Better late than never?!
Race Across Oregon (RAO) 2014 was held the weekend of July 18-19, and was the first of two ultra cycling events I crewed this summer for High Performance Cycling teammates. My previous Race Across Oregon experiences were as part of 4-man teams in 2008 and 2013, and crewing for Mick Walsh’s solo attempt in 2011.
This year’s route started and finished in The Dalles, with most of the route following a tried and true (and mostly gorgeous) loop to the south and east:
As the event has evolved over the years the route and mileage route have varied. This year’s original course was shortened due to wildfires. Regardless, even a shortened RAO is epic. Given the monumental climbing, until this year I was of the opinion that RAO favors climbers, but this year’s results have me modifying that hypothesis…
This was the second year in a row High Performance Cycling fielded a four-person relay team.
We do the four-person format with two vehicles, two crew and racers in each vehicle, with racers #1 and #3 in one vehicle, and racers #2 and #4 in the other vehicle. The basic plan is for each racer to take ~30 minute pulls, with the vehicles leap-frogging down the course to exchange points that are determined by the crew based on the terrain and the estimated speed of the racer on course.
One of the hardest parts of doing an ultra race happens before the race–assembling the crew. Who the heck wants to stay awake for 24+ hours straight driving lonely country roads at ~18 mph?
At High Performance Cycling we have addressed this problem by making RAO participation a two-year commitment–the first year as a racer, the second as crew. This ensures that the racers are (mostly) supported by folks who have raced the course and know it from direct experience. Except for Mark Lukso, this year’s crew had previously raced RAO.
This year was special because we were able to field a mixed-gender two-woman, two-man team. Although the two women, Tricia Davis and Sharon Schneider, expressed self-doubt and vulnerability leading up to and during the race, their race performances were enviable.
RAO begins with a ~15 mile neutral start followed by another ~20 miles where no relay exchanges are allowed. This year the neutral plus the first section looped out to the west of The Dalles and back. The entire team rolled together during the neutral, then our first racer Jeff Sorrentino took over. At the first exchange Jeff came in just ahead of the two-man team the Aging Warriors (brothers Allen and Larry Larsen) and over 20 minutes ahead of the rest of the field.
We maintained a lead up the first big climb, Tygh Ridge, but got caught on the descent. And since it was Sharon who got caught, there was no lack of self-deprecation coming from her for the next couple of hours. For the rest of the race we had a running joke with her that she had to pedal harder because she was about to get caught again. That banter ended up turning into a little of “the boy who cried wolf” in the final miles of the race.
We quickly passed the Aging Warriors on the next big climb and saw no signs of any of the other teams until the next morning. As the day progressed we slowly caught and passed each of the solo racers who departed two hours before the teams.
Crew member Danny Warner coordinated the exchange points, and for the first part of the race he used the previous year’s gps data as a guide. A 20+ mph tailwind was a major factor in the first ~200 miles of this year’s race, however, and it soon became apparent that we weren’t going to be able to rely on past history. For example, one segment that took Danny 40 minutes in 2013 only took Sharon 20 minutes this year. The team was blazing the eastbound portion of the course.
Getting through the deepest part of night, the time period between 2 AM and sunrise, is exceptionally difficult for everyone. The racers feel frustrated because their biorhythms slow down and it’s impossible to go hard.
For the crew the monotony dulls the mind and there is a constant battle against drowsiness and sleep. In the past we’ve kept the same crew in the same vehicles the entire race and that was the plan this year as well. Around 2 AM Danny switched vehicles, which turned out to be a stroke of genius–moving the crew into different vehicles and roles combined with ~1+ hour sleep/rest breaks turned out to be enough of a change to keep the crew fresh and mentally engaged all night long.
As dawn approached, we closed in on the race’s only KOM –“Useless Hill”– just east of Clarno and nearing the 400-mile mark in the race. “Useless Hill” is an unremarkable ~300′ bump that comes after a long windy descent and just before a very difficult ~8-mile climb. Given the dramatic topography in that part of Oregon, it looks like an “easy” roller, but mid-way through you find yourself wondering why this “roller” is so damned hard.
At a relay exchange in Fossil we put our fastest rider, Jeff Sorrentino, on the road to give him the opportunity to go for it and he delivered.
Things started to get interesting with about 50 miles to go as we climbed out of the Deschutes river rafting destination of Maupin. The two-man team “White Russian & the Rusty Nail” –Alex Telitsine (Apex/CycleU) and Ian Penner– were closing in fast. They had been out of sight all night long, but now that it was daylight and our nervous systems were regaining complete consciousness we realized they were right behind us.
As Sharon climbed I leaned out the window of the support vehicle and calmly told her to pick up the pace because she was about to get passed by Ian. She laughed it off–I’m good at dry humor and apparently very good at crying wolf–but when her pull was over and she clambered into the support van she admitted she should have taken me seriously.
It’s probably hard to believe that ultra racing can be exciting, but the last ~60 miles were as exciting as any professional bike race. The two teams traded leads on the flat and rolling terrain leading to the final big climb back up Tygh Ridge where Sharon had been passed the previous morning. Alex and Ian had a sizable lead at the base of the climb, but Sharon quickly reeled in Ian. Instead of ~30 minute pulls we switched to putting a fresh racer out at every feasible turnout on the climb and Alex and Ian’s team was doing the same.
Although it was a fierce battle, everybody was cheering everybody. It was absolutely inspiring to see the racers giving it their all every time they got on the bike. Race promoter George Thomas was jumping out of his skin with excitement. Crew member Mark Lukso couldn’t sit still: “This is more exciting than watching the Tour de France, and I’m part of it!”
By the time we hit the top of the climb Alex and Ian were completely out of sight behind us. Alex and Ian’s crew conceded that the race was over. It wasn’t.
Both Alex and Ian had time trial bikes with big gears that they used on the flats and descents. The final ~20 miles to the finish line were almost all downhill, and although we didn’t realize it at the time, all things being equal we just didn’t have the gearing to compete with them on this kind of terrain–we were set up to climb. Hence, my re-thinking of RAO as a climber’s race.
In a full time-trail tuck Ian passed Sharon on a 2% downhill like she was standing still. We kept up the fast relay exchanges, but with about 5 miles to go, Jeff, Tricia, and Sharon decided to ride to the finish line together. Steve was still on course hammering as hard as he could to try to catch Ian. I drove up the road to get a time gap, and it looked like it was only about a minute. We circled back and I leaned out the window and told Steve that Ian was within reach and to keep pedaling his legs off. As we got closer to The Dalles, the headwind became demoralizing and it became obvious there were just too many factors going against us to catch Alex and Ian.
In the end, Alex and Ian were first over the line in 26 hours 32 min 15 seconds. High Performance Cycling/Cycle U finished 2+ minutes later in 26:35:01, the equivalent of an ultra racing photo finish.
After the race, Jeff Sorrentino made a point of telling me “Five years ago I thought you were crazy for proposing this to the team, but now I get it.”
What a great endorsement for ultra racing!