At first, it may appear mono-dimensional; facing four consecutive days on a boat, this cycling tragic reaches to a book about cycling to help the hours pass. But author Amy Snyder’s account of the notorious ultra-distance Race Across America (RAAM) race transcends cycling. ‘Hell On Two Wheels’ captures the raw emotions and trauma facing otherwise “average” people as they seek to break through self-defined limitations.
Spoiler alert: do not read beyond this point if you do not wish to know the winner of the 2009 RAAM, which this book provides coverage of.
Snyder is herself an accomplished endurance athlete cyclist but, for ‘Hell On Two Wheels’, she chose to swap her road bike for a car seat to follow 28 (largely self-funded) individuals striving to complete the 3,000 mile trans-continental journey from West to East coast USA; within an improbably short time period – the winner of 2009 RAAM, which Snyder followed, crossed the finish line in a little over eight days. 13 starters, almost half the solo field, would not finish.
Cyclists with attention spans not ideally suited to digesting hardback tomes should be captivated from page one. Following a brief overview of RAAM, readers are then presented a handful of better-known extreme sporting events to give RAAM’s figures some context.
“The Race Across America is the most brutal organized sporting event you’ve never heard of and one of the best-kept secrets in the sports world. Called the “toughest test of endurance in the world” by Outside magazine, RAAM is a bicycle race like no other. Once the starting gun goes off, the clock doesn’t stop, so if you sleep, you lose.
RAAM cyclists…average 22 hours of racing each day. Unlike their ProTour brethren, they are forbidden from taking shelter behind their fellow racers or support vehicles. They ride alone. The numbers tell the story: more than 3,000 people have stood on the roof of the world at the Everest summit, but only 200 men and women own a RAAM finisher’s medal” [Snyder notes that RAAM finishers receive no prize money, only a medal and personal accomplishment]
Snyder also neatly qualifies the type of people who enter RAAM, including some of the physical ailments that contestants will knowingly suffer at some time during their quest.
“RAAM racers also experience a horrifying physical condition rarely seen anywhere else. After days of nonstop cycling spent hunched over on a bike, a racer’s neck muscles can suddenly fail from the continuous strain of holding up his head. Known as Shermer’s Neck, this condition causes a cyclist’s head to flop forward like a rag doll’s that has had its chin pinned to its chest. No matter how hard he tries, once his neck muscles fail, just like a newborn infant, a cyclist is as helpless to lift his head up. When one rider succumbed to this condition, a member of his crew said, “His head was flopping around like he had no bones in his neck.”
Though eponymously an American ordeal, RAAM has only been won by American cyclists a handful of times since the inaugural race in 1982 (it was initially named the ‘Great American Bike Race’, before evolving into RAAM the following year). Hardened European cyclists – almost always not professionals in the contemporary sense – continue to frequent the top RAAM podium step, lending ‘Hell On Two Wheels’ a broad geographical backdrop. In fact, Snyder takes a journalistic approach to her story; following Slovenian “freak”, and four-time RAAM winner, Jure Robic, back to his homeland after his moral-crushing exit from the 2009 race.
Whilst not quite in the same league of penmanship as Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into Thin Air’, this book gives a highly enjoyable insight into the unique psychologies, physiologies, team eco-systems and personalities that, for ten days, bind together in a convulsing mass to create RAAM.