By now, Sun is already helping to plan ViaSat’s entrance into the 2012 Race Across America, although he and five of his 2011 teammates have decided not to ride. Several weeks ago, ViaSat held new time trials. The goal for next year is to recruit the fastest riders.
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Two nights before this year’s race, at their home in Bonsall, cyclist Rich Walsh, 47, and his wife Vicki hosted a party for all of ViaSat’s riders and crew members. Teammate Joab Noda, who works for the company in Washington DC, catered the event with several dishes from his native Spain.
Walsh, a systems analyst “representing the geeks” at ViaSat, and Eric Cross, from the company’s Georgia office, would ride the first full shift. Before day one was finished, this subteam — there were four — would negotiate one of the thorniest problems ViaSat faced throughout the race.
Vicki Walsh had packed a prodigious number of pounds of food into iced containers and sent them along with the pair in their rider, or “leapfrog,” vehicle. ViaSat had rented five four-wheel-drive Suburbans and a similar Ford Expedition, which trailed riders as a “follow vehicle.” Riding shotgun, a navigator kept an eye on the route map and made sure the rider stayed on course. For protection from traffic, the follow vehicle tried to stay as close to the rider as possible, which race rules limited to 50 feet. A second vehicle brought along Jaspreet Dosanjh, a videographer whose camera was ubiquitous throughout the race, blogger Whitney Goodman, now working for San Diego’s Hall of Champions, and myself. We media hangers-on were tasked with chronicling the race for posterity. I accompanied the ViaSat team as far as eastern Colorado.
Additionally, each rider pair was assigned a Suburban and a driver to facilitate a relay race–style of making rider exchanges every 15 minutes, give or take. After an exchange, the cyclist who had finished a turn riding — “pull” in cycling-speak — would jump in the car, and its driver would ferry him past the new cyclist now on the road. The driver would then find a good place on the side of the road for completing the next exchange. Race rules required that support vehicles pull at least five feet off the road when stopping. They also required the partner waiting to take over the riding not to take off until the back wheel of the bike approaching from behind passed the front wheel of the next rider’s bike. (Got that?) Racers failing to observe this and other rules could prompt race officials patrolling the course to impose a penalty that would cause the team to take time off the course later in the race.
ViaSat riders were never penalized, and for that achievement, the team can largely thank crew chief Barrie Adsett, a New Zealander, veteran marathoner, and endurance-competition organizer who lives in Mission Beach. Adsett admits that he came within a hair of getting ViaSat in trouble. As he was driving the follow vehicle behind Walsh and Cross, a race official in Valley Center flagged him over.
“In the first section of the race,” Adsett said, “all the way to Borrego Springs, you were not allowed to ‘close-follow.’” Because of heavy traffic, officials wanted all race vehicles to maintain highway speeds. But by doing so, the cars would soon pass their riders and not be able to protect them. Wanting to keep Walsh and Cross in sight, he started letting them go 100–200 yards ahead before catching up, pulling off to the side of the road, and then repeating. The tactic could have worked, following the rule to the letter, were it always possible to find a place to pull off immediately upon reaching the rider. But some roadside sites made pulling off unsafe. To solve the problem, Adsett said he continued to slowly drive behind the rider, in effect close-following again, until he found a safe place to pull off.
Adsett said, “The race official observed this, and, when he pulled me over and I explained what I was doing, he said with a smile, ‘That’s taking a very liberal approach to the rule.’” But Adsett was given a warning instead of a penalty. The official advised that, to maintain highway speed, Adsett had to stay much farther behind the rider than 200 yards; he was to pull off the road either before reaching the rider or after passing him, then wait to repeat.
This routine may have caused Adsett to lose his rider, Eric Cross, at Christmas Tree Circle outside of Borrego Springs. With Adsett hanging back, Cross entered the circle, which has five roads leading away from its center lawn. Some observers, as they stood around watching riders passing through, were pointing down the wrong street. Cross, a strong rider, was suddenly off course and riding fast. When Adsett came along the correct route, he drove furiously, trying to catch up to his rider. It soon became clear that Cross was not ahead.
Eventually, Cross was found and brought back by the leapfrog car. Meanwhile, his partner, Rich Walsh, started riding at the point where the team went off course. Although it wasn’t yet his turn to ride, Walsh said, “I had just finished the ‘Glass Elevator,’ a nice long descent coming down the east side of the mountains, so I was well rested. After I took off, though, I tried to stay at a maintainable pace. I wasn’t pushing hard, because I had no idea how far I would be going. And I didn’t know the route. You always look at the map to know where your turns are for the next five miles, but I didn’t get that chance. The good news was that there were a lot of people on the road.”
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The evening of that first race day, and a few miles before Brawley, Wei Sun and his partner Jeff Johnstone started their first shift, taking over from Walsh and Cross. By now, the racecourse was on Highway 78, at a point just west of Blythe. The ride to Blythe, which had started at 8:00 p.m. and lasted until 1:00 in the morning, “was the longest five hours I’ve ever experienced,” says Sun. “The shift wasn’t the hardest, but being out on the first night, we gave it all we had. The last hour, I had severe cramps in my legs, because it was dry, it was hot, and even though we had a good tailwind, we pedaled very hard. And at that time, I’d had only half of my liquids in the form of recovery drinks. The other half was water, and it wasn’t enough [to help with the cramps].”