You never know what’s around the corner. Sometimes it’s a violent gust you sense a second before it hits your skin. Other times it’s a sudden drop off into a landscape being painted by the sun as it crests the horizon. And then there are those turns which invite you to carve the road with two 23mm slabs of rubber, a carbon frame, and nerves of steel. Whatever hides behind the next bend, leaning harder into the moment forces every nerve fiber to grip the present like gravity holding you to the ground.
Exiting the apex of a turn on the last day of the Race Across America, I saw a motorcycle coming toward me in the opposite lane. He slowed as if startled, and my hands shifted subtly on the bars of my bike. When you’re descending at 50+mph, anything on the road is a potential threat—small cracks; debris; oncoming traffic. I gently angled to the outside of my lane and placed my index fingers along the brake calipers. Trying to make eye contact with the motorcyclist, I stared at his helmet visor until I saw it.
A left turn…his left turn.
A road I was fast approaching disappeared off to my right, and I instinctively knew he wanted to go that way. Still, his hesitation and my adjustment gave me the gap I needed. I was passing him before—
—he gunned the engine and dove into my path. I pressed firm left on the bar to steer the bars right. The action leaned the bike sharply left. Now it was a race of my front wheel against the rear wheel of the motorcyclist. I tapped my rear break to cause a short skid which stood my bike up and brought my wheels back underneath me. Screaming past the rear of his bike, I dropped one F-Bomb and went back into my tuck.
The 2014 RAAM clock was ticking.
There’s a fine line between disaster and opportunity. Perhaps it’s a matter of timing. I like to think it’s more a matter of perspective. Either way, I was finding it difficult to see the bright side of the rash I had developed. And maybe that’s because it was growing where the sun doesn’t shine. It was the Monday before RAAM, and I was riding my mountain bike home from work when I noticed irritation in my nether regions. I didn’t need a dermatologist to tell me that 3000 miles was going to be a challenge. I needed him to tell me how to clear the rash up before the start of the race on Saturday. His look was less comforting than the ointment he prescribed. So as I left for Oceanside on Thursday morning, I wasn’t itching to go so much as itching.
I met Lisa and Jeannie at the Atlanta airport. Once on the plane, we all three got a shout out from the pilot as he made his pre-flight announcements over the intercom. The applause we received from the passengers was yet another sign that we weren’t alone in this fight against cancer.
Arriving at John Wayne in sunny California, Jerome and Ron picked us up in one of the follow vans to take us to our hotel. There we reunited with the rest of the Georgia Chain Gang—18 strong and responsible for almost a quarter million dollars in fundraising this year for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Under the direction of David Payne (a.k.a. McGyver), we toiled through the final preparations of crossing T’s and dotting I’s as the logistical puzzle of RAAM was about to begin.
The start of RAAM is a potpourri of cyclists, television cameras, bikinis, and curious onlookers all merging with cheers and announcements as each team is sent off at one minute intervals. The parade like atmosphere is enhanced by the ringing of cattle bells being raucously swung by most everyone in the audience. Our eight member team lined up as we were called to the line. And after the voice over the loudspeaker announced that one of the Chain Gang was battling leukemia, I raised my hand in acknowledgement. Little did he realize that every person on our team was intimately involved in the fight against blood cancers. We each pedaled for a purpose.
A few hundred meters past the start, six of the eight turned off as Ben and Dave P. started the first leg of our 3000 mile journey. As members of the night shift, they were on deck first. I followed them with envy in my eyes as they pedaled into the distance. I was raring to go. After all the ceremony and build up, my start seemed anit-climatic. Hop in the Sprinter Van and drive 300 miles along the race route to try and sleep at the hotel in Blythe, California. It was 104 degrees there. The race had just started, but it was already heating up.
Sometime between 2:20 a.m. and 2:45 a.m. when my alarm was set, I finally dozed off. A combination of excitement and hot temps kept sleep from coming until it was too late. I walked out of my room into the furnace which would be our arena for the next 12 hours or more. And dry heat or not, my singlet was sticking to me before I made it into the van.
Breakfast on the road was different for all the members of the day team. For driver, Ron, and navigator, Charlie, it was coffee. Out shift leader, Frank, was in contact with the head of the night team and doing his best to calculate the best place to meet. Texts and phone calls seemed to sustain him. Either that or he was just too busy to bother with food. I chewed a small bit of buffalo jerky, grinding away at it slowly, methodically--starkly contrasted against the frantic pace of events around me.
