Pulling an all-nighter for a special occasion or a big deadline is one thing, but biking for days and nights on end with just a few hours sleep puts ultramarathon cyclists in a class by themselves.
Not content to pedal centuries, the 100-miles-in-a-day rides that are the late-season goal of less fanatical riders, "ultra" cyclists graduate to double and triple centuries, brevets (up to 600 kilometers with a time limit) and randonees, such as the 750-mile Boston-Montreal-Boston ride.
Looming large in every ultra rider's dreams is the 2,900-mile Race Across America, an eight- to 10-day grind from Irvine, Calif., to Savannah, Ga.
Ed Kross of Framingham was the top rookie finisher in RAAM in 1992 with a time of 9 days, 20 hours and 56 minutes. Having set a course record in last summer's Boston-Montreal-Boston (51 hours, 36 minutes, including nap time totaling about an hour and a quarter), the 35-year-old electrical engineer is readying for another shot at RAAM, beginning July 29.
Last year, Outside magazine rated RAAM the toughest race in the world in any sport, ahead of the Vendee Globe around-the-world sailing race, the Iditarod sled dog race and the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon.
For the few dozen riders who enter, RAAM's appeal is that "it's bigger than life," said race director Mike Shermer. "There's nother really to compare it to. It's like a mountaineering expedition and the Tour de France combined."
Kross, a long-distance cyclist since high school, enjoys the physical and mental challenge. "It's not like you beat your head against the wall because it feels good when you stop. It's like you do it because you're having fun while you 're doing it."
Kross plans to sleep three hours a night during the race, except the first night, when no one sleeps. Last time, he dropped to two hours' sleep when the competition heated up and found it wasn't enough.
He sleeps in the 27-foot motor home where his eight support crew members live during the race when they are not working in four-hour shifts as driver and feeder/navigator in the "follow" van. The nurse and the massage therapist always work the last shift before the rider's bedtime; he's asleep moments after the massage begins.
The minivan stays right behind the cyclist, lighting his path at night and pulling up alongside him for the crew to hand over food. There are searchlights on top and speakers for the driver to talk to the racer.
Jodi Groesbeck of Sharon, N.H., a rookie RAAM entrant this year, likes her crew to play music over the van's speakers while she rides. "B-52s, jazz, anything," said the 34-year-old graphic designer, who used to race for the Worcester Road Club.
Groesbeck was the women's winner of last year's Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb, hammering up the eight-mile ascent in 1 hour, 16 minutes. She qualified for RAAM in October when she placed second in the Furnace Creek 508-miler in California's Death Valley. She finished in about 41 hours, with 20 minutes' sleep.
"There's a little bit of an attitude out there toward New Englanders," Groesbeck said, explaining that Westerners tend to think that the northern climate and terrain near sea level can't produce truly competitive cyclists, "so that was actually pushing me, to show them they were wrong."
She is not he first New England woman to make an ultramarathon mark. Cathy Ellis of Cambridge was the women's RAAM winner in 1991, and Nancy Raposo of Newport, R.I., won in 1990.
This year's female entrants include two-time winner Seana Hogan and two rookies besides Groesbeck, Shermer said. The men's race is shaping up as "the biggest showdown we've ever had of past winners," he said, including 1993 winner Gerry Tatrai, 1992 winner Rob Kish and possibly 1990 and 1991 winner Bob Forney. About 20 men are expected to enter; usually about half do not finish.
The team race, in which members of four-person teams take turns riding, is the fastest-growing RAAM category, with 12 teams expected this year, Shermer said. Team entries are popular "because it doesn't require the megatraining that it does to ride solo," he said.
While some RAAM winners recommend a liquid diet of high-energy sports drinks, both Groesbeck and Kross have found they need solid food, too. Kross has a notorious appetite for Pop-Tarts, a habit formed in the 1970s, when "sports food" didn't exist but convenient packaging did. He rode RAAM on about 8,000 calories a day in 1992 and plans to increase that to 10,000.
Speaking of calories, the Minuteman Road Club is sponsoring an all-you-can-eat banquet at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Chocksett Inn in Sterling as a fund-raiser for Kross' RAAM effort. (That motor home is not cheap, and the crew has to eat, too.) The cost is $15, or $5 for children 3 to 10 years old. Ed Kross T-shirts, water bottles and postcards ($5 to get a postcard from his crew during the race) will be on sale. For reservations, call Mike Troisi at the inn (508-422-3355).
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