the announcer spoke about our team and mission. Then the horn sounded and we rolled out as a team pedaling easy, smiling, chatting and laughing. After a little less than a mile, Jack, Caroline, Tina and Pamela pulled off and jumped in a van which then shuttled them 20 some odd miles up the road while Dan, Charles, Chris and I continued on. The team had decided to have two bikes ride this first 23 mile section of the course together at the same time because this portion of the course was unsupported by vehicles and if one bike had a mechanical problem the other bike could continue on meaning we’d lose no time.
The first eight miles were what is called a “neutral zone” meaning no active racing was to take place. This was because the course was a narrow public bike path. As Dan, Charles, Chris and I rolled onto the bike path, several of our friends from the Blind Stokers Club rolled up on tandems to escort us through the first eight miles. Once we rolled across the end of the neutral zone however our escort peeled away and we actively started racing. Chris and I stayed just ahead of Dan and Charles letting them draft off of us. We rolled through the southern California rolling hills looking for the course markings to show the way. We had some sporadic radio contact with our support crew, but the radios that Dan and I were both wearing only had a limited range, so we had to follow this part of the course based on directions we got from course martials and the limited course markings. Eventually though we rolled into our first “Vehicle Meet Point” (VMP) to do an exchange and begin to execute our race strategy of short pulls with one bike on the road at a time. Dan, Charles, Chris and I turned the reigns over to our teammates and were shuttled up to the next VMP.
Getting Used to the Middle of Nowhere
Our first official VMP was in a parking lot of some store, next to a taco shop in Borrego Springs, Calif—AKA one of the last times I knew where I was and what time of day it was. We arrived at the VMP and had some snacks and relaxed while Caroline, Jack, Tina and Pamela battled heat, a broken chain, wind and a 5000 ft descent known as the Glass Elevator. Caroline and Jack recorded a top speed of about 58.4 mph going down this twisting descent.
Around 6 o’c, Dan, Charles, Chris and I were ready to roll out on our first long shift of the race. Dan and Charles took the first pull. Since the temperature wasn’t terrible and the terrain was relatively flat they decided to shoot for a 10 mile pull before letting Chris and I take over. When our team management had decided on the distance between each VMP they’d taken into consideration the terrain, climate, etc. But none of us could have expected the stroke of good luck we received weather-wise on this first leg of the trip. Borrego and much of the desert can reach temperatures well over 100 degrees, but when Dan, Charles, Chris and I rolled out it was in the low 80s, maybe even the high 70s and once we made the turn eastward we had a wicked awesome 25 plus mph tailwind. On any bike that translates to free speed.
When Chris and I took our first 10 mile pull we hardly pedaled strong at all. We were flying so fast that in the first 15 minutes we’d traveled more than 8 miles. Dan and Charles barely had time to set up to take back over for us. The next several pulls went like that, even when we got swallowed by a massive sandstorm that cut visibility down to only a few feet. We rolled into our next VMP feeling strong and way ahead of schedule. And this is about the time that I started not even paying attention to where we were or what time it was.
After getting a quick “Navy shower” (this consists of turning on the water in the RV shower for a hot second to get wet, then turning it off, soaping up and then turning the water back on to quickly rinse off) I grabbed some food and fluid and then went back into the bedroom to try and catch a nap. Of all the things we’d encounter over the course of Race Across America, lack of quality sleep would become the toughest thing to overcome. And this would rear it’s head very quickly.
Our First Fan Club
It was about 1 o’c in the morning and Chris and I were standing with our bike next to the entrance of a trailer park somewhere near the eastern edge of California. We were waiting for Dan and Charles to roll up on us so we could take over for the next 8-10 miles. Chris glanced behind him and saw a golf cart rolling down the driveway toward us with a woman driving and two very clearly inebriated guys hanging all over her. “Oh goodness, this can go either very well or end very badly,” Chris said. The golf cart rolled up next to us and the “drunk guys” couldn’t have been nicer or funnier. They were quite perplexed at what we were doing. “You guys are riding bikes from San Diego to Maryland? Dude, that’s like a long fucking way!…And some you are blind?”
After they finally believed us that we were in a bike race and that we weren’t 100 percent crazy (only 99 percent maybe) they immediately wanted to help. “Can we hold the bike while you clip in? We could ride our golf cart in front of you and block the wind…Oh, we’ll just sweep the rocks off the road so you have a clear launch path!” Chris and I could hardly contain our laughter. These guys wanted to help and they were by making us laugh. We thanked them for being supportive and for letting us use the entrance to their trailer park as an exchange point and then Dan and Charles rolled up and we took off. About 15 or 20 minutes later a truck full of our “drunk guys” and their friends passed us and pulled over on the side of the road to cheer us on as we rode by. “Hey, it’s our first fan club,” Chris joked.
