Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hail to the King

Strasser wins RAAM 2013.  Photo from www.christophstrasser.at.
Facebook friends know that, last week, I posted an incessant string of updates about how the 2013 edition of the Race Across America was unfolding.  For those who've seen the excellent documentary Bicycle Dreams, my updates may have had some resonance.

Most people, though, were likely perplexed as to why I'd care about something seemingly so trivial and irrelevant: "Great, some Teutonic dude is mushing his way across the country on a bicycle for reasons best known to him, and he's beating some equally misguided souls who clearly overreacted to someone's advice that they get some fresh air."

The reason why I care is simple: in my view, Christoph Strasser's ride in RAAM 2013 was the single greatest feat of endurance cycling in history -- including every Tour de France ride, every stage race, and every time trial.  Indeed, I think it may be the most impressive performance in the history of endurance sports, period. Others may quibble.  I don't care.  It was utterly superhuman.

It's hard to quantify how inconceivably difficult RAAM is; the numbers just blend together, like the odds of one's picking the winning lottery number.  Outside magazine famously described RAAM as "the toughest race in the world."  It is nearly incomprehensible: a 3,000 mile bicycle race across the United States, from Oceanside, CA to Annapolis, MD.

It involves more than 170,000 feet of climbing, cresting above 8,000 feet.

Drafting is not allowed and, most critically, the clock never stops.  Unlike the Tour de France, which covers about 2,300 miles in daily stages over the course of three weeks, every minute a RAAM rider spends off the bike is a minute lost to another rider who didn't stop.  The result is mutually assured destruction, a competition to see who can rest the least and push the hardest.  The winners usually take 8-9 days to complete the journey, averaging more than 22 hours a day on the bike during that time.  Fewer than 200 people have completed the event in the 30 years it's been run.  Far more have summited Mount Everest.  And waiting at the finish line is only a medal and bragging rights -- no prize money whatever.

The struggle merely to finish RAAM is an endurance challenge almost without parallel.  Two people have died in the attempt.  Many, many more have been hospitalized with pneumonia and renal failure.   Hallucinations are ubiquitous.  In fact, the race has given rise to a medical condition, Shermer's Neck, that exists nowhere else: the muscles holding a rider's head up simply give out, such that his head flops around like a ragdoll's.  But if you think such a trivial malady stops these guys, you're mostly wrong.  What happens instead is MacGyver meets a Terminator T-1000:

So, yes: RAAM is stupid.  It makes no sense whatever.  But you can be sure of one thing: the people who compete in it don't do so for multi-million dollar contracts, to get their faces on a Wheaties box, or to date a starlet.  There is no reason at all ever to compete in this event except that the athletes feel a drive to do it, often for reasons only they understand.  Many of the very best ultracyclists come from impoverished, hardscrabble backgrounds in eastern Europe, and ride their bikes as a means of escape -- of proving themselves to the world, and to themselves.  There's some beauty in that.

Against that background, enter Christoph Strasser, a 30-year-old Austrian competing in his third Race Across America.  He'd won the race in 2011, in a time of 8 days and 8 hours, but was beaten in 2012.  Competing against him was likely the most stacked field in race history, including Dani Wyss, a 2-time winner, and Reto Schoch, the 2012 winner.  The only name missing was the legendary Jure Robic (at left), the 5-time winner and star of Bicycle Dreams, who died in a bicycle accident in 2010.  Aside from Robic, every winner in the last 10 years was toeing the line.  Strasser had a support crew of 11 people spread across three vehicles, including an RV, and he'd set his sights on beating the course record of 8 days, 3 hours -- which had been set back in 1986 and not approached since then.
What transpired over the next... well, almost 8 days was one of the most outrageous episodes of utter domination that endurance sport has ever seen.  Here was the leader board when Strasser crossed the finish line:

Dear. Holy. Crap.  He was 245 miles ahead of the guy in second place.  He averaged 15.66 miles per hour for 7 days, 22 hours, and 52 minutes -- the fastest time in history by a country mile, and the first time anyone had ever completed RAAM in under 8 days.  Here is what 245 miles looks like -- note the second-place rider out near West Virginia:

Dani Wyss, the second-place rider and 2-time winner, finished fully 22 hours after Strasser, and Strasser went 1.5 mph -- or 10 percent -- faster:

Figures like that are hard to comprehend.  By way of analogy, similar performances in other sports might be:
  • Winning the Boston Marathon in 2 hours flat, and with a 10-minute gap over the second-place runner;
  • Winning the Ironman World Championship by an hour, over a field including two former winners.
In other words, this is not "merely" a win in the hardest race on earth.  It's something closer to an evolutionary leap.  The 8-hour barrier at RAAM is like the 4-minute mile of endurance athletics.  

So, who cares?  It's just a bike race.  Well, I'd put it the opposite way: I don't understand how someone could *not* find this utterly amazing.  I don't understand why it wasn't the lead story on ESPN and the sports section of every newspaper in the country.  If endurance sport has any meaning -- and millions of people running marathons each year suggest it does -- then it's surely the ability to redefine what's possible, and failure to appreciate that shows a lack of poetry in one's soul.  We watch the Olympics to see the best athletes on earth doing things no one else has ever done, and attaining speeds no one has ever reached.  People who've never swam a lap nonetheless can appreciate the athletic genius of Michael Phelps, and I think what Strasser did last week is every bit as stunning.  If a man can ride a bicycle for 23 hours and 15 minutes a day, at nearly 16 mph, for 8 days on end, what else might we be able to do that no one's dreamed?  What limits have we each imposed upon ourselves that aren't limits after all?


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  2. I'm impressed, DW, not only by what Strasser has achieved in the field of endurance sports, but by how you've explained his accomplishment. Maybe you ought to submit this entry to a cycling magazine. It's inspiring.

  3. I am shocked, shocked that you would accuse ESPN of lacking poetry in its soul.

    But I agree with you, and oddly enough, I was trying to articulate something similar a while back when I was writing about the decommissioning of the space shuttle and the US space program's life-support assisted exploration. This should have been huge news. The fact that it wasn't suggests that certainly as a nation and (hopefully not, but maybe) even as a species, we can no longer collectively dream big, or appreciate those who do.

    But we're very happy that one bunch of gladiatorial dudes were able to out slap a piece of rubber around an ice bowl against another group of gladiatorial dudes. Because we could possibly see ourselves doing that one day. This RAAM thing? Never. Which is why, as you say, we should admire this.

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