Imagine, if you can, riding 3,000 miles across the United States, climbing 170,000 feet, and racing through dust squalls, electrical storms, and excruciating heat. And accomplishing this test of speed, endurance, strength and camaraderie in less than seven days!
Only the elite ultra-endurance bicyclists have completed it, and our own Alex Miller, associate dean at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Business Administration is now one of them.
Billed as the toughest organized sporting event in the world, the Race Across America (RAAM) is one the most respected and longest running endurance sports events in the world. There is no race that matches its distance, terrain and weather challenges. The course is about 30 percent longer than the Tour de France, yet RAAM is a non-stop event open only to amateurs; only professionals race the Tour de France, and it is completed in stages.
Miller competed in the four-person relay team category. The racecourse started in Oceanside, California, and ended in Annapolis, Maryland. Following public roads, the racers crossed 12 states and passed through 88 counties and 350 communities. The team’s goal of finishing in less than seven days was in jeopardy when one of the riders had to be hospitalized for dehydration and was off the course for 36 hours. Still, in the end, the team finished in 6 days and 21 hours.
Team Sarcoma included Miller, Dana Lieberman from California, Christopher Kaiser from Georgia, and Steve Petty from Texas. They rode to raise awareness of sarcoma, a type of cancer that Team Sarcoma’s crew chief has been battling for the past decade. The team, sponsored by Bacchetta, rode the company’s recumbent racing bicycles.
In addition to its four riders, the team included an experienced support crew of 15 recruited from nine states. In addition to one volunteer manning ground control, the all-volunteer crew manned two follow vans, an RV, and a “go-fer” support vehicle.
The logistics of the race were complex. The team’s four riders were divided into two pairs. Each pair rode in four-hour shifts, alternating “pulls” between the two riders every 20-30 minutes as dictated by weather, terrain, and rider exhaustion. Behind each rider was a follow van with crew helping the riders navigate the course, monitoring rider performance, and blaring music from loudspeakers to keep the riders motivated. Approximately every four hours, the rider pairs switched, and the retiring riders could join any off-duty crew to eat and get some sleep in the RV as it traveled down the racecourse.
“No words can accurately describe the thrill that comes from being a part of such a high-performing team and completing a challenge this demanding,” said Miller. “The experience is simply unmatched by anything I’ve ever done in cycling.”
Miller’s fondest memories? “After our racing more than 160 hours in sight of a younger German team, they finally dropped us in Maryland. To regain the lead, our crew decided to put four riders out on the course for the last 120 miles. The German team could not mount a similar effort, and with our four alternating riders out versus their two, we were able to do shorter, faster pulls,” Miller explains. “Thanks to a fantastic team effort, we ended the race pulling away from our competition. By that point everyone was both mentally and physically exhausted. I’ll never forget the team effort required to compete and win.”
Although he focused his training exclusively on this particular race for 14 months, Miller is not new to ultra-endurance racing. He has competed twice in the Paris-Brest-Paris 750 mile solo race and is now training to compete in his fourth Sebring, FL, 24-hour solo race. He was the World Cup Ultracycling Champion for his division in 2011.
So what’s next for this accomplished, yet unconventional, academic? “I’d like to do something local. No one has ever ridden East to West non-stop across Tennessee from Bristol to Memphis. That would be a challenge.”