For 35 years, teams and individuals have accepted the challenge of the Race Across America (RAAM). From Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md., they charge, each with a different goal. Three St. Louisans were part of the eight-man group known as Team Velorunner in 2016. Their goal: to average more than 20 mph over the 3,089 miles.
To verify their time, every team must report to 53 time checks along the way. Revolution Cycles in Washington, Mo., is home to Timing Stop No. 34, the only one housed in a bike shop. To owner Joe Ferguson, RAAM is a six-day parade that does more than pass by. “We have to try to understand what they need, so we can fix or supply the right things,” he said.
All agree that RAAM is the experience of a lifetime — but maybe not a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
The core of Team Velorunner used to cycle the route of the U.S. Pro Challenge in Colorado every August. When the race was cancelled, one of them suggested they should do something really epic. Another suggested RAAM.
“That week was a price increase,” said Matt Helbig, co-founder and owner of Big River Running. “One of our guys whips out his credit card and plunks down $13,000, and there we were.”
The group divided up the tasks of nutrition, rentals, lodging, etc., and held monthly conference calls to stay on track. Helbig trained for six months, peaking at 340 miles a week.
Robb Finnegan met some of the team when he owned a running store in Oregon. He sold it in 2014, which gave him time to cycle extensively. Moving to St. Louis in April gave him the impetus to join Team Velorunner and train with Helbig.
Dr. Brian Laiderman was a competitive cyclist in college and has competed in Ironman and half-Ironman since. He joined the group in April, after Helbig mentioned it over dinner.
“I said, ‘I’m in,’” Laiderman recalled. “Matt was stunned because I didn’t ask any questions. He didn’t know that I had followed RAAM for 10 years.”
Fueling and Forrest Gump
Ferguson signed on as a timing station shortly after opening Revolution Cycles in 2008, so he has the planning down pat. He assembles a team of up to 10 volunteers, led by Cowbell Vicky, who lives in nearby Villa Ridge, and “tries to cheer on every rider,” he said. At least two people sign up for shifts around the clock for six days.
Team Velorunner wasn’t quite so pat. They divided into two groups of four riders, each in a 12-passenger van, with a support van for the six crew members. “We were like the blue-collar bunch on a shoestring budget of $40,000,” Helbig said.
Each team of riders was on duty for 12 hours. Each rider rode alone for a half-hour at a time, give or take. The plan worked, until it didn’t. First to go was food.
“It was amazing how your body could go from completely trashed to 100 percent. It was all about fueling, but after the first or second day, I couldn’t do the gels and bars,” Helbig said, listing Slim Jims and turkey sandwiches or PB&J as substitutes.
“I lived on chocolate milk,” Finnegan said. “It goes down easy.”
Surviving hunger, lack of sleep and record heat trumped sightseeing, except for one glorious moment in Arizona’s Monument Valley, at the spot made famous as Forrest Gump’s stopping point. Laiderman was riding.
“He started in the dark,” Finnegan said. “It was crisp. Cool. No wind.”
“The moon was behind him, and the sun was over his shoulder,” Helbig said. “After taking a deep breath, I told him, ‘Dude, you’ve got to turn around.’”
When Laiderman turned, he said, “There wasn’t another soul around. That scene was just for us.”
The Comforts of Home
Though the heat never let up, Helbig pointed to a dinner at Laiderman’s house in West County as a welcome respite. He briefly reconnected with his wife, Katie; son, Connor; and daughter, Paige, for “four hours of feeling normal,” he said.
Ferguson said he tries to provide normalcy for each of the 300 or so riders. Some stop for 20 minutes. Others for a half-day.
“They are 2,000 miles in with 1,000 to go. Some don’t look like they’ve been on the bike more than five minutes, much less five days,” he said. “Then there are the ones who are broken and ready to quit. And it’s sad.”
He puts video screens in the shop windows, so the riders can track one another. He sets up a swimming pool, throws a couple of barbecues in the parking lot and gets neighboring businesses to chip in drinks.
“It’s always like a party,” Ferguson said. “They get excited for real food.”
He does his best to fill all requests. The most popular is for directions or route changes. He lets mechanics use his shop for repairs. One guy needed a ride to the airport after he got kicked off his team. He’s even let one or two sleep in his office.
Nearly all the questioning of “What did we get ourselves into?” occurred in times of fatigue. Helbig’s toughest moment came on a hot day in Kansas with a tailwind. “We got so far ahead of the other van that we had to do three extra pulls each until they caught up with us.”
Finnegan’s was on the last day, when he could do only 4 miles on one turn. “It had to be the lack of sleep.”
And they endured a convoluted 24 hours in Ohio that included Helbig getting too far ahead and off course, a tree blocking the road, one of the vans getting stuck in the mud until pulled out by a monster truck, and a crew member left behind in a gas station bathroom.
The best way to cope with the mayhem? Laugh it off.
“When you’re dealing with 14 people who barely sleep and haven’t been outside each other’s company, everything seems pretty funny,” Laiderman said.
Acts of Kindness
Each rider is on the bike alone but is (almost) never without support. The crew of six was at the ready with clean clothes, drinks, directions or quick bike repairs.
“They were rock stars,” Helbig said.
Though they didn’t depend upon the kindness of strangers, it came in handy. There was a night in Indiana when they got in late and didn’t have time to do laundry. They awoke to find that the woman who ran the motel “did our laundry, folded it, made us care packages. Little things like that made a big difference,” Finnegan said.
Ferguson, too, is happy to fill that role.
“They come from all over the world, and sometimes there is a language barrier,” he said. “In the end, we’re usually able to make things work and make friends in the process.”
The Finish Line?
Team Velorunner crossed the line at 11:13 p.m. on June 24, in six days, seven hours. They averaged 20.25 mph. “They really do it up, with champagne and a picture. Then, they bring you in and do an interview,” Helbig said.
But finishing RAAM doesn’t necessarily sound like a bucket list item.
Ferguson already has committed to reopening Timing Stop No. 34 this June. Riding himself is a mild temptation, “But I’m on the precipice of 52. I organize group rides and events, but I can’t imagine putting all that in a car and spreading it out over 3,000 miles.”
Helbig said, probably jokingly, “I’d do it again, but I wouldn’t be married afterward.” In the next breath, he launched into how he’d add another vehicle, two more crew members and shorten shifts from 12 to 6 hours.
Finnegan and Laiderman said they wouldn’t hesitate to raise the bar and ride on a four-man team. “I need to find the point where I say, ‘I can’t do this,’” Laiderman said, “and then push past it.”
Kathleen Nelson is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine.