Barely audible above the din of traffic on the George Washington Bridge, 25 people stood cheering on a sultry night last August. Late-night motorists, oblivious to the group stationed on a closed truck-access ramp, leaned on their horns for reasons other than celebration as Paul Solon, a 36-year-old attorney from Tiburon, Calif., rolled across an unadorned finish line to win a painful battle for victory in the Race Across America (RAAM).
The RAAM is among the toughest sporting events in the world. It is indisputably the longest nonstop bicycle race anywhere: In 1989 it covered 2,910 miles from Costa Mesa, Calif., to New York City, and it took almost nine days for the winner to complete.
Over the course of his 200 hours and 45 minutes on the road (a total of eight days, eight hours and 45 minutes), Solon fought off fatigue, saddle sores, mechanical difficulties, head winds, severe neck pain and even the police in triumphing over 27 other riders, including Michael Secrest, a 37-year-old pro cyclist who had completed four RAAM events and won the race in 1987. Last year, Secrest planned to ride off into retirement with a victory and a transcontinental record.
Pedaling home almost five hours behind Solon, Secrest said, "What Solon was able to do, I can't believe. With that neck injury, I thought he'd blow up in the hills. But he didn't."
Solon arrived in New York wearing a bungee cord stretched between a cotton headband and a makeshift harness wrapped around his waist and crotch. He had been plagued by an agonizing neck hyperextension that he first suffered on Day Four in Missouri. The jury-rigged device had kept his head up so he could see the road, but it also made sitting in the saddle torturous.
As a challenge, RAAM goes well beyond most endurance sports. Competitors must be prepared to ride more than 300 miles a day, sleep an average of less than two hours a night and endure extreme mental and physical stress. Each rider requires the support of at least six people and two reliable vehicles. "It's sort of like a bicycle race and sort of like an expedition," says Solon.
And sort of like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, only there's no suitcase full of cash at the end. Every racer can give his own reasons for wanting to conquer the continent on two wheels in less than 10 days—but money and glory aren't two of them. Indeed, no one gets paid anything at all. From 1982 to 1986, when ABC Sports was covering the event, corporate sponsors such as McDonald's chipped in to establish purses that were as high as $25,000. But now all an official finisher gets is a $400 gold ring, personal satisfaction and a good night's sleep. There's no ticker-tape parade for the winner, just a handful of night owls clapping at the side of a truck ramp. But it takes more than that to discourage ultramarathon cyclists, and they will be at it again next month, when the ninth annual RAAM rolls off from Irvine, Calif., at 9 a.m. on Aug. 5.
Last year, Solon began his record-setting journey as part of a field of 25 men and three women. Right from the start the favored Secrest bolted to the front of the pack. With Secrest setting a fast pace, Solon abandoned his strategy of being "persistent and consistent" and set off after the leader. Solon was in hot pursuit of Secrest well into Arizona, when he ran into trouble with the law. Solon had been taking a shower behind his pace vehicle, which was parked on the side of a deserted back road, when, according to the police, he was spied in the altogether. Someone filed a complaint, and the police arrived, handcuffs at the ready, to arrest Solon for indecent exposure. Some fast talking and his own legal background helped him explain what he was up to, and Solon avoided a trip to jail.
Released, attired and back in the saddle, Solon shadowed Secrest into eastern New Mexico on Aug. 15. Then, approaching the Texas border, as he was on the verge of overtaking Secrest for the lead, Solon was once again delayed by the law, this time for supposedly defying New Mexico regulations against biking at night. He was told to stop riding until sunrise, or he would be arrested. Race officials couldn't persuade the local police otherwise and they didn't want Solon to have to wait any longer, so they took a drastic step. To compensate for the nearly four-hour delay Solon had encountered, race officials drove the hard-luck lawyer 28.4 miles ahead on the route—roughly the distance he would have covered had he not been detained. Within minutes, he passed Secrest, who had stopped to sleep, for the first time.
Solon kept the lead, building it substantially while clipping through Texas and the Oklahoma Panhandle and on to the windblown flatlands of Kansas. There, heavy fog forced him to ride with his head constantly craned forward even as he tried to maintain an aerodynamic posture. The result was a hyperextended neck. By Jefferson City, Mo., the pain in his neck had become almost unbearable. Desperate, Solon and his crew left the course and checked into the emergency room of Memorial Community Hospital in Jefferson City.
"I thought we were out of the race right there," Solon said later. The doctors advised him to stay off his bike for four or five days, but he wasn't about to do that. Instead, he underwent some physical therapy and was fitted with a whiplash brace, and off he rode again.
The brace—a ring of foam around his neck-relieved the pain but made it extremely difficult to see the road surface, especially at night. That led to the makeshift bungee-cord harness. By this time, he was again pursuing Secrest, who, despite suffering from nausea, had established a 90-minute lead.
By Aug. 19, and the Illinois-Indiana state line, Solon had regained first place. But the experienced Secrest was still confident of victory. He knew that in the mountains of West Virginia, Solon would pay dearly for forging ahead in Kansas. Secrest told race director John Marino, "I expect Bob Breedlove [in third place] and Michael Trail [in fifth] will probably pass Solon, but I don't expect they'll pass me."
Over the next 24 hours, through Indiana and Ohio, Secrest and Solon juggled the lead as one rider and then the other stopped to rest. Then on the morning of Aug. 20, Solon found Secrest waiting for him in Athens, Ohio, where the race course first encountered the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
"We started the climb together, and then it turned into a race," says Solon. "We took the first baby climb together, and then I took off. I heard that he expected me to break apart at that point." Far from it. Solon outgunned Secrest and built a lead that would sustain him all the way to the finish line at the George Washington Bridge.
Secrest, a brash but highly professional competitor on the ultramarathon circuit, has known surprise and frustration in the RAAM before. In '85, his third RAAM, he dueled with Jonathan Boyer, another professional road racer, all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, where Boyer got away because Secrest had refused to ride in what he considered to be dangerous fog.
The following year, Secrest fell and broke his collarbone 2,378 miles into the race, and Pete Penseyres went on to set the record of eight days, nine hours and 47 minutes that Solon would break in 1989. Secrest finally won the '87 race. His performance, which included fighting off a last-minute surge by Trail, earned him ABC's Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Week award, over Martina Navratilova's eighth Wimbledon victory. In 1988 Secrest did not compete.
After the '89 race, an exhausted and aching Solon admitted that the trek through West Virginia was "the most difficult climbing I have ever done in my life." He had entered only one RAAM before—in 1987, the year Secrest won—but had been forced to drop out in Nevada when he came down with pneumonia. Next month he will be defending his RAAM title. He hopes it won't turn out to be another pain in the neck.
With only his support van for company, Secrest was still the leader in the Arizona desert.
Solon was eight days from victory as he left Palm Springs.