Race Across Oregon 2005 - the crew chief's perspective

by Susan Otcenas

Race Across Oregon took place June 4-5th. I was the crew chief for a 4-person team dubbed Team Bag Balm. Team Bag Balm was a mixed team consisting of two men (Scott & Richard) and two women (Linda & Laura), along with 5 crew members (me, Kyle, Jeff, Jay & Michael). What follows is an account of the race from my perspective. I hope you enjoy reading.

Team Bag Balm Uddership
Team Bag Balm's UDDERSHIP, getting ready for take-off

Saturday, 3:30 am. The alarm won't go off until 5:00am but I'm already awake. I'm trying to will myself back to sleep, but everything that needs to be done pre-race is swirling through my head.

Saturday 4:45 a.m. Well, sleep seems pointless now, may as well get up and shower.

Saturday 6:00am Leave the house. Gas up the RV we rented as our "lead" vehicle, which will carry the riders. Gas up my Nissan pickup truck, which will be the "pace" car, following the active rider for the entire 538 miles. My 2-seater Nissan is a last minute substitution for Scott's Subaru, which had mechanical issues on Thursday night. The Nissan is small and the gear needed by the pace crew (food, drink, medical supplies, maps, etc.) barely fits. They will be unable to recline the passenger seat to sleep. Stop at Starbucks. On the road to the Holiday Inn at PDX.

Saturday 7:00am We arrive in time to cheer for our friend Ken Morton, the lead-out rider for the 2-person team dubbed Candy Ass Llamas. The 2-person teams leave at 7:00 am (the soloists left in the dark at 5:00 am). Now we have two hours left to our 9am race time. We put the signage on the vehicles (numbers, "bike race ahead" signs, the Team Bag Balm Banner).

Saturday 7:30 am The riders arrive and begin stowing their gear in the RV and loading bikes.

Scott Saturday 9:00am Scott, our lead-out rider, departs along with the other 4-person teams. The weather is sunny and cool, and we're all excited. Scott will ride the first 20 miles. No exchanges of riders is allowed during that mileage. The crew vehicles must all move en masse to the 20 mile location, at which point exchanges may begin. During those 20 miles, the riders will be followed by a neutral support vehicle carrying wheels (for flats).

Race Start to Time Station 1 (Maupin): The first part of the race takes the racers all the way up Highway 26. The climb is at a steady grade of 6%. All of the Team Bag Balm racers are climbing well. Our strategy for the race is to have each rider out on the course for approximately 30 minutes at a time. So all of the riders get a piece of the climb. The views of Mt Hood are incredible. The morning is clear and the mountain still has a lot of snow on it. Laura gets the leg over Bennett Pass and waaaaaaay down the other side. I think she enjoyed the descent!

We arrive at time station 1 in Maupin at 3:57 pm, having covered 120 miles in 7 hours for an average speed of 17.14mph. This is impressive, given the amount of climbing in the 1st 120 miles. We are 14 minutes behind Team Head Hunters, which is our only competition in the 4-person mixed team (they have 3 men and 1 woman on the team).

Linda Time Station 1 (Maupin) to Time Station 2 (Fossil): Heading out of Time Station 1, we make a hard left onto Bake Oven Road. A few weeks ago when we pre-rode this course, Richard was the lucky winner on this climb. Today it's Linda. The sun is out and the climb is long and hard. The 1st four miles are the toughest and Linda guts it out in the heat. Then the road climbs more gently before finally reaching the top of Bake Oven Summit at 3516 feet. Laura has some cramps at ~mile 150 and we have to pull her off the road early. Must get her to eat more food.

The descent into Antelope is a screamer. During our pre-ride, Richard passed a minivan while tucked in on his aerobars. Today, Laura gets this descent - no passing of minivans permitted! Somewhere between Antelope and Fossil, we reel in our 1st solo rider, Cadet Bryant. Catching him this early, I know he will be a DNF for sure.

At 7 pm we begin "actively" following our rider. What this means is that the pace car must closely follow the rider, such that the rider is always in the headlights of the pace vehicle. Up until this point, the pace car would pull over, watch the rider go down the road a 1/4 mile or so, then move up the road again, pull over, etc, which is called leapfrog support. At 7pm that all changes. This is where the race becomes very intense for the pace car drivers. They (Jeff & Michael) must stay close enough to the rider to keep him/her in the headlights, yet simultaneously manage to not run over said rider. This will be tricky in the pitch black night when a rider is descending a hill at 30 miles per hour. This also means that if the crew needs a "biology break", or needs to swap drivers due to fatigue, the rider MUST stop. Rules are rules. It is our understanding that some teams give their pace car riders pee bottles, but ya know, we just ain't that hard core.

Team Bag Balm Bullship
The BULLSHIP follows a rider up the hill

We reach the time station in Fossil at 8:18pm. The Head Hunters have a solid 30 minute lead on us now. 3 gals in a white minivan supporting another rider ask to use the RV's bathroom. We joke about charging them $5 apiece to offset the RV rental fees.

We've covered 191 miles in 11hrs 18 minutes - average speed of 16.9 miles so far.

Time Station 2 (Fossil) to Time Station 3 (Long Creek)

Linda is on the bike and does the first part of the climb out of Fossil. Scott finishes the climb to Butte Creek Summit and gets to scream down the 10-mile descent into Service Creek. We do an exchange at the bottom and Richard takes over. The crew hops into the store at Service Creek - they had just closed but let us come in for drinks - I buy some iced coffee. It's 8:30 pm, its dang near dark, and I sense a long night ahead.

Darkness falls and now is when the race begins to feel a little surreal to me. The riders are getting tired. The crew is getting tired. During daylight, everyone had been pretty boisterous. Sitting up, chatting, cheering each other on alot. Now, the RV has gotten very quiet. Riders are coming in from their legs, getting some food, and stretching out on the bed in the back of the darkened RV. Up front, we turn off the CD player and chat quietly. Our RV drivers are Kyle, a friend of mine from Gig Harbor, and Jay, a friend of Richard with whom he works at HP. Both have generously given of their time to support a team of riders that they hardly know. As it gets later and we get more tired, I wonder if they are still having fun.

Now that it's dark, we begin catching solo riders more frequently. These roads out here are deserted and we can see a long way up and down some of these roads and climbs. All of the pace vehicles are required to have flashing yellow lights on their roofs, so the teams are easy to spot in the total darkness of Central Oregon. As we pass riders, we peer at the vehicles to read their team number off the side of the car. It's our way of keeping tabs on the progress of the race. All the riders we'e been catching so far are rookies.

We reach Time Station 3 in Long Creek at 1:01 am. After 16 hours on the road, we have covered 270 miles. Average speed so far is about 16.9 mph. The Head Hunters are 54 minutes ahead of us.

Time Station 3 (Long Creek) to Time Station 4 (Prineville).

We get our first Llama sighting sometime after leaving Long Creek. We see Ken at the top of a summit, ready to descend with music going strong from the top of his pace car. We cheer for him during one of our exchanges. We see the llamas off and on for a while. In fact, we dang near kill a llama during one of our exchanges. Laura was finishing and Linda was taking over. Candy *** Lisa was descending directly behind and during the transition attempted to go around our pace vehicle. Unfortunately, our pace driver didn't know she was so close behind him and when he pulled out a little to left it looked like he nearly caused her to run right into the back of our pace vehicle. At least, this is what is all looked like from my perch in the passenger seat of the RV. And it freaked me out. It freaked out our pace car driver (Jeff) too. After everyone piled back in to the RV, we had a pow wow on exchanges. We decided to slow them down during the darkness hours. Up to this point, our finishing rider would come barreling up to the RV, while our starting rider would start cranking up the speed. The two would cross wheels and the new rider would take off. High speed exchanges mean little time lost. But given the conditions - dark (and did I mention it's raining now too??) - and our increasing tiredness, we decide that the safest thing to do is slow it down. Get the finishing rider to stop at the RV and the starting rider to take off slowly. We can resume our previous method after the sun comes up. Unsafe riders are dead riders and we want to bring home everyone in one piece.

The night wears on. I make a lot of hot soup and oatmeal for the riders. I make sure Laura eats. Laura doesn't like to eat. Linda & Scott are having some vague intestinal issues as well and food is starting to become unappealing. But everyone knows that calories are critical to finishing the race. Richard, on the other hand, has a stomach of iron. It seems he can eat anything. He will eat most of a 1/2 pound of sliced salami before the trip is over.

Laura By 4:15 am, I'm getting tired. I've been awake for 25 hours. While everyone else has gotten some sleep (Kyle & Jay in the bunk over the driver, the riders in the bed at the back of the RV and Jeff & Michael in the passenger seat of the pace car) I've been awake continually. This is a situation of my own making. I'd planned on getting none. But after my back seizes up at 4:15, I decide to lay down. I leave Kyle & Jay in charge, and climb up in to the bunk. Of course, I can't sleep. I listen to Jay & Kyle talk. Linda finishes a leg and comes back in. She makes a comment about me finally going to sleep - I comment that I'm just laying down. I do manage to snooze for 20 minutes, but then I'm up again for good. There will be no more sleep for me.

I can't recall where we are when the sun comes up. Somewhere around Mitchell, I think. Sometime in those first hours of daylight, we pass a solo rider sitting in the rain in the bushes at the side of the road. His pace car is stopped and a member of his crew is holding a plastic sheet around him. He looks like hell. Tired, and in some distress. We pull the RV over to the side of the road and I jump out to ask him if he would like a cup of hot cocoa. He just looks at me and nods. I raced back to the RV and made him a huge cup with extra cocoa. We leave him sitting in the passenger seat of his pace car. I hope he finishes, but I have my doubts. An hour or so later, we see him back on his bike again. He's sitting up riding no hands. We all lean out the windows of the RV and cheer for him, telling him to hang in there, he's looking great. He smiles and we leave him. We don't see him again.

