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RAAM - alien cultures and headwinds

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Handing off

Handing off (Image credit: Nat's Dad)
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Handing off to a teammate in Trinidad, Colorado

Handing off to a teammate in Trinidad, Colorado (Image credit: Nat's Dad)
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Chasing Team Type 1 at RAAM

Chasing Team Type 1 at RAAM (Image credit: Nat's Dad)

July 25, 2006

In a departure from my typical racing season, which is usually filled with mountain-bike endurance and NORBA races, I took part in the Race Across America (RAAM) in June. The race started in Oceanside, CA and finished in Atlantic City, NJ, 3,043 Miles and 108,600 feet of climbing later. I rode in the four-man team competition on Team Beaver Creek-Vail with Zach Bingham, Jimi Mortenson and Mike Janelle.

Start: Tuesday, June 13th 5PM EST: Our four-man team was divided into two units of two riders each for maximum efficiency. Jimi and Zach teamed up for four hour legs during the day and five hour pulls at night. Mike and I rested in the RV while they were racing - until we relieved them of duty so they could put their feet up while we put the miles in. This was Jimi and Zach's third RAAM and Mike's second, I was the lone virgin on the team. We were by far the tightest team racing. Not only do we ride, train, and race together all summer, we play hard together all winter as well. A lot of our success as a team is because we know each other inside and out. The other key to our success comes from having the best support crew known to mankind. Our crew was the bomb!

The race started in Oceanside, California on Tuesday, June 13th at 5PM EST with a police escort for thirteen miles to the time trial station. Jimi rode this stint into the time trial (one every thirty seconds) into an eight-mile neutral support zone. Zach took over from here and started to lay down the law. We always like to take the lead early and do whatever it takes during the ride to keep it. Zach and Jimi got in front of the Swiss team and pounded out over sixty miles before our first exchange. I was itching to race and finally got my first five-mile pull. I hammered out five miles in my aero bars while Mike kept his feet up in the back seat of the leapfrog minivan. Mike and I took turns climbing to the top of Yaqui Pass where Mike reached 63mph on the descent known as the "Glass Elevator".

Unfortunately, while we were racing, our team received our first 30 minute penalty on the climb as our RV was improperly parked and not in the Support Vehicle Staging Area as it was supposed to be. This violation of the rules set us back and pissed us off even though it was for our protection. RAAM is big on safety, however, and it was not to be our last penalty. All we could do was keep on racing and put more time on the other teams, so the time penalties would not cost us the lead. Here is the direct quote that our crew overlooked in all the excitement with the beginning of the race. "Reminder: Absolutely no support vehicles may drive on the race course west of I-15. Only the primary follow vehicle (and primary shuttle vehicle for teams) may drive on the race course west of Borrego Springs" Whoops!

The terrain changed from trees to cactus as we headed directly into the desert. During one of my pulls I glanced at a sign that said "Strong winds next 17 miles." The winds were on my side as a super strong tailwind enabled me to pedal around 43mph through this section. This section of road was very fun to ride and I found out later that parts of Star Wars were filmed in the washes we were racing through. Our four-hour pull went by very fast and before I knew it, Mike and I were resting in the RV for five hours. Of course I was unable to sleep. I was way too amp'd up with the race. I just laid with my eyes closed wishing I could fall asleep like Mike.

Somewhere in the night our team received our second penalty as our follow car's lights were not close enough to Jimi. Our crew woke us up, Jimi and Zach traded places with us for their nightly rest, and Mike and I began our stint around 4AM. Starting off Day 2 we were both excited about this section of the racecourse because Mike's parents live in Yarnell which is at the top of a killer climb on the course. My Grandad also resides a few miles away in Wickenburg, Arizona-so both of us ride this hill and this part of the course in the winter while our homes in Colorado are covered in snow. We took turns hammering out fast pulls up Yarnell Hill as the sun began to rise. What a rejuvenating feeling to go from darkness to light during the longest of our shifts. We both got to say a very quick hello to our families as we rode into the early morning. The latter part of our shift brought us up a killer climb into Prescott, AZ. Mike let me do the long curvy downhill into town, which was most excellent.