The dynamics of RAAM for a team meant you never knew exactly when or where you'd begin racing. Indeed, you really never knew who would be racing the first leg as that was predicated on who was finishing their shift on the night team. The only constant was the why of our racing. And even that motivation would be sorely tested by the end of the week.
"Andrew's on deck."
The call from Frank was like a shot of coffee, and a rush of adrenaline shook off the last vestiges of sleep as my heart rate edged up a notch. I've raced hundreds of times in my career. And the moments before the start of any event are always the same. My concentration narrows to my inner environment. Even during the pre-ride check--air in tires, water in bottles, bike in gear--as I zip up my skin suit, I insulate myself against the chaos around me. Now it's only me and the road. Tonight, the darkness was helping. It seemed to cloak my excitement, and I tried to save my energy for the pedals.
Beams of flashing lights heralded another rider. The blackness of 1 a.m. local time made it impossible to tell if the racer was one of mine or another team's. Yet as the distant figure came closer, the Chain Gang uniform became clear. I straddled my bike in the headlights of the follow van and waited for my team mate to put his foot down. Full stop exchanges between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. But as soon as his cleat touched the ground, I was off.
No warm up. Instantly anaerobic. Legs and lungs doing exactly what they'd been prepared to do for the past twelve months. Like every competition I'd ever raced, I trained for this exact moment my entire life. And other than the dryness in my mouth, I felt like I was exactly where I should be. Home on two wheels at 30mph.
The second shift felt better than the first. Back when I used to race bicycles, my second ride of the day was always better than my first. And today I would get to see what number three and four felt like, too. By the end of each, my confidence had grown. I was back doing what I do best. Testing myself. And there would be five more days of tests to come.
Day two of RAAM began after two hours of sleep, and I noticed my right knee was aggravated. I had opted for sleep instead of stretching the night before. So my recovery may have been sub-optimal. But I was pretty sure the rash on my taint and ass was causing a small change in position that was magnified by approximately 20,000 pedal strokes. By the end of my second leg that day, the back of my knee had a knife stabbing into it with each pedal stroke. I was all too familiar with fatigue--maybe even inviting it. Broken bones and road rash I could handle, too. But I couldn't believe that cycling, my one constant even in the deepest despair of leukemia, was betraying me.
2500 miles to go, and my body was failing me. Worse still, I felt like I was failing the team. We'd been racing for less than 48hrs, but we'd become a team long ago. The fund raising; the meetings; the group rides--all became opportunities to learn each other's stories and our reasons for being here. We all had a story to tell. And I didn't want mine to end this way.
Frank, the Day Shift’s captain, convinced me to try and ride easy. I was desperate to contribute and would give anything a shot. Hell, I'd ride with one leg if I could. As long as I wasn't a burden to the team, I would do whatever it took to get to Annapolis. I did two more rides at a much reduced pace. Both shifts felt almost therapeutic. I needed movement to heal, and there was little to be had in the tight confines of the back seat I shared with my vanmate, Libby. But the bike offered a sort of pedaling massage which lifted my spirits along with the average speed of our team. And as long as I didn’t pull up on the pedals too hard or too fast—a skill I had trained over half my life to do—I could ride without too much pain.
The clock never stops during RAAM. The relentless pressure of time was one I felt more keenly now that I was injured. I knew my knee had an expiration date—one which I tried to prolong via myofascial stretching pre and post ride. Yet even that practice ended up being rushed: our van had to speed up the road to make a clean exchange with the other van’s racer; or, if we were in direct follow, we had to make sure Libby was adequately supported and staying on course. Time was still the issue once the night shift took over for us, too. We’d quickly unload our two vans. Pack all the bikes, luggage, and food back into the Sprinter. Drive 2-4hrs up the road—sometimes stopping for dinner or groceries; sometimes not. With the minutes constantly in motion, you often had to choose between sleep and food. Throw in laundry, a quick shower, and organizing the 2-3 a.m. wake up/departure, and nutrition often lost out.
That’s one area where the crew shined. The navigator’s job was to navigate. The driver’s job was to drive. But both would end up in the role of Sherpa as they cared for their cyclists. Neil and Kelli did laundry, went grocery shopping, prepared bikes. Kelli even played the role of therapist when my knee had me in a funk. Their sacrifice of self—in both sleep and sustenance, not to mention time—was all for the success of the team. Personally, I’d give them MVP awards just for putting up with the stench coming from my cycling shoes (Libby should get an honorable mention for that, as well).
