Team Event Heats up the Race Across America

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in ULTRA Cycling, Vol. 4, No. 5, November 1995.

Also published as "Kern Wheelmen take relay title" in Velo News, August 28, 1995

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The fourth annual Team Race Across America (RAAM) showcased fourteen different four rider relay teams in an epic transcontinental battle. Held July 30 to August 6 from Irvine, CA, to Savannah, GA, this 2912 mile race was close and competitive from start to finish. In the end, Team Kern Wheelmen-Action Sports of Bakersfield, CA, who placed fourth in 1994, took home the winner’s accolades.

Composed of four time California State Time Trialing Champion Joe Petersen of the 1994 team and RAAM newcomers Kerry Ryan, Ron Jones, and Mike Wracher, the winning team covered the distance in five days, 17 hours, and 5 minutes for an overall average speed of 21.24 mph. Close on the champions’ heel was Team Pepsi-Brazil, who improved their third place 1994 performance with a close second this year, just one hour, 41 minutes back. Taking third another one hour and 55 minutes back was Team PacifiCare of San Antonio, TX, who had placed first in 1993 and fifth in 1994. In all, twelve of the fourteen teams would complete the race, including foreign teams from England, Austria, Brazil, and Canada, two mixed teams of men and women riders, one team of 50+ age group riders, and two teams of 60+ age group riders.

Like traditional racing, Team RAAM pivots around two important factors: horsepower and strategy. Teams have the option of fielding from one to four riders at any given moment for rides of any varying length of time, letting conditions of the riders and the course dictate the optimal strategy. Traditionally, the teams utilize just one rider at a time, letting the other three recuperate and prepare for an all out 30 to 45 minute time trial on the bike. According to PacifiCare’s Michael Olstad, a Cat Two racer with over 100 victories to his credit, "the intensity of this race from coast to coast is higher than any USCF race I’ve ever done."

This year, the intensity matched the temperature outside as the teams dueled for position across California in the first day of the race. Under 120 degree sun, the lead teams were rotating riders as often as every three miles in order to be in position to take the lead in the Arizona mountains. The strategy worked, putting Kern Wheelmen and Pepsi neck and neck through the Prescott Mountains some 350 to 400 miles into the race. There Kern Wheelmen’s climbing strategy proved most effective, as they utilized two riders to Pepsi’s three to conquer the mountains with an average climbing speed of 19 mph. As the sun rose and the teams crossed the Navajo Nation between Prescott and Four Corners, Kern Wheelmen’s fresh riders, TT champ Joe Petersen and non-USCF racer Kerry Ryan, pulled away from Pepsi once and for all. This allowed their star climbers, Ron Jones, a Cat Two racer, and Mike Wracher, a neophyte Cat Five racer, to recover in time to help build the gap even more while challenging Wolf Creek Pass and two other climbs of 10,000 feet or more in Colorado. Although successful, it was a trying experience on every front for the team. Commented Wracher, "I have never been to such an emotional point over bicycling ever before. I mean, I was in tears twice."

Cross the MidWest, Kern Wheelmen showcased their horsepower and timetrialing talent developed under the tutelage of five time national time trial champion and Bakersfield cycling guru Norm Hoffman. Hoffman, 54, intended to compete on the team himself in RAAM, but was injured severely just two weeks before the race when struck by a car during a training ride. Mike Wracher, one of Hoffman’s protegés, was quickly but apprehensively substituted for Hoffman on the RAAM team. Despite a limping and heavily bandaged body supported by a cane, Hoffman joined the team’s twelve member support crew as its spiritual leader and inspiration. Building their lead from three minutes in Prescott, AZ, to 1:04 in Trinidad, CO, to 2:05 by the Mississippi River, Kern Wheelmen more than lived up to Hoffman’s standard of excellence.

Staying locked in a battle for second place, Pepsi and PacifiCare raced within thirty-six minutes of one another across most of the continent. But with 700 miles to go, Pepsi decided to put PacifiCare to bed once and for all while simultaneously making a run for first place. While pulling away from PacifiCare, they managed to close the gap between themselves and the leaders from 1:50 in Chesterfield, TN, to 1:09 in Jeffersonville, GA. This valiant 500 mile, 24 hour effort to take the lead may have been successful were it not for the rapidly approaching finish line at the Atlantic Ocean in Savannah, GA. In the end, Kern Wheelmen’s superior horsepower and strategy allowed a comfortable margin of victory over Pepsi, PacifiCare, and the rest of the field.

Team Hefel Wohnbau of Austria established a 50+ transcontinental team cycling record of 6 days, 9 hours, 15 minutes, while Team PAC Masters established a new 60+ record of 6 days, 20 hours, and 27 minutes. Team British Columbia, placing fifth, received Rookie of the Year honors, while Team Azio Saddle Tramps defeated Team Susquehanna in the Mixed Team division. The 1995 Team RAAM was a well-fought race from the front to the back of the field, establishing a new worldwide standard and intensity in bicycle racing.

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