Wednesday, June 9, 2004

In for the ride of his life


Coast-to-coast bike race Loveland man's biggest challenge

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
Bob Rich became heavily involved in cycling after retiring from the Ohio State Highway Patrol in 1999. The 52-year-old, who once finished a race despite a broken rib, has pedaled 10,500 miles this year.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/GARY LANDERS
Bob Rich's quest, six years in the planning, has been no secret to those who know him. That didn't deter them from asking:

Why?

Why ride across the country on your bike?

Nearly 3,000 miles. Ten days. An average of two or three hours of sleep per day.

Deserts. Mountains. Sleep deprivation. Blistering heat.

Why?

"Some of those answers, I'll find out there," the 52-year-old Loveland man said.

"I'm meant to do this. I'm drawn to it."

It is called the Race Across America. On June 20 in San Diego, 95 riders - just 21 attempting it solo, all of them men - will begin a 2,920-mile trip through 14 states, climaxing in Atlantic City.

It's not a stage race. Riders go around the clock and average nearly 300 miles per day, for only those who finish within 12 days and two hours are considered official finishers.

It's considered the most physically demanding event on the planet. Outside magazine ranked it as such in 1993, ahead of an around-the-world sailing race, the Iditarod Sled Dog Race and the U.S. Army's Best Ranger competition.

The stat race organizers cite for perspective is that fewer people have ridden this race than have climbed Mount Everest.

And not by a little bit. In this event's 22-year history, 137 solo riders - 117 men, 20 women - have finished. According to everestnews.com, as of 2002 more than 1,650 people had reached the summit of the world's tallest mountain.

"In some aspects, I think he's absolutely insane," Terri Rich said of her husband. "But when I think of it in those terms (compared to Everest), I think, 'This is sort of monumental.' "

The greatest challenge

Bob Rich, who retired in 1999 after 26 years with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, is now a personal trainer and cycling instructor at Five Seasons Sports Country Club.

He began doing triathlons in 1985. He was a better cyclist than a swimmer or runner, so cycling endurance events became his focus. He competed in three International Police Olympics, claiming the road race bronze medal in 1990.

Living in Youngstown in the 1980s, Rich rode with some men who were training for the Race Across America. "I thought they were insane," he said.

Yet over the years, Rich ran out of challenges. He completed a race in which he rode two days without sleep. He did a 508-mile event despite a broken rib.

This event loomed as the ultimate test. Rich witnessed it twice as a member of riders' support teams, serving as crew chief in 2002 for friend Michael Lau of Ottawa, Ontario. Lau will be Rich's crew chief this year.

"The RAAM (Race Across America) is 10 percent physical, 90 percent mental," Lau said. "The mental part drives the last half of the race."

Rich speaks of this as a spiritual journey.

"It's not just a physical test; it's much deeper than that," he said. "I've experienced some profound thoughts out there when I'm going 200 miles without seeing anybody. I feel a different energy, and I don't know where it's coming from."

Desert roads, mountain climbs

The race route passes through the stifling heat of the Mojave Desert, climbs 10,000 feet through the Rocky Mountains, rolls through the Great Plains, and climbs again through the Appalachians toward the finish.

In Ohio, riders will pass through Troy, Urbana and Athens, and each rider's progress can be tracked on the race's Web site

raceacrossamerica.org.

Rich will have a support team of eight, including Terri and their daughter, Stephanie. Two three-person groups will take turns following behind Rich in a van; those not on their "shift" get rest in a motor home.

Forty-eight percent of those who have tried failed to finish the race.

"Lots of things go wrong," Lau said. "My (support) car broke down. My bike broke down. I physically broke down. Mentally, I broke down."

Lau's backside got rubbed raw by his bike's seat. He went to a hospital to have dressing applied. He took painkillers.

"Basically the last 1,000 miles, I couldn't sit," Lau said. He finished in 11 days, 20 hours and 33 minutes.

The record time is eight days, three hours, 11 minutes, set in 1992 by Rob Kish. Rich, not riding to win, is aiming for 10 days.

The pace is brutal. Exhausted riders fall asleep on their bikes and crash. Lau hallucinated, seeing a train's caboose in a tree. Rich witnessed a rider crashing into a cow, and he has seen elk and a bull in his path during similar races.

"I wouldn't mind riding across the country at a leisurely pace, stopping at bed and breakfasts, that type of thing," Terri Rich said. "But not in a timed race."

The 12-day deadline sounds cruel, but that's part of the point. "You don't want to make it too easy," Lau said. "You don't want to make it the Bike Tour Across America."

3,000 miles of motivation

Two Cincinnatians have done the RAAM. Michael White finished eighth in 1990 (10:00:50) and third in '93 (10:15:51), and didn't finish in '89 and '91. Roger Charleville teamed with Bob Breedlove of Des Moines, Iowa, as a two-man team in 1990 (8:10:40).

Rich leaves today, driving to Arizona for a week of training in the heat. He already has logged 10,500 miles on a bike this year. Despite some sponsorship, he says this venture will cost him about $15,000.

So again: Why, Bob Rich?

The short answer: After the world's toughest race, everything else is downhill.

"I know this is going to help with the people I train," he said. "Everyone has goals, and this is my ultimate one. This will put things in perspective for (his trainees), that any goal is attainable."

E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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