Ultra events are incomprehensible to most of us, but now having twice competed in Race Across Oregon (RAO), I can say that the most fun I’ve had on a bike has been doing something that was previously unthinkable. In 2008 I competed as part of a 4-man team, crewed for Mick Walsh’s 2011 solo attempt, and after several years of cajoling was finally able to assemble a High Performance Cycling 4-man team this year.
RAO is a 500+ mile Race Across America (RAAM)-qualifying event that is actually more of a race around Oregon that travels in a giant clockwise loop in the north central and eastern part of the state. The current course climbs over 45,000′ and starts and finishes in Hood River:
This year’s race ended up being an “invitation-only” version because organizer George Thomas has been dealing with some ongoing medical issues from a bicycle versus auto accident. Up to about 5 days before race day, it was uncertain whether the event would even happen. Fortunately George’s health was good enough to conduct the race, though with fewer competitors than in a typical year.
If every racer on a 4-man RAO does an equal amount of work (which is not possible), it works out to ~130 miles and ~10,000’+ of climbing per rider. As a 2013 teammate put it, “if you can do RAMROD, the Chelan Century or an equivalent ride, you have the physical ability to do this race.” This year, each of us covered between 140-150 miles and climbed over 10,500′. (Our team totals exceeded the route totals because we rode ~33 miles together as a team.)
This year there was only one other 4-person team in the race, and on paper it looked like we would have our work cut out for us because a couple of their team members had OBRA category 3 race resumes. I expected it to be neck and neck to the finish line.
To support our 4-person relay we had two SUVs (thanks Cycle University for the use of the “company car”), with two crew each, racers #1 and #3 in one vehicle, and racers #2 and #4 in the other. To ensure the team was making forward progress at all times, each vehicle alternated having a racer on course. Relay exchanges happen when the racer on course crosses the plane of the next rider. During the daytime the next rider can be rolling, and you can do moving exchanges. At night riders need to remain in the headlights of their support vehicles, so the racer passes in front of the next rider who is standing in front of their support vehicle. Tactics such as putting all four riders on course in a paceline are possible during the daytime, though there are only a few sections on the hilly RAO course where pacelining is feasible.
Video of the High Performance Cycling team doing relay exchanges:
This year’s racers included:
-Danny Warner, who has recently discovered 24 hour mountain bike racing, and delivered a very strong 21+ mph average for his segments of the race.
-John Pottle, who has been climbing exceptionally well and was second in the rotation.
-Scott “Stoli” Stolnack, who has been competing in time trials and brought his TT attitude to the race.
-Me: The yin to the rest of the team’s yang, at least as far as the athletic contributions went. On the plus side I have a knack for rallying teammates.
Although this kind of event is about the challenge of competing though the heat of the day and into the darkest depths of the night, none of that is possible without a crew that forms a cohesive team. As John put it, “The best thing about this for me was the shared experience with a team working well together – riders and crew. Our crew were amazing. They were fully committed to making this work and were ‘on it’ during the whole race keeping the flow and exchanges going and making sure the riders only needed to think about their next pulls. This thing ran like clockwork. My hat’s off and huge thanks to Mark, Rob, and Sam.”
The role of the crew is critical because pulling off an endeavor like this requires diligent planning and attention to detail–it’s as much an exercise in project management as an athletic experience. The vehicles need to be organized so that they are self-sufficient and so the relay exchanges can happen as efficiently as possible. We avoided the most common mistakes, which are to forget to refuel the vehicles (there are only 2 gas stations along the route), or to leave something behind…like a credit card or a bicycle.
The team race started at 7 AM on Saturday (solo riders started at 6 AM), and the entire team joined the ~7 mile neutral start. Danny was first up once the racing started, and he set the tone by speeding into the first exchange point in The Dalles well ahead of the competition.
For the rest of the day and until 7 AM the next morning we each did ~30 minute efforts, followed by ~90 minutes of recovery and prep for the next effort in the comfort of the air conditioned vehicles. As the day progressed the temperature rose to 110.
John probably got the “queen leg” of the race which was a very difficult (and spectacular) ~4 mile climb out of the Deschutes river at about mile ~65. At that point the race was still close and John dug deep to distance us from the competition.
Due to a bit of miscommunication at ~4 AM, “Stoli” ended up being on the bike for a bit over an hour ascending the infamous, steep ~7 mile Clarno climb followed by a descent into Antelope that is spectacular–during the daytime.
My first ~4-6 pulls included some very difficult climbs, which were followed by some screaming descents that Danny got since he was after me in the lineup. We all thought that was a tad ironic since I was the slowest climber on the team and it became a running joke.
Six hours into the race we had caught and passed all of the solo riders, and had not seen the other 4 person team for quite some time, but I was still a bit paranoid they would pass us during the middle of the night. In fact, as we approached Kimberly at about 2AM, one of their vehicles did pass us. It turned out they had run into trouble and were in problem-solving mode.
Riding through the night, sleepy and in the cast of a vehicle’s headlights whose light beams bounce in various directions, is ethereal. As Stoli put it, “the scenery was out of this world beautiful–including riding under a full moon along the John Day River.” I was in the queue for one of those middle-of-the-night pulls along the John Day river, but my circadian rhythm wanted to shut down, so I took a 1x caffeine gel as an attitude adjustment. The caffeine had the intended effect and more: The lighting effects from my headlights and the headlights of the support car made it seem like I had gone Tron and was a Night Driver. I had renewed sensations of anger that I channeled into the pedals and which precipitated a mantra for the rest of the night: “I own this mo-fo!”
As the sun and temperatures began to rise, the struggle to stay awake dissipated, and everyone’s moods lifted. We arrived in Maupin at about 7 AM and decided to switch from ~30 minute efforts to ~3 mile efforts for the rest of the race whenever we were climbing.
I wanted the team to cross the finish line together, and once we reached Hwy 35 near Mt. Hood all 4 racers got on the road and pacelined the final ~26 miles to Hood River. We finished in 28 hours 33 minutes. The finish line of an ultra event is anti-climactic to say the least. After pedaling your legs off and struggling with heat and sleepiness, it’s just the race organizer and maybe a few race officials there to greet you. We celebrated by lounging in the shade of a tree along the Columbia River, and sipping the last drops from our water bottles.