It’s a sport, it’s a freak show, it’s RAAM!

September 26, 2013 § 10 Comments

A good friend gave me a book called “Hell on Two Wheels.” It’s about the Race Across America.

“It’s very poorly written,” he said. “But it’s a good book.”

I pondered that. Being a good book and being poorly written don’t usually go together, but in this case he was right. I won’t talk about the book’s bad points. It’s enough to say it is very poorly written, and maybe throw in another handful of “very’s.”

The good things about it, though, were pretty good. Good enough to buy? That’s up to you.

The hardest sporting event in the world

Every mindless endurance activity claims this, and each one has a long list of the deprivations you have to endure to win. Pro football. Walk across Australia. Iditarod. Tour de France. Triple Ironmans. And of course, RAAM — ride your bike from San Diego to Maryland as fast as you can.

None of these events is the hardest sporting event, or even close to it. Why? Because the difficulty of a sporting event is defined by the number of people who do it. If you’re the only person doing the sport, or if the participation pool is only a few hundred people worldwide, it’s just not that hard. It may be miserable. It may be mind numbingly hard. It may wreck your body forever. But the hardness of the event is defined simply: If a billion people are competing for the top spot, it’s harder than if your competition is fifty other athletes, no matter how tiring or demanding the event. In short, competition defines hard.

So, winning a World Cup in soccer is the hardest sport there is. Sorry, RAAM.

But isn’t RAAM still pretty damned hard?

From the standpoint of what your body goes through, I’m not sure there’s anything harder. But you could say the same about creating a new sporting event in which people competed to survive horrible car accidents. What’s interesting about “Hell on Two Wheels” is that it describes two facets of RAAM that have a lot in common with amateur cycling, that is, the physical discomfort and the bizarre emotional makeup of its participants.

In normal bicycle racing, which is hardly normal, winning occurs when a rider combines the ability to overcome extreme physical pain with strategy. It’s what annoys runners who become cyclists. The strongest guy rarely wins unless he’s also one of the smartest. In RAAM, the winner executes a complex strategy of minimal rest, maximal sustainable physical effort, and mentally overcoming days and days of physical pain.

In essence, winning RAAM takes the intolerable pain of bicycle time trialling and stretches it out for seven or eight days. “Hell on Two Wheels” walks you through the totally bizarre things that riders inflict on themselves, things like “Shermer’s Neck,” where your neck muscles fail and your head flops down on your chest, or saddle sores that turn your crotch into a raw, infected, bloody, agonizingly painful pulp that is almost unendurable with each pedal stroke. And you pedal like twelve zillion times.

In other words, good times.

The craziness inside

As with amateur bicycle racing, RAAM is a completely selfish activity. As the book introduces the athletes, most have cloaked their participation in some noble-sounding goal such as raising awareness for child trafficking, or doing something in solidarity with sick people.

But as you learn about what it takes to prepare for and compete in RAAM, you figure it out. These people just like to ride their bikes, all the time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m not sure, after reading this book, how it’s a good one, either.

Of course, I can relate to the craziness. When I’m not riding I’m thinking about it, getting ready to do it, or blogging about it. Maybe the real take home from RAAM is that it shows how, when taken to its logical conclusion, bicycle riders are nutjobs.

If you’re like me, you’ll finish this book and be grateful that you’ve never signed up for RAAM. However deep into the Kool-Aid vat I’ve fallen, I’ve not fallen that deeply. Although, now that I think about it, it might be pretty cool. Yeah. Yeah.

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