Friday, February 17, 2012

"Hell on Two Wheels"--A Torrent of Tears

Abundant evidence supporting the supposition that bicycle racing is the sport of tears can be found in "Hell on Two Wheels," by Amy Snyder, a recently published book about the 2009 Race Across America (RAAM), a race known as the most extreme test of endurance in the world. The winner invariably completes the 3,000 mile race in less than ten days, averaging not much more than an hour of sleep per day.

Riders are driven to tears of agony and tears of triumph in their sleep-weakened state all along the route from San Diego to Annapolis, Maryland. The first race was contested in l982 by four foolhardy souls. There were 28 solo riders in the 2009 edition, four of whom were women. There were another 150 riders competing as part of two-person, four-person and eight-person teams, though Snyder did not have the space to write about them. Of the 28 solo riders fifteen finished. Only 200 riders have completed the route, 26 women. There is no prize money. The winner receives the same medal as every finisher.

The book abounds with instances of riders and their support staff breaking into tears as they struggle and as they succeed and as they find inspiration from friends and relatives to keep going. Crying is such an integral part of the race that two of the book's photographs depict racers overcome by their emotions, thrilled at accomplishing something they put so much effort into.

Patrick Autissier, a 47-year old French rider, confessed that he cried more than he had in the previous twenty years as he faced the realization that he couldn't go on less than 600 miles into the race. His wife too is brought to tears.

Snyder reports there wasn't a dry eye among Tony O'Keefe's support crew when he tells them he is going to quit a little over half-way. He was a 48-year old Lieutenant Colonel in the Canadian armed forces and most of his crew were hardened soldiers. Months after the race he told Snyder that the experience had opened him so emotionally that he now cried at weddings.

Another military man, 44-year old Jure Robic of Slovenia, who had won the race four times previously, more than anyone, was a prolific crier from his very first race in 2003. He succeeds by pushing himself to the brink of madness and is prone to weeping uncontrollably. As the defending champion in 2005 he nearly quit the race near its completion, even though he was a day ahead of everyone else, sobbing at the roadside unable to remember what his son's face looked like.

The racers often cry from moments of uplift, taking a call from a loved one that gives them some cheer and the motivation to keep going. Christophe Strasser, a 26-year old rookie from Austria, teared up as his crew read him email messages of support after he crested the Rocky Mountains. Several days later "the tears flowed freely" as he spoke with his girl friend during the night. Marko Baloh, a 42-year old Slovenia, "cried like a baby" in the 2006 RAAM 120 miles from the finish when he realized he was going to make it after failing in his first two attempts. When he was hospitalized in the 2005 race, one of his crew members, Allen Larsen, who won the race in 2003, wept at his bed side, so saddened for him.

It is a wonder that anyone would want to subject themselves to such a torment, especially more than once. Even a slow-paced, couple-month bicycle ride across the country can be an ordeal, and is a notable accomplishment. Making it a torturous experience, subjecting the human body to such extremes, seems utterly senseless. The human body is not constructed to endure such an endeavor.

In the second edition of the race Michael Shermer's neck muscles gave out and were unable to hold his head upright. He fashioned a brace to keep going. It was no fluke, as in the following years others suffered the same malady. It was discovered that the neck is not designed to support the head at such an angle that the bicycle riding position demands for as many hours as these racers ride. It is a syndrome that has come to be known as "Shermer's Neck."

Riders now do special exercises to strengthen their necks, but it isn't always enough. Nearly all come equipped with various devices to hold their heads upright in case their neck goes. The Canadian soldier O'Keefe did not. His crew managed to construct a device so he could keep riding, but it restricted his vision. He crashed going over some railroad tracks he didn't see. He wasn't badly injured, but he feared for his safety and decided to quit.

The riders can also suffer extreme nerve damage to their hands. It can take six months or more for them to regain control of their fingers, leaving them dependent on others to dress and eat. Many suffer combat-type psychological damage as well that takes them months to recover from.

Snyder writes at length about the pain and suffering the riders endure and how they manage it. She intimately profiles quite a few of the riders, interviewing some of them in their homes overseas. She drove back and forth along the route during the race and followed the racers' blogs and used the phone to contact every crew at least once a day. She gained as good an understanding of the race and its participants as one could without actually competing in the event. She provides an amazingly well-informed account of the race and its many aspects.

A team of officials patrol the route monitoring the racers, assessing time penalties for going through red lights and other infractions. Robic was assessed a 15-minute penalty at the very start for urinating in pubic rather than going to a port-a-potty. He was given another 15-minute penalty for passing a rider in an inappropriate manner and a final 30-minute penalty for going off course and not going back to where he went astray. The penalties infuriated his crew of Slovenian soldiers so much they started tracking his nearest competitor with a camera trying to catch him violating the rules as well since he was penalty-free. There is a penalty box 50 miles from the race finish where riders must do their time. When Robic had to serve his, it caused quite a furor. Robic wasn't the only racer to accuse an opponent of cheating.

This may not be an event that many people would want to attempt, but it certainly provided abundant material for a fascinating book. And it proved more than ever that the deep emotional stake that bicycle riders invest in an undertaking is quite frequently manifested by a rush of tears coming from nowhere.

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