In 2008 the Serpie Golden Girls conquered the Race Across America and just over a decade later they're ready to do it all over again.
The Serpentine Golden Girls are off again! We completed the Race Across America (RAAM) in 2008, and on June 15th 2019, 11 years later, we plan to set off from California again. With an average age of 70 years, we will be the oldest team of women ever to have attempted it. RAAM is described as one of the most respected and longest running endurance sports events in the world. The organisers say (through rose colour spectacles, in my view) that ‘The Race Across America inspires everyone who has been a part of it – racer, crew, staff and fans alike – a true test of speed, endurance, strength and camaraderie, the ideal combination of work and fun!’ They go on to say ‘There is no other event that tests a team’s spirit from beginning to end.’ – which is certainly not an understatement.
RAAM is a highly organised cycle race, approximately 3,070 miles across America from Oceanside in California to Annapolis in Maryland, West to East. The route now crosses 12 states with 30,770m of climbing. Only 15 per cent of the racers are women. Four-person relay teams have nine days to complete the race and cut-off times are soul-destroyingly rigid. We will need every marginal gain we can possibly find to make sure we meet the 9-day team cut off. Last time there were three all-female teams racing alongside mixed and male teams of four. Entries are still coming in for next year.
In 2006 I was one of the 8-person crew for the Just Sweat No Tears team headed up by Brian Welsh. Memorably, I was the driver when another car hit one of our riders at a cross roads. I will never forget Russell being thrown over my bonnet before landing safely and with relatively minor injuries. But overall it was a fabulous experience, and great fun being part of a brilliantly supportive crew, facilitating the fantastic achievement of those four male riders. I had taken my own bike in the hope of doing a bit of riding, but no such luck, and it even got plundered for crucial spare parts. So there and then, I resolved to get a team together and have a go. Where was the go-to club? I turned to Serpentine Running Club and in 2007, with three other `older` women – Hilary Walker, Hilary Webber, and Margaret Sills – we started to plan. We put out a request for a suggested team name on our Serpentine e-group. A variety of suggestions flowed back, some less than polite! We settled on the `Serpentine Golden Girls’.
In early 2008, we set about assembling our crew and our vehicles. RAAM is costly: paying vehicle-hire costs, rider and crew fares from the UK, overnight hotel stays at the beginning and the end, as well as fuel and food throughout. Our nine-person crew was terrific, even though on the occasional sleep deprived moment they may have regretted their generous offers. We knew we needed a crew chief and deputy, a bike expert or two, a physio/masseuse or two, and others, all of whom could drive, help to prepare meals, yet cope with the irregularity and lack of sleep. We advertised on a physio college notice board for a crew member as I’d known from crewing how stiffness crept in big time by Day 3. To our delight, one of our volunteer masseuses was also a paramedic. Richard was our main bike expert and we were very fortunate that his partner Gemma was able to persuade Hyundai to donate the use of two support vehicles as well as be part of our crew too. A test for any relationship but they were happily married the following year.
At just over 65 years I was the oldest team member and certainly the least able cyclist embarking on those 750-plus miles we each rode. RAAM is usually all about the wind, often with a prevailing westerly, but we had good weather apart from close proximity at one point to a spectacular typhoon. Although costlier, it is more efficient for night time change-overs if the team has two support vehicles rather than one, in addition to the Winnebago for sleeping, resting and eating. But with a crew of 9 and a team of 4, peaceful, deep sleep for everyone, even when the Winnebago is stationary, is erratic and often far too brief. Paucity of sleep is inevitable, and all the bike training, and team building doesn’t really prepare you for that eight to nine-day span. Dynamics between the two pairs of riders matter far less than that of the crew, as you rarely see the other two for more than a fleeting ‘Hi!’ before you are off, one riding, the other close behind in the support vehicle. The riders also have the benefit of cycling thus getting rid of any tensions, enjoying the superb scenery or the smells and sounds of the darkness, the animals that cross in front, lights in the far, far distance of straight roads for mile after mile. High Five energy gels with caffeine every hour sustained me. Thank you High Five.
RAAM permits riding with a headphone in one ear. My son had shown me how to download two of my CDs onto the iPod and then left me to do the rest myself. Somehow, I didn’t find the time to do it so ended up with just the two CDs’ worth of Billy Joel music to listen to for over 700 miles. I was either going to love or hate Billy Joel for the rest of my life. Fortunately, it was the former and recently, I went all the way to Dublin and Old Trafford to see him live in concert, evoking powerful and wonderful memories of varied, impressive scenes of rural America associated with Uptown Girl. The others preferred to cycle without music, taking in the ambient sounds as they rode.
As a four-person relay team, we split into pairs and for eight hours rode one hour on – one hour off; the non-rider sitting in the support vehicle following behind the rider, which also gave crucial light at night-time. My relay partner Hils is a far better hill-climber than me and she stoically did more of the climbing. Our Sat Nav showed us when hills were imminent and she certainly went out early sometimes and did more than her fair share. I had the brilliant luck too of coming down from the Rockies for one whole dazzling and scenic hour. Travelling west to east meant riders see all the sunrises and no sunsets, however, again I was lucky for a few miles when I turned left into a breath-taking sunset.
My best and abiding memory of RAAM was one very special dawn. I took over from Hils in Utah when it was only just getting light. The stone rocks of the National Park on either side were a shimmering pink colour and the natural rock formation loomed larger and larger on the right side with a huge Indian reservation monument, the Navajo Nation Tribal Park, on the left. I cycled silently through the pink sandy desert scenery. As it got lighter the support vehicle was able to drop back a bit so I was totally on my own – alone on my bike with my thoughts and, as ever, Billy Joel helping me ‘Keeping the Faith’ – feeling totally safe and supported by the team. Life doesn’t get better!
So, The Serpentine Golden Girls will go again, start date June 15th 2019. Hilary Walker, Hilary Webber, Margaret Sills and I are looking for a few more crew members for this wonderful experience – travelling across America, up and down the mountains, being the essential part of our Serpie team! We have our crew chief, Brian Welsh, lined up and he too is recruiting. We are exploring filming and PR opportunities as the oldest team; the media are very interested in good news stories about our ageing population as the publicity associated with my Irongran book has unexpectedly shown. OMG, I can’t believe it – I will be 76 years old by June 2019! Our story highlights too the benefits of belonging to our great and supportive Serpentine club. We are exploring possibilities of a film unit following our training programme, both cycling and crewing.
We need some sponsorship too; if there are any Serpies who could help with ideas for financial support then please do get in touch. We will be evidencing all the ‘Save Our NHS’, social care budgets, and get more active themes. It would be great to hear from any of you with other ideas. Please email email@example.com. And I promise that crewing is fun as well as hard work whilst travelling though fantastic countryside and being that essential part of the Serpentine Golden Girls team. As RAAM describes it: ‘The ideal combination of work and fun!’
Eddie Brocklesby joined Serpies in 1999. She helped to set up the tri sessions, organise trips to Lanzarote, had a spell as welfare officer and is a very proud life member. The club has been the over-riding influence in her `athletic` and social life- having fun!