July 22, 2017/ Jim Parker
The 36th annual Race Across America (RAAM) lived up to its reputation as the “world’s toughest bicycle race”. Based on the record number of teams who “did not finish” (DNF), conditions were one of the most difficult in RAAM history. 46 teams started the race but only 40 finished. Never before have six RAAM teams DNF’d. In the solo category, 22 racers dropped out or didn’t make the time cut-offs. Only in 1988 did more solo racers fail to finish. Combining solo and team DNFs, 2017 set the all-time DNF record. On a percentage basis, the DNF rate (33% for Teams + Solo) was tied with 2016 and otherwise was the highest DNF-% in the past 20 years. The races in the 1980s and ’90s with a higher DNF-% also had fewer than half of the participants of 2016 and 2017.
How did the 2016 and 2017 RAAMs turn into DNF-athons? Incredible heat in the desert is not unusual. The big difference in degree of difficulty was a new route started last year that diverted the course away from a direct path from Cottonwood to Flagstaff (via Sedona) Arizona, and creates a circuitous 103 mile route from Camp Verde to Flagstaff that has 9,978 feet of climbing through territory that can be hotter than the famously flat desert section of the RAAM course. Maria and I hit this section in the afternoon of day-2. As I struggled to climb at 6 mph, I noticed the thermometer reading on my Garmin was a heat-stroking 121 degrees F. I heard solo racers describe this section as the straw that broke the camels back. I say it was more like the anvil falling on Wile E. Coyote’s back. Much of the classic desert section is done at night, when it’s relatively cool. This section was, without a doubt in my mind, the most difficult section of the race, hitting our team at the hottest part of the day and requiring slow, sustained climbing despite the heat.
On the way to Flagstaff, we were the coyote.
If this section didn’t deliver the knock-out punch, high winds and and golf ball-sized hail in Kansas, and a tropical depression scattering rain and thunderstorms all over the eastern US awaited the survivors.
Fortunately, the Cruzbike Team not only FINISHED, but placed in the top 3 among the 22 teams competing in the 4-Person category; and we finished in 1st place in the 50-59 age-group (of which there were 8 teams this year, including 5 all-male teams). Our time for the 3070 mile race was 6 days 12 hours and 26 minutes. Our average speed of 19.63 mph set the record for the 50-59 “Mixed” 4-person team category, including either recumbent or standard bikes. “Mixed” refer to a team consisting of men and women, and our team had three men (Kevin Gambill, Larry Oslund, Jim Parker) and one woman (Maria Parker). 18 teams have raced in this competitive category since 2006, including the 2012 recumbent “Team Bacchetta” (John & Jacquie Schlitter, Kent Polk, and Larry Ide) whose record of 19.1 mph we replaced . If you compare us to the 40 all-male 50-59 4-Person relay teams (on any kind of bike) who have ever raced this event, only four have been faster. So despite especially tough conditions, Team Cruzbike laid down a record time that puts us in a very elite group of RAAM teams.
This race had many highs and lows, literally and figuratively for me. I will never forget the sheer terrifying fun of hitting 57.7 mph on the “glass elevator” while dropping down into a desert sizzling at 116F degrees. Or watching a glorious sunrise as I sprinted through Monument Valley, Utah.
That’s me, riding into a beautiful sunrise in Utah.
Or navigating rush-hour traffic in Durango, CO while descending at 40 mph. Or the exhaustion of climbing at high altitude through Wolf Creek Pass (10,856 ft). Or learning quickly how to ride with disk wheels in a 20 mph crosswind through Kansas. Or a flat tire as I entered Jefferson City, MO on a busy highway. Or fighting through a busy morning commute in Clarksburg, WV in a heavy rain with big trucks rumbling past me on narrow roads.
The greatest aspect of being part of a relay team is that there is time off the bike to enjoy the experience. And what an experience. I have nothing but admiration and respect for the crew and racers that made this project a success. Getting ready to start in Oceanside took a lot of work, but we also had fun. Here we are practicing our “RAAM jam” theme song, with scenes inserted later from the actual race. So far, we have raised about $37,000 for brain cancer research, so that’s another big success for this crew.
For almost a full week, I lived in a van with my wife and co-racer Maria Parker. Driver Tom Roberts and navigator Vince “VP” Paparella took great care of us and dutifully loaded and unloaded our bikes an unknown number of times. “TJ” Chickos and Carly Redfearn had our back covered as our follow-vehicle crew. Our headquarters crew of Jim Chickos, Bob Pankratz, Lief Zimmerman, Paty Kelly, and chief mechanic Brandon Davis sacrificed their sleep to keep us moving 24×7 (24×6.5 to be exact). I can’t say enough about our dedicated crew. Completing RAAM is truly a team effort where the support crew is just as important as the racers. When I was bombing hills at 50+ mph, I was especially glad that we had Brandon Davis and Bob Pankratz around. I did not get to spend much time with Larry and Kevin’s support crew because they were working while Maria and I were trying to rest. But I know from talking to them that their support crew (composed of Gretchen Gambill, Will Parker, Skip Brandon, Harry Campbell, and Bryan Schlinkmann) did a fantastic job keeping them safe and on-course. And a special “thank you” to the two 3000 Miles to a Cure media moguls (Bryan Cereijo and Luke Rafferty) who produced the beautiful photos and videos along this incredible race.
Somewhere in Kansas, Lief and Maria share a laugh as Luke shows them the “Cruzbike RAAM jam” video for the first time.
Under the watchful eyes of Skip Brandon, Kevin and Larry do an exchange. These guys rocked!
One of the most amazing things about Maria is that she is (almost) always smiling… middle of the night, climbing long hills, drenching rain… there is Maria, smiling.
Bob Pankratz worked tirelessly to make sure our equipment was just-right.
Crew Chief Jim “JC” Chickos confers with Lief over some planning.
You take a rest whenever and wherever you can. The AC in the RV was broken, so sometimes the best place to sleep was outside.
Kevin wears a cooling neck-wrap and prepares to outrun a thunderstorm.
I’ll take a cool rain shower over 100 degree heat any day.
Tom Roberts, Paty Kelly, “VP” Paparella, and Lief Zimmerman catch a laugh during a break in the RV.
This was our luxury hotel room for the week (a Ford E-350). By day 6, it was smelling pretty ripe.
Here is evidence of what happens when I am out there busting my tail! That’s Kevin, Maria, and Larry waiting for me to climb that hill.
Kevin, Harry, Bryan, and Skip getting ready to load up and roll after another exchange.
I did A LOT of high-speed downhills!
Larry Oslund, the cycling world’s fastest 57-year-old man. Period.
Gretchen helping Kevin pass a field-sobriety test (or at least that’s what it looks like to me)
Getting to see friends along the course was a real treat. Thanks for the ice cream!
Brandon Davis, Carly Redfearn, Paty Kelly, Harry Campbell, Larry Oslund, Gretchen Gambill, Bryan Schlinkmann, Kevin Gambill, TJ Chickos, Skip Brandon, Maria Parker, VP Paparella, Jim Parker, Jim “JC” Chickos, Will Parker, Lief Zimmerman, Bob Pankratz, Tom Roberts.
I know this report is fairly brief for such an epic event. Maria and I plan to talk about RAAM on Facebook Live on August 7th (Monday) at 8:00 pm US Eastern time. If you can tune in then, you can ask questions. If you can’t see the live broadcast, then you can watch it later. Make sure you have “Liked” Cruzbike on Facebook and then you can get a reminder.
And on a final note, it’s not too late to make a donation to help cure brain cancer. Thanks for reading!