My report from Race across Oregon 2012

After giving it a lot of thought and weighing of the quality of racing and competition, the financial input, and how many days of leave I still have, I made a decision somewhere in the June that after eight long years since the race organizer George Thomas has invited me to his race, I will finally attend Race Across Oregon RAO 2012. This is one of the most difficult qualifying races for RAAM in the United States, 840km long and with more than 12,000 climbing.

 

The main objective was to test my racing shape 11 months before my next big goal - RAAM 2013. This year in June, staying at home, all I could do was nervously watch the race and Strasser’s and Schoch’s fight for the victory. It was evident that there is no lack of motivation in this ultra-cycling veteran yet. Immediately after the race I decided that next year, on the 10th anniversary of my first participation in 2003, I will again be there trying to win RAAM. And the next day after RAAM my preparation period for the race next year has officially started. My objective at RAO 2012 was to ride the race very hard and (in addition to winning of course) to improve the route record as much as possible. The route record until this year was around 34 hours. I prepared a very confident timetable set for me to ride for 32 hours which would mean bettering the record for more than two hours. The second time table was a "Dream" one with the goal to end the race under the magical number of 30 hours.

Due to the lack of days of leave, I could only afford to stay in the U.S. less than a week. Because of financial constraints, I also came to the race completely alone, without any of my Slovenian crew. But I had no worries about this as my two very capable crew members from RAAM 2011 were willing to sacrifice their time and crew for me. Because of the length of the race, Tim Melum and Shawn Urban were joined by their friend Dan Davis. My travel to the U.S. ended in disarray, as both of my bags were lost by the plane company, one with my bike and part of sports nutrition and the other with all other equipment and food for the race. And not only that, while waiting for my lost baggage in New York, I missed a connecting flight to Seattle and had to sleep on the floor at JFK airport. For fear of coming on this long (and expensive) trip and at the end might be unable to start the race, we immediately initiated a campaign of "who would borrow me a bike?" The response from my American friends was immediate. As I have arrived in Seattle already three cyclists offered me their bikes. When Tim came to pick me up at the airport he already had with him a borrowed bike from Dave Preston. Many thanks to all for your kindness, especially to Dave, his bike was a Trek Madone in excellent condition and also a perfect size for me.

As I reported my pieces of lost baggage at the airport in Seattle, I luckily found out that one piece is already on the way from Paris and I could only wish it would be my bike. To ride a 800+ km long race on a borrowed bike would be looking for trouble, no matter how good the bike was. My prayers were answered, after returning from lunch to the airport, my bike suitcase was there waiting for us, with my GIANT TCR Advanced SL inside. I admit it was a huge relief! After arriving at the start town Hood River, Oregon, we met up with the organizer George Thomas, who introduced us to  the Thomsen family, who were so kind to have offered us accommodation before and after the race.

As far as racing equipment, I fortunately have the habit from my UCI racing times that in the backpack, which never leaves my hands, I wear all the necessary equipment to start the race - a helmet, goggles, jersey, sweat-shirt, shorts, socks and cycling shoes . So I had the basic things, I still needed a few things for the cold night and for potential rain. Immediately the next morning, a day before the race, we went to the bike shop and incidental expenses for the race have increased considerably since I had to buy a rain jacket, arm warmers, knee warmers, a vest, shorts (for training) and some extra food, because in the bike suitcase only two-thirds of the race gels were and the hydration stuff was all lost.

After the purchase I got dressed up for training and went to check the first part of the route. Of course I wanted more of a recovery ride to activate muscles still stiff from the flight, but the first part of the route proved to be very difficult - in the 55km, there was 1.200m of climbing. After two hours I had enough, I sat in the car and with the crew we checked also the last part of the route, just in case the race would be decided in the last kilometers. Well, the last ascent to Mt. Hood, from the car view seemed pleasantly light, imagine my surprise and anger later as the race was in finishing stages -  the last race’s uphill was in reality very steep, at times well over 10% ...

First things first! On Friday afternoon we had the inspection of vehicles and bikes, plus we asked the riders if we can borrow some winter gloves and the night glasses. I borrowed the gloves from one of the biggest competitors Chris Ragsdale, unfortunately no one had surplus glasses, so I bought fairly inexpensive shooting glasses (7$) at Wall Mart. We also purchased the food and drinks for me and the team. After preparing the last items in the follow car, we were asleep fairly early, as It was necessary to get up before 4AM. We had to be at the start of the race half an hour before the start, therefore at 4.30AM. I woke up before the alarm clock rang, around 3.30AM, quickly prepared breakfast, called home and began to prepare for a start. At 4AM the boys joined me, and after a quick breakfast we drove to Hood River. Things were lively at the start-line, teams and riders buzzing with excitement. 

Exactly at 5AM, we started with the parade start, George leading the riders out himself. We used a slow tempo to talk to one another, first I talked with Chris, but the longest with Seana Hogan, one of my idols from the time when I was still learning about RAAM, mainly through video. Seana is the most successful woman in the history of RAAM, with her six victories. Even more exciting that this was her ability to make a great race even among men, I think her highest finishing place was fourth. What most impressed me watching those old videos, was her crazy fast start, for which she was known. In one of these RAAM's the best man failed to catch and overtake her until the highest slopes of the Rockies! After several years of hiatus, she  returned to the ultra-cycling last year, bettered the women's 24h world record and she is planning her return to RAAM next year. So we have quite a bit in common, it was a nice little talk. Unfortunately, Seana fell during the parade because of problems with chain and her injury later proved to be too much for her to complete the race.

