Racing with a Purpose

An epic bike race will test a team of local cyclists

By Mike Savicki


In theory, it’s a pretty straightforward task. Start at the Pacific Ocean, point your bike to the east and start pedaling. Take a few photos along the way and be sure to slow down enough to enjoy the sights. When you reach the Atlantic Ocean, climb off, stretch your legs and pat yourself on the back. Congratulations. Mission accomplished. Nice ride.


Here’s the issue. What eight veteran bicyclists from Cool Breeze Cyclery in Mooresville are about to undertake isn’t simply a ride across, it’s the epic 3,000-mile Race Across America, an adventure billed the most respected and longest running endurance sports event in the world. See the difference?  The goal is to get from the Pacific to the Atlantic as quickly as possible. These are no rest days nor sightseeing visits. This race is about maximum heart rate and threshold riding. Leave the cameras at home.


“Our training goal is to get ourselves to the point where we can ride multiple times in a row on or near threshold,” explains team member Sarah Matchett of Davidson. “In everyday terms, that means each cyclist will be pushing themselves almost as hard as they can every time they begin a shift.”


The Race Across America (RAAM) first caught the public’s eye in 1982, when four individual cyclists raced each other from the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the Empire State Building in New York City. As the race gained an international following, organizers added relay teams in 1994. The thirtieth edition offers categories for individuals, two, four and eight-person relay teams.


If you are trying to put the distance and time in perspective, relay teams average between 350 – 500 miles a day cycling in shifts around the clock. RAAM is thirty percent longer than the Tour de France and has a strict nine-day time limit. The Tour de France lasts three weeks.


“The challenge of doing RAAM of course involves riding the bike many miles, but in my mind the greatest challenges are the mental and emotional hurdles that each rider will face,” says Randy Catron, the Cool Breeze for Heroes RAAM Team coach who is affiliated with Peaks Coaching Group based out of Bedford, Virginia. “They will be required to ride at night, and possibly in horrible conditions such as snow, strong wind, and rain…. conditions when they would not normally want to ride.”


The idea to enter a relay team was born after Karen Wandel, a self-proclaimed late comer to endurance sports, read a short article about the experiences of a four-person team that finished RAAM.


Wandel explains, “I shared the idea of entering a primarily female relay team with a few friends at a summer party by telling them that I believe there are no guarantees in life. If you have the ability to do something, the time to do it is now. Everyone I shared my idea with supported it wholeheartedly. I guess you might say it is something we all had on our bucket lists but weren’t ready to talk about yet.”


“I think that sentiment rings true for a lot of the other team members, too,” adds Sarah Matchett. “We all have had life experiences that have made us realize that something like this won’t come again.”


Organizing racer logistics for the five women and three men in order to maximize performance, promote safety and take advantage of specific racer strengths was the team’s first challenge. Four cyclists are assigned to one of two vans tasked with maintaining close racer support. Cyclists will complete a series of thirty minute to one-hour race intervals before the vans rotate every six hours. The team anticipates sleeping between two and three hours during non-race periods.


Team logistics are equally challenging. An RV will serve as the team’s control center, and upwards of eight support staff, including van captains, navigators, logistics coordinators, a mechanic and a cook will keep tabs on the two-wheeled convoy. “Coordinating the eating, sleeping and laundry schedules of sixteen people in a single, rolling RV is close to impossible,” jokes Karen Wandel, “so the team will strategically spend certain off-cycling periods in hotels.”


Randy Catron says the safety of the racers is a primary concern. Throughout the training phases, he has scheduled several practices during the day and night for the riders to perfect exchanges. He also says the RAAM organization emphasizes safety, and teams must adhere to stringent safety rules or risk time penalties or possible disqualification.


The magnitude of RAAM constantly tests team members. “It only recently hit me how big a deal this really is,” says Sarah Matchett. “I have done a lot of racing and usually know how to get out the door to train after working all day, but I was really tired recently and just stopped in my tracks thinking about the magnitude of RAAM. This race is all together different from anything any of us have ever done.”


“In the end,” Sarah Matchett concludes, “this comes down to each of us doing our jobs and trusting everyone else to do theirs. There is a lot of responsibility on everyone, whether we are on the bike or working support.”


RAAM gives no awards to finishers. Sometimes racing with responsibility is reward enough.


This article was originally published in the May 2011 edition of Currents Magazine.