Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.
We introduced you to the Veloroos back in May as they finalised preparations to tackle Race Across America (RAAM). The endurance event takes riders – racing solo, in pairs, groups of four or groups of eight – from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland. In riding from the west coast to the east coast of the United States, RAAM covers 4,828 kilometres across 12 states. The Veloroos were vocal about their ambitions to win their category (four-women team) and cover the distance in seven days.
Julie-Anne Hazlett, Natasha Horne, Sarah Matthews and Nicole Stanners accomplished their objective – and then some. The quartet covered the 4,828 kilometres in 6 days 13 hours 27 minutes, smashing the previously set course record for a female team of four under 50. The Veloroos finished 18 hours in front of the next female team of four and beat out several eight-rider teams and four-men teams with their record-breaking time.
The Veloroos adopted a two-team strategy en route to their win. The riders were divided into pairs – with one pair riding while the other pair was resting. Each pair had a support car, and the resting crew and riders slept and ate in a big RV.
The riding pair traded 20 minute sprints out on the road. While one rider sprinted from Point A to Point B, the other rider hitched a ride in the crew car to the trade-off point. The rolling exchanges continued all day and night with one cyclist and three cars out on the road at any given time.
In addition to assuming the physical and mental challenge of RAAM, the quartet also used the race to raise funds and awareness for Tour de Cure and the Amy Gillett Foundation. We spoke to the Veloroos a week after their incredible feat but sat on their story. They told us of plans to release their documentary “RAAM Bam Thank You Mam” at a fundraiser in Sydney in August, and in the hopes of furthering their fundraising goals, we elected to run this piece the week of the film release in support of their efforts on their chosen charities.
Then the unthinkable happened. Matthews, who made it through RAAM without incident, was critically injured in a freak training accident.
“Upon the Veloroos return to Sydney, Sarah Matthews, one of the team’s four riders, was involved in an accident where she was hit by a cyclist whilst out running,” said Stanners, Matthews’ teammate. “The cyclist was not at fault. Sarah sustained a significant head injury, which has had her in a medically induced coma for a week-and-a-half.”
“Sarah’s family, friends and Veloroos team are taking it day-by-day, as the extent of her injuries will not be known until she fully wakes up,” Stanners noted. “One positive piece of news is that one week ago, Sarah was stable enough to start being brought out of the coma. During the weekend, she has shown positive progress. Sarah’s brother, sister-in-law and father have been with her constantly and have been very keen for the Veloroos to continue with the planning they had around the team before her accident. Sarah would have wanted it that way.”
It is with that sentiment in mind that we share this follow-up story on the Veloroos and encourage our Sydney readers to attend the Veloroos documentary pre-screen welcome home night at Bondi Bowls on Friday, August 21.. Those that are unable to attend the event can support the Veloroos ongoing fundraising efforts for Tour de Cure and the Amy Gillett Foundation by making a donation here.
Ella: The team exceeded expectations. To what do you attribute your smashing success?
Hazlett: We had a really good crew. The crew is absolutely essential to this whole experience. Our crew kept things running smoothly and had a lot of fun along the way. They kept our spirits up throughout the week. Everyone is suffering, and everyone is tired from sleep deprivation and maybe not always eating the right food, but our crew was always smiling, always laughing – cracking jokes, singing to us, doing silly things along the way. That really helped us keep pushing.
Ella: What was your biggest misplaced fear about RAAM?
Hazlett: With a 13-rider crew and four riders, there are all sorts of personalities. I was most concerned about arguments or people falling out. In all the RAAM movies we watched, you’d see a lot of tension in teams with clashing personalities, and I was concerned about how that would play out within our team.
All 17 of us got on really well. If there was a clash, it was short – and then it over and done with, forgotten and joking again after a minute. I think that was one of our biggest strengths, and it definitely made things a lot easier on the riders.
Ella: Would you do it again?
Hazlett: I don’t know. We’ve all been talking about this a lot. We’re definitely thinking about what we want to do next, but we all like to experience new things. Having won RAAM and broken the record, I think it would be hard to top that. It would be more exciting to go do something different – to break a few records elsewhere.
I’d love to do the Three Peaks Challenge across Australia – the major cycling events as a team. We’ve talked about Race Around Ireland. It’s similar to RAAM. Ireland is smaller, of course, but the weather and the wind are the big challenges there. You’d be cycling in gale-force winds most of the time.
Ella: What was your biggest motivation throughout the week?
Horne: The crew was hugely motivating. One of the things we were told from the start was that we were there to ride our bikes and not worry about anything else. While relinquishing a bit of control was hard for me at that start, not thinking about anything except pedalling took a lot of the pressure off having to deal with anything else.
