A Parkite conquers ‘the world’s toughest bicycle race’
June 30, 2018
Parkite Michael Conti conquered the 2018 Race Across America on Saturday, June 23, arriving in Annapolis, Maryland, after a nine-day journey across the United States by bicycle.
Conti placed fourth overall in this year's road cycle race, ranking as the top American in a field of 17 competitors in the solo under-50 category.
"It's been a dream of mine for 30-plus years," Conti said. "It was surreal, crossing the finish line. There's no words."
Pacific to Atlantic
The 2018 Race Across America, which organizers bill as the "world's toughest bicycle race," began on June 12 and consisted of a trek spanning more than 3,000 miles from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis.
Its route, which bisects the country and shares the road with automobile traffic, passes through 12 states, almost every biome the continental U.S. offers, a number of major mountain ranges and two towns named Greensburg. The race is a familiar summer sight to residents along its path; a stretched-out parade of cyclists and crew cars on highway shoulders.
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Conti, a 46-year-old former business owner in Park City, had attempted the RAAM once before in 2016, before an automobile accident involving his crew's vehicle forced him out of the event. This year's route went past the site of the crash outside Alamosa, Colorado, quite literally putting that dashed dream behind him.
Having run the full length of the race successfully this year, however, he says he's satisfied.
"This is a race I won't do again," he said. "It's physically demanding, it's time-consuming; it's time-consuming on my family."
A ticking clock
Unlike other long-distance bike races like the Tour de France, the RAAM is a nonstop competition. Rather than taking place in stages, the clock doesn't stop ticking until the last rider crosses the finish line. Racers and their crews stop to eat, drink and sleep at their own peril, and time management is crucial to performing well.
"On paper, (a pace of 300 miles per day) seems super easy," Conti said. "The continual buildup of lack of sleep and the miles you're putting in really starts to add up midway into the race."
Physically, Conti said he pushed himself for a year to train for the event, biking both on- and off-trail. Living in Park City didn't hurt his performance, either, as the RAAM's route includes challenges like the 10,000-foot Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado's San Juan range.
"Nothing around here is flat; every ride you go on is hilly," Conti said. "I just put a lot of miles in close up to the race."
The race's terrain varies from the sun-scorched Arizona desert, the southern Rockies in Colorado, the plains of Illinois, the green hollers of West Virginia and everything in between, providing a wide range of challenges for racers to overcome. And that's not including the traffic the race shares the roads with and the riders' physical conditions.
"I ran into some hand issues and saddle issues that I wasn't expecting later in the race, so that was kind of difficult," Conti said.
While racing across the golden, wind turbine-dotted plains of Southwestern Kansas in June can feel like a journey into the world's biggest hair dryer, Conti doesn't mind heat as much as others might. And for most of the race, the weather held up reasonably well. However, "brutal" rainstorms in the Midwest posed one of the biggest environmental challenges for the exposed bicyclists, he said.
"We had four days of just solid rain," Conti said. "I got up from a crew change, I had a 20-minute nap and massage and I got up and looked outside and it was just coming down in sheets. … If it was a local race or something like that I would have stayed home, but in a race across America you've got to keep moving."
However, two of his biggest takeaways from the experience were seeing parts of the country that he might not have otherwise from behind the handlebars (with the Appalachians as a route highlight) as well as encountering supporters in strange places.
"Two o'clock in the morning and I'd hear cowbells on the side of the road, in the rain, in Kansas," he said. "There's someone out there cheering me on because they're watching it live on the tracker. … It's like, 'Are you kidding me? This is the coolest thing ever!'"
For now, though, Conti said that before getting back into Utah's ultra events, he needs to recharge and to process his experience. Pedaling from coast to coast can do that.
"I'm still trying to wrap my head around it; I'm still a little fuzzy from everything," he said. "It's been a humbling experience to go out and achieve a dream."