As we went to our four-hour shifts Mike and Zach continued to push our mad pace through Kayenta, Arizona. Mike and I traded places and finished riding through the "Eight Wonder of the World" in the Oljato-Monument Valley. The wind was again at our back as I averaged over 40 mph on several of my pulls through beautiful monuments and red cliffs. As the day went on we pushed through the last few miles of Arizona and entered Utah. The boys covered the short section of the course that went through Utah and we headed into our home state of Colorado. Jimi and Zach reached Durango around 4AM and Mike and I went to work on one of our favorite climbs Wolf Creek Pass. It took us several hours to reach the bottom of the pass, but hit the bottom of the climb just as the sun was coming up. Our pulls were very short on the climb, just fast enough to get the leapfrog van in front of the racer. This enabled us to keep our speed and momentum up. Mike and I had a sweet exchange in front of Wolf Creek Ski Area on the downhill at 47 miles per hour.

I got to ride the downhill at full speed as Mike prepared himself for our three-hour layover in the RV. I was excited about the third day as I would get to see my family in Trinidad, and as a team we would get to climb numerous mountain passes including La Veta and Cucharas. The winds were very strong and annoying coming into Trinidad. My parents both broke out their cameras to capture me riding into town. I only got to spend a few minutes with them as Mike and I retired from our shift and got ready to rest in the RV. I fell into a deep two-hour sleep and was back on the bike riding high plains, low rollers, and flat grasslands as we headed into Kansas.

Oh, the winds of Kansas. The boys had warned me that Kansas always had winds, but it was the race director that said at the end of the race that in the 25 years of RAAM, he had never seen it that bad! The only cool part of Kansas that I remember is passing the half-way point. Oh, yeah-there was a McDonalds in Pratt that the owner gave everybody involved with the race all the free food they could eat. So, I did partake in a free hot fast food meal there. The team adopted a new phrase "I'm lovin it" after fueling up at that McDonalds. The winds in Kansas sucked and slowed us down drastically. Our average speed before Kansas was above 24MPH. That flat boring windy state took our speed down to under 23.

By time station 31 we had finally left Kansas and entered Collins, Missouri. Both of our racer groups were psyched to be actively picking up speed as we were riding in the 700' to 1000' elevation range. In Jefferson City, MO, we started to follow the Missouri River with some beautiful bluffs. This is quite a way to start your day off right. This section was fun in that it contained a lot of steep and windy roads. These pulls were fast as each team of two covered over 100 miles per day shift. We quickly entered Greenville, Illinois and found more farm country. By midday if Day 4 we were in Terre Haute, Indiana. Mike and I rode into Indianapolis, IN in rush hour traffic on a Friday afternoon. We were rolling through the suburbs, skirting the city, but you would have never been able to tell with all the traffic; we even witnessed an undercover drug bust go down by Time Station 41!

We had a complete crew change around 8:30 that night. Mike and I went into the RV for some shuteye, and Jimi and Zach started their night shift. While we were sleeping, Zach and Jimi charged through the rest of Indiana and brought us into Ohio. I was awoken from a very deep sleep just outside Athens, Ohio as it was time for Mike and I to put in some miles. One of the craziest questions you ask in RAAM after waking up from a three plus hour sleep is " What direction do I ride?" It is almost a different world in the RV. It's dark at night and since you aren't driving, you have no idea where you are when the crew wakes you up.

The early morning transition was always the hardest for me. All you want to do is keep sleeping, but no! So to make things a bit easier, I would start out by drinking two very large cups of coffee. This morning started off rough, but I settled into the groove when I found out that we were less than 500 miles from the finish. All the boys had told me that West Virginia was full of steep and exciting hills. This is just the motivation we needed to catch the eight-man team in front of us on the road.