At around 6 or 7 am, I start brewing coffee. Having the RV has been awesome. Besides the microwave, which has been allowed us to make hot water for cocoa, soup and oatmeal, it has plenty of electrical outlets for charging batteries and making coffee in the coffee pot I brought along. It also has a refrigerator, so we have not had to rely on coolers. The coffee drinkers (me, Scott, Linda & Jay) are loving the Costa Rican blend I bought.

We arrive at time station 4 in Prineville at 9:34 a.m. We have covered 406.5 miles in 24.5 hours. Average speed of 16.6 mph. Jay & Kyle get Taco Time for breakfast at the gas station. Shockingly, we are told that Team Head Hunters has NOT checked in at this time station yet. We can't believe that we could have passed them in the middle of the night without noticing. Our working theory is that they skipped the time station. We wonder why they would do that, and what the time penalty will be.

Time Station 4 (Prineville ) to Time Station 5 (Chevron Gas Station, Hwy 26, base of Mt. Hood)

Scott and Richard exchange in front of Smith Rocks
Scott and Richard exchange with stunning view of Smith Rocks in the background

After the sun came up, the rain pretty much stopped. We even got some sun for this section. The course flattens out a bit. We go through Madras and pass Smith Rocks. I make my first finishing-time estimate of 7:30 pm, which I eventually revise to 6:30 pm. Richard & Linda call their families to let them know what time to arrive. In Warm Springs we take the right turn on rt 3 towards Ka-Nee-Ta. The winds begin to pick up. Lots and lots of wind. That would be a headwind, for the most part, with some really vicious cross-winds thrown in for good measure. The riders climbed a loooong pass into the teeth of a headwind that felt like it would knock me over standing outside the RV. Laura started it, with Linda and then Scott fighting against the wind. We pass 2 more solo riders on this climb. We get down on our knees and and bow, saying "we're not worthy, we're not worthy". It really put some smiles on the faces of a couple of very tired cyclists!

It's around this time that we crew made two very bad mistakes. We received a radio call from the pace vehicle that Richard had pulled over. His skewer was not properly tightened on his front wheel. Two exchanges later, Linda's front brake was not closed. This was frightening stuff for all of us. Fatigue makes us careless and we are concerned that we are making mistakes that can get someone seriously hurt.

The biggest challenge on this entire section, for ME as the crew chief, was keeping everyone eating. Stomachs were becoming finicky. Laura could barely force any food into herself. I practically force fed her. A few crackers here, a banana there. A pop tart (hey, it was the only thing she would agree to at one point Two packets of GU before each leg. I made lots of sandwiches for the riders who could stomach them.

Finally, we begin the long climb towards time station 5. We roll ever upwards through the pine forests, and the rain begins to come down hard again. Earlier in the day we heard that it was foggy and misty up at Timberline, and we begin to worry about snow. Jay, Kyle & I discuss our strategy for the final 6 mile climb up to Timberline. All along, we have planned to change riders every mile on the climb. It's VERY steep and we want to get up there as quickly as possible. Having taken the bikes on and off the draftmaster more than 60 times already, we know that it will take too much time to do that with one mile pulls. We decide to fully assemble all the bikes at Time Station5. Bodies and bikes will go inside the RV (with 1 bike in the bed of the pick-up, due to space constraints. We will then just pull riders and bikes in and out more quickly during this final phase.

We reach Time Station 5 at 5:19 pm. Just 10 more miles to go, all uphill! We've covered 529 miles in 32 hrs and 19 minutes. Avg Spd of 16.36 mph.

Time Station 5 to Finish.

Everything goes smoothly in the last 10 miles. We get everyone smoothly in and out of the RV for their pulls up the steep climb. I can't imagine the burn in their legs at this point. Scott does one pull where two large deer jump out into the road in front of him. He doesn't miss a stroke. 0.6 miles before the finish, we let all of the riders out of the vehicle so that they can cross the finish line together. We crew members zoom up ahead so we can cheer for them as they cross the finish line. The race organizers are waiting and cheering them on as well.

Final official finishing time is 6:23 pm, 33 hours and 23 minutes after leaving Portland. They finished with an average mph of almost exactly 16 mph.

Standing at the finish line, I felt the world shift beneath my feet. Now that is was all over, I felt like I was going to fall over. Scott mentioned that he felt dizzy too. On our way down the mountain after the ride, we saw the 2nd and 3rd place solo riders finishing. We stopped the RV and hung out the windows, cheering for them to keep going. I can't imagine how deep these men must have been digging to find the strength to make that final climb.

Scott, Richard, Linda & Laura are 4 amazing people. Never once did anyone say they didn't think they could do it. Everyone maintained a positive attitude. During the planning stages of this ride, we discussed what we all hoped to get out of this ride. While everyone wanted to be competitive and do their best, I think all of us had the over-riding goal of coming out of this better friends than we went in. Mission accomplished.

Team Bag Balm and Crew
Team Bag Balm and Crew