After the official start Mick Walsh took the lead with Chris Ragsdale following him and me following Chris, who I’ve seen as the most dangerous opponent. As we raced without the crew support for the first 21miles, I didn’t want to risk anything and I preferred to stay with the local boys (from neighbor state, Washington). In addition, for a change I wanted to start more conservatively this time around to see whether this will make me finish stronger than usual. As I said before, the terrain was pretty hard right from the start and soon we were left alone in the lead. When I looked back I saw that only one of the other competitors could follow us. Because the pace was not too hard I used one of the descents to take No.1 and during I was overtaken by Brian Eckart, for whom I’ve also expected to be a candidate for the podium. 

  
Somehow I had planned to try and take the lead after the first time station on the first longer climb. At my surprise, in the city Dufur all three men in front of me have stopped, in fact, Mick and Chris have made a U-turn, thinking we have made a wrong turn. But from Friday’s ride I was convinced that we are on right track, so I took the lead. I continued to ride at the tempo that suited me and when after two small climbs I assessed the situation for myself, I saw that all three are pretty far behind me. Of course that gave me a new energy and knowing the following miles, I just flew over the next few climbs. After passing the first time the station I learned that I lead seven minutes ahead of Chris and one more ahead of Brian. The hard climbing continued through the whole afternoon, in fact through the whole race.


Unfortunately, the surroundings were quite different from my expectations. Instead of endless forests which I expected, all around us were the plains of dry grass, some parts were carved in the beautiful rocks, as for trees (and shade) – it was not to be seen until the evening. These parts kind off reminded me of Kansas, only in much more rugged terrain. There were some longer ascents carved in the rocks, in which the afternoon heat would increase to 36°C. My average speed for the first 300km was 30km/h, despite 5.000m of climbing! Between the third and fourth TS I got the news that Eckart "made a move on me," which means he tried to decrease my advantage. When I reviewed the times at TS after the race I realized that he didn’t really decrease it, he only stopped it from increasing for the time being. My advantage grew to a little under half an hour. Since in the lead the exact data is hard to get, I just wanted to be sure and I attacked the next climb pretty hard. 

During this time we came to the area with forest and I could start to enjoy the landscape a little bit more. It wasn’t for long though as the night was just starting. Before one of the descents we were stopped by the Officials who only wanted to point out the dangerous descent with new Cheap Seal. This downhill I rode more slowly, which has proved to be wise, because there were some pretty bad corners strewn with sand. In the next miles, the only flat(-ish) part of the route followed towards Fossil. After this TS, we were up for one of the most difficult parts of the course with very steep and long slopes. I do not know whether the darkness contributed to difficulty, as I never could see how long the climb is. This has proved to be one of the most difficult parts of the race. Also I became sleepy, I specifically remember one long descent, on which I started to sleep on the bike and I quickly asked the crew for my Guarana tablets. Some downhills were very cold, so on one of the climbs we stopped for 5 minutes to dress the vest, arm warmers, hat and winter gloves. It was the only stop in the race. I admit that in the morning I was very cold a few times (the guys told me that the minimum temperature was 10°C), but I did not want to loose more time dressing up or changing clothes, but also I didn’t have much more clothing to wear to begin with ...


During the race the only information on the standings was that Eckart DNF-ed for unknown cause and later the crew didn’t know or want to answer my questions about my lead on Ragsdale. Only Goerge Thomas when  passing at night answered my question and told me the my lead was over an hour for some time. Since in the ultra-cycling race something can go wrong very quickly, and my exact advantage over the competitors has been more or less unknown, I had to race hard all the way to the finish. My watch was telling me I am going to better also my “dream” result and finish in time less than 30 hours. But there was still quite a long way to go and the final climb of Mt. Hood in front of me. As I said I was quite negatively surprised with the last climb, as on Friday's reckon by car I was sure the climb is average and not too long. What a mistake! The climb was on and off, an easy part, followed by a very steep part, easy, steep, easy, steep and so on indefinitely. For each slope, I was convinced that this was a the top of the hill, but at least five times it proved that the hill does not end there. This was also the only hill in the race in which I had to use a 34-25 gear. Probably the fatigue contributed to it and certainly a severe pain in both feet, which has started a few hours ago during the night climbing. At Mt. Hood climb I had so much pain that I could not push either standing or sitting, luckily it never hurt with same intensity on both feet at once, so I could continue slowly. Actually, it was so painful that it was the only time I wanted take a time out, just sit down and massage my feet. However I stayed patient and on route, also because I did not want to miss my chance of finishing in the new record time under 30 hours for the 840km.

Even the torment called Mt. Hood ended, followed by a beautiful and insanely fast downhill (maximum speed of 82km/h), which was, unfortunately, very cold. Without arm warmers and a vest, which I took off before the hill, I totally froze at times. In the last miles before the finish I also encountered some very strong side and head wind, the proximity of a finish has helped to overcome this as well. I crossed the finish line at the Best Western Hood River Inn motel, at 10:29 with the new record of this route - 840km with 12.400m of climbing in 29 hours 26 minutes and 11 seconds, and improved the former record by more than four hours. 

I am glad I got another victory and moved another frontier. A big thank you goes to my sponsors and to my American crew composed of Shawn Urban, Tim Melum and Dan Davis, who have done their work perfectly. Thank you all!

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