It is 30% longer than the Tour de France yet participants must finish in half the time. They must fund themselves and their support crew, and survive for days on minimal sleep. Riders have little company bar radio contact. There is no-one to draft when the going gets tough. Welcome to the Race Across America, the world’s toughest endurance bike race. And congratulations to IT specialist Shu Pillinger, who has just become the first female Brit to complete the daunting 3004-mile feat within the 12 day, 21-hour women’s time limit.
by Cath Harris
Shu, 39, from St Albans in Hertfordshire, is no stranger to ultra-distance sport. She was 2013 British Ultra-Triathlon champion, has ridden the Ride24 at Goodwood, the five-day Tour of Ireland and in 2014 won the Deccan Cliffhanger, a 400-miler from Pune to Goa in India. That’s right, every other man, woman and even team trailed home in Shu’s turbulent wake. She took on the RAAM last year too but after 2,200 miles fell and broke a collar bone, forcing her withdrawal. Shu had unfinished business.
With an eight member team marshalling two hired cars and a motor home, Shu pedalled her Cannondale Synapse from this year’s California start line at 1.13pm on 16 June. “The start is staggered and when the race gets going you can’t ride next to anyone for more than 15 minutes in every 24 hours,” Shu says. Each cyclist is tracked online. “As the race settles down, riders don’t change places that much. If one person passes another, it’s probably because they’re taking a sleep break.”
Or because they’ve pulled out. The DNF rate for RAAM entrants is a fearsome 50%. Shu was well prepared thanks not least to Tim Manson (then of Evans’ Hendon branch and now at Kings Cross) who was always ready with a last minute bike fix, and experts at GSK’s Human Performance Lab who calculated Shu’s ideal sleeping times – 25 or 70 minutes, and 130 minutes every few days. They conjured an energy powder with minerals and carbohydrate after heat chamber, sweat and metabolism tests. During the race itself, Shu drank a Complan/espresso concoction and rode with a handlebar-mounted food bag. Coke and Dioralyte featured too.
Shu’s course knowledge gave an additional boost, enabling her crew to rack the most suitable second bike on the accompanying car. One of the toughest sections was impossible to foresee, however: a diversion up a spiralling climb forced on organisers by forest fires. “We climbed out of a canyon and I realised we had 3,000 feet of ascent in a ridiculously short number of miles,” Shu chuckles. Stunning Monument Valley in Utah and tailwind-assisted Cansas were other standout sections. Worst was dodging roadkill in Missouri, five lane highways with rubble and metal-strewn hard shoulders, and hallucinations of weapon-throwing goblins at night. “They resembled the Auks from Lord of the Rings.”
Shu reached the Maryland finish line in 12 days, nine hours and 14 minutes and, thankfully, her memories are now more dream than nightmare. “I’m still trying to straighten out the race in my mind.” She is only the eighth Briton to complete the RAAM. “Cycling is just a hobby and means of transport for me. It still seems very surreal.”
Chris Sharp – Crew Chief
Phil Magnus – Mechanic
Erica Ley – Paramedic
James Hampshire – Mechanic
Shilpa Phadke – Nutritionist
Tobina Wilson – Physio
Ana Antón Solanas – Nutitionist
Tom Jennings – Driver/PR