Arizona Adrenaline Drain
Later in the shift post “drunk guys” we crossed over the Colorado River into Arizona. We were also closing in on the 24 hour point of the race. We were all still so pumped and fueled primarily on adrenaline. Most of us weren’t sleeping great and this would ultimately affect our judgment, emotions and tempers much sooner than we realized. After some warm pulls in the 95 degree heat of the desert some rumblings of frustration started getting back to Dan, Charles, Chris and me. There were accusations on the other set of tandems that some people hadn’t prepared adequately. Then there were political and social arguments that threatened to tare the team apart. This on top of the frustrations of some crazy chain breaking, the breaking of a crank and almost getting a penalty for unsafely pulling off the road, combined with a significant lack of sleep and the realization that we were barely 24 hours into this race and we were already having problems caused our team management to halt the race and bring all racers into a closed door meeting.
I could feel the tension among racers and crew. Some racers were frustrated that the crew chiefs had forced us all to stop and gather to talk, but I think the decision was correct in the long run because we all were able to express our frustrations and reevaluate what we were about as a team. When we came out of our closed door meeting I won’t pretend that we’d solved all of the world’s problems, far from it. We’d lost an hour and it seemed as though we had a rift in the team that I feared couldn’t be repaired. Dan and Charles hopped on the bike and took off riding and Chris and I leap frogged up ahead in the shuttle van.
After Chris and I had our first 8-10 mile pull on the bike we were sitting in the back of the shuttle van chatting. We recognized that if some of the racers and crew back at the VMP didn’t get some rest then this would be a very short-lived Race Across America. So I keyed my mic and asked Dan and Charles what they thought about pulling a double shift—meaning, instead of our two tandems splitting up 75-80 miles, we take on the next shift of 70-75 miles as well. Our crew chiefs heard our radio conversation and drove out to discuss this idea with us. Dan, Charles, Chris and I all were in favor of staying out on the road. Our van drivers and navigators also supported our decision. And it was like a switch had been flipped. Tension that had existed seemed to be channeled into focus.
Fortunately we pulled this double shift in the middle of the night, so the heat and other elements didn’t drain us like they normally would have. Chris, Dan, Charles and I just kept plugging away one pull at at time while our RVs leaped up ahead as quickly as possible to allow racers and crew to get as close to a full night sleep as possible. One of the things that also worked in our favor on this double shift was the fact that there was not a ton of climbing. It was primarily flat easy terrain. Mother Nature was kind to us as well in that the winds were calm. We were also fortunate in the regard that this section of the course had very few navigational turns. This meant Dan and I, who were in radio contact with our van navigators, didn’t have to relay complicated turn by turn instructions up to Charles and Chris as often. This allowed us to zone out and just pedal. However, the double shift was not easy. Tacking on an extra 75 miles on no sleep did take a toll. Both Chris and I started zoning out near the end of this shift and our patience wore thin, but we still pushed through and reached the VMP. And any impatience we’d had or frustrations were erased when we saw the crew and racers well rested and energized ready to take on the next shift. I went to sleep feeling good at the decision we’d made to take on the extra shift. Plus that meant Chris and I would get to do the big climbs now, which was what we wanted in the first place.
Progress from Congress
“If pro means good and con means bad, then the opposite of Progress is Congress, correct?” Is possibly one of my favorite one liners and I thought it was appropriate as we set up a VMP in Congress, Arizona. Just beyond the town of Congress is one of the toughest climbs in Race Across America. Yarnell Grade climbs 1800 ft in 7 miles ranging up to as high as a 10 percent grade. Dan and Charles tackled the lower section of Yarnell, but Chris and I took on the upper half as well as the descent. Chris and I love to climb on a bike. Chris likes to because he’s got an amazing power to weight ratio and is good at it. I like to climb because I’m crazy and am not supposed to be good at it and therefore supposed to hate it. Our shuttle van navigator, Sheila S, got a great video of our shuttle van driver, Bharat Pannu, running up the hill next to Chris and I as we climbed. Pannu was chastising Chris and I for having too much fun. “If you’re smiling and laughing while climbing you’re not working hard enough!” Which only made Chris and I laugh harder.
Later on that day though Chris’s and my smiles would fade as we took a few longer 13-14 mile pulls through the heat of the day and through stop and go traffic. The final major obstacle of the day was a climb up and then descent in to the town of Jerome. Chris and I had the honor of starting and finishing the climb with Dan and Charles taking a good chunk of the middle of the climb. But when we started the climb it was hot with a quartering headwind. And while the climb was not steep it was a grind and the optics made it appear as though we were going nowhere. This is incredibly mentally fatiguing, especially when you haven’t gotten a lot of sleep.