With nothing more to worry about other than riding, that’s exactly what us riders did: ride. Day three took our team deep into the windswept plains of Kansas. At a buck thirty five, climbing is more my forte. But my years racing in Belgium had taught me how to handle my bike in the wind. Watch the trees and grass. Look for hills or buildings along the side of the road which may funnel the wind more strongly. Anticipate the sudden gust from an oncoming semi or prepare for the immediate shift in wind direction when an 18 wheeler passes from behind. Of course the disc wheel and front tri spoke made things a bit more interesting. But I stubbornly refused the safety of the bullhorns and stayed in my aero tuck, determined to make Kansas my bitch.
The first signs of discord appeared in the early a.m. of day four. Some riders overslept. Rushing to meet the night team, we missed a turn and went off course. One team member even forgot his wallet at the hotel we left some 45 miles down the road. My lack of sleep had me hoping that Jerome would be riding first. But I put my gloves on like gauntlets and tightened my shoes in case I got the call. “Being sleepy is a good thing,” I told myself. “It’ll keep you from going too hard so your knee can rest.”
The knee was still an issue—bigger than I was letting on. But other than that, my body felt great. I had prepared myself well for RAAM. I had done no running in the previous few months. Even strength training had been removed from my program two weeks out from the start. And because I’d been more riding than racing since day two of RAAM, my legs felt surprisingly fresh. I also realized that each mile brought us closer to Annapolis, the finish line, and rest. In fact, the only thing I really feared at this point were the climbs of West Virginia.
That test came on the final day. By then we were firmly in third place. And barring disaster for us or another team, the standings weren’t likely to change. Sub six days had somehow slipped away during the past 2500+ miles, too. Wrong turns, traffic, stops at train crossings—all those factors combined with fatigue to push our average speed too low. Still, we’d set a new team record: both in crossing of the country and in money raised. And I had scratched another feat off my bucket list. Getting eight cyclists and ten crew members across the country without anybody being killed (or killing anybody) is no small feat—one that I was proud of. Yet Frank wasn’t quite satisfied yet….
The Four Sisters were the toughest climbs in the race with grades upwards of 20%. Frank’s plan was to stage his four Day Shift riders along the ascent, effectively breaking up the climb into four shorter ones. Instead of grinding to the top, we could sprint to the next rider and hand off to a cyclist who was rested (or as rested as could be expected after five days of racing). The planning involved took the pressure of RAAM to a new level, and I’m not sure how he did it. But we closed on second place and increased time on the team behind us, all while maintaining an average speed just short of 20mph during this section. That included the descents, of course.
I was the lucky rider picked to go down. I may be gravitationally challenged, but I don’t have much fear (or common sense, depending on your perspective). And I had already proved my descending capabilities on a descent during day two when I closed eleven minutes on the team in front of us in 12 miles. So while I had to work going up, I also got the reward of going down. It was on the last of the Four Sisters that I’d come a little too close to the motorcycle rider not used to cyclists breaking the speed limit.
No other topography could’ve gelled us together so well except the actual finish line which we crossed on Friday night. Our official time was 6 days, 6 hours, and 13 minutes. And as we waited for the official RAAM vehicle which would escort us to the celebratory finish line at the pier in Annapolis, we hugged and laughed and cried with an intensity which only 3000 miles of racing can produce. It was dark and beginning to cool. I tried to drink in the faces of these seventeen amazing people. Folks I felt closer to than some of my own family. The road can do that. It takes you wherever you want to go, but it’s almost always somewhere you never expected. Our journey across the country had compressed time. It had condensed experiences and emotions to a needle point, and I felt the end of our adventure stab into me all at once.
We lined up in a double paceline behind the lead car, and I took a spot on the back row next to Dave Payne. I wanted to engrave this image into my memory. We rolled to the finish with cars passing our parade on the busy roads of the city. The streetlights would illuminate our group at regular intervals as we alternated between light and darkness. My teammates kept disappearing and reappearing—like so many who pass through our lives. And each time the night took them out of my sight, I wanted to pedal faster to catch them. “Get up here, Andrew,” they shouted, calling me to the front. I was honored they wanted me to lead the team in, but now I couldn’t see any of them. Yet just like rounding the corner of a mountain descent, I went on instinct. I would trust my line. Relax my grip. I knew they were there behind me.