By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun
8:53 PM EDT, June 19, 2013
Somewhere on a lonely road in Kansas, about halfway through his 2,989.5-mile bicycle trek across the United States, Christoph Strasser, a 30-year-old former bike messenger, made a decision.
He wouldn't simply win the Race Across America, the famously grueling coast-to-coast ultra-marathon cycling competition now in its 32nd year. He would break its long-standing record for speed.
When he crossed the finish line Wednesday at Annapolis City Dock, grimacing and holding high the red-and-white flag of his native Austria, Strasser achieved both goals.
He'd finished the race in 7 days, 22 hours and 11 minutes, 13 hours ahead of his nearest competitor and 11 hours faster than anyone else ever.
"I didn't set out with this plan, but it's a good combination, I think," he said, his face sun-reddened and his voice hoarse.
The man whose speed record he broke agreed.
"Christoph, you are awesome," said Pete Penseyres, who called Strasser to congratulate him. "That was the most incredible cross-country race ever."
Begun by four competitors as the Great American Bike Race in 1982, the Race Across America — which Outside magazine has called "the toughest race in the world" — has grown in size and renown since, becoming something like the World Cup of marathon biking and the subject of books and documentary films.
Every June, more than 300 racers — some solo and others in teams of two, four or eight — start at a site in Southern California and pedal to the East Coast.
The course has varied from year to year, but since 2006 it has begun in Oceanside, Calif., and ended at Annapolis Harbor.
The riders — those who finish the course, anyway — cross 12 states and 88 counties, traverse the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Rockies, and climb a total of 170,000 feet, about four times the height of Mount Everest.
Insiders scoff at comparisons to the Tour de France, which covers a mere 2,300 miles and allows racers to sleep each night before beginning the next morning.
In RAAM, as the race is known, the clock runs continuously, which means time spent sleeping counts. Winners generally average an hour or less of shut-eye each day and pedal the rest of the time.
"These people have to be so physically and mentally tough, it's beyond belief," said Eddy Rayford, an amateur road racer from South Carolina who was following the competition on Facebook and taking pictures along the way.
At race's end, Strasser — who reported stiff fingers, weak legs and numb toes but no pain — said he had slept fewer than six hours altogether, about 45 minutes per day. Other competitors will trickle to the finish line over the next week.
Earlier in the afternoon, RAAM managers, members of Strasser's crew and a handful of die-hard fans waited at the Mount Airy Bike Shop in Carroll County, the 52nd of 54 timing stations riders must pass through.
As he waited for Strasser to pass, Johnny Boswell, the race official who was following the leader in a van, said the feat had an added dimension: If Strasser kept up his roughly 15.5 mph pace over the next three hours, it would mark the first time any RAAM rider had finished in less than eight days.
"It's like the four-minute mile — that standard you wait a long time for someone to break," said Boswell, a Mississippian who has worked the race for seven years.
Racers have told him that even though they must be in superhuman shape just to compete, success in RAAM is "80 percent mental."
A good rider, he added, needs a competent crew, and Strasser's team — 11 members traveling in three vehicles, including an RV — is the best Boswell has seen.
Their job is to ensure the rider can focus completely on riding. They keep him on the right roads; pull alongside him for a maximum of one minute four times per hour to hand him food (a 10,000-calorie-per-day liquid diet) and water (three gallons daily); dress, undress and bathe him during rest times; and keep him abreast of tactics and weather conditions.
Strasser's veteran crew, observers say, goes the extra mile: They blast German techno-pop over a set of loudspeakers, crack jokes into his headset, dress up in bizarre costumes to make him laugh and share brain teasers to ensure he's alert, awake and in good spirits.
"Over the span of a week, a good crew can carve hours off your time," Boswell said.
It's not uncommon for riders to encounter rain and hail, sandstorms or tornadoes, slick roads, gravel patches and traffic jams all on the same journey — "the race doesn't get easier just because you've done it before," Strasser said — but no challenge is more taxing than the physical side.
Cramps, tendinitis and dehydration are common, especially during the race's second half. Two riders have been killed and one paralyzed in traffic accidents.
Seana Hogan, a California computer programmer who has won the women's solo competition a record six times, had to withdraw this year after a sandstorm in Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah state line affected her breathing.
"I had to think of my long-term health," she told race officials. "That's RAAM."
Some racers suffer from so-called Shermer Neck, a condition unique to marathon cycling that can suddenly occur after several hundred miles when, in effect, the neck muscles give out so thoroughly, the rider can't lift his or her head.
Since only 48 hours' rest can cure it, those who want to press on must be creative. Riders have used poles, straps, braces and even rubber bands attached between their hair and their backs to hold their heads upright as they pedal on.
And hallucinations are part of the game.
Jure Robic, the late Slovenian legend who won the race five times, was known to "leap off his bicycle to do battle with threatening attackers who turned out to be mailboxes," wrote The New York Times after he was killed in an accident while training in his home country in 2006.
Strasser said one must deal with the visions.
Over the past few days, he said, he saw hundreds of small mailboxes that looked to him like people waving, and oil pumps in Colorado seemed like crew members putting air in his tires.
"No one [seemed to be] attacking me," he said with a laugh a few minutes after finishing.
Strasser's average speed over the race, 15.56 mph, topped Penseyres' mark, set in 1986, by 0.16 mph, and his total time beat the record of 8 days, 3 hours and 11 minutes, set by Rob Kish in 1992.
Insiders who drove along with the champion said he had several factors in his favor.
His sponsor, the Austrian sausage maker Wiesbauer, pays him enough that he can train year-round, not to mention handle the roughly $50,000 it takes to finance the adventure. He took full advantage, working for months, for example, on mastering a lower crouch that few riders can sustain over long distances.
Weather conditions also were unusually good — even usually windy Kansas was mild — and Strasser, who won RAAM in 2011 but failed to finish last year, came to the United States in the spring to get the feel of the last 500 miles.
"It's invaluable for these guys to be able to visualize the end," said Vic Armijo, a RAAM photographer.
Added Armijo: "I can't say I'm totally surprised. Christoph is a great athlete who does everything the right way. I see this as his efforts coming to fruition."
RAAM's executive director, Rick Boethling, had a simpler analysis: "He's flat-out good."
A crowd of about 100 cheered as Strasser crossed the finish line not far from Phillips Seafood. His crew appeared as if out of nowhere to mob him and sing in German, and racing officials congratulated him in a series of speeches under a tent.
Strasser, his knee bleeding from a "slight spill" in the Appalachians overnight, said the record was such a great honor that he couldn't describe it yet.
For the time being, his plans were more pedestrian.
"I'm going to sleep and eat," he said, "and get the biggest steak available."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun