Most of us onlookers conquered the mountain the easy way — by car — and had gathered for the big moment, trying at the same time to exploit the 10,857-foot elevation for an alpine vista. It was early afternoon on June 20, 2011, and there at the summit of Wolf Creek Pass, in southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, the air was cool but not cold and snowy, as morning weather reports out of Denver had suggested it might be. “There he comes,” someone shouted, “that speck bobbing up and down on the side of the road.” We squinted, looking hard down the grade and into the mountain shadows. Before long, we verified that the speck was Wei Sun pumping the pedals that were bringing him toward us. Loud cheers and encouragement went up when he passed by on his bike and headed downhill. He had crossed the Continental Divide, on the way from Oceanside to a finish line in Annapolis, Maryland. It was TeamViaSat’s third day of competition in the 30th annual Race Across America. For each of the past six years, the ViaSat Corporation, a Carlsbad company that produces satellite equipment, has fielded an eight-man team to compete in the race’s corporate division.
This year, from among eight team members, five from San Diego County, the ride to the top of the pass fell randomly on Sun, who is 42 and lives in Carmel Mountain Ranch. It was both an honor and a daunting task, especially given his background. In 2005, after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, he changed his diet, quit smoking, and began riding a bike. He has been training to race for the past two years.
“It was the first time in my life that I rode a bike at 10,000 feet,” he later told me. “Next time, I will be more respectful of what that can do to the body.”
Race Across America is best known for its solo competition. In 1986, Fallbrook’s Pete Penseyres set a world solo record in the race that has yet to be broken. Penseyres rode 3107 miles, coast to coast, in eight days, nine hours, and 47 minutes, averaging 15.4 miles per hour. The solo performers flabbergast sedentary folk, but the race’s eight-man teams also boast mind-boggling achievements. Because they take turns riding, each of the eight must sprint almost every time they take the road. This can raise a team’s average speed to over 20 miles per hour. But to reach these averages, teams must be organized into well-oiled machines.
TeamViaSat had divided itself into four subteams of two cyclists who alternated riding short sprints over five-hour shifts. After one pair finished, they were off-bike until the three other pairs finished their shifts, 15 hours later. Each pair of riders took one shift every 20 hours, guaranteeing that every ViaSat rider would get some nighttime duty. Once the eight-man race started on June 18, there was a ViaSat cyclist riding at all hours of the day, until the team crossed the finish line.
The physical demands of the race were hardly Wei Sun’s only challenge. Since last December, when he started lining up uniforms and additional sponsors for his team, he’d acted as the team’s informal organizer. Besides cyclists, Sun recruited nine other persons to serve as the team’s crew; their various roles would include protecting riders on the road and facilitating numerous transfers of the ViaSat flag from one to another. Sun’s job in supply management for ViaSat helped him to work through the company’s budgeting process to procure entrance fees to compete. All the while, he joined other prospective racers on training outings, often cycling up to 250 miles a week on Carlsbad’s hilly roads and the slopes of Soledad and Palomar mountains.
On April 2, each rider participated in time trials established by team members from previous years. Time trials are an event in which cyclists race against the clock. In this case, the intent was to make sure the 2011 team could maintain adequate speeds over a 3000-mile ordeal. All the riders passed the time trials, which were held on the east grade of Palomar Mountain. Sun was now comfortable that the team had eight strong riders. But a month later, the only rider who had previous experience competing in the race left the company.
“That was a helluva curve ball,” I said to Sun.
“If that weren’t enough,” he says, “a second rider left us a week later. Suddenly, Sun was looking for two new riders, and each of them had to work for ViaSat, a requirement the team had set for itself in 2011. He found them quickly, recruiting two strong riders who were willing to begin training for the race immediately. One of them was Andrew Cawood, from ViaSat’s office in Duluth, Georgia.
The headaches weren’t over. When the team’s uniforms arrived, “the shorts ended up being far more transparent at that part of the body where perhaps you want to be more discreet,” said Sun, laughing. “The kit supplier could have decided not to cooperate, but they stood by their service.” The team received replacement shorts the week before the race.
As the race approached, Sun confessed, “I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night wondering, What in the hell am I doing? This is crazy. I remember one race veteran saying that, though our training would prepare us physically, most of the battle would be a mind game.”
Then came the big day — and a final pre-race emergency. On Andrew Cawood’s bike, “the bracket that held the rear derailer had broken off,” said Sun. “It was a custom bike that he’d brought from Georgia. It had such a unique design that no local bike shops had any spares available. The problem would not have ended our race, because by about 10:00 a.m., we were ready to buy a new bike if we had to. In the end, Performance Bike in Oceanside Bike had a mechanic who fixed the broken bracket. And it lasted all the way to Annapolis.”