It’s a sport, it’s a freak show, it’s RAAM!

September 26, 2013 § 10 Comments

A good friend gave me a book called “Hell on Two Wheels.” It’s about the Race Across America.

“It’s very poorly written,” he said. “But it’s a good book.”

I pondered that. Being a good book and being poorly written don’t usually go together, but in this case he was right. I won’t talk about the book’s bad points. It’s enough to say it is very poorly written, and maybe throw in another handful of “very’s.”

The good things about it, though, were pretty good. Good enough to buy? That’s up to you.

The hardest sporting event in the world

Every mindless endurance activity claims this, and each one has a long list of the deprivations you have to endure to win. Pro football. Walk across Australia. Iditarod. Tour de France. Triple Ironmans. And of course, RAAM — ride your bike from San Diego to Maryland as fast as you can.

None of these events is the hardest sporting event, or even close to it. Why? Because the difficulty of a sporting event is defined by the number of people who do it. If you’re the only person doing the sport, or if the participation pool is only a few hundred people worldwide, it’s just not that hard. It may be miserable. It may be mind numbingly hard. It may wreck your body forever. But the hardness of the event is defined simply: If a billion people are competing for the top spot, it’s harder than if your competition is fifty other athletes, no matter how tiring or demanding the event. In short, competition defines hard.

So, winning a World Cup in soccer is the hardest sport there is. Sorry, RAAM.

But isn’t RAAM still pretty damned hard?

From the standpoint of what your body goes through, I’m not sure there’s anything harder. But you could say the same about creating a new sporting event in which people competed to survive horrible car accidents. What’s interesting about “Hell on Two Wheels” is that it describes two facets of RAAM that have a lot in common with amateur cycling, that is, the physical discomfort and the bizarre emotional makeup of its participants.

In normal bicycle racing, which is hardly normal, winning occurs when a rider combines the ability to overcome extreme physical pain with strategy. It’s what annoys runners who become cyclists. The strongest guy rarely wins unless he’s also one of the smartest. In RAAM, the winner executes a complex strategy of minimal rest, maximal sustainable physical effort, and mentally overcoming days and days of physical pain.

In essence, winning RAAM takes the intolerable pain of bicycle time trialling and stretches it out for seven or eight days. “Hell on Two Wheels” walks you through the totally bizarre things that riders inflict on themselves, things like “Shermer’s Neck,” where your neck muscles fail and your head flops down on your chest, or saddle sores that turn your crotch into a raw, infected, bloody, agonizingly painful pulp that is almost unendurable with each pedal stroke. And you pedal like twelve zillion times.

In other words, good times.

The craziness inside

As with amateur bicycle racing, RAAM is a completely selfish activity. As the book introduces the athletes, most have cloaked their participation in some noble-sounding goal such as raising awareness for child trafficking, or doing something in solidarity with sick people.

But as you learn about what it takes to prepare for and compete in RAAM, you figure it out. These people just like to ride their bikes, all the time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m not sure, after reading this book, how it’s a good one, either.

Of course, I can relate to the craziness. When I’m not riding I’m thinking about it, getting ready to do it, or blogging about it. Maybe the real take home from RAAM is that it shows how, when taken to its logical conclusion, bicycle riders are nutjobs.

If you’re like me, you’ll finish this book and be grateful that you’ve never signed up for RAAM. However deep into the Kool-Aid vat I’ve fallen, I’ve not fallen that deeply. Although, now that I think about it, it might be pretty cool. Yeah. Yeah.

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§ 10 Responses to It’s a sport, it’s a freak show, it’s RAAM!

  • winemaker says:

    I Love the description: “saddle sores that turn your crotch into a raw, infected, bloody, agonizingly painful pulp” I never considered RAAM an athletic/cycling ‘event’…yes, one had to be able to ride a bike and be trained for that, but the real training was done at night. It’s a ‘Sleep Deprivation’ contest. Like Ironman distance triathlons and the Western States 100 trail run, RAAM is about doing it longer and without rest, not about speed or finesse. I guess I like at least a little finesse in my sports. So there.

    • fsethd says:

      One of my best friends did RAAM six times in a row, and he was a supremely trained athlete, bike racer, and ultra-distance dude. This book shows the actual strategy in RAAM and the psychological battles that rage between the riders. I used to think it was just “get on your bike and ride.” One of other things that was interesting was how crucial your crew is in the race, and how you can win or lose depending on the cohesion of your crew, because they’re sleep-deprived, too.

    • Rocket says:

      To do well and finish in a top position in the Race Across America requires and very fit and fast cyclist and one that can endure periods of agony (and joy) that you know nothing about “winemaker’ … and it takes more than finesse to make that crossing on less than 2 hours sleep a day and still maintain a decent MPH to clock in under 9-days… and as of this year a new insane MPH record and fastest ever crossing under 8-days by Christoph Strasser (Austria). I personally have done a lot of seriously hard shit and nothing comes close to the difficulty of RAAM. Sign up and give it a try.

      There are probably harder events out there. I’d recommend checking out Navy SEAL’s BUD/S training (harder) or maybe 20 years in a maximum security prison with your 7′ tall biker cellmate covered in tats. Both of these would probably require a little more endurance than RAAM. Or not.

      • JP says:

        By “biker” cellmate do you mean like “cyclist”? Cause I could deal with a 7ft 110lbs guy. We’d have tons to talk about and could check each other for saddle sores all day… know…just in case.

      • winemaker says:

        Already did that long distance thing…that’s how I got my feelings about it in the first place. But then again, its just my opinion…no reason to get all weird and insulting about opinions…we all have them and they all suck.

  • Hwy. 39 says:

    I heard a multi-RAAM finisher give a speech. In addition to the self-inflicted indignities you describe, Wanky, there is also the matter of peeing. They don’t stop to. They don’t whip it out to. They just do it. By the end of the race they have lost control of their bladders and depend on depends for a few days until they re-master the art of holding it.

    And they pay a $3K entry fee for the pleasure of all that self-inflicted torture. Crazy, like meth heads and beanie baby collectors.

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