By Christa Fraser
Mike Shermer in full flight. Photo: Lon Haldeman/Insight Race Across America
In 1982, a McDonald’s in the sun-scorched desert town of Blythe was the fueling station for the lead racer in the inaugural version of a solo cycling race across the entire continental United States. That racer was Lon Haldeman. He rode on junk food, little water and even less sleep for the next nine days and 20 hours to win the first-ever Race Across America (RAAM) out of a field of four.
“It was like running a triathlon in flip flops,”Haldeman recalls.
The inaugural Race Across America was actually christened “The Great American Bike Race.”It was a challenge drawn up by an elite pack of four long-distance solo cyclists to see who could pedal the fastest across the country, from the shores of California to the Empire State Building in New York City. It would prove to be one of the only years in which every racer completed the challenge.
In sports, superlatives are tossed around like empty race cups. The best of, the greatest ever, the toughest this, the biggest that ®X Yet, 23 years after its inaugural transcontinental sufferfest, the 3000-mile Race Across America remains worthy of a few superlatives.
Outside magazine ranked the Race Across America as “The World’s Toughest Event”in 1993. Using yardsticks such as cost, distance, likelihood of participants dropping out, and an “Anguish Index,”the magazine ranked events for their capacity for pushing racers to the limits of endurance. Measured against infamous races like the Raid Gauloises, the Iditarod and the Vendee Globe Solo Around-the-World sailing race, among others, RAAM out-punished them all.
To put it in perspective, more people have successfully summitted Mt. Everest than have completed a RAAM. To complete RAAM, riders must climb a total of nearly 110,000 feet, the equivalent of summiting Everest more than three and a half times from sea level.
The original RAAM was not the first time that a solo rider successfully traversed America on bike. The concept of a bicycle race across America can be traced back to newspaperman George Nellis. In 1887, Nellis crossed the country on a 45-pound high-wheel bicycle with no gears and with pedals attached directly to the front wheel. He followed railroad routes and made the crossing in just under 80 days.
Other riders attempted to cross the country and break that record in subsequent years. In the late 1970s, one rider in particular was ready to commit toe to clip in a quest for the fastest possible time — John Marino.
Recreational riders follow the competitors in a parade section through Balboa Park, San Diego on the way to the start line, 13 miles from the downtown.
Photo: Hawkins & Garrigues, © 2004
“On a day in September ’76, I was feeling quite ambitious and began paging through the Guinness Book of World Records for a sport that I could do. I wanted to be in this book someday. I chose cycling and specifically the U.S. coast-to-coast record — Santa Monica City Hall to New York City Hall. I became a cycling fanatic for two years and in 1978 broke the Guinness Book record,”Marino recollects on the UltraCycling Hall of Fame website (www.ultracycling.com).
But Marino found that making the Guinness Book by racing across America in just over 13 days wasn’t ultimately satisfying. “After setting the record, I realized that the endeavor was more than a race. It was an expedition,”he says.
Around the same time Marino was rethinking the significance of his feat, four other American cyclists were struggling to break similar records. “I had been following his career,”Haldeman explains. “No one had done anything like that…”
Inspired, Haldeman started several of his own attempts. Meanwhile, in 1980, Marino traversed the country in 12 days and three hours setting another record. In 1981, Haldeman decided to try a back-to-back traverse of the country (a double transcontinental) to push the newest record Haldeman finished his east-to-west run in just over 12 days, which wasn’t a record. His west-to-east run, however, was — just over ten days.
Meanwhile, ace-cyclist-turned-triathlete John Howard, who had been anointed as Competitive Cycling magazine’s “Cyclist of the Decade”for the 1970s, was now pushing his endurance portfolio in Ironman races.
Marino and Howard talked of racing each other, setting into motion the idea of a cross-country race as a head-to-head test rather than a solo time trial. Haldeman’s double transcontinental record, however, forced them to add a third contestant to the challenge. For good measure, Marino also invited his friend Michael Shermer, who had just set a record for a Seattle to Los Angeles trek.
“Marino probably knew best what he was getting into,”Haldeman recalls.
Marino was the favored racer going into the race, but it was Haldeman who won. His merciless technique of sleeping only a couple hours at a time and riding through most of the night forever changed the face of endurance cycling races. By the time the other three racers realized that Haldeman wasn’t sleeping much, he was too far ahead to catch.
He adopted his sleep-deprived racing strategy from Susan Notorangelo, a cycling record-setter herself who would later become his wife. Haldeman had crewed for Notorangelo in 1982 when she nearly broke his 10-day traverse record by riding through the night. Previously, racers like Haldeman and Marino rode through the day until about midnight and then slept for six hours or so. In Notorangelo’s strategy, Haldeman saw a way to catch Marino, Howard and Shermer off guard.
Haldeman completed that inaugural challenge in less than 10 days. The race was filmed by ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but the producers sat on the film for nearly a year, unsure it would generate much viewer interest. When the race was finally broadcast, it wound up winning an Emmy and drawing millions of viewers.
The public interest showed that the race had potential to become a big force in American cycling. As a result, the Great American Bike Race was held again the next year with several more racers and rechristened as the Race Across America. It has been held every year since, consistently drawing new racers and adding new race divisions, such as tandem, recumbent, team-relay and female-solo categories.
Lon Haldeman wheels into the finish in downtown New York, 1982.
Photo: Lon Haldeman/Insight Race Across America
One rider who has experienced firsthand the evolution of RAAM is Rob Kish. Practically unknown outside of endurance cycling circles, Kish is a legend among his fellow racers. This year he will race in his 20th RAAM. He has finished every year, including his first year when he took a nasty spill at the start of the race that resulted in severe road rash.
While Kish may be slowing down a bit now that he is in his 50s, he is still a solid racer. “It’s a hard habit to kick,”he jokes.
Today, RAAM is usually won in five to six days. This year’s 3,051.7-mile race, which rolled from San Diego on June 19th, was expected to be a face off between Jure Robic, 40, a professional soldier from Slovenia, and Mike Trevino, 30, a software engineer from San Diego, out of a field of 25 solo male competitors ranging in age from 18 to 53.
To show you how far ultra-endurance cycling has come, this year’s cut-off time for all riders to finish was noon on July 1st — a scant 12 and a half days, or about the same time as Haldeman’s record-setting attempt in 1980.
Yet all those who finish will be drafting off the innovation and exploits of the original four. While none of them could have foreseen riders finishing a transcontinental race in less than six days, in the tradition of the Great American Bike Race, records continue to be broken.
For complete results for this year’s Race Across America, visit www.raceacrossamerica.org