Finally though, between our two bikes we pushed up over the top of the climb and Chris and I took the winding technical descent into Jerome itself which I’ve been told is one of the most beautiful descents during the entire course of the race. Chris remarked that the descent reminded him of descending an Alp into a small Swiss or French mountain town. The roads were narrow and winding. More often than not Chris and I would get stuck behind a car with Chris grabbing onto the breaks. We eventually made it down and traded off with Dan and Charles so they could pull it into the VMP.
The teams rolled through Arizona and Utah with little to no problems. Yes, we were all tired but we were ticking off mile after mile, always moving forward.
Chris and I were on the bike when we crossed from Utah into Colorado. “It’s good to be home!” Chris exclaimed as we rolled over the state line. There is something about riding in your home state. There air just tasted sweeter especially the higher we climbed. We rode patiently up each little rise heading toward Durango and the infamous Wolf Creek Pass.
That night Chris and I were almost giddy with excitement. Although Yarnell Grade, which we’d climbed about 24 hours previous is considered the toughest climb in RAAM due to the amount of elevation it gains in such a short time, Wolf Creek Pass has an infamous reputation because it is the highest point on the RAAM course. But for some crazy Colorado boys who like punishing their legs, Wolf Creek is a dream to climb.
Before we started our shift up Wolf Creek Pass, I got the opportunity to meet Chris’s dad, sister and brother-in-law who’d driven down to meet and give us a morale boost. I immediately saw where Chris got his easy going attitude from. His family was so incredibly kind and supportive and just excited to watch Chris do what he loves to do—ride a bike up a big ass hill.
Dan and Charles took the first pull out of the VMP and road 5-6 miles. Originally they planned to go 8 but Chris immediately noticed that the grade started to kick up and immediately jumped on the radio asking if Dan and Charles minded taking a bit shorter of a pull so that Chris and I could at least get our legs warmed up before the climb really began. Dan and Charles are both so easy going and gladly acquiesced to our request. So then Chris and I jumped on the bike, got our legs spinning and then the climb began.
Up Wolf Creek Pass, our strategy was to keep each pull short—maybe as short as 1 mile at a time. The idea is to keep the speed as high as we could up hill. Tandems do not travel uphill very fast. So often people remark, “two people on a bike means you must have twice the power and twice the speed, so going uphill can’t be that hard.” This is not the case. On a tandem we also have twice the weight and far less maneuverability. Our efforts uphill are much more intense and therefore we had to be careful measuring our effort so that we didn’t blow our legs out. After all we still had more than 2000 miles to ride.
We plugged away uphill climbing steadily higher and higher. I love riding on high mountain passes because the air is so crisp and clean. It was also the middle of the night, so the air was nice and cool. I could hear the sound of running water somewhere off to my right, especially once we got up near the top. Finally we pushed up over the summit—around 10800 ft above sealevel—and began the descent. Chris and I bundled up for the descent. In the daytime riding down a steep mountain pass going speeds 40-50 mph can be nice as the air rushes by you cooling you off from a hot climb. At night though we risked hypothermia if we weren’t careful. I wore cycling tights and two or three layers up top as well as full-finger gloves.
The descent itself was fairly straight forward. We hardly pedaled and just let gravity do its job. We descended cautiously trying not to go much faster than 40 mph not wanting our wheels to slide out from under us. We had to move cautiously through a couple of construction zones and tunnels, but eventually popped out near the bottom of the long 10-12 mile descent. And just in time too because both of us had some cold fingers and toes that we both desperately wanted to warm up. For the remainder of our shift, Dan Charles, Chris and I had a blast trading off 8-10 mile pulls as we traveled mostly downhill toward our next VMP. We were happy to roll into the VMP and get a quick shower, food and rest while Pamela, Tina, Caroline and Jack tackled the next big climb—La Veta Pass.
The team absolutely crushed this section and Tina felt so good that she talked Pamela into climbing the entire 2400 feet of La Veta. All in all, we seemed to be back on track and rolling.
Tired into Trinidad
Our final mountain pass to climb in Colorado was Cucharas Pass. Grade-wise I don’t think it got to over 5.5 percent, but our pulls were longer due to limited exchange points. Dan, Charles, Chris and I climbed Cucharas with little trouble, although the lack of sleep was beginning to catch up with Chris and me. A camera crew from 9 News Denver had driven down to get some footage of the team as we rolled through Colorado and both Chris and I were so tired that we fumbled over some of the questions asked of us. But we made it through without sounding too terrible.
