So a group of current and former Minnesota cyclists, average age in their mid-50s, decided this summer that they would join the Race Across America (aka RAAM), a stunning ordeal that requires entrants to ride pretty much nonstop for 3,000 miles from California to Maryland.
This group — they called themselves the Scorchers — would ride as an eight-member relay team, taking on a startling challenge that is nonetheless small stuff compared with the RAAM entrants who ride solo. Those solo riders keep moving for days at a time, catch 90-minute naps, grab food handed from the windows of moving support vehicles, and often collapse in delirium somewhere around Kansas.
One member of the Scorchers, Bob McEnaney of Woodbury, rode the RAAM solo in 2014 and was able to make it 2,448 miles in just less than 10 days, surrendering in Ohio. Thomas Niccum, a 62-year-old former Minnesotan now retired in California, rode in this year’s race and worked on McEnaney’s solo ride, which he described as “unmitigated suffering.”
The Minnesota team this summer, faced with a comparatively more approachable challenge, trained intensively (including 400-mile practice runs that encircled the Twin Cities), planned extensively, and recruited a committed, inventive support team. They lined up at Oceanside, Calif., in June — and ... ?
“By the second day we realized our plan wasn’t going to work,” said Lisa Lawin, 58, a Lake Elmo retiree. “That was hard on us. And we were already getting tired.”
Tired, yes, but fear not for the Scorchers, who ultimately not only finished RAAM, but they also finished fourth out of nine, eight-person teams to cross the finish line in Annapolis, Md. They rode 3,069.8 miles in 6 days, 10 hours and 59 minutes.
But here’s the number to remember: The team’s average speed over 3,069.8 miles was 19.8 miles per hour. Ever tried to ride a bike that fast over one mile?
The plan that would not work started out as this: Form two four-person shifts, each with a support van; 12 hours on, 12 hours off; noon to midnight, midnight to noon. The off-duty group would stop, catch some sleep, eat and then hop back in the van to catch up with teammates back on the road. And: They made the cross-country ride a sprint.
“We would go top-end for 20 minutes or so and then hand it off to the next person,” Lawin said. “It was revolving sprint.”
Why didn’t that plan work?
“We were going so fast that we couldn’t catch up with the other team,” Lawin said. “You’d get in the van and they’d be 180 miles away, but they were going 20 miles an hour away from you. We were late a few times.”
So, after day two — they’d already ridden into Colorado though California, Arizona and Utah by then — sleep stops dropped from six to three hours. The result, Lawin said, was, “We just got tired.” And, as the shifts became jumbled, one group rode 12 hours through the Rocky Mountains, almost entirely at night.
“We had the three highest passes and the temperature was about 39 degrees,” Niccum said. “That was quite a night.”
The Scorchers are apparently an example of the graying of endurance biking. Other than Lawin, Niccum and McEnaney (ages 58 to 62), team members Bill Madden of St. Paul is 57; and his brother Mike Madden of Mendota Heights is 67. Mirko Della Polla, 43, of Palm Desert, Calif.; Clarence Cazimero, 48, of Panama City Beach, Fla.; and Chris Lee, 39, of Lakeville were the junior members.
Lawin and Niccum pointed out that older people have time to train for a sport that is as much about mental toughness as pure strength. Niccum said, in his racing experience, the times for the riders in their 50s and 60s are about the same, but there are about four times more guys in their 60s at the starting line.
It did not sound as if the Scorcher team had any existential revelations in their ride. As Niccum said, “In the end it’s just kind of a fun thing. You’re with friends, you’re figuring things out. It’s fun, and that’s something.”
Inspired by her daughter’s diagnosis and care, Lawin used the race to raise money, now close to a $50,000 goal, for leukemia research. Her thoughts at the finish line?
“At that point, you’re mostly just tired,” she said, laughing. “But later you realize it’s amazing how fast we went.”
Nomination for Clueless Bike Lane and Bike Path Jerks of the Year: The guys who weave alarmingly through cyclists and pedestrians on electric skateboards while wearing full ear-covering headphones. Any other nominations?
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. His column appears twice a month. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read archived columns at startribune.com/bikeguy.