Race Across America – RAAM 2009

Race Across America (RAAM) Race Report by Tobias Panek

race across america

5 days, 15 hours, 53 minutes – 3021 miles to cross the USA. From Oceanside California to Annapolis Maryland. It is one day after this race, and I am not sure where to start or how to begin to describe this experience. What is one to say? With a life filled with epic adventures, all I can think is, “this was the hardest thing I have ever done on a bike and yet the most fun.” The entire race seems like a blur, rushing across the country, but, at the same time, it feels as if I have been riding for a month. As the RAAM slogan says, “the toughest bike race in America.” Having done so many races, I cannot agree more.

We left California with a team of 8 riders, 13 staff and 6 vehicles. Our 8-man team was split into 4 groups of 2, racing in 5 hours shifts. We broke the 5-hour shifts into 15-minute intervals riding hard and resting between efforts. In between rides, we had 15 hours to be transported up the road, eat, sleep and prepare for the next stage. This odd 20 hour rotation put every rider riding at all times of the day, from the 100+ degree afternoon heat to the quiet 3 AM hours. I knew, or had heard, it would be tough. In retrospect, I had underestimated how tough it would be.

I had trained long hours on the bike, and in my mind, I was preparing for an endurance event. While training, one day it dawned on me that it’s more of a sprint than a grind. Thinking more about this strange format, I realized this was going to be 5½ days of intervals. Interval training is the hardest and most painful form of training in cycling. This high-intensity training is typically not done more than twice per week. A fifteen-minute interval is a short enough time to push your body beyond its limits. As a general rule of training, I normally kept these sessions to 3 – 4 intervals, or roughly a one-hour training session. That was enough!

So, how hard can you ride intervals on RAAM? How far can you push your body given such a fast-paced format? To answer these questions, first put yourself in the best fitness possible, ideally trained and tapered for the event. Then add a teammate pushing you harder, and your support driver pepping you up every time he prepares your bike to ride every 15 minutes, while taking care in every detail. Add again the direct follow vehicle 10 feet behind you, blasting rock and roll music and cheering you on. Now, add a third vehicle, the media van, constantly taking your picture and hanging out of the window with a live-feed video, broadcasting your image worldwide to family and friends 24 hours a day. Now ask yourself, “How hard can I ride?”

My teammate and I road these 5-hour interval sessions 7 times in 5 days. Pushing to our maximum every interval, we covered anywhere from 140 miles per shift with a 28 mph average over flat terrain to 100 miles over hilly terrain with 6,000 ft of climbing at a 20 mph average.

As a rider, all I had to do was ride, eat and sleep. But what differentiates RAAM from any other race is that the eating and sleeping, as well as riding, were difficult, unpleasant, and insufficient. Any time spent doing anything else took away from sleep. Between shifts, even a best case scenario of stopping for nothing but gas allowed only 5 hours of sleep, if you were lucky. Some nights, we got as little as 2 hours of sleep if there were any problems. And the thought of stopping for a decent meal was out of the question. Not that you felt like eating anything after riding, we did have a cooler behind the seat from where we passed out hand-made sandwiches consisting of a dry bread roll, one slice of cheese and a piece of cold, 4-day-old barbequed chicken, which we affectionately named, “the #11.”

The ride intensity was so high that my stomach could not handle much dry food. Forget about the 6 boxes of Clif Bars with which we were each supplied – solid food was out. For me, food during a 5-hour shift in the 101 degree temperatures of the Kansas plains consisted of 2 Red Bulls, 3 Starbucks iced coffees, 2 packets of Clif Shot Bloks, and about 8 bottles of Cytomax.

Following the last 45 minutes of a shift, with the hardest pulls possible, I had 10 minutes to change out of the disgusting, sweat-soaked skin suit to pull on the disgusting t-shirt and shorts I had been wearing for 3 days. Without a shower, I climbed into the cramped fold-down back seat of the SUV for the 5-hour drive to the start of our next shift. After just getting out of bed and riding for 5 hours, it was now time to think about the drive, eating dinner and going back to bed. Upon arrival at the hotel, there was the check-in, rolling the bikes in, showering, washing the skin suit and climbing back into bed. I made a point to never look at the clock or when I had to get up.

Although my job was hard, it was simple. What went on around me was nothing short of phenomenal. Providing nothing more than a blank stare, I watched a flurry of guys moving as fast as possible. There was the sometimes difficult route finding, watching the traffic, calling out road conditions, calling the turns, and following the rules – when to pull over, where to pull over, how far, how long to stay put, how to pass, and exactly how to directly follow a rider day and night. Not to mention the vehicle and rider team specific care: pulling on and off the road, timing the intervals, loading and unloading the bikes, switching from the TT (time trial) bike to the road bike, making sure the lights are on, and ensuring the gearing is correct. Everything to keep the riders moving as fast as possible. After the 5 hours of intense stress and support, the same crew had to gas up the car, drive an additional 5 hours to the next hotel, check in, unload the car, load the car, get the riders up and moving 5 hours later, and transport us to some unknown transition location as the last team was finishing their shift. Although I was putting in the miles, none of this would have happened without an excellent crew working their butt off around the clock.

As much as any physical ability, the RAAM is about mental toughness. How do you handle the stress of the riding, lack of sleep, poor nutrition and fast pace of everything, all while coping with adverse situations? With roughly 70 teams from across the world racing over 3,000 miles, you see every kind of situation: flat tires, mechanical failures, broken chains, riders hit by support cars, riders left on the road, lost riders, lost support vehicles, cars catching on fire from the overheated exhaust mixing with dry grass, bikes falling off the back of the car, etc. Anything and everything imaginable happened during RAAM.

But all in all, I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to race with the ViaSat team. As their 4th year running a RAAM team, they were well organized and ran the race perfectly. We raced to the highest level possible and kept it safe.

Today, so many have asked if I would do it again and I say without hesitation – “yes I would in a heart beat!”

Congrats to a successful 2nd place finish!

Tobias Panek
(aka Turbo)
ViaSat Racing team member