Chris and I had the pleasure of taking on the descent on Cucharas, after Dan and Charles crushed the final uphill section. Even though we were tired, we were excited because the course profile showed a long downhill into Trinidad where our next VMP was set up. Even more exciting was that Chris’s wife, Marsanne, was meeting us there to drop off a large quantity of food for the entire crew. However, the downhill on Cucharas was the start to one of Chris’s and my worst stretches on the bike.
It started with dodging through a construction zone going more than 50 mph. Then we hit a pothole and got a flat tire. We pulled over on the side of the road and radioed that we needed our back up bike—my trusty Cannondale, which I fondly call “The Limo.” Our Follow Van Navigator, Jim, initially had some trouble getting the bike out, initially pulling Dan and Charles’s back up bike out, then realizing his mistake and pulling out our bike. Then he hoisted the bike up and ran across the road to deliver it to us. We applauded his mountain bike/cyclocross skills with the tandem. Then we took off again.
After a few more exchanges we had an 11 mile stretch which the profile showed as downhill. Dan and Charles finished their last pull and shuttled into the VMP. This last 11 mile stretch was fairly straight forward until the final half mile which had some roundabouts, traffic lights and was potentially confusing. Jim harped on us about this final half mile just before we took off on our last pull. Then he and Andrea (Follow Van Driver) sped up ahead as “Direct Follow” wasn’t permitted in daytime hours during this section of the race. Unfortunately, the Van made the mistake of jumping ahead too far. On a normal bike ride this wouldn’t have been a problem, but Chris and I were at the end of our rope.
This section which had appeared flat to downhill in the route book was anything but. Each time Chris and I found ourselves on a downhill, Chris would immediately look up and see an even longer and steeper uphill. On top of that the sun was beating down and there was little to no wind. We were hot and the Van had jumped so far ahead that they were out of the range of my radio. I kept trying to raise Jim on the radio wanting them to come back and just pep us up a bit, but I heard nothing but silence. For about eight miles Chris and I ground our way up and over each hill until finally I heard radio chatter.
Jim was back in my ear, but I was so brain dead at that point I could barely communicate directions to Chris on the way to go. This resulted in a couple of wrong turns and us having to get off and walk the bike through a couple of intersections. We finally rolled into the VMP and turned the reigns back over to Tina, Pamela, Jack and Caroline.
It was at this point that my attitude was at its poorest. I snapped at Chris for not paying attention to my directions, I snapped at Jim and Andrea for leaving us hanging out to dry with no radio contact for more than 30 minutes, I snapped at Paul—our head mechanic—for having shitty radios, and finally I nearly bit one of our documentary camera guys in half for sticking a camera in my face just before I was about to head into the RV to get my shower, food and sleep. It goes to show what an awesome crew of people we had that even though I had a shitty attitude at that point, no one held it against me and did everything they could to pull me out of my funk. After a shower, some chocolate milk and food I did feel marginally better and headed off for a nap. I knew the next time I awoke we’d be in Kansas and at least we’d have some flat riding. I just prayed we’d have a good tailwind, or at least not a head wind. Turns out wind would be the least of my problems.
Riding Through the Hell/Hail of Kansas
“Oh my god, it’s another grain elevator,” is the common joke among my family whenever we drive through Kansas. I’ve got nothing against Kansas, the sentry looks all the same to me, but I’m definitely not a fan of the unpredictable weather patterns.
When Dan, Charles, Chris and I took off on our next shift, we nervously watched the clouds. It looked like the clouds were far away, but here was lightning popping from cloud to cloud. The wind was also blasting us directly from the east which meant we were fighting a headwind for the first 30 miles or so. All the while the storm clouds thickened and drew closer. Rain drops started to fall and then all of a sudden lightning started popping from clouds to ground within a mile of us. Our Follow Van Driver and Navigator—Pannu and Sheila S—determined it was unsafe riding conditions and pulled Chris and me off the road and into the Van. It was a smart choice as, no more than a minute or two after we got in the van the sky seemed to open up and the rain began pounding the pavement. We sat on the side of the road for 15-20 minutes until the rain and lightning had subsided. Then we got back out on the road. We only were pedaling for a little more than a mile though when the lightning started popping again. We again pulled off the road and sat for a while.
Then the wind began to pick up and swirl rocking the van from side to side. Our shuttle van was a few miles up the road and radioed back to us that they were heading off to seek shelter from the wind. Once they found a place to shield the vans from the wind they radioed back to us and directed the follow van behind a grain elevator, which for the most part protected us from the worst of the wind. Hail started pounding down as well and we all did our best to curl up and get a short nap in.
