“They are seekers, madmen and angels hell-bent on riding across America on a bicycle in less than 10 days.”
— From a synopsis of the 2009 documentary Bicycle Dreams, about the annual Race Across America
It’s good to keep things in perspective.
I try to remember that as I read or hear about the exploits of cyclists who seem to be endowed with superhuman abilities.
I consider myself a pretty good bicyclist. Despite my age, 67, I still have sufficient stamina for a long-haul ride. I rode across the United States last fall — from San Diego, Calif., to St. Augustine, Fla. — and a few weeks ago did a 273-mile ride across Missouri on the Katy Trail and then on to my hometown, Alton, Ill., for a high school reunion.
But I learned long ago that someone is always stronger and faster — some man of steel who will surely kick your butt whenever you start feeling that you’re a pretty studly specimen.
There are some cyclists, for example, who inhabit a different planet — maybe Krypton, where Superman is from. Even when I was young, I wouldn’t even have dreamt of being in the same league with these cyclists.
There are the pros, of course, who routinely ride about 20,000 miles a year — more miles than most people put on their cars — and compete in such grueling events as the Tour de France, three weeks of body-punishing riding at speeds averaging about 25 mph.
Consider, also, the Race Across America, which calls itself “the world’s toughest bicycle race.” The aim is to ride across the United States from the West Coast to the East Coast in the fastest possible time.
Unlike most multiday bike races such as the Tour de France, RAAM has no stages. Riders have no specified distance to travel each day. Until recently, there were no designated rest periods for food and sleep. Sleep was optional.
As in a time trial, the clock runs continuously from start to finish; the overall time includes rest periods.
The winner is whoever can ride the fastest while making the fewest and shortest stops. The victor usually finishes in eight to nine days, after riding about 22 hours per day through mountains, deserts and plains.
The record time for the crossing was set in 1992 by Rob Kish, who rode 2,911 miles in eight days, three hours and 11 minutes at an average speed of 14.91 mph. But Kish rode a course that was a bit shorter than the current one.
In terms of speed, the fastest for a male participant was set by Pete Penseyres in 1986, when he rode 3,107 miles (5,000 kilometers) at 15.40 mph (24.8 kph) in 8 days, 9 hours, and 47 minutes.
This year’s winner in the “solo male” category for entrants under 50 years of age was Jure Robic of Slovenia, who covered the 3,005.1 miles from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md., in nine days and 46 minutes. It was the fifth time that Robic had won the event, which began in 1982 and is held every year in June.
Sadly, Robic was killed Sept. 24 in a road accident near his home in Jesenice, Slovenia. Police reports said that Robic, while descending a narrow mountain road on his bike near his home, collided head-on with a car driven by a 55-year-old local man. Robic, 45, a former Slovenian soldier turned long-distance cyclist, trained nearly every day, cycling in a year the distance around the world at the equator.
A 2009 documentary, Bicycle Dreams, focuses on several veteran participants in the RAAM, including Robic, who was known for opening insurmountable leads at the start of a race by riding for more than 40 hours without sleep.
“It’s painful — yet weirdly inspiring — to watch the riders gradually break down as the miles mount,” said a review on the website roadbiker.com.
“They hallucinate. They weep. They bicker with their crew. They collapse. But they keep going. It’s about challenging your limits, one says. It’s a spiritual journey, explains another. It’s ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things, adds a third. As one commentator says, ‘There’s no way these people are normal.'”
Closer to home, we have the randonneurs of North Texas.
Randonneuring — which comes from the French word randonneur, or long-distance cyclist — is one of those crazy-people sports like BASE jumping, free climbing and sky surfing. It involves riding a bicycle hundreds of miles in a single weekend. It was invented and promoted in the late 19th century, during the golden age of cycling, by Frenchman Paul de Vivie, known by his nickname “Velocio.”
During the weekend of Sept. 23-25, the Lone Star Randonneurs held their annual Texas Time Trials, a qualifying event for the Race Across America. The featured event was the Tejas 500, in which participants had to ride 500 miles in 48 hours to qualify for RAAM.
Twenty-seven male riders began the Tejas 500 and 17 finished. Gary Gottlieb of Aledo, who placed third in overall time in last year’s race, was the first male rider to finish the 500 miles with a time of 29 hours and 37 minutes, averaging 17 mph. One female, Sharon Stevens of Richardson, was able to ride all of the 19 laps in the allotted time.
Riding that same weekend in another event, a 400-kilometer (248-mile) “brevet” — a long-distance bike ride with checkpoint countrols — was longtime friend and neighbor Jeremy Shlachter.
Jeremy was doing the 400-kilometer brevet to complete an annual brevet series — events of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers. He rode the 600-kilometer brevet the weekend of Sept. 4-5. He finished that ride with a time of 35 hours and 10 minutes, well under the allotted time of 40 hours.
Once a rider completes the full brevet series, he or she wins the appellation of “super randonneur.”
“I probably wouldn’t put myself through something like a brevet series if the word super was not attached to it,” Jeremy wrote on his blog, Gallus, which is also the name of a line of bikes that he builds.
“From the start of the ride,” Jeremy wrote of the 400-kilometer brevet, “my only goal was to get through the ride and finish the series. Randonneuring does not offer any bonus for finishing first or having the best time.”
Perhaps the real heroes of long-distance cycling are not the big-name pros — who get most of the attention but all too often seem to derive their superhuman abilitites from a hypodermic needle — but riders like Jure Robic, Gary Gottlieb and Jeremy Shlachter. They do what they do not for high-dollar salaries and endorsement contracts, but for the challenge and love of the sport.
The goal is simply to complete the journey.
That’s my goal, too. But, keeping in mind that all things are relative, my journeys will probably be a bit shorter and I’ll take time to smell the wildflowers.
Check out the trailer for the documentary Bicycle Dreams: