A RAAM Blog
Journalist and cyclist, Steve White, cycled with the 8-man Antonia’s Friends team in 2016 and wrote these blogs as they team travelled across America.
day one - flying to la
“It’s been a long time coming but RAAM 2016 had finally arrived!
After many months of planning, Antonia’s Friends came from all corners of the UK today to meet at Heathrow airport. With some having started their day at half two in the morning, there were plenty of tired eyes but lots of big smiles too as we congregated with our suitcases and bike boxes.
Despite all the queuing and waiting around, the time passed quickly and it was clear that we were returning to the team spirit first created among Antonia’s Friends at the training held at Hartham Park HQ a few weeks ago.
The anticipation built throughout the ten-hour flight to Los Angeles, where our directors, Jo and Mike were ready in minibuses to spirit us away through the mayhem of the city’s rush hour and south towards Oceanside.
We reached our hostel at around 2pm, which felt like 10pm to our GMT brains, but all the unpacking meant there was no time to sit around by the hostel’s pool. By the time we all had all checked in and sorted out our stuff, we were pretty exhausted, but the mood changed when we discovered a nearby bar where it has to said, a few liquid refreshments were enjoyed.”
“Waking up in California is a pretty great feeling, especially when it’s 30C outside. When you then get told that it’s hammering down in the UK, your grin only gets wider.
We began with the first of many team meetings of Antonia’s Friends in the agreeable surroundings of the motel pool. Jo welcomed the whole group, described each member’s role and outlined how the pre-race days will pan out and how the teams cycle in rotating pods. Then each team member stood up and introduced themselves before receiving official race t-shirts and other bits of kit.
A key aspect of Antonia’s Friends 2016 is that it comprises two teams, the 8-man and the 4-man team. There’s a healthy rivalry developing between the two, but that could simply be down to jealousy; when not riding, members of the 4-man team have to sleep in a van, in a tent or on the side of the road among any number of fuzzy eight-legged locals, whereas the 8-man team have to suffer a luxury coach. To avoid bitterness, the 8-man team has promised to throw fruit and sweet meats from the windows at any 4-man crew members spotted sleeping in the gutter.”
“In preparation each rider had to ensure their bikes and riding gear were in good working order. This included placing reflective strips over sections of the bike frame to maximise visibility – a fundamental aspect of rider safety. Rear and front lights had to be checked too, and the officials were understandably very strict on this; some lights had to be replaced or adjusted if their beams were not powerful enough. Our good preparation meant we were given the green light. After taking a heap of team photos, we assembled all riders and support vehicles for a long ride into the Californian hills.
The extended route gave us a decent introduction to hill climbing in warm conditions, but the views were well worth it. Ascending through vineyards and across mountainous verges we were granted spectacular views of this stunning coastal region.
Our reward was a thunderous descent that wound its way down through aromatic forests, back down to a car park at the valley floor where our vans were waiting, ready to take us back to our hotel at Oceanside.”
RAAM STAGE 1: BAPTISM OF FIRE
“We have lift off! The pressure has been building for months and it has all been for this moment. The crowds gathered and roared us on as we started the race from the pier in Oceanside. What a send-off!
The suffocating desert heat only added to the nerves around the camp at Brawley. After zero hours’ sleep, we were operating on adrenaline as we prepared for the Californian desert at night where temperatures were still around 100 Fahrenheit.
Team captain Alix Popham led the way and must have inhaled his weight in winged insects by the time he had finished his first 15 minutes on the road.
While cycling through the day time can be exhilarating, night shifts are akin to cycling in a box. The darkness folds in and your only company is the spectre of your own shadow cast by the beams of the chasing support vehicle.
As I rode, large moths span off my helmet and glasses, and would occasionally thud off my face. Startled arachnids ran for home through the fragile pool cast by my bike’s lights. The headlamps of passing trucks gave glimpses of an inhospitable landscape; scorched rock and angry, thorned vegetation.
Towards the end of the night we were making our approach to Salome, CA . The rising sun soon extinguished any of dawn’s respite from the heat, and by 6:30am the thermometer was registering 82F. The valley, flooded with fresh light, revealed a Martian land that looked as moistureless as our lungs felt.
Mind games were the sun’s final showpiece; the wind-whispered structures of Monument Valley appeared on the horizon, but in the heat they appeared joined by dark lintels. As the mirages receded, the rocks became mushroom clouds whose tops disconnected and floated into the sky like the ghosts of the mountains they had once been.
After a dusty climb into the desert hills, we couldn’t have been more grateful to escape the supernatural heat and get into an air-conditioned bus. The red pod of Antonia’s Friends 8-man team took over from here; for the blue pod it was the end of a very hard, very weird first shift that lived up to RAAM’s reputation as the world’s toughest endurance race.”
RAAM STAGE 2: THE HEAT OF COMPETITION
“Our night ride was followed by the hottest day of my life. Cycling out of Salome, CA, the 115F-degree heat drummed on my chest, back and head, willing every last bit of moisture out of my body.
Passing air-conditioned vehicles started to look more like refrigerators on wheels. I watched them pass and in the silence that followed, listened to my tyres peeling off the softening tarmac.
Before each pull – the term given to a rider’s shift on the bike – I would soak my cap and a neckerchief in iced water and wrap them around my head, concealing ice cubes in the folds. My helmet would go on over the top, and I’d be set for another 15 minutes in the ring with the super-heavyweight sun.
As our route climbed the temperature fell to the low 90s, and we began to overtake a few competitors, which really raised spirits. The landscape rose, turning stony and steeply dramatic before we broke out onto high, heavily wooded countryside.
The road became a dreamy undulation through fragrant pine forests, soothing our baking brains and bodies. The contrast in environments was remarkable and would set the tone for the stunning variety of scenery on the Race Across America.
It was through this paradise that dusk fell and we made our way to Tuba City to meet the red pod and take a well-earned rest.”
RAAM STAGE 3: WILD WILD WEST
“RAAM is all about speed, and this is crucial for pod transitions in the 8-man team. When four shattered team riders and crew finish a nine-hour shift, their support vehicles need to be emptied and re-stocked, and four fresh cyclists have to be ready to go.
The process gets easier with time, and is a good indicator of how well you’re operating as a team; if you can switchover smoothly and stay in high spirits, you’re doing well.
Today, the incoming four cyclists were full of stories of their dawn trip through Arizona’s Monument Valley. Looking suitably impressed and swallowing hard on our jealously, the outgoing cyclists listened while praying that a few geological spells were still to be cast by this iconic Wild West landscape. We weren’t disappointed.
We set off into an ancient and vast landscape; mile upon brutal mile of red, scrubby terrain from which terrific ochre cliffs erupt, some of which have been sculpted by the elements into statues of inexplicable magnitude and beauty.
A change-over near the Seven Sailors had us all high-fiving and taking team photos, while our imaginations were stolen by a colossal scar in the earth signposted the Valley of the Gods.
The Mittens, Mexican Hat and Three Wise Men disappeared behind us, and our road elevated onto desert plains where small towns nestled into the lee of enormous boulders and smooth cliffs.
As we progressed, the terrain lowered and became emphatically serene; we pedalled quietly through silent villages crouching into soaring, pine-flecked mountainsides that shone in the sun.
The town of Cortez was cacophonous in comparison; we hailed a passing swarm of Harley bikers, and won leather-mittened salutes. The frenzy increased as the RAAM media spotted us at the roadside – cameras in our face smartened up our changeover no end, but Peter was happy to put on an impromptu performance.
Dreaming in Durango as evening fell, we reflected on a tiring but fantastically colourful shift in which the team had gelled, and felt we were tasting the true essence of RAAM.”
RAAM STAGE 4: COLORADO AND THE ROCKIES
“You always get it, don’t you? That one moment or experience that has you shaking your head in disbelief and thinking, “Oh man, this place is amazing, I’m definitely coming back here!”
Well, that was how we felt throughout our cycle through Colorado – the place is just stunning and the landscape so varied, it really has to be seen to be believed.
The day started off in a unique way – it was chilly. But it wasn’t long before the climb into the foothills of the Rockies got us reaching for the iced water and taking off our layers.
The higher altitude had us all huffing and puffing, shrinking our muscles and turning the steady climb into a crawl. On the other hand, we were blown away by the spectacular scenery, and the van was full of promises to return one day.
Later our team spirit was tested when I managed to get lost for 45 minutes in a small town. Once safely back in the van an hour later, we had to find Alix who had been pedalling in the afternoon sun for far too long. When we finally caught up to him and changed over cyclists, his silence spoke volumes.
We flew along the Colorado prairies on a tailwind with the Rockies disappearing behind us. The expanse of the country is breath-taking; a panorama of grassland seamed by a road that goes on forever.
We were exhausted as usual by the time we reached Walsh; thankfully Brijesh, our chef, was on hand to cook another fantastic curry. A strong, hot breeze meant there was no need for a towel after having a shower!”
RAAM STAGE 5: THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE KANSAS
“Cycling into the night brought back memories of our hellish start to the race in California, but temperatures weren’t quite so high for this shift, and the landscape – this being Kansas – was pretty flat.
As a team the night has become our least favourite time to ride as there’s no view to take your mind off the work you’re doing; just trucks on thundering past on the other side of the fog line and the constant thin spread of your bike’s lights.
Dawn in Kansas sent a picturesque moon over the cornfields, before we were blessed by an ultimate sunrise, the kind that must have inspired the design on the first packet of cornflakes.
We kept an eye out for yellow brick roads and twisters, but only found red barns and windmills. There was much jubilation as we passed the half way mark of our trip. Only another 1,500 miles to go!”
RAAM STAGE 6: MISSOURI STRAIGHT AHEAD
“We continued through Kansas and into neighbouring Missouri on set-square straight roads. It’s amazing to think of how far we’ve come and now our team is running pretty smoothly; we’re even getting this transition thing nailed.
Sleep is harder to claim – you’re lucky if you can get two or three hours’ shut eye before it’s time to get up and ready for a new day in the saddle. Although that new day could arrive at 2 in the morning! Concepts of time go out of the window on RAAM, and you fall into the routine of eat, drink, cycle, rest, repeat. I’ve maintained a vague sense of which state of this great country I’m in, and that’s it. It’s quite liberating really!
The road continues through this beautiful, verdant countryside. What towns we discover are quaint, with shops clearly sign-posting their wares or purpose, their frontages neat and tidy as though from they’ve been borrowed from a film set.
Otherwise, it’s straight roads through farm-and-windmill countryside. The temperature is always high and it’s getting increasingly humid the further east we go. I may need to reach for the deodorant can by the time we hit the Appalachians!”
RAAM STAGE 7: WELCOME TO WEAUBLEAU
“Team work is essential for this project, but it’s great when you bump into people who are ready to tap into that spirit and help you on your way.
Today we’re sending out an extra big cheer for Marjorie and her son, Stephen, from Weaubleau, Missouri. Despite our bus being parked pretty much on their back lawn, they set up their hose pipe so we could have showers, then Stephen fixed our camp cooker as our connector had broken. Team Antonia’s Friends just got two new members!
Once we’d finished failing to pronounce their home town’s name (Wobbly and Warble being two of the better attempts), our attention was grabbed by signs for nearby Wheatland and Humansville. We were fine for wheat and had enough humans, so we didn’t pay a visit, but it was reassuring to know that supplies were within reach. Other place names ranged from the mysterious (Mineral, Ohio) to the unsettling (Accident, Maryland).
Striking out of Weaubleau, the countryside stretched out in expansive undulations the proportions of which you just don’t see in the UK. As night fell we approached Jefferson City, stopped in a McDonalds for coffee before taking on the insistently up-and-down terrain of Jefferson City. That’s another RAAM quirk – you start to judge locations based on the quality of the road surface!
Out of Jefferson came the highway at night, enormous illuminated billboards and huge moths that you couldn’t see until it was too late! However, we are well acclimatised to night riding now, making progress physically, mentally and geographically. But I’ve still no idea of what time of day it is.
We made our base for the night at Effingham, Illinois, where we gratefully used the shower facilities of a local college football team; it’s amazing how much a shower can re-energise you!”
STAGE 8: TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS
“We progressed with little incident through Indiana and into Ohio, passing Springfield to the north and to the south, Cincinnati, then on towards Athens, Ohio. In Chillicothe friends of Leadership Challenges were waiting on the roadside to cheer us on, giving us a fantastic surprise and new purpose.
John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road” has become the anthem elect of the van and we took any opportunity to belt the famous song out as the green Appalachians loomed.
We’ve got a great team spirit going in the van now, and the cycling shifts are going like clockwork. When the whole process of transitions, exchanges and following patterns were explained to us back in May, it was like trying to learn a foreign language, but the practices that keep RAAM rolling now seem like second nature, which is great.
Sleeping is still a challenge, and I think we’re all feeling varying degrees of sleep deprivation. Take me home!”
stage 9 - reflections from the finish line
“A few months of training is one thing, but helping a team to cycle 3,069 miles across North America is another – the same distance as cycling from my home in Wales to Kazakhstan.
One thing I had underestimated was just how valuable team spirit would be. Having experienced cyclists and crew members around me gave me confidence, and before we landed in LA I knew that if at any point I started to flag during the race, I’d have plenty of support to fall back on. Added to that, I was determined not to let anyone down.
I had to cycle for 15-20 minute shifts over a period of around 8 hours each ‘day’. It was manageable, but you can say goodbye to your body clock; you can be going to bed at 3pm in the afternoon, only to be getting up at 10pm to start your next stint on the road.
Physical fatigue crept in as we hit the Appalachians in Pennsylvania, where my legs started to ache in strange ways and in new places. Huge thanks goes to Becca, our team masseuse who worked so hard to purge the lactic acid from our quad muscles, hamstrings and calf muscles.
As you can imagine, I was ridiculously proud to roll over the finish line in Annapolis.
After months of planning, pressure and two tough weeks on the road, the orders and obligation suddenly gave way to a holiday vibe. I had spent so long focusing my mind and body, stepping out of my comfort zone for my epic cycling adventure, but as I strolled safely among townsfolk and tourists in the gushing sunshine of Annapolis, I suddenly felt a bit lost.
Life started to make a bit more sense after I’d had my first pint. No longer in our 4- and 8-man teams, Antonia’s Friends came together and the quay-side bars were clamorous as we shared stories of our adventures which we are still telling with just as much excitement today.”