In January 2009, I was lying in the dentist’s chair with my mouth full of cotton balls and metal instruments when my dentist posed a surprising question. “I’ve noticed you ride your bike to your appointments,” he said. “Would you be interested in joining my team this summer for Race Across America?”
Race Across America (RAAM) is the world’s most grueling bike race. Every June, it draws athletes from around the world to race from the West Coast to the East as solo riders or in teams of two, four, or eight people. The route is about 50 percent longer than the Tour de France, and the clock doesn’t stop for competitors to sleep. In other words, RAAM is for die-hard cyclists.
Needless to say, I wasn’t destined to join that year’s RAAM. As it turned out, 2009 was an epic year for the race: Never before had the top solo finishers been so close, and the tough competition sparked a maelstrom of controversy. It was also the year that retired business executive and three-time Ironman finisher Amy Snyder decided to follow a group of racers in hopes of writing a book about the RAAM experience. The result of her journey is Hell on Two Wheels, published in May by Triumph Books.
“I learned a lot about myself through endurance sports, and I figured a story about a race this epic would have lessons to teach all of us,” Snyder explained recently via a phone interview. “I always intended it to be a book for mainstream readers.”
A hard-charging, goal-oriented businessperson, Snyder approached triathlon training with the same attitude but was humbled when, in her first Ironman competition, she made the rookie mistake of over hydrating and nearly died. “It was the first time I’d failed at achieving a goal I had set for myself,” she recalled. “That race broke me open and let me access my true feelings. I learned that being vulnerable makes me beautiful; it’s not something to be afraid of.”
Similarly, Hell on Two Wheels is as much a spiritual lesson as it is the story of an epic bike race. The book follows a number of cyclists before, during, and after the brutal race, chronicling their experience but also probing deeper questions, among them: “Why do we willingly seek out punishing mental and physical challenges? Are we trying to learn to fail, to exorcise demons, to summon courage, or to find our authentic selves?”
For most of us, a physical challenge on the scale of RAAM is incomprehensible, but Hell on Two Wheels makes accessible the lessons of such a feat. “The English language lacks a word for people who inflict this kind of suffering on themselves, so we call them crazy,” Snyder noted. “But endurance athletes are really modern-age seekers. Their stories can help everyone lift themselves up and abolish their own limiting thoughts and feelings, whatever those happen to be.” —Elizabeth Schwyzer
Amy Snyder will be at The Book Loft in Solvang on Saturday, July 16, at 3 p.m. and at Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara on Sunday, July 17, 3 p.m. to sign copies of Hell on Two Wheels. For more info, visit hellontwowheelsbook.com.