RAAM Diary: Entry Number 2

By Thomas Bérubé

A rule change has put an end to the twenty five year old Race Across America. Or has it?

In the previous issue of the Derailleur Mailer I introduced the efforts of a local cyclist, Bryce Walsh, to compete in the 2006 Race Across America. Bryce has now paid the entry fee and is in his winter training grounds of Austin, TX where he is hopefully not devoting too much time to playing his bass and lounging in smoky bars taking in the local music scene. I am listed on the entry application as crew chief and as such my duties will be to both keep everything functioning smoothly during the race and to remain in Chicago this winter getting things organized. Part of doing an event like RAAM is being prepared to deal with changing circumstances and doing contingency planning. Well, we have just had the first “changing circumstance” thrown at us and are trying to deal with it.

Since its inception in 1982 RAAM has been a non-stop bicycle race across the country. Once the clock is started it is not stopped for any reason. Other than the occasional traffic signal a racer may ride coast to coast literally without stopping. Riders may take breaks to sleep but at the risk of being passed by a competitor. Sleep deprivation induced hallucinations are par for the course and the risk of serious injury or even death is always been present. But, this will be changing.

The final rules are not yet available but a draft has been posted which includes a new provision that has caused a great deal of controversy in the cycling community and has led some people to proclaim the death of RAAM.

RAAM will still be a bicycle race across the length of the continental United States but the format of the solo rider category has been changed. Under the new format, solo riders now have mandatory off-bike time. As the draft rule presently stands, competitors must spend a total of 40 hours off the bike during the race. The mandatory off-bike time must take place at the official time stations and will be verified by the rider signing in and out. Needless to say, the end of a 25 year tradition is not happening without some controversy.

The idea of a sleep deprivation contest dies hard. Although he later regretted this as “knee jerk”, Bryce’s initial comment was that “an escalator has been installed on Everest.” Other commentators have bemoaned the “dumbing down of RAAM”. Emotional comments have been made implying that the new rule has made RAAM “all-inclusive namby-pamby” and is “diluting the brand”. Some have gone so far as to say that RAAM no longer exists.

I find all of this a little extreme. A new category will be created for those wishing to ride RAAM in the traditional manner but entry into this category is at the “discretion of the race director”. The “classic RAAM” category is intended for those wishing attempt to set a new trans-continental record. Entrants in this category are not eligible for any prize money unless they actually set a record and are not ranked or recognized as having finished or won RAAM. In short, the new format solo category is the primary one. If you want to ride RAAM in the traditional manner and try and beat the transcontinental record you are welcome to do so but you are doing it at considerable risk.

As a crew chief I have to think about how we are going to operate with Bryce having to ride under a new set of rules. The new rules create all sorts of new challenges. I think the race has become harder rather than easier. An escalator may have been installed on Mt Everest but it is running in the wrong direction.

In the days of “classic” RAAM a racer could make up for mistakes by foregoing sleep. Your crew messes up and misses a turn costing you half an hour? Make up for it by foregoing a planned sleep break. Now, all you can do is try and ride faster and at mile 2,100 this is not going to be easy. The only off-bike time Bryce can take will be at the mandated stops. At the time stations he has to sign in, gets some sleep, take a shower, get clean clothes, use the loo, eat solid food and get new skin grafted on his butt. Otherwise, his feet can’t touch the ground.

Training strategies will probably have to change too. Forgo a lot of non-stop rides of 400 miles and focus on faster paced rides that last between 12 and 24 hours. Being fast was always good but now it is more important than ever.

The support crew needs to be running as a well-oiled machine. The follow vehicle needs to be ready and capable of moving forward all the time that Bryce is riding. We can’t afford to stop him because something happened like the van is running low on gas and needs to fill up. If he needs something from the van the crew will have to get it for him without stopping forward progress to hunt for the item.

The purpose of the new category is ostensibly attract a new type of rider and to have a race that is more about athletic ability than being able to slowly grind out miles on an hour of sleep each day while simultaneously promoting safety by keeping the riders mentally alert. As far attracting new riders goes, this is a long-term investment and will not affect the 2006 race. As far as safety goes, I have some serious reservations.

Under the traditional RAAM, a competitor may be running on one or two hours of sleep per 24 hour period but they could take it where and when they needed. Now, there is a powerful incentive to take sleep breaks only at the mandated points. If you are struggling to stay awake you are going to feel compelled to push yourself to the next time station which may be close to 200 miles away rather than stopping for a quick nap. What happens if you come to one of the mandated stops and simply cannot fall asleep? Managing all of this adds a new challenge to the race.

I really doubt that RAAM is going to become “namby-pamby” or “all inclusive”. The RAAM qualifying standards are not being relaxed. The new format seems to be intended to attract Cat. 1 racers. It is simply not suited for middle of the field randonneur types let alone recreational riders. I think that the race’s status as an elite event has been reinforced by placing more emphasis athletic ability than the ability to function with an hour of sleep each day. The new RAAM may be a different beast but it is still a beast.

Appeared in the Derailleur Mailleur – The Newsletter of the Chicago Cycling Club.

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