Not-So-Easy Rider : Long Beach Bicyclist Gears Up for 3,120-Mile Race That Looked Like 'Piece of Cake' on TV

Times Staff Writer

By the time he makes Albuquerque or maybe Oklahoma in his race across the country, his chin will likely be on his bicycle's skinny front wheel, forced there by a terrible need for sleep.

The almost non-stop pedaling over endless miles of mountains and deserts, through boiling days and cold nights unbearably dark and lonely, will have brought him on schedule to hell. Marathon cyclists know the place well.

He will try, but under the influence of agony he will no longer be able to make the bike go straight ahead. It will waver from one side of the road to the other.

With the New Jersey finish line incomprehensibly far away, with his body and mind ready to burst, he will beg to quit, although he's never quit a race before.

Won't Stop Short of Death

His family, following him in cars, will see his tears and try to hold back their own. But they will make him go on because his orders to them had been, "Let death be the only reason to take me off (the bike)."

It will be a moment that Jim DeGraffenreid expects and dreads but knows will have to be pushed through strictly on guts, which his mother says he has an amazing amount of.

DeGraffenreid, 23, of North Long Beach, will be one of 27 competitors in the 3,120-mile Race Across AMerica (RAAM) that will start at 9 a.m. Sunday at Huntington Beach and end in 10 days on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.

The race's organizers call it the nation's most talked about cycling event, the "ultimate test," requiring extraordinary physical and mental strength and the persistence not to give up.

DeGraffenreid has never been considered any kind of an athlete, let alone a super one.

He is only 5 feet 9. He weighs 155 pounds. He wears glasses. He works in a bank.

"This is probably the most sporting thing I've ever done," he said last weekend as he met with his crew--family members who wore blue "Jim Dee's Race Team" T-shirts.

At Mayfair High School, his physical activity was largely limited to marching with the band.

In 1982, DeGraffenreid saw the RAAM on television's "Wide World of Sports."

"I thought it would be a piece of cake," he said.

After all, he always had loved to ride his bike, and when he was 14 had pedaled from Long Beach to Ventura.

But after twice failing in torturous qualifying races, he was ready to forget it. The memories of the pain and anguish wore off quickly, however, and DeGraffenreid persevered. He qualified this year by finishing 12th among 70 competitors in a 700-mile race with a time of 56 hours and 44 minutes.

Rides 300 Miles a Week to Job

He has prepared for RAAM by riding to and from his job as a loan processor in Glendale, 300 miles a week. He recently rode to Las Vegas and back.

He figures the winning time for the race will be 9 1/2 days. He doesn't expect to win because he will be racing against many cyclists who heve RAAM experience.

"We will be learning as we go," he said.

To be competitive, DeGraffenreid says he will have to ride 21 hours a day. In that time he says he can go about 300 miles.

People say he's crazy.

But he is driven by the challenge "to push and see how far you can go" and the desire to experience the satisfaction of finishing something so difficult.

"It's certainly not for the money," he said.

Total prize money is $20,000, with $5,000 going to the winner and the rest being divided among the competitors.

The race--over back roads and interstate highways--is unique because there are no timeouts. When a rider sleeps, the race goes on.

While DeGraffenreid will try to sleep three hours a day after going an average speed of 16-17 miles per hour, other riders may sleep more and try to make up for it by averaging higher speeds.

And when the three-hour daily nap passes as if it were three minutes, he will probably have to be forced back on his bike.

"You flat don't want to get back on," he said.

Staying awake, especially at night when there is no scenery visible, and keeping up his motivation are DeGraffenreid's foremost concerns.

'Your Mind Wanders'

When the riders begin to separate after the first 80 miles, DeGraffenreid may ride alone the rest of the race. No one to chase. No one to look at over his shoulder. It won't seem like a race anymore.

"Your mind wanders all over the place," he said.

John Marino, 37, of Irvine, who will be riding in the race for the third time, said, "You have to create a race in your mind."

That may help only slightly.

"You don't have much to look forward to," Marino said. "You're in New Mexico and it's hot and you're sick. And all you have to look forward to is 2,000 more miles. That adds insult to injury. You feel like a zombie."

To stay awake, DeGraffenreid will listen to tapes of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. And he will eat constantly to satisfy the huge number of calories his body will demand.

He will eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, spaghetti, fresh fruit and plenty of instant oatmeal.

"That sounds terrible," he said, "but gets you down the road."

Helping him get down the road more than oatmeal will be his crew, which includes his mother, Cheryl Stout; his stepfather, Dick Stout; his fiancee, Theresa Turnier ; his sister, Julie DeGraffenreid, and his grandmother, Ethel Dillon. Dick Stout's son Tim is the crew chief. There will also be a physical therapist, who will massage DeGraffenreid and monitor his condition, and a mechanic.

"Our job is to get him to New Jersey as fast as possible," said Dillon, who has "Gran" stitched on her shirt.

Family members said they are going along because they love and respect DeGraffenreid.

"He's ours," said Dillon. "If he wants to do it we don't have to understand why."

Getting him there will cost DeGraffenreid and his family more than $12,000, including $4,500 for gas for the three vehicles that will carry the crew that will follow him.

A rented motor home will be used for sleeping. Food, water and ice will be handed from a station wagon, which will hold spare 12-speed bikes and extra tires. Another car will go to food stores and self-service laundries and check the course ahead so DeGraffenreid doesn't make any wrong turns.

All of this activity will mean that the crew members will sleep almost as infrequently as the rider.

But, said Stout, "Our focus has to be on Jim, and the heck with ourselves."

There may be problems with menacing dogs, drunk drivers and irate truckers tired of having to navigate past cyclists on mountain roads, but the crew's most difficult time will come if DeGraffenreid, so tired he can't see straight, stops at the side of the road and cries.

Tim Stout, the crew chief, will have to yell at the cyclist and call him a crybaby because that's what DeGraffenreid wants him to do.

Cheryl Stout will cringe.

"I want to protect him, but he's grown-up now and I know I can't do it," Cheryl Stout said.

But she will be psyched to handle it.

"We won't let him quit," she said.

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