I’m not sure if I was able to catch a few minutes or not, but it was nice to at least rest and not be riding in the wind and rain. We eventually left the shelter of the grain elevators and drove into Johnson City to a gas station to refill the vehicles and maybe find better shelter. As we drove our shuttle van took a direct hit from a large piece of hail, or it could’ve been debris from the road, which caused the middle driver’s side window—right next to where the riders sat on the bench seat—to shatter. Now when we pulled into the gas station we had to somehow repair a broken window as well.
So our command vehicle, along with our crew chief and assistant crew chief drove out to assist us with the window repair. Trashbags and duct tape held the window in place for the next several days as we didn’t have time to find a repair shop.
While the crew worked on fixing the window, we riders wandered into the gas station to use the bathroom and grab a snack. It was still raining pretty persistently and Chris was worried because I didn’t have the best waterproof jacket. (Note: I despise rain jackets. I’ve never worn one that has kept me dry. The only time I typically use them is as a wind breaker as a last layer.) So to keep management happy we rigged up a trash bag rain jacket for me which I wound up not using because the rain stopped and I tend to overheat very easily.
After the window was fixed and we determined it was safe to get back out on the road, Dan and Charles were shuttled back to the point that Chris and I last stopped and we resumed.
For the next several pulls, things were uneventful. That is until Chris and I got on the bike just outside of Johnson City. We were cruising ranging from 20-22 mph. We were feeling good and even though the roads were wet we felt perfectly safe. The wind had died to almost nothing as well. Then we rolled into town and the shift from pretty dark conditions to city lights nearly blinded Chris. We saw the railroad tracks cutting across at a severe angle but it was already too late to readjust our position so that we hit the tracks square on. Our front wheel got caught in the tracks and we went down hard. I felt myself fly forward crashing into Chris’s back as we smashed into the ground. My feet came unclipped from the pedals and my right shoulder and elbow smashed into the ground hard. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel my head bounce off the ground though. I did let fly with a “FUCK!” As crashing at 22 mph does hurt. But my immediate thought was, “is Chris ok?” I knew I was fine, but I’d practically landed on top of Chris and I was worried I’d landed on his head and neck area.
I got to my feet and heard Sheila S yelling over my earpiece (I’m impressed it remained in my ear) “riders down! Riders down!” Pannu, was out of the follow van and right beside us asking if we were ok. Chris got to his feet slowly but seemed unhurt. We got our bike back up and immediately noticed the chain was off and Chris’s seat and my handlebars were misaligned. Initially we tried fixing the chain then realized we had a back up bike for this reason. So we got the Cannondale out of the follow van and gingerly climbed on and took off.
It was then that I realized that I was not ok. My right knee was a little scraped up but what hurt the most was my right elbow. I could hardly put any pressure on the handlebars and my grip in my right hand was nonexistent. “Just shut up and ride,” I told myself. We finished our pull and swapped off with Dan and Charles. I knew my elbow couldn’t handle a 10 mile pull so I requested shortening our pulls for the remainder of the shift. Dan and Charles were strong and continued hammering out 9-10 mile pulls. Each time I got back on the bike I ground my teeth and just tried to ignore the pain radiating from my elbow. “It’s not broken. It’s just a bruise. Suck it up! You’ve dealt with worse pain than this.”
Chris was also hurting. I guess I’d driven an elbow or knee into his kidney and he’d also roughed up a previous shoulder injury. But Chris was keeping his pain quiet and so did I.
We finally rolled into the VMP and there was quite a bit of concern over Chris and me. I just didn’t want to discuss the crash. In my mind we’d crashed and now had to move past it and continue on. My elbow did hurt a lot though.
My friend, Deb, who was our head RV Manager and highest qualified medical professional (being a Flight Nurse) tested my range of motion and asked me where the pain was and then advised me that she had looked and found an ER where we could get my arm X-rayed if I wanted at the next VMP. Quietly in my ear though she whispered, “If you go in they’ll likely tell you not to ride.” To me there wasn’t a question, I was riding as long as I could manage the pain. After all, I didn’t need two arms to pedal a bike.
Surviving The Flats and Rollers
If there was a time to get injured, I picked the best time in the race. The remaining part of Kansas was flat as a pancake and the only true obstacle we had to deal with were wet roads. Our second team of cyclists—Jack, Caroline, Tina and Pamela—got the very bad luck of dealing with heavy and persistent rains during their shifts seemingly for the rest of the race. By the time our shift rolled around we might have some sprinkles but for the most part we just dealt with the wet road conditions.
The first 24 hours after the crash were very hard for me. I could put no pressure on my right arm and could only survive about 20-25 minutes on the bike at a time (about 6-7 miles). Dan and Charles stepped up in a big way taking on a few longer pulls with shorter recovery. My pride was probably more bruised than my elbow. For that first 24 hours I was very lopsided on the bike. My legs felt great and I wanted to do nothing but push the pace and hammer, but any time I started to lean back to my right my arm screamed at me in protest. I kept my mouth shut and did my best to ignore the pain. Every time I got back in the van, or rolled into a VMP I was constantly asked “How’s the arm? How’s the elbow?” Finally I got fat up with saying “It hurts,” or “It’s fine.” So eventually I asked Deb to communicate to the rest of the team and crew to “stop asking about my arm!” The only people I wanted to discuss my elbow with were Chris and which ever RV Manager was helping me with my pain management. Deb, Karen and Shana (our RV Queens) did a stellar job of making sure I was constantly icing my elbow and getting my advil. Our RV Queens were always just so positive and attentive, often knowing what I needed before I knew I wanted or needed it, that it was hard to be cross or sullen or sulk over my disappointing riding.
The entire crew was actually superb. I don’t think I ever heard something that wasn’t positive. The crew was always aiming to lift the spirits of the riders even when we wanted to do nothing but be frustrated.
We eventually made our way out of Kansas and rolled into Missouri which had a lot of rolling hills. Even though I like the long grind it out climbs of the Rocky Mountains, my body type is better suited for the rolling hills that Missouri presented. Slowly, I was able to put a little more pressure on my right arm which leveled me out allowing me to transfer more power to the pedals. I was still only able to hold myself on the bike for about 25 minutes at a time but I was beginning to bounce back. I was happy with my choice of sticking it out on the bike. This was Race Across America, stopping wasn’t an option.
Inspiration in Illinois
From Missouri, we proceeded into Illinois and the terrain remained flat to rolling. One night we were riding at a good clip. I was feeling stronger with each pull and my sleep was starting to become a little bit more regular. This meant I’d at least sleep every time I got back to the RV for at least 45-90 minutes.
Chris and I were riding in the shuttle van during one particular pull and we passed by a group of people standing on the side of the road. They were holding signs that said things like “Go Team Sea to See!” And off to the side there was a young blind man standing with his cane. It was the middle of the night, probably about 1:30 or 2:00 AM and these people were clearly waiting for us wanting to catch just a glimpse as we darted by. It was a reminder that what we were doing was historic and people were following us and looking up to us. More often than not I’m very uncomfortable being called “inspirational.” I’m just a guy trying to live an adventure filled life. I want to be the best at what I do and compare myself to the best. But as we drove by this family with a young blind man, I felt good about what we were doing. We wanted to inspire these people. We were riding to raise awareness of the capabilities of the blind and visually impaired community. We wanted to showcase not only our athletic abilities, but our professional abilities as well. Yes, we wanted to show the general population, corporate America and small businesses that blind people are hirable. But at the same time we also needed to inspire our blind and visually impaired comrades that they too can achieve something special if they’re willing to work for it. Although we’ve all claimed we never lost sight of our mission during the race, we did. It were moments like this however that brought us back into focus.
Overstretched in Ohio
We rolled from Illinois to Indiana and then on to Ohio. Through this stretch of Indiana and Ohio we had some much needed morale boosts. Until this point we hardly ever saw a sign that the community we were passing through knew what Race Across America was. But through Indiana and Ohio it seemed there were literal signs and banners welcoming riders and crew. There were invitations to come knock on peoples doors to ask for food or showers. We passed several local bike shops that had barbecues. There were groups of fans and spectators cheering us on as we passed timing stations.
As Chris and I crossed the boarder of Indiana and Ohio, we entered a town called Oxford, Ohio on a road called “Pike Road.” “This must be a town with some smart fish,” Chris joked. Chris and I even got a photo with the mayor of Oxford who was a big cyclist herself and loved coming out to cheer on riders in the Race Across America.
But even though the crowd support was incredible for the most part through Ohio, Chris and I hit a few more rough patches.
As we sped out of Athens, Ohio we rolled through yet another construction zone and were unable to avoid a significant pothole. We hit it straight on and pinch flatted both our front and rear tires. We stayed upright but damaged the rim of the rear wheel. We swapped out bikes and continued riding.
Then we had possibly our worst pull during the entire race. It was getting toward 9 AM and we were on an eight mile pull into the VMP, somewhere near the Ohio and West Virginia boarder. Chris and I had been off the entire shift. Deb had come into the back room of the RV to wake us up at the beginning of the shift and unfortunately woke us both up in the middle of a REM cycle. We both immediately fell back asleep causing her to come back in and wake us up again. So from the get go we were groggy and a little out of it. Pile that on top of me having a messed up arm and Chris gritting out pain in his shoulder and kidney and we were not the pleasantest of company.
