i never know whether to admire those who ride solo around the world or not. at the risk of being crossed off mark beaumont's christmas card list, i'm not sure i can see the point. and in the light of today's troubled world, it doesn't seem like the safest undertaking with which to be involved. however, you can't help but admire the cojones of those who do so; the amount of training, planning and downright doggedness is hard to dismiss. riding thousands of miles on a loaded bicycle decrees a level of obsessiveness that goes way beyond that accrued by most of us, and it must certainly take a certain type of indvidual to even consider such an enormous undertaking.
racing, if it can truly be considered such, must take place against the little chattering chappie inside, for the only competitors are self and time. there can be little commercial point in riding around the world unless it's to beat the last person to do so; sponsors always want their pound of flesh, and an entry in the guinness book of records goes along way towards satisfaction on that score. however, though an average number of miles/kilometres must surely be covered day in day out, according to a pre-conceived plan, there is little obstruction to a good night's sleep, before trammeling the same distance in a different country next day.
but so-called ultra-distance racing is a whole different ball game (well, rather obviously it's not a ball game at all, but i do like my metaphors), and possibly even harder to come to terms with. while those currently involved in the giro d'italia cover up to 230km in a single stage, ultra distance racers are probably sniggering behind their gilets at such paltry distances. granted, grand tour riders move a smidgeon faster than their long distance counterparts, but at least they get substantial amounts of shuteye at the end of each day, and a rest day every now and again.
perhaps the best known ultra distance event is the race across america or raam, a colossal undertaking half-way between riding round the world and standing on the podium in milan. it's also an event that is not known for its kindness to the body, yet it's almost an open but obscure secret. most of us have heard of it, and possess a vague understanding of what it might be about, but i doubt many could pinpoint the date on which each anual raam takes place.
i know i couldn't, and i've just read a book about it.
amy snyder followed the 2009 event (starting on june 17 at oceanside pier, san diego. i lied) from start to finish, detailing the struggles and personal victories of each individual taking part. in case you haven't heard of amy snyder, and i confess that until this book arrived, i too was unaware, she is a three-time ironman triathlon finisher; no mean feat in itself. (an ironman event incorporates a 3.86km swim, 180km bike race, and a marathon which sounds way too much like work to me). however, as she says in her introduction "with a little bit of luck, a reasonably fit and determined person can finish an ironman-length triathlon in less than three-quarters of a day of hard racing. i knew i could never push myself beyond this..." as one whose swimming resembles that of a mobile jacuzzi, and unable to run the length of myself, i beg to differ.
a raam competitor has a prescribed 3,000 mile (4,800km) to cover, hopefully averaging between 230 and 250 miles per day (370 - 402km). total climbing distance is close on 100,000 feet (30,500 metres) and temperatures range from scorching in the deserts to darned near freezing in the mountains. but that's not the really hard part: all this needs to be completed on around one hour of sleep in every 24. try telling that to bertie and larry.
snyder doesn't dodge the fact that it takes a very special type of individual to even think about racing across america, let alone the one who wins, since they will regularly have punished themselves a lot harder than those finishing behind them. and yet it's not just the competitors who have to be wiling to undergo a special form of purgatory; their support crew doesn't have a particularly easy time of it either. when all is not looking good, or sleep deprivation makes the athletes shift their perceptions well off the scale of normal, it's up to those in the following mobile home to rally round, re-frame the real world and keep them heading towards annapolis.
is this beginning to sound bizarre? good.
the crazy thing about all this craziness is that the competitors are there for the love of the bicycle. that's difficult to deny; would any undertake such punishment for any other reason (there's no prize money at the end of the race, simply accolades that vanish as quickly as they appear)?
as with all other forms of bicycle racing, raam has its favourites. plural because there is a women's raam as well as the male event. the former depart oceanside one day prior to the latter, but due to their lower average speed, it's their male counterparts who inevitably reach annapolis first. the purgatory, however, is evenly spread across the sexes.
odds-on favourite to win the 2009 race was reigning champion, jure robic, a 44 year-old slovenian special forces soldier, backed up by more of the same in the mobile home running behind. his closest challengers were reckoned to be gerhard gulewicz, dani wyss and yet another slovenian, 42 year-old marko baloh. robic 'was the only man ever to win four solo championships. some call him the best endurance athlete in the world...
the women's field comprised janet christiansen, michele santilhano, briton ann wooldridge and the enigmatic brazilian, daniela genovesi. six times raam winner, seana hogan provided a salient explanation of one of the disadvantages experienced by the female competitors "i have no mechanism to pee from the bike", she said. "thus, i lose four minutes each time i have to go, which is quite often."
though an entirely true story, hell on two wheels reads like an adventure novel, leading to accusations of it being unputdownable. each participant's story is woven as a thread through what is often an exciting narrative. amy snyder has an innate gift for telling a great story, surreptitiously hooking the reader into the goings on across the vast expanses of north america. each step forward, each step backward and those who failed to complete the distance, approaches the complexity of three dimensional chess, yet snyder keeps a clear head and presents the twists and turns with impeccable clarity.
trepidation would be a good word describing my initial approach to the book, for on the outside looking in, how interesting or intriguing could it possibly be? a bunch of folks set off from the west coast to ride as fast as possible to the finish line on the east coast, often separated by several hours and hundreds of miles of tarmac. it's hardly the components from which excitement is hewn.
yet i read obsessively from start to finish, desperate to find out if the butler did it. it would spoil the story if i named the butler at this juncture, and in order not to inadvertantly do so, i have deliberately kept myself from reading the last few pages. once this review is done and dusted, i'm off to the leather armchair to finish the story. though i will undoubtedly get there before you, i'd heartily recommend you follow in my tyre tracks.
'hell on two wheels' is due for publication in early june, accompanied by a substantial and comprehensive book signing tour across the united states by author amy snyder'
posted thursday 26 may 2011