Amy Snyder on riding bikes across the country, losing sleep and pushing to the extreme

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The Race Across America is one of this country's most notoriously grueling bicycle races. Starting on the West Coast and ending on the East, it takes riders 3,000 miles over the course of eight to twelve days. What's more interesting is there are no major cash prizes -- it's all done for the love of the spot. Author Amy Snyder was so intrigued by the type of people who race the RAAM, she followed them around for a year, and what came out of that was her new book, Hell on Two Wheels. She'll be reading from and answering questions about it at the Boulder Book Store tonight and Tattered Cover Colfax tomorrow . We caught up with her to talk about the race, the book and the dangers the racers face.

Westword: What was it about the race that you wanted to write about?

Amy Snyder: The first is that I could -- I retired young from a career in business and you're supposed to write a book about what you know -- I thought about a bunch of business topics, but they bored the daylights out of me.

Reason number two was that I'd followed this race, and I started to approach literary agents to represent me once I figured I had a book here, and an agent in New York said to me, "If it's a book about a bike race and it's not written by Lance Armstrong, it doesn't stand a chance." So reason number two was that you can't tell me I can't do something.

But really it was about what I learned in endurance sports myself: It taught me a lot about how to fail, how to be vulnerable and how to ask for help -- things I didn't learn in my childhood. I found endurance sports to be self-revelatory and thought a book like this might hold lessons for all of us on an even larger scale.

What kind of research did you need to do for this?

I decided to follow the 2009 race -- the race has been going on for 30 years, but fallen a bit into obscurity recently. Back in the '80s it was broadcast on TV and was kind of in the mainstream conscious.

I contacted some of the racers and traveled around and got to know them before the race, their social situations, their families and how they lived. Then I followed them during the race, and afterward I met with them again.

Is it pros or amateurs?

It's a purely amateur sport. The prize is a medal and an "atta-boy" or an "atta-girl." The year I followed it there were 28 solo racers and only eight were American. It's expensive just to get them over here -- you need a crew of six to twelve people, a few vehicles, a bunch of bicycles -- it's a complicated undertaking.

What's an average load-out look like?

If you're well financed, you'll have a climbing bike, a time-trial bike and a comfort bike. You'll have a bunch of spare wheels, a mechanic, a nutritionist and someone who can administer an IV.

Do the men and the women race together?

The women go off 24 hours ahead of the men to bunch everyone up at the finish line. In the early '80s, the pioneer women in this race would regularly come in at the top five. The women haven't been placing high on the leader-boards lately though.

What exactly makes this race so brutal?

The physical conditions that befall a racer -- just think about getting a saddle sore on day three and you have six more days and 500,000 pedal revolutions still ahead of you -- part of it is simply the grinding part of the race.

The real challenge is the mental. You can't really train for a 3,000 mile race. The most vexing of all is sleep deprivation. It occurs because you have to minimize the time you're off your bike to finish. It causes behavioral changes: You're emotional, you're volatile, you're paranoid. It makes it hard for your crew to work for you, and you start hallucinating after a little while. Amnesty International would consider the amount of sleep these athletes get as torture. The winners get by on about sixty to ninety minutes every 24-hour cycle. Just to finish in time, you can't afford any more than about three hours a night.

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