The other thing I found motivating was the immense response that we got on social media. You’d get off your phone, and there would be anywhere between 20-100 notifications from people that were following us. Knowing people all around the world were watching what we were doing motivated me. I think at the start, people thought we were just going for a casual ride across the US, but as the week unfolded and we became more competitive, people started to back us more as well.
Ella: What was your biggest challenge?
Horne: For me, it all comes back to the lack of sleep and constant movement. We weren’t stationary very long and trying to sleep while the RV was bumping down the highway meant you were never sleeping very soundly.
The way we structured things, we were constantly on and off the bike. There were many times where I didn’t know what time of day it was or even what day is was. Sometimes I didn’t even know where I was. You’re in this bubble.
You’re also very vulnerable. There were times that we didn’t see anyone for six or seven hours until we reached our crew. You’re in the middle of nowhere with no mobile reception. There are so many thing that can go wrong, and that’s the stuff you don’t think about when you’re racing, but when you finish, you look back and realise how lucky you are that nothing happened.
Ella: How did it feel crossing the finish line?
Horne: It was such a blur. I don’t remember much from the finish, and I only remember some from immediately after the race. We finished as an odd hour – around 8 a.m. – and our hotel rooms weren’t ready yet. You basically saw people in pink tee-shirts and pink cycling kit riding around Annapolis trying to figure out what to do.
Our crew was that excited that they went to the bar at 8 o’clock and started drinking straightaway. They fell asleep as the bar.
As soon as we could get showers, we had showers. You realise you still have a whole day to get through, but there are other teams arriving, and they have to get through the day, too, and somehow you all manage to get through it together.
Personally, I don’t think anything started to sink in until about 24 hours after we had finished. I was just so tired that I couldn’t feel anything before that. And even after that, I still felt quite lost and broken. You’re done, and it’s like: “What’s next?”.
Everyone on the team seemed to have episodes where they’d freak out because we weren’t on the road or they didn’t know where the car was or they thought they had to go out on another shift. We raced for six days with all this structure, and then suddenly there’s no structure and no next thing, and that freaked people out a little bit.
Editor’s note: These questions were all asked and answered in early July – one month before the accident that has left Matthews in critical condition.
Ella: You’re the only member of the Veloroos to race RAAM previously. What was different about your second experience than the first?
Matthews: There were three main differences. First – we went out to win. The team last year, we would have liked to have won, but we didn’t know what winning took, so we were just out there to compete. This year, we didn’t want to compete. We wanted to win.
Following from that, we took a crew that would hopefully support that goal. A lot of that was based on my experience with the crew last year. This year we hand-selected people that could help us win. Full credit to the crew. They were phenomenal.
Right from the second we arrived in Oceanside, the athletes were allowed to do nothing. This was the third difference from my first experience, and it definitely contributed to our success. The riders were to eat, sleep, rest and ride our bikes – and for the next ten days, that’s all we did.
Ella: What was your biggest challenge during RAAM?
Matthews: My bike fell over in the wind and it knocked my derailleur during a day shift. Then that night, during my next shift, my derailleur snapped and went into my front wheel. I had a bit of a fright, but it could have been a lot worse.
The problem was that I had a broken bike at the start of a six hour shift, so I had to ride on a borrowed bike. That was probably the most trying thing for me. At that point in the race, you’re already a little bit saddle sore and uncomfortable. To get on a new bike in the middle of the night, it was tough. We made every possible adjustment, but I was very uncomfortable for six hours. That was my dark spot in the race – my only dark spot in the race.
Ella: For you, what’s the draw of this experience?
Matthews: I’m the ultimate endurance athlete. I start to feel good about day three of RAAM. The race itself suits me. I love the challenge. I love the beauty. Most of all, I love the camaraderie that comes with a good team.
The team aspect of RAAM is unique. Here are four riders that are completely dependent on their crew, and actually, the crew is more important than the riders when push comes to shove. As long as the riders can keep riding, they’ll get there, but without a properly functioning crew, a team is in trouble.
I made some amazing new friends. I had a blast with the crew and the riders. I absolutely loved it. There’s no single bike race or triathlon in the world that’s such a team effort.
Ella: What was your biggest misplaced fear?
Stanners: I was really worried about saddle sores. That was probably ok in the end. I think on the flip-side, the thing that I had a much bigger issue with than what I anticipated was the sleep deprivation. I found it really difficult to sleep during my shift off the bike.
On my last turn, when we were pulling into the finish, it was like a dream for me. I was delirious. I was falling asleep between each pull and getting woken up to get back on the bