DBF Ambassador Wyn Jenkins Supporting Cycling Team in the Race Across America (RAAM) 2019

Our wonderful DBF Ambassador, Wyn Jenkins, whose brainchild was the incredibly enjoyable and successful Dambuster Bike Ride, which he organised and ran brilliantly for the past 3 years before retiring the event on a high, is now approaching cycling from another perspective. Keen cyclists Wyn and his wife Marg are going to swap riding for driving to act as support for their team as they take part in the notoriously gruelling Race Across America (RAAM) in June this year.

Read on for Wyn’s article for an idea of what will be involved for both riders and support and you may have to revise any preconceptions that support is a doddle! It’s an immensely important and responsible role and one which can have a huge bearing on the success of the team. For the riders, who include DBF supporters, amputee cyclist Linda Chen and Major Sally Orange – both Dambusters survivors – it will be an extraordinary challenge; a real test of skill and endurance and we commend all on their courage and dedication. We look forward to further updates and will, of course, let you know how the team get on. 

For 36 years RAAM has been challenging ultracyclists from around the globe to push their physical and mental limits to the farthest reaches. Starting in Oceanside, under one of the longest piers in California, RAAM spans 3000 miles, climbs 175,000 feet, crosses 12 states and finishes at City Dock in Annapolis, Maryland, the east coast sailing mecca. Race Across America website

Race Across America (RAAM) 3,085 miles in 8 days ON A BIKE!!!

In May of 2018, a day after The Dambuster Ride, a cycling event held to raise funds for The Douglas Bader Foundation, my wife Marg, plus Linda Chen (amputee cyclist) and Sally Orange ( an avid campaigner and fundraiser for mental health support) were sitting on our patio, basking in the sunshine and enjoying a lovely breakfast.  Marg and I had organised the event the day before and were enjoying the company of two of life’s lovely people who had both successfully completed the ride and had stayed the night.

Sally (Major Sally Orange – her full Army rank) is a trained physiotherapist and has made a name for herself for completing incredibly gruelling physical challenges, usually dressed as a piece of fruit to draw attention to whichever cause she happened to be supporting. She has run 20 conventional marathons, plus the ultimate of ultramarathons – The Marathon de Sable; eight Ironman Triathlons (2.2 mile sea swim, 112 mile bike and a full marathon); taken on the challenge of running 7 marathons on 7 continents in one year, finishing in Antartica in -20 temperatures (duly completed) and then a week or so later ran a 50 mile marathon in Mongolia.  I met both Sally and Linda when taking part in the London to Amsterdam Ride 4 years ago and we hit it off straight away.  Linda is a newly retired nurse and mother of two lovely girls, who was struck down by a bus some years ago and lost her lower leg and had multiple other injuries. Typical of her resilience and determination, she was soon back on the wards looking after patients and rewarding them with her beautiful smile and caring demeanour.  That smile belies a very competitive streak – she is one very tough individual who has excelled at long distance events including a 10k open water swim.  I tried to swim past her at the London Triathlon but she kept a close eye on me and wouldn’t yield an inch.  On the London to Amsterdam ride she contrived to make me fall into a thorn bush that led to me leaving a trail of blood for the next 5 miles – we still laugh about it!

I asked Sally what plans she had for the next year aside from the usual incredible schedule of tough challenges. She said she had a project in mind that she had started to put together which was participation in the World’s toughest non-stop cycle race – The Race Across America, more commonly known as RAAM.  This event starts at Oceanside in California, crosses over the Rockies and then passes through 12 states before finishing at Maryland, south of New York.  170,000 ft of climbing over 3,085 miles in temperatures ranging from 5 degrees to 50 degrees, with the most unpredictable of weather as it passes through Tornado Alley….and all this in just 8 days! People incredibly do this solo, grabbing what sleep they can in support cars or on the side of the road, covering upwards of 400 miles every 24 hrs. The more sane riders tend to do the event as pairs or as teams of four, six or eight people.  Thankfully, the little idea that Sally had in her head had settled on a team comprising eight women with either visible or invisible injuries. As a departure form the usual military only events, this project was to include both military and civilian riders and support crew, with a view to highlighting the difficulties some leaving military personnel have when returning to civilian life.  Sally turned to Linda and asked if she would be willing to be a part of the “Mind Over Matter” team and then really surprised Marg and I when she asked if we would be prepared to be on the event support crew. Linda was shocked and completely overwhelmed and her face was a picture, whilst Marg and I were speechless.  We spoke for a few minutes about what the event entailed and the enormity of the challenge started to kick in and not just for the riders.

Basically, the team of 8 are split into two pods of 4 riders. One pod climb onto the massive motorised hotel on wheels and disappear 9 hours down the road, whilst the other pod are “on shift”.  Surprisingly for a long distance endurance event, the riders only do short “pulls” of 20-25 mins at a time before being replaced by the next rider.  This is to keep the average speed high, so each pull is done with a good deal of intensity.  Each rider will do between 4 and 5 pulls each 9 hour shift but even this isn’t quite so straightforward.  On the huge climbs over The Rockies and Apalachian Mountains, some of the pulls can be as short as 10 mins depending on the severity of the climb. For we support crew, it can be incredibly hectic as we drop off a rider, load a bike, leapfrog the other support car and get the next rider ready, ensuring they have their nutrition and hydration to hand.  This process is a non-stop whirlwind over the 9 hour shift until we catch up to the mobile HQ where the pods swap and the next shift starts.  Riders and crew then have a meal and whilst the riders get some well earned rest, the crew members carry on working to ensure that all the bikes are in good running order and that everything needed for the next shift is in place and ready to go. Hopefully the riders will get a good 6-7 hours sleep but crew members rarely manage much more than 4 hours before the on the road pod catches up and the cycle starts all over again.  The target is to average 15 mph for the whole distance, which means having to achieve a very high top speed once the team have crossed the Rockie Mountains, where the average speed will be well below the overall target. Apparently, this is when tensions between riders and crew are sorely tested because half the time has gone but they have only completed a third of the distance.  We have been on a few pre-RAAM training days when this has been repeatedly highlighted, so that everyone will be aware of how tension can escalate if not properly managed and understood.

Marg was a bit apprehensive about navigation and when we arrived at an army base just outside Cirencester, to undergo a practical RAAM training weekend, she was decidedly nervous.  Two of the riders were in our van, whilst the other two, including a recumbent cyclist was in the other.  After some theory sessions and practice on the base itself, we set off into the very dark looking Cotswold Countryside at 10pm and waited for the rider from the other van to do the first “pull” before they appeared in a blaze of lights.  Each van has to “Direct Follow” their rider at night in the interests of safety, so picking the perfect spot to changeover was very important, as was visibility.  I’m very pleased to say that our shift went very smoothly and unlike the pod which went out after us, we managed to get the navigation spot on – Marg was brilliant and her confidence received a massive boost.  She and I are very keen cyclists and regularly ride in excess of 100 miles every week.  She had a bit of a shock a few weeks ago when she was asked to become a reserve rider as well as being on the support crew. A coach from British Cycling has put a training and nutrition plan together, which all riders share with each other on the Strava App – there’s no hiding place for anyone not doing their session. The team is starting to bond well and each rider is becoming more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of other team members.  The team is made up of a rider paralysed from the chest down who rides a hand cycle; another who rides a recumbent with her legs; one with a brain injury which has affected her eyesight on one side, another who has suffered a stroke and the others with mental health related issues.  Some are good climbers, whilst others thrive on the flat or downhill and the teams are constantly being reviewed to ensure a good balance between the two pods.

Marg, Linda and I are supporters of The Douglas Bader Foundation and as an Ambassador for the charity, I am delighted that the charity has joined with other charities and organisations to support the event.

I will be writing regular articles on the lead-up to the start of the event in June and will also be writing a daily blog about our experiences on the road.

You can get more information about the “Mind over Matter” Team (MOM) on their FaceBook Page and on the Leadership Challenges FB page. This is the organisation which is managing the event for the team – they’ve been superb so far.

Wyn Jenkins

We’re very grateful to Wyn for this really enjoyable article and look forward to future news and updates from the team – we’ll keep you posted. We hope their training progresses well (I think they’re going to need it!) and will be keeping our fingers crossed for them every wheel revolution of the way. It’s a huge challenge but for such a valuable collective cause. Good on you all!