880 miles in the Race Across the West

The countdown was on. Adam Bickett was just six weeks out from the start of the ultra-endurance cycling event Race Across the West (RAW). Training for the event had ruled every waking moment of the software engineer’s life for months. And then, mid-training ride, he found himself in the last place he wanted to be: flying over the handlebars. A single thought echoed through his head: "This can't be the way this race ends for me…"

Race Across the West

Race Across the West competitor Adam Bickett en route to Durango, Colorado. Photo courtesy Spy Optic.

Bickett hit the ground. Hard.

A month and a half later, he clipped into his Shimano pedals, sat down on his Specialized saddle, and rolled out with his fellow competitors. The starting line was in Oceanside, California, and the road to the finish was a long way—880 miles away long. If anyone wanted to stop before arriving at the finish in Colorado, they could, but the clock would keep doing its thing. Pedaling or not pedaling, Race Across the West is a single-stage race, so the clock doesn't stop until you cross the finish line or quit.

Even if Bickett could maintain an almost-physically-impossible 20 mph average, he'd be pedaling nonstop for almost two days straight. But one of the first surprises came after mile 400: He was close to Marko Baloh, a legend in ultra-cycling who originally inspired Bickett when he first became involved with the sport.

Forget about finishing—could Bickett beat this legend? (Editor’s note: you’ll have to watch the video to find out.)

We talked with Bickett about racing RAW, what it's like to climb 2,000 feet in 100-degree heat and a headwind, and what's next in his pedaling future.

Race Across the West

Bickett had a support crew of six and two minivans. The crews took 12 hour shifts. Photo is a screen shot

You broke your L1 six weeks before the race. How did that affect training?
The crash happened right as I was transitioning to my last big block of training. I missed three weeks of what would be considered a crucial training period. Really, my only real concern was whether I would be able to race at all. I had to switch doctors to one who understands the priorities and needs of athletes. I got the OK for riding three weeks after the incident.

This left me with just three weeks to the race. I still didn’t know whether it was realistic, and my crew and I scheduled a 24-hour prep ride along the course as the final test. I rode the first 425 miles (nearly half) of the course to Yarnell, Arizona. My back was bothering me, but I managed it by periodically stretching and massaging it. We knew at this point the race was a go. With the remaining two and a half weeks, I focused mostly on maintaining the gains from this pre-ride, and heat-acclimation training.

Race Across the West

Bickett during Race Across the West, a single stage 880 mile bike race. Photo courtesy of Spy Optic

What was the status of your L1 during the race? Did it affect your ride?
The injury was a definite factor. I also strained my back muscles in the crash and began to feel it after several hours of pedaling. The actual risk of riding was crashing and further damaging the healing bone. The real effect to my race was just tightness and pain from the surrounding back muscles. This actually become less noticeable to me by the second day, but it did make it more difficult for me to maintain an aero position and stiffened me up a bit. Given the circumstances, I happily took these challenges.

race across the west

Adam Bickett; photo is a screen shot

What was your support system like? How many vehicles did your support team have and how many people were on the team?
We had a support crew of six and two minivans. The crews took 12-hour shifts. On-shift support involves everything from navigation to handling flat tires and bike mechanicals to tracking and maintaining my nutrition and making sure I’m performing to my abilities. At the exchange point, the oncoming crew meets up with the race van in the auxiliary vehicle and then switches over to the race van. After exchanging, the off-shift crew drives up the road 250 miles to a hotel near our best estimate of where the next exchange would take place. One van was designated the race-follow vehicle, and it had the spare bikes, all supplies, and the on-shift crew.

In addition to the core crew, the great media crew from Spy shadowed us in a third vehicle around the clock, setting up and capturing all the awesome footage used in the film.

Support in this kind of event is absolutely critical. I owe the success of this race to my crew; they worked as hard as I did to make sure we arrived safely in Durango as quickly as possible. Sharing these adventures with good friends is part of what makes this sport so great.

Race Across the West

A tiny speck that is Adam Bickett. Photo is a screen grab

Just organizing that sounds like a part-time job.
Yes! Organizing this kind of an effort is not a trivial task. We put the experience from my past 500-mile races to good use, but still the scope of this race, and the complexity of managing this size of the crew with multiple vehicles, was something new to all of us. This made the start of the race that much sweeter; with all the logistics in place, all I had to do [was] turn the cranks and hang on for the ride.

How much did it cost to do this?
The entry fee alone is over $1,000. Add to this the core costs of vehicles, fuel, hotels, and food and this adds thousands more. Then of course there’s the bikes and equipment! Thankfully we are all from around the San Diego area, and this helped cut down on travel costs. Add to this that there is no prize money; financing races is unfortunately one of the largest challenges of the sport. Sponsorship from folks who understand the power, importance, and appeal of the sport is key here. We are thankful to have had help from our friends at Spy and Holland Cycles for RAW and look forward to fostering further relationships toward RAAM (Race Across America) and beyond.

Race Across the West

The team celebrates; photo is a screen grab

Any surprises along the way?
There are always surprises when racing for more than a day. The biggest surprise of RAW for me was how good I felt at the end. I had never ridden into a third day and was pleasantly surprised that the last miles, which involved climbing to over 8,000 feet, were not at all the death march that I had been afraid of.

Any hallucinations?
The biggest unknown to me was the sleep deprivation on the second night. It was indeed a big challenge, and I fought taking a sleep break for longer than I should have. I talked with the crew hours into the night as I became increasingly fatigued; we swapped life stories and I waxed philosophical. Instead of hallucinations, I experienced more of a perceptual shift. I felt like I was in a sleeping bag out camping under the stars and occasionally forgot I was riding a bike. My mind filled in the surrounding darkness with images and strange thoughts, and I entered a more dreamlike state in the wee hours of that second night. I started recognizing people and animals in the shapes of roadside objects, which was familiar to me as a sign of deep mind fatigue.

How did you sleep after you arrived in Durango?
Well! I finished midday and was in bed pretty soon after (as was the crew!). We woke up in time for a dinner shared with Marko and his crew. I had an excellent night’s sleep that night and felt surprisingly good on the long drive back to San Diego.

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