Unsupported vs. Supported Racing

 

Qoroz logoLast week I drove up to the Cotswolds to have a chat with the guys at Qoroz about the Trans Am Bike Race. During the course of the discussion, I was asked what I meant when I said that the race was “entirely unsupported.” It was an important question — after all, it’s the unsupported nature of the Trans Am Bike Race that differentiates itself from the other race across America: RAAM.

After giving it some thought, I decided that it would be a good idea to try and give a definition of ‘unsupported’ here, to give those who aren’t familiar with the bikepacking / adventure racing world an idea of what it means in the context of the Trans Am Bike Race. However, that’s where it becomes a bit more difficult — the line between supported and unsupported isn’t a black and white distinction, rather it’s a sliding scale.

How unsupported is ‘unsupported’?

While it’s clear to see that there’s a massive difference between RAAM riders (who have a support car, spare bikes, team masseuses, mechanics etc.) and, for example, riders in the Transcontinental Race (who must navigate themselves, carry their own gear, and not accept any outside help), where exactly should the line be drawn?

It is for exactly this reason that Guinness World Records refuse to differentiate between supported and unsupported around the world cycle records — there is just too much ambiguity, not to mention evidence gathering, involved in trying to categorize each attempt.

Perhaps the ‘elephant rule’ needs to be used to identify an unsupported effort. While its difficult to define an elephant in prescriptive terms (large animal, big ears, tusks, trunk), you just know one when you see one. Using this as a guiding principle it’s easy to see that there is a massive difference between Mike Hall’s unsupported around the world cycle effort (107 days 2 hours 30 minutes) and Thomas Großerichter’s attempt with full support crew (105 days 1 hour and 44 minutes).

America’s unsupported bike race

As difficult as the distinction may be, a race needs concrete rules to ensure that all competitors are on the same playing field; the Trans Am Bike Race is no exception. So how does it define unsupported?

Tour Divide: one of the original bikepacking races

Tour Divide: one of the original bikepacking races

Taking its cues from other bikepacking races like the Tour Divide and the Transcontinental Race, it’s telling that the first item listed on the rules page of the website is ‘spirit’ — the race is first and foremost a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ to ride without outside support. That means no team cars, no mechanics, and no drafting. While a rider is allowed to use services to resupply food or equipment, and may rent a room or service their bike, these services must be commercially available to all riders — not private. The following paragraph from the race website drives home the ethos of the rules:

“Trans Am Bike Race strives for equal opportunity within the GC … the Trans Am requires that every challenger — from those living along the route to those living on other continents — have an equal playing field.”

Truly a self-sufficient race?

To play Devil’s Advocate, it could be suggested that a race such as the Trans Am Bike Race passes by so many towns and services that riders are not truly self-sufficient.

However, resupply is only half of the challenge. My experience of unsupported racing suggests that it is the logistical element of riding unsupported that is the most difficult. Just managing navigation, sleep arrangements, resupply stops, and running-repairs requires a huge amount of time and concentration.

2013 Transcontinental: fully unsupported

2013 Transcontinental: fully unsupported

Further, relying on services too much can be a handicap. While it would be possible for riders in the Trans Am Bike Race to sleep inside every night, or linger in restaurants for hot meals several times a day, these stops would almost certainly place them off a competitive pace. It’s much quicker to roll out of a bivy and eat breakfast on the bike than extract yourself from a warm motel.

Racers will have to pick their own strategy, and manage that strategy during the race — that is where true self-sufficiency, determination, and drive come into play. Unsupported racing places the emphasis on individual decision-making; from the first mile to the last riders will have to have their wits about them.

Why?

One of the other questions that Qoroz raised was why? Why do an unsupported race across America when a perfectly good supported one already exists? John Howard, one of the founders of RAAM and a multiple Olympian, has perhaps already supplied the answer to that question. When he was asked why he was asked why race across America at all:

“The lure is just the fact that it exists. It’s the mountain to be climbed.”

Unsupported racing is another frontier, allowing competitors to truly push their own limits, emphasizing self-reliance and individual ability — rather than testing the ability of a team to push its rider. I’m not suggesting that RAAM is not a challenge, it is of course one of the toughest endurance events in world, but it’s a different kind of event.

Something new

An unsupported race across America has never been attempted before, and that is one of the most alluring things about it. When the race kicks off on June 7th next year, no one knows what will happen, what a competitive time will be, or how deep riders will have to push.

While there is no precedent for an organized unsupported race across the USA, countless unsupported cycle tourists, including myself, have completed the journey. Touring aside, there have been at least two attempts to complete the crossing unsupported in a ‘fastest known time.’

In the 1985 RAAM, won by former pro Jonathan Boyer, Wayne Phillips, an experienced Canadian randonneur, attempted to complete the race unsupported. His attempt ended in tragedy. He was struck by a hit and run driver in Texas, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. As a result of his fortune, RAAM organizers introduced a new rule, requiring a support vehicle for all future racers.

More recently Jay Petervary rode the RAAM route unsupported at the same time as the 2011 race — although the organizers did not sanction his attempt. Petervary finished in just under 13 days, a time that would have placed him just outside the 12 day cut off of the supported event.

It will be interesting to see how close racers in the Trans Am Bike Race can get to the ‘magic’ 250 mile per day mark required to finish RAAM within the time cut. Bring on June 2014.

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