TandemHearts

Race Across America – 2009 Part I

July 1st, 2009

We just finished crewing for a team in the Race Across America. RAAM is a non-stop bicycle race from Oceanside, CA to Annapolis, MD.

We’ve debated for a couple of days how we would describe our RAAM experience.  At the end of the race we were unhappy with the net result . After a week of very little sleep and some growing personality conflicts, the race ended for us on a sour note.  We’ve thought about not posting this write up, but decided that we wanted to describe the race from our perspective, good and bad.

There are many categories of racers (solo, 2 man, 4 man, etc), but our team was in the Open category. The Open category allows for any combination of bikes and riders, so the team went all out – 8 tandems. That’s 16 racers, plus 5 vans with 2 crew per van. The biggest issue with a team this size, beyond simply finding enough people to do it, is that with so many people there will be a huge variety of abilities (in both rider and crew) and personalities. After a couple of days with little sleep, these interpersonal conflicts become the biggest challenge.

We signed up to crew to support a friend of ours just 3 weeks before the race started. The last crew person signed up the day before the event. When you are having trouble getting this many people, you can’t pick and choose. Everyone did their best, but this is a challenging event.  We had the bare minimum number of crew to do this event, and that really made it hard to get enough sleep.  That in turn magnified any inter-personal issues.

We started in Oceanside and because of course rules, 3 of the vans shuttled to a point 80 miles down course. This was to keep all the support vehicles of the 20+ teams from clogging the roads at the start. We missed the 2nd turn in the route book, but quickly got back on course. It might have been the first missed turn, but it was not the last. Even with GPS, the navigation could be difficult.

The general routine for the race was that Thom would drive and Veronica would navigate. Each bike would take a 30 minute pull. With 8 bikes in 4 vans (the fifth van directly followed the bike on the course to guide and support them), that meant that we’d drop our riders and run off down the road to pick them up 30 minutes later. We would then move down course however far the next 3 bikes would go and drop the next team. Lather, rinse, repeat. In the that 90 minutes you had to get by all the other vans, refuel, shop for food and take care of natural breaks. This grand plan was often interrupted by mechanical problems with one of the vans, rider illness or adjustments to the schedule based on terrain. You don’t stop a rider in the middle of a 40 mph descent to do an exchange and going over the Rockies the pulls were only 20 minutes.

We had some pretty big organizational problems. Some riders wanted the 30 minute pulls to mean “30 minutes at least, up to 40 minutes with proper communication” and others wanted the pulls to be “not a second more than 30 minutes and 20 minutes would be OK”. When we stuck to the plan it worked OK, but I don’t think we ever went more than 8 hours on the plan. We had one van that tended to overheat and they spent about 2 days off course either broken down or getting repairs. We had a rider get altitude sickness in the Rockies that became pneumonia. He stayed off the bike for 3-4 days. Happily he did recover enough to ride on the last day. We had a rider show up with a brand new bike that needed some serious dialing in, including at least one trip to a bike store for tools and parts. What should have been an 8 bike team was often a 6 or 7 bike team.

We tried to sleep at any available chance. If Thom saw that the course was simple for more than 20 minutes, Veronica would grab a pillow and close her eyes. If we got to our next drop spot with some lead time, Thom would lean back and close his. Once per day, we’d get one of the riders to drive/navigate and one or both of use would get 1-3 hours of sleep on the bench seat in the back of the van. This lack of sleep snowballed. Thom learned that with that little sleep, he has no tolerance for people (in his opinion) screwing around. A couple of times he got on the CB and ranted about safety or staying focused on the task. This was not really a good idea, because it only added to the friction.

As a former Marine, Thom knows what proper radio etiquette is. He was alternately amused and frustrated by the odd ways people would use the radio and throw out what they thought was proper jargon. The jargon was funny, but some crew did not understand the idea of “clear and concise” comm, especially the concise part.  This lead to him at one point yelling at the radio (not into the mic) , “Shut up, shut up, shut up” as one person went on and one about nothing while he waited to convey important information. It was kind of funny in retrospect.

Going through Gettysburg in the middle of the night, the lack of sleep and excitement of being nearly done (less than 100 miles from the end) caught up to the team.  A rider misjudged a turn, rode off the road,  and hit a granite block the size of a coffee table. The riders went over the block and the captain broke his shoulder. The stoker had some minor scrapes and the bike was totaled.  Since it was a race, as the banged up crew went to the hospital, we put another bike on the road and off we went.  Both injured riders were able to get back to the team in Annapolis just in time to stand on the stage at the finish.

At this point you are probably thinking that the Race was terrible and nothing good happened. That’s not true at all, but we ended the Race asking ourselves why we had done it. The racers get recognition and a sense of accomplishment; the crew gets nada (OK, we did get T shirts). We are happy that we supported the person we went to support and the people in our van. We are very unhappy that a couple  of the other riders didn’t even thank us.  They seem to forget that “No crew” = “no race”.   We put in a huge effort pre-race to be a prepared as possible, but when we got there we found that some riders had not even read the rule book and gave us the impression of not being as committed as we were to focusing on the task at hand.

It was an adventure, but it’s not likely we will do it again.

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