Vic Armijo / Headed toward Mt. Airy, Maryland
June 23, 2011 4:45pm EDT
The crew of the Mighty RAAM Media 1 van was truly impressed when we caught up with solo male leader Christoph Strasser yesterday morning. We found him talking on the phone with his girlfriend Sabine back in Austria. He was smiling, jovial, and aside from being sunburned and having stubble on his chin, he looked about as fresh as he did eight days ago in Oceanside, California.
For the rest of the day and into the wee hours of this morning, we shot photos and videos and interviewed Strasser in repeated drive-bys. Again we were impressed with the 29 year old; he climbed some of the steepest grades at nearly 10 mph while managing to keep smiling as he took on what many have called the toughest miles of RAAM. Most riders dread the Appalachians; where steep grades are lined up one after another, some with elevation gains of as much as 1000’, followed by a short descent and yet another climb with no time for recovery from the previous. 5-time RAAM winner Jure Robic often said that he looked forward to the Appalachians. For the late champion, who’s strength was often most evident in the waning mile of RAAM, these torturous inclines were an opportunity to reinforce his position, or drop those who dared chase. Yesterday, before reaching these legendary climbs, we asked Strasser—a rider who Robic touted to be a future contender—how he expected to do in the Appalachians. “I don’t know, I’ve never been this far. We shall see.
The Media 1 crew left Strasser at 1:00am this morning, (for unlike him we need some sleep) and found him again at daybreak. So how was Strasser’s first encounter with the Appalachians? “Much better than I had expected,” he said, “I was prepared for that in my head. You know, in Austria and generally in Europe, we are used to such mountains which are very steep. The Rocky Mountains (for instance), they are very easy for us that are from Europe. That is what we know from back home.”
Still, overnight those relentless Appalachian climbs had taken a big chunk out of Strasser’s overall speed average. This morning his overall had dropped to 15.11mph, just short of Pete Penseyres’ 15.4mph record. But with the tough climbing behind him and plenty of level roads ahead, there’s a very real chance that Strasser can bring that average back up, or at least finish at better than 15mph, something accomplished only by Penseyres and by Danny Wyss in 2009 (15.28mph).
To be this close to joining the ranks of such luminaries is the result of seeing to every detail of his race, from having the right equipment, to having an experienced and efficient crew; and as we’ve seen in recent days when Strasser stood and climbed when others might sit, and when he shifted up and pedaled when others might coast, “I tried to make very good speed on all of the sections even when I was already very far in the lead,” he said this morning, “Just because it’s RAAM. When you do RAAM you should give 100 per cent every time. This is the very most important race.”
That important race will soon be over for Strasser, who we just saw Strasser ride through historic Gettysburg on his way to time station #51 in Hanover, PA., From there he’ll head to the famed Mt. Airy bicycle shop—it’s part museum, part bike shop and entirely fun. And then it’s “just’ 54.6 mile to the finish. Strasser had a hard time dealing with his DNF of the 2009 Race Across America. It took a while for him to come to terms with having failed at his dream of doing well in RAAM. By tonight, the young Austrian will have truly earned his redemption. “I just love cycling,” he said this morning while he was powering up a steep climb, “And I love this race, and I love other races. When I am on the bike I just feel happy. It’s no problem when it is past eight days or more. I still love it.”
STEEPER THAN IT LOOKS: It's a well-known phenomenon that photographs are lousy at conveying the steepness of hills. See how steep this looks? It's actually much steeper...really.