Steve Redgrave’s crew have returned from the Race Across America and it looks like they had quite a dramatic time! Pete McConnell gives his account of their amazing journey.
Race Across America is an annual 3000 mile race crossing the country from West to East coasts in mid June every year. Competitors range from solo riders, probably the true hero’s of the event, to teams of 2, 4 and 8. The Redgrave Crew a team of 8 former rowers headed by Sir Steve Redgrave entered the race for the first time this year, supported by Torq, providing nutrition and advice for their very first and epic bike race.
Finishing the race in 7 days, 3 hours, 42 minutes, and coming in 8th in the 8 man event, was an amazing achievement for a group of riders who were complete novices on bikes. In fact the team had been as high as 3rd in the event, yet a crash that involved Steve being hospitalised with only 230 miles remaining saw the team re-evaluate its priorities, deciding to stop racing and just to complete the distance.
It’s fair to say that nothing can really prepare you for this type of race. You have a rider on the road at all times, 24 hours per day, which also places a heavy burden on the support crew. This means that for everyone involved staying refuelled is vitally important. As a rider we relied on Torq energy drinks, bars and gels while out on the road to deliver vital shots of energy during the long days and nights.
So how did we manage to do so well given that we were a team of former rowers with varying fitness? I think this is down to 4 factors; we trained together as a team as often as we could, putting in a lot of mileage both on the track and around the Chilterns and parts of Hampshire, forming a strong team spirit. We had an outstanding group of people in our crew who enabled the riders to concentrate on riding their bikes, indeed the race was probably harder on them than it was on us racers. We had practiced our strategy and rider changes for day and night and they worked magnificently during the race. Lastly that residual rower’s competitiveness and latent fitness re-emerged which pushed us ever onwards.
Our strategy as an eight man team was to divide into two teams of four, each team racing for periods of 6 hours with the rider on the road changing as often as necessary during that six hours. Remember we only needed to keep one racer on the road at any one time, which meant that we could ride relatively short stretches before making a change, enabling us to keep the speed up and for riders to get some rest during those 6 hour stretches.
While one team was out on the road with a support car and at night or in busy conditions with a follow vehicle, the second team would be in one of our two RV’s, eating, sleeping and travelling to the next rendezvous. Because of the distances involved in most cases, it meant that the riders were trying to sleep while the RV was travelling, an experience I wouldn’t recommend!
We alongside many other teams were hampered by the surprising lack of mobile phone coverage in the States, which was intermittent at best, completely nonexistent at worst. This caused us numerous problems with arranging rendezvous and changeover points, especially on the penultimate day when everyone was very tired. To compound this, our CB radio’s would only work within a few miles of each other and then not at all in the hills and mountains! Next time I recommend satellite phones, they may be expensive but could be a life saver.
Our two riding teams were: Joff Spencer-Jones, Nick Spencer-Jones, Ian Neville & myself in one and Sir Steve Redgrave, John Mottram, Malcolm Cooper & Francis Paxton in the other. We knew that one team was liable to be quicker than the other and probably more able to cope with the mountains, and while this was the case it was a total team effort with everyone making valuable contributions.
My group mainly rode between 2pm & 8pm and then again from 2am to 8am. We were lucky, in that we rode into every sunrise and saw every sunset, most of which were very beautiful. We also seemed to get some of the cooler parts of the day, though I was astonished by just how hot America is absolutely everywhere apart from the coast of California.
It is also worth mentioning that the race is as much an exercise in navigation as it is in riding. Teams follow a specific route as specified in the 60 page route book. Mostly you are on smaller roads and at times the instructions can be complicated. We also had to call in at 55 separate time stations along the route, and expect to be checked by numerous RAAM officials to ensure we were following all the rules, anywhere along the road.
Our racing strategy was to change rider approximately every 3-4 miles; in the mountains we changed rider even more often. While climbing the Rockies up to Wolf Creek Pass we changed around every hairpin, often after only ½ mile or less. Adopting this approach worked fantastically well, enabling us to overtake numerous other teams with their longer change strategies.
A strategy like this wouldn’t have been possible without great back up from the team in the cars with us, catching incoming riders, moving bikes around and finding the right parking spot. We saw some amazing sights during the race, experienced some huge highs and a number of lows, here are a few of them:
· The feeling of trepidation before hitting the road on day 1 and seeing numerous teams race past Nev and I, only to meet them at the first set of traffic lights.
· The unbelievable view of the vast desert plain from the top of the Sierra Nevada mountains, as Nev raced down the first big descent known as the Glass Elevator.
· The surprise of overtaking teams while climbing up the Rockies and knowing that we wouldn’t see them again.
· Whooping like a banshee as I rode into Utah then seeing the sunrise in the last miles of Monument Valley while Alex practised his cricket strokes at the changeover.
· Knowing exactly where the rest rooms were going to be in every Wall Mart.
· Laughing about how a bend in the road would be appreciated in Kansas, after 130 miles without one.
· The double rainbows by the side of the road somewhere in Colorado.
· The sound of Indian drums early in the morning that turned out to be water pumps in the desert.
· Nick having his heels snapped at by dogs.
· The unexpected beauty of the hills in Ohio.
· Watching Joff’s huge descent and having no idea where we were.
· Seeing the remarkable courage and effort of all the solo riders. Theirs is a much harder and more brutal challenge than ours, one that evokes a vast amount of admiration. Whenever we passed a solo we made sure to give them a huge cheer and round of applause.
· Crossing the half way point at 1500 miles with all four of us out on the road.
· Getting off the ground and being bandaged by Nev having come a cropper on railroad tracks shortly after the halfway point, determined to carry on.
· Seeing Frank dive the LD4 in and out of huge ditches without a care in the world.
· Cycling at 25mph through the unbelievable Gettysburg battlefield site on the last day, loving the best road of the race and shooing tourists out of the way.
· The rolling countryside of Maryland and West Virginia, just like the Chiltern’s but with more churches.
· Meeting the challenge of the Appalachians for 10 hours in 30 degree heat, out of contact with the rest of the team and loving every minute.
This was followed soon after by the low light of the race. We eventually handed over to Steve’s group somewhere between Keyser, WV and Cumberland, MD, and after quickly eating we started to travel in the RV. Coming around a corner only about ½ an hour after we had changed over we saw ambulances, police cars and a fire engine in the middle of the road. John and Francis were there as was Reman, but no sign of Steve. He was still lying on the ground, blood covered his face, his index finger was pointing the wrong way and he wasn’t saying much. It transpired that he had a puncture in his front wheel while descending a hill and met the ground with hand, arm, chest and face. 19 stone at speed creates quite an impact and the upshot was a two night stay in hospital, concussion, 3 broken ribs, dislocated finger, broken wrist and fractured cheekbone.
Steve’s crash changed everything. The whole team was already tired, the crew more so than the riders. In fact that morning unknown to my team who were out on the road, half the crew had gone on ahead to get some rest, unable to drive safely any more. Emotions were very close to the surface and we took our time to make a decision about what to do next.
From my point of view I was torn. Part of me was exhausted and wanted to make sure Steve was OK, but having just put in a marathon effort in the steepest section of the whole route, I was loath to see other teams come past again. I personally decided to go with the group decision, but there is part of me that wonders what would have happened if the remaining racers had carried on with only 230 miles remaining.
So at this point we took the night off for the first and only time. We ended up camping in a car park, the only time we got the tents out, and a welcome opportunity to get 6 hours sleep.
On the day following Steve’s crash we carried on, but with 5 of us rotating. Malc had stayed with Steve, while Francis deputised for some of the day as a driver as we still had to meet the second RV and support crew. This was a strange day, I felt we had had the stuffing knocked out of us and while we raced the first 100+ miles we then slowed right down with all of us out on the road in order to meet Malc,(who had hired a car and driven the 200 miles from Cumberland), in a car park just before the last few miles.
Riding into Annapolis that evening I was torn between what could have been and what we had achieved. However the welcome from the people of the town and supporters down at the harbour was phenomenal. It is always a great experience to be clapped and cheered for any endeavour, and this was most unexpected and very welcome. I think all 7 of us on the stage and everyone in the crew at the end were elated but thinking of Steve who I know was upset and disappointed not to be there.
The good news is that Steve is improving rapidly. He had an operation on his damaged cheek last Wednesday and will have a neat scar behind his right ear, but he certainly looks much better than he did a week earlier. He has also achieved part of his objective and lost some weight!
Would I do it again? Oh yes! With the knowledge gained from doing it once, the second time could be an even better experience. Don’t tell my wife but you may see the Redgrave Crew back in the Race Across America in a couple of years.