Declared one of the toughest endurance races in the world, Race Across America takes competitive cyclists 3,000 miles from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md., on an incredible route through the most beautiful (and punishing) landscapes in the U.S.
It is a non-stop, ultra-endurance challenge, which means competitors stop to sleep or eat on their own time, but the race clock keeps ticking. Those who attempt this colossal challenge are some of the most unique and inspiring people one will ever meet.
Europe's Domination of RAAM
This brutal event attracts people from across the globe, as cyclists race under an array of flags, including 20 nations from every continent (except Antarctica). Despite the diverse makeup of competitors, Europeans have dominated the solo competition for the last 15 years. Slovenia's Jure Robic won five editions of the race before his death in 2010, and Christoph Strasser of Austria broke the course record in two of his three wins.
A Glimmer of Hope for Americans in Ultra Cycling
This year, Strasser's training partner, Severin Zotter, unseated the three-time champ for his first victory. Usually, Europeans dominate the top of the leaderboard, too. Rarely does an American get on the podium. That changed this year when David Haase of Fond du Lac, Wis., rode his way to a second-place finish behind Zotter. At 47, Haase might be in the twilight of his ultra-racing career, but a 2016 victory is not far-fetched.
RAAM is a unique competition on the solo level. Weather and environmental conditions affect different athletes different ways. One doesn't have to be the fastest nor the strongest, but one does have to be the toughest. If Haase can finish second at RAAM, he can win it all.
American women, on the other hand, have recently seen many successes in ultra-cycling. While the U.S. didn't get on the podium this year, there have been quite a few American champions over the last five years. While women still struggle to get a pro tour race with the same standing as Europe's big three, they are excelling at the ultra-distance thanks to some remarkable Americans.
People focus on the solo division because it is such an extraordinary feat for one person to accomplish, and that's why America's roaring successes have been relatively invisible to the public. The U.S. has dominated the four- and eight-person team relay competition over the past few years. And Americans continued this trend after putting on a real show at this year's race. Team Bike Like a Girl shattered the eight-woman relay record, and the U.S. nearly swept all team categories, falling short in the under-50 women's four-person and under-50 men's two-person relays.
Americans Should Take Notice
All of this is cause for celebration and frustration. As teams depart from Oceanside every year, it's easy to notice a disparity in the jersey designs. The European athletes frequently roll up to the line festooned with corporate logos while the American groups are comparatively naked. It's unfortunate that so many dominant athletic performances go unnoticed and unrewarded. RAAM is not just an athletic challenge, but a logistical one. It's not cheap, and just like in any other sport, money does help. It's disappointing the event doesn't get the attention in the U.S. to warrant better support for these talented competitors. However, American teams should take special pride in their successes against better-financed competition.
It may be that Americans enjoy an advantage on their home turf. One thing even the top Europeans complain about during RAAM is the heat of the California and Arizona deserts. Nowhere in Europe replicates those conditions. Many of the best athletes come to Borrego Springs, Calif., weeks in advance of RAAM to acclimate to the heat. Still, the soaring temperatures contributed to defending champion Strasser's DNF, slowing him down through the Colorado mountains and contributing to respiratory problems. This was the second time he's suffered that fate. Being closer and training year-round in hot conditions, Americans may be better equipped to handle them on the bike.
Still, it's been a long time since an American man has won it all, and Haase's second place this year offers hope that the U.S. is getting back in the game. The Austrian and Danish athletes remain fast, but Americans are catching up.
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