The ride stuff: Race Across America marks 30 years!
When John Marino, John Howard, Michael Shermer and Lon Haldeman straddled their bicycles at the start of the Great American Bike Race in 1982, they were embarking on a cross-country ride that would redefine their physical and mental boundaries.
It was the dawn of the endurance sports boom and there were few cyclists who could realistically race across North America and fewer still who wanted to try.
"This was a going-to-the-moon kind of odyssey," Haldeman says. "People would say, 'There's no way you guys are going to be able to do this.' The first people who did it, everybody thought you were absolutely nuts."
When the 30th edition of the event, now called the Race Across America, begins this week, the start will look a lot like it did in the '80s.
Though 45 or so riders will clip into their pedals in Oceanside, Calif., to race as solo entrants, all of them will be drafting behind the four pioneers at the opening of a transcontinental journey that will require nine to 12 days of grinding through 20-plus hours in the saddle.
"There is nothing else in the culture of sports like the RAAM," says Jim Lampley, who covered the first race and four after it for ABC's "Wide World of Sports." "To this day I still see it as the greatest undiscovered sports event on the planet."
Historically, half of the riders will complete the 3,000-mile test. Of those who do, many will need weeks or months to recover.
Thirty years on, Howard still feels the effects of the carpal tunnel syndrome that made it hard to turn doorknobs for weeks after the race. The extreme fatigue was temporary, but nonetheless devastating.
"I just didn't want to get out of bed," he says.
Marino was the driving force in conceiving the coast-to-coast contest. Drafted at 19 by his hometown Dodgers, he turned to cycling after a back injury cut short his baseball dreams.
Determined to make an impact in sports, Marino was perusing "The Guinness Book of World Records" when he came across the transcontinental cycling record of 13 days, 5 hours, 20 minutes set by Paul Cornish in 1973. Cornish also lived in Southern California and Marino called him to set up a meeting.
"I went to his house and told him I wanted to beat his record," Marino recalls.
A bike mechanic by trade, Cornish agreed to help Marino, receiving $500 for sharing the secrets of long-distance cycling. After two years of training and fine-tuning his equipment, Marino was ready. Setting out in August 1978, he broke the record by four hours.
An attempt to lower the mark the next year failed, but in 1980 Marino chopped nearly a day off his record, finishing in 12 days, 3 hours, 41 minutes.
During an interview to promote a book and film about his experiences, Marino was asked by a magazine editor if he'd make another record attempt.
"I said 'I'd like to do this again, but it should be a race,' " Marino says. The editor wrote an article laying out the concept of a "great American bike race."
With a name in place, Marino set out to find riders who could complete such a feat.
Howard was an obvious candidate. A three-time Olympic cyclist, he had won the third Ironman in February 1981 on the strength of a dominating bike leg.
"It was a timely venture," Howard says. "I had been successful in Ironman, so I was looking to do something different."
Haldeman stated his case for inclusion with an audacious double continental crossing in 1981.
Starting out from New York City, he took 12 days, 18 hours, 49 minutes going east to west into the prevailing headwinds, setting a record that still stands but failing to better Marino's time. Haldeman made an eight-hour layover and then "turned around at 3 a.m. to beat the L.A. traffic on the way out." He was back on the East Coast 10 days, 23 hours, 27 minutes later, breaking Marino's record and lopping more than 12 days off the double-crossing mark.
"When I finished the double I figured that's the last thing that I'm ever going to do. I almost felt depressed at the end," says Haldeman. That changed a few hours later, when Marino called to invite him to race across the country before ABC's cameras.
The deal with the network was the key to the race, and, once again, Marino had played a crucial role.
On the advice of his book publisher, he had hired an agent, Jerry Kushnick, who counted an up-and-coming Jay Leno among his clients.
"(Kushnick) had some clout, and along with the film we'd made, we pitched the idea to ABC and they agreed to do it," Marino says.
The Great American Bike Race was on.
Howard was considered the favorite given his extensive cycling resume and Ironman victory. Marino was tabbed the most likely challenger because of his record-setting rides and role in organizing the race.