We were riding along fine. The temperature was starting to rise and Chris had his head down following the line on the road. We were entering a town and we accidentally got off an exit ramp and wound up several hundred yards off course. However, our follow van also got off course and they had to relay some instructions to us on how to get back on course which seemed enormously complicated in our semi-delirious states. We were able to get back on course but then proceeded to hit every single relight in town. In addition, we missed another turn causing us to get back on course, causing us to hit even more red lights and stay out much longer than we should have been.
When we finally made it into the VMP, we’d been out on this particular pull of eight miles for more than an hour when it should’ve taken us no more than 30 minutes. We were frustrated with ourselves, tired and ready to get out of towns that had stop lights and so many turns.
The Hills of West Virginia
“Do not underestimate West Virginia. It’s probably the hardest part of the entire race,” is what we’d all been warned coming into RAAM. There was definitely some nervousness around West Virginia’s hills, not because they were big, but because many were very steep.
Chris and I attacked the hills with gusto though embracing the steepness. Short punchy climbs with quick fast descents actually were a welcome change to the flats and gentle rollers we’d been riding since Colorado. The up and down nature of West Virginia also suited me with my injured arm as I was able to fully sit up and relax my upper body on the uphill and then put pressure back on my arms on the downhill.
The rain did seem to follow us though. Chris’s and my first ride in West Virginia was immediately after a fairly heavy rainstorm. Jack and Caroline had apparently had to dismount their bike, pick it up and run it through some flooded areas. But luckily by the time it was our turn to ride the rain had subsided and we only had to deal with wet roads. Chris and I just dusted off our climbing legs and plugged away one climb at a time.
During our first shift in West Virginia, Chris and I also got a little taste of head-to-head competition. Our team had been trading places with a few other four bike teams and to keep ourselves entertained we’d often push the pace to try and catch the other teams, especially if we caught sight of them on the road.
It was the middle of the night and we’d just come off a nice little descent. Then Chris looked up and saw a follow van and rider not too terribly far ahead of us going uphill. We turned up the power and caught the single bike about halfway up the climb before motoring away from him and dropping him far behind on the descent. Anytime a tandem can catch a single bike on a climb it’s a sweet victory.
West Virginia was also when we started catching the solo RAAM riders. One memorable moment was when Chris and I rode up on a solo rider grinding it out uphill. His daughter, a badass looking athlete in her own right, was sprinting alongside him yelling encouragement to him in Spanish. As we rolled up next to him Chris and I offered the best encouragement we could “Escelante! Venga, venga venga!”
What we as a team of four tandem bikes with all blind stokers were doing was hard, but riding alongside and passing the soloists who’d started three days before us and who rode upwards of 22 hours per day… I felt like what we were doing was just going for a pleasure ride on a Sunday afternoon. The soloists have tremendous grit, strength, endurance, etc. They’re just on a completely different level and I could feel nothing but respect and admiration for them.
Two States to go
We exited West Virginia and entered the steep hills of Pennsylvania. We would bounce back and forth from Pennsylvania to Maryland and back two or three times over the last 12-16 hours. However, we could not relax. We were right in the thick of still trading places with a couple of teams, we still had some steep punchy hill climbs on every shift and pull, and we were now so close that we could almost taste the finish line. The excitement and adrenaline caused several of us to lose focus and not get as much sleep as we probably should have.
Racing to Ram’s Head
It was finally the last shift. A mere 80 miles separated us from the finish line of Race Across America. Mine and Chris’s primary goal was to arrive in Annapolis upright and safe. We’d already done the hard work and we didn’t want to risk another crash and further injury especially since the foggy conditions weren’t ideal.
Plans however do get altered, especially in the heat of the moment and during a competitive event. When you put a bunch of type A personalities together on a team your competitive nature is bound to come out. And such was the case with our last shift.
I’ve mentioned previously that we’d been trading blows with a few other teams during the second half of the race. Now we were all beginning to group pretty close together and our competitive sides flared. Dan and Charles caught sight of one of the cyclists from a team that was just ahead of us and decided to chase him down. They were so eager that they shot right past Chris and I set up for an exchange causing us to scramble to get back in the van and leap frog ahead to find a new exchange point. Then Chris and I got caught up in the heat of the race as well and started hammering, especially on the steep hills where we just wanted to inflict pain on our fellow competitors.
