As cyclists gear up for the 2019 edition of the 4800 kilometer Race Across America (RAAM), some may recall a unique milestone witnessed at the event almost 12 years ago.
Race Across America (RAAM) is among the toughest endurance races out there.
Stretching right across the US, its route is not only long but also entails changes in terrain (mountainous and flat) and weather.
In June 2007, a couple of days after the late Slovenian cyclist Jure Robic won that year’s RAAM in 8 days, 19 hours and 33 minutes, a cyclist from Oregon crossed the finish line at Annapolis. John Spurgeon took 12 days, 2 hours and 11 minutes to cycle the distance from Oceanside in California to Annapolis in Maryland, reports on the Internet said. What made his race unique was that he covered the entire distance on two single speed bicycles. Between the two, their gearing was different. But neither bike had multiple gears as is the overwhelming choice at races today. Spurgeon was the first cyclist to complete RAAM on single speed bikes. At least one write-up on his ride across the US in a dozen days, said that back in 2007, most racers at RAAM had 21 gears to play with.
Both the bikes used by Spurgeon at 2007 RAAM sported steel frames and were custom-built in Portland. One was made by Ira Ryan; the other by Sacha White. The Ira Ryan bike with 40×15 gearing was kept for rides on flat terrain. The other, with 39×16 gearing was used for stretches involving climbs. It has been mentioned in comments posted on the net that Spurgeon was inclined towards using a fixed wheel bike and had to be convinced that a free wheel would be better suited for long, endurance races capable of punishing one’s knees.
Riding bicycles since childhood, Spurgeon got seriously into cycling only around 2000. Despite what he accomplished at RAAM, there isn’t much on Spurgeon on the Internet. There was however an interview with him in the book The Ride of Your Life by David Rowe, published in 2009. It mentioned that Spurgeon still called himself a recreational cyclist dabbling in triathlons, road racing, cyclocross, randonneuring and ultra-cycling. His first ride of over 100 miles was in 2003. At the events he participated in, he used fixed gear and single speed bikes. About RAAM, Spurgeon says that both the bikes he used held up well. As regards the choice of single speed, he says, “ Sexy, simple bikes that give you a hell of a workout….what more could a person want? Maybe speed, but I’m slow, so I get to save face to boot. Of course, that doesn’t really work at ‘cross with all those studs on their single speeds.’’
RAAM, being combination of distance and bicycle race, makes it easy for us to view single speed in perspective. If you can step back some more and imagine the distance involved in a whole journey around the planet, then nothing probably beats those cyclists who set out from Mumbai in October 1923, pedaled around the world and got back in March 1928. Years later, the story of their trip became the subject of a book: With Cyclists Around the World. The book estimates the distance they traveled at around 44,000 miles (70,811 kilometers); figure mentioned on its jacket. For comparison, bear in mind, the length of the equator is 40,075 kilometers while modern day circumnavigation rules consider the job done at 29,000 kilometers.
If you go through the vintage photos published in the book, all you see are single speed, steel roadsters; some of them replete with heavy chain cover.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)