Shermer and Haldeman weren't given much of a chance. Shermer had never crossed the country on a bike, gaining the race on the strength of his record-setting ride from Seattle to San Diego, and little was known about Haldeman despite his stunning double crossing.
Another unknown before the race was how long the riders planned to pedal each day. Given relatively equal speeds, whoever could stay in the saddle longest would win.
It didn't take long to find out once the race started.
"Some time very late the first night, it was after midnight — I choke up thinking about it to this day — I was on a freeway overpass in Blythe (Calif.) with Lon's girlfriend, Susan Notorangelo," Lampley says. "Lon had already put 15 to 20 miles on the other riders and I asked her, 'When is Lon going to sleep? She looked at me and said, 'We're going to New York. Aren't you going to New York, too?' That's when I knew that sleep deprivation was going to be a big part of the story."
Haldeman stunned his competitors and the ABC crew by riding through the night and most of the next day.
"I went the first 42 hours without sleeping, and basically had a six- to seven-hour lead at the end of the second day," Haldeman says. "It was the first time someone had gone that long without sleeping."
Haldeman credits Notorangelo, his future wife, with opening his eyes to the possibility by riding 600 straight miles in setting a women's crossing record a month earlier.
"That's what gave me the confidence to try it at the start of the Great American Bicycle Race," he says. "After that I was gaining an hour or so a day. I never really had a strategy. I just knew I was going to get caught if I stopped."
Shermer was somewhere in Kansas when he found himself questioning whether he could finish.
"I remember feeling so bad at some points that I didn't think I could go on," he says. "And then I'd take a two-hour nap and wake up thinking maybe I could. I'd get on the bike and start pedaling and the next thing you know the sun would come up and I'd start feeling better. The body's ability to recover and keep going is just amazing."
Haldeman crossed the finish line at the Empire State Building in New York City 9 days, 20 hours, 2 minutes after he left Santa Monica, shattering his own record for the coast-to-coast crossing by more than 27 hours.
Howard was next, about 15 hours later, and Shermer trailed another nine hours behind. Marino gutted it out, finishing in just over 12 days, 7 hours.
Haldeman, Howard, Shermer and Marino are reuniting at this year's RAAM to reminisce, hang out and reconnect with a race that all four remained involved with during its early days and has grown to include categories for women as well as teams.
The four also will ride — only 50 or so miles to the first checkpoint — when the solo men head out Wednesday to begin their transcontinental odyssey.
"It will be sort of like an old-timer's thing," Shermer says. "It's nice that it's made it to 30 races. I'm proud that it's still going.
"For me personally it was less about beating the other guys and more about an Everest-type of thing. It has given me the confidence to go out and do the other things I've done."
That includes getting a doctorate in the history of science and founding the Skeptic Society and Skeptic Magazine, which are dedicated to "critical thinking about controversial claims." He's also written 10 books and pens a monthly column for Scientific American.
Howard is the only one of the four who didn't do the race again.
"I decided it was just too brutal, it took too much out of me," he says.
He focused on other challenges, setting speed (152.2 mph) and 24-hour (593 miles) records and becoming a coach to those who would follow in his footsteps.
"The bicycle to me is a tool of life. It serves so many purposes, some of which are therapeutic. I didn't want to ruin that by continuing to race in RAAM," Howard says.
Marino was involved with the race as a participant or organizer for a decade before deciding to move on, becoming a general contractor.
Like the others, he still rides and is looking forward to the reunion.
Haldeman cemented his legend by repeating as champion the next year and going on to other exploits that included teaming with Pete Penseyres in 1987 to set the tandem crossing record of 7 days, 14 hours, 55 minutes.
He and Notorangelo run a touring business that specializes in transcontinental trips and has been the proving ground for many riders who have competed in the RAAM.
His latest challenge is taking place in Peru, where he's combining tours with charitable work such as building schools, digging wells, donating supplies. "We basically go where other tours won't," Haldeman says.