Unfortunately, the fog rolled in and made it difficult to really open up the throttle. This section of the course was also very navigationally heavy, meaning we had a lot of sudden turns and had to keep an eye on street signs. As Chris and I sped down one hill, Sheila B told me to watch out for a turn, which I relayed up to Chris. The turn was difficult to see and Chris had to slam on the breaks to prevent us from missing it. However in doing so we killed all of our momentum and when we turned we immediately started climbing a hill that felt like it was about 110-12 percent. We were in the big chain ring and Chris desperately tried shifting down to the small ring. We got it down to the middle ring but we were already applying too much torque and power to get it down to the small ring and the extreme power and torque caused our chain to snap cleanly in half.
“Oh fuck!” I thought. Fortunately my triathlon training kicked in and I executed a semi-flying dismount before the bike tipped over and I successfully landed on my feet. Unfortunately though we had to remove the back wheel of our bike to put it on our back up bike because we’d damaged the rim of another wheel when we double flatted in Ohio. This would’ve taken too long to accomplish very quickly, so Dan and Charles hurried back to where we were and took over while we tried fixing our back up bike. The fact that we were also exhausted from more than seven days of racing and little sleep over the last 24 hours because of excitement caused us all to get a little over excited and our stress of trying to catch and stay ahead of the other team made our tempers flare a bit. But once we got our back up bike in working order we shuttled up ahead and exchanged out with Dan and Charles. We then proceeded to catch and drop the other team far behind as we reached the outskirts of Annapolis.
About 7-8 miles out from the Ram’s Head bar, which is the official place where our timing is stopped before we parade finished with our team, Chris and I pulled off and turned the reigns over to Dan and Charles. It was symbolically important to have one of our team founders be the one to cross the finish line first.
Then when we all arrived at Ram’s Head, all four tandem pairs got together, stepped on to our bikes and soft pedaled five or six miles to the City Dock on the Atlantic Ocean. Just before we reached the dock we lined up four wide and rode across the ceremonial finish line as a team.
We finished around 6:00 AM on June 24, seven days, 15 hours and three minutes after we’d started from the Pier in Oceanside. A year plus of planning, training and fundraising culminating in a race on bikes from coast to coast. But more than that, we’d made history as the first four tandem team with all blind and visually impaired stokers to complete the Race Across America. And even more importantly we were all much better friends than we’d been when we started this project.
After some pomp and circumstance with getting brought up on stage, presented with finisher medals and being interviewed by George Thomas—the voice of Race Across America—we went over to our support vehicles and Paul began handing out cans of beer. We toasted our successful finish, drank a few brews and then immediately headed for our hotel and some much needed and desired long showers and good sleep.
We attended the official Race Across America Awards banquet that night where we were presented with official finisher plaques and plaques for finishing in first place for the tandem mixed relay category. Then it was hugs good-bye and promises to stay in touch with many of the riders and crew. Most of us would be leaving in the morning and either heading for the airport or getting back in the support vehicles to drive back to Colorado.
The stokers and a couple of pilots had some media obligations the following morning as we were interviewed for NBC’s Today Show and then it was time to say good-bye—for the present—to my fellow stokers. I got into one of the RVS with Nate, Deb and Shana and we drove back across the country, taking our time to stop off and explore along the way.
I eventually made it home to the Roaring Fork Valley, got my elbow X-rayed, was told it was broken and proceeded to take my time getting back into my work out routine. I reflected on what we’d accomplished as a team and where to go from here.
The truth of the matter is that I’m still digesting the entire experience. It’s truly humbling to be part of something so historic and crazy. The reality is though that our work as Team Sea to See is only hopefully just beginning. We’d set out on this journey not to complete the world’s toughest bicycle race, but to prove that blind people can be successful in whatever they put their minds to. Specifically, we wanted to be role models that employers and other blind people could look to and model after so that we could start putting a dent in the joblessness rate for the blind and visually impaired community. That rate of people who are blind or visually impaired who are not employed is around 70 percent and that number hasn’t changed in decades. Can we be a small part in making that 70 percent number shrink? I believe we can, but it’s going to take a lot of work. We’ve completed step one of completing the event that we plan to use as a platform to speak about this issue and now we are commencing with step two, completing the documentary through which we’re telling our story.
In order to see this documentary become a reality though, we need your help. If you can please consider donating to Team Sea to See via our website www.teamseatosee.com. Your donation is tax-deductible through our partnership with the United States Association of Blind Athletes. We hope to have the documentary complete by early 2019 and plan to share our stories of on and off the bike success with the world starting now. If you are interested in having one or several members of Team Sea to See speak at an event you’re holding please contact me at email@example.com. Our experiences with Team Sea to See and Race Across America apply to many walks of life and to many organizations and we’d each be happy to share those experiences.
I thank you all very much for your support throughout this #eyeronvision journey. I can promise you, there is much more to come! But until then keep an eye on your vision!