Hell on Two Wheels: An Astonishing Story of Suffering, Triumph, and the Most Extreme Endurance Race in the World
Triumph Books (2011)
Reviewed by Joseph Yurt for Reader Views (5/11)
I feel that it’s important to preface my comments on Amy Snyder’s new book for cycling fans, “Hell on Two Wheels,” with the plain fact that I am not a cyclist. I am a physical activist, not an athlete. I have enjoyed the solitude of both a lone runner and off-trail hiker, and most recently, an on-trail nature rambler. The sense of oneness with nature that is derived from these activities seems to also be part of the experience of the long distance, countryside, solo cyclist. But, the shared, simple pleasures of oneness with nature are not a part of the hellish physical destination we are taken on by Snyder.
“Hell on Two Wheels” goes way beyond the average person’s physical pursuits, and well past the experiences of even professional athletes, regardless of their sport. It takes us to an event most of us have never heard of. Snyder, herself a former Ironman triathlete, calls The Race Across America (RAAM), “…a bicycle race like no other…starting at the Pacific Ocean near San Diego, California, and ending at the Atlantic near Washington, D.C…once the starting gun goes off, the clock doesn’t stop, so if you sleep, you lose…it takes the winners about nine days to finish, the rest a couple of days more.”
In comparison to any other athletic competition, not just cycling events, the Race Across America is truly unique. And as such, the small group of men and women who are drawn to this surreal endurance test are highly unusual. Some might even contend that RAAM crosses the line separating sport from masochism. But while the physical and mental assault endured by the participants is relentless, others, including the writers of the books promotional text, believe that the emotional and spiritual rewards of this phenomenal experience are invaluable. Snyder includes explanations from participants that suggest the benefits they accrue from their RAAM experience are as varied as the participants themselves. There are common themes though; among them, being able to open up emotionally, realizing their connections to other people’s emotions, and being able to “feel, share, and be vulnerable with other people.”
Yet, for all of the positive emotional and inspirational payoffs of RAAM, it will be hard for many readers to accept that any reward could be worth the appalling physical toll the race takes on participants. Snyder’s detailed and graphic accounts of the pain and suffering are powerful; for example, she writes “RAAM racers also experience a horrifying physical condition rarely seen anywhere else. After days of nonstop cycling spent hunched over on a bike, a racer’s neck muscles can suddenly fail from the continuous strain of holding up his head. Known as Shermer’s Neck, this condition causes a cyclist’s head to flop forward like a rag doll’s that has had its chin pinned to its chest. No matter how hard he tries, once his neck muscles fail, just like a newborn infant, a cyclist is helpless to raise his head.”
Bob Babbitt, co-founder of Competitor Magazine, wrote about “Hell on Two Wheels,” “If you’re a cycling fan, you’ll love every page. If you’re not, you’ll become one! This book is a must read.” Well, I’m not prepared to take my enthusiasm for the book to that level, but the book does tell an intriguing and fascinating story about unusual people who have made a conscious decision to engage in an unbelievable life-changing experience. And, this is a book that undeniably lives up to its title.