The team "Type 1" consisting of diabetic racers had passed us after Kansas and they were making our quest as the first team across the line quite difficult. Mike and I could see the other crews support vehicles by the end of our second day shift, so we knew we were within fifteen minutes of catching the fast eight-man team. We wanted to catch and make the pass, but left that up to Jimi as we headed into the RV for some quick rest during the day. We did get to swim in the Potomac River during a quick rider change. That was the second river we had gotten to cool off in and it felt amazing! Mike and I were able to split up the last sweet climb (Backbone Mountain, a 3095 foot climb), before we headed into Maryland. Day four came to an end for Mike and I as we ate dinner and rested. In the meantime, Zach and Jimi were out climbing four amazing hills that were 7-8 percent climbs. These "rollers" had a lot of the soloists off the bike and walking and the boys were calling them "grunters." They were rewarded for the efforts, however, by a remarkable ride through Gettysburg National Historic Park. Next year, I hope to ride through all the old Civil War battlefields. Our team was riding at our limit to put as much time on the eight-person team as we could through here. Since we are all climbers, the other team was always riding the flat sections faster than us.

Day 5: Mike and I were woken up from the deepest realms of sleep right outside of Georgetown, Pennsylvania shortly after 3am. I hopped on my bike and noticed a brown burm alongside both sides of the road. My lights later revealed that it was a ridge of horse manure. Less than a half hour later, I was treated to my first horse and buggy encounter. That's right, we were in Amish country. They were already working way before the light came up. All and all, I counted about forty-five buggies on the road. Mike thought it was kinda freaky, but I really dug it. I must have really scared a woman in her yard, when I missed a turn and ended up in her driveway. She was out with a lantern and let out a cry for help when she saw what must have looked like an alien on her property. I had on a skinsuit, aero helmet, and lights.

Mike and I brought us within 65 miles of the finish on that early morning ride. Jimi took off in Deepwater, New Jersey and headed towards the New Jersey Turnpike. Although it was technically time for Jimi and Zach to race, we were only a few minutes ahead of Team Type 1, so Mike, Zach, and I climbed into the leapfrog van to push it as hard as we could into the finish.

This was exciting for us because it was the first time any of us got to see the rest of the team. The other team was breathing down our necks, and in the crowded cities anything could happen. We even ran into a detour from a bad traffic accident that took most of our lead away. Things were super tight. After over 3,000 miles, we were neck and neck. We charged full speed ahead to the Atlantic City Expressway only to be stopped by the race director. It was all over. We were to wait for a police escort the last few miles to The Boardwalk finish line. The eight-man team pulled up just minutes behind us and we had a parade of bikes to the finish. At that point in time we still did not know what team would be first across the line because of the interval start. Both teams wanted to be first across the tape even though we were in different categories.

Being the crazy and obsessed racers that our team is, we were bummed to find out that Team Type 1 had finished two minutes ahead of us when the officials had tallied in penalties. However, they forgot to accommodate for the staggered interval start and at the very last minute before we reached the tape, we were told that our team of mountain bikers from Beaver Creek/Vail had the fastest team time this year for the second year in a row. Our time of 5 days 16 hours and 1 minute was 22 hours faster than that of the second place team. You can imagine how excited we were to pop that bottle of champagne on the podium! Right after the awards ceremony we sprinted for the ocean and celebrated in style. After an eventful team dinner, we hit the boardwalk for some well-earned cocktails. What an amazing night of sleep that was, I had some seriously crazy dreams!

We could not have done it without our amazing support crew consisting of Heather Crammond, Toph Leonard, Cassie Mortenson, Ken Dorst, Jono Riddler, Alex Yellen, Nathan Staggs, Laura Mortenson, Alex Coleman, Mark Ridenour and Andy Held. And the following sponsors: Beaver Creek, Vail, Go Fast Sports, Tokyo Joe's, The Gallegos Corporation, The Kind Cyclist, Catlin Insurance and Ray's Restaurant and Lounge

The race was amazing and Tough Guy Productions filmed our team in action from start to finish. Team Beaver Creek/Vail will be back next year to try and break the record and go for a third straight win.

In Memory of our lost teammate Brett Malin - The ride never stops…

Nat Ross

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As a six-year professional mountain biker who's competed in twenty-eight solo 24-hour races, you'd think that ultra-endurance racing has consumed every waking hour of 35 year-old Nat Ross' adult life. But this lean, long-haired and laid-back Coloradoan has a more complete resume than even the most upwardly-mobile corporate go-getter - although that won't stop him going the distance when it matters.