In his normal daily life, Toby Hockley runs the workshop in the Norwich branch of Evans Cycles and also helps to train new Evans mechanics and bike builders. However, earlier this summer, Toby took on a unique role: he acted as mechanic for a team from charity Cyclists Fighting Cancer, taking on the Race Across America or RAAM. Although the four-rider CFC team failed to complete the 3,100-mile coast-to-coast challenge, Toby’s experience as a vital member of the support crew was fascinating. We caught up with him and found out what it’s like to be involved in an event that has the potential to push both man and machine to breaking point.
Tell us about the experience of being a mechanic at RAAM. How did things start out and what did you have to do to prepare the bikes?
TH: Once we arrived in America all I had to do was build the bikes from their boxes and test ride them to make sure they worked. The riders had a few easy rides before the race started, so I then tweaked a few things and changed their set-ups.
To meet the race requirements, we had to mount certain lights and reflective tape to the bikes. Once that was done, they were good to go.
How many bikes did you have for the squad to use? And what bikes were they riding?
TH: There were six bikes in total, four road bikes and two-time trial bikes for the flat stages. They had some beautiful kit: a Colnago C60, Trek Emonda SLR, Bianchi and a Scott Foil for the road — all very high spec kit.
Once the ride was underway, what were your daily duties?
TH: I spent the majority of my time with ‘Griz’ (CFC founder and RAAM team rider Mike Grisenthwaite). I got his bike on and off the car and made sure it was set up and ready to go in the correct gear for the terrain. I also made sure his Garmin, lights and bottles were sorted. I’d then take his bike from him when he stopped and load it back onto the car.
When we were following the rider it was my job to navigate and communicate with Griz about where to go, which junctions to take, and communicate with the other car and rider about where and when the changeover points would be.
What did you do in terms of sleeping and eating?
TH: There was no real plan after Rich (CFC trustee and RAAM team rider Richard Salisbury) became ill. We made a bed in the back of the car and we would take it in turns to try and sleep there when we could. I got a couple of hours on a bench outside one night and had a couple of hours in the occasional motel if we could.
As for eating we found a couple of nice little restaurants out on the road. But it was mostly a case of what we could grab from petrol stations or what we had brought with us.
Where there any failures with the bikes?
TH: None! Other than trying to keep chains clean in the sandy desert, I had very little work to do while out on the road. I think there was one puncture and that was it.
I was extremely thorough when I built the bikes and test rode them all just to make sure. The last thing I wanted was for them to fail because I’d failed to do my job properly.
Were you surprised by anything that you experienced?
TH: Mostly how dedicated the riders and team were to the cause and the charity. Everyone there had done something for CFC before and I was basically the new boy. I had a really good chat with Griz about the charity and how it all came about, the passion everyone had for it was exceptional.
Did you have chance to appreciate the terrain you were driving through and what was the most scenic area you visited?
TH: It was amazing to see so much of the United States in the way we did. I loved the deserts and badlands. Being somewhere so different to Norfolk was great. The scenery changed so much, some parts were cactus filled deserts and moonscapes. Monument Valley was spectacular and experiencing the famous ‘Glass Elevator’ to see the desert so flat and barren was breathtaking.
How many days did you do on the road and when did it become apparent the team wasn’t going to make it?
TH: I can’t actually remember how long we were on the road! The lack of sleep and routine made is so hard to keep track of time. We were so intent on getting the riders to the finish that time became irrelevant.
We had been looking at stats and times and estimations for a while when they were down to three riders and we could slowly see it slipping away from them. There had been a few times it looked like they were going to throw the towel in, but they kept going. When we put the bikes on the cars for the last time it was heartbreaking for everyone.
How did you personally feel about that?
TH: I had mixed emotions. I was devastated for the riders, after all the effort they had put in, in training and preparation, and the time in the saddle in those conditions. I felt so bad for them not getting to the line. But I was happy that it ended in good spirits. The goal was to raise the profile of the charity and the mission was accomplished in that sense, but as cyclists I felt terrible for them.
Was it what you expected the experience to be?
TH: I didn’t have many expectations when I left for it. The main thing I took from it was how dedicated they are about helping kids recover from cancer. Their passion, not just on this event, is truly inspirational and I’d love to do more with the charity.
Did you enjoy the RAAM experience and do you think you have benefited from being part of it?
TH: I couldn’t be happier with the experience! All the hard work, good and bad times made it a brilliant event to take part in. It’s made me look at the things we can do for those less fortunate and help people. I’d love to work with CFC again so they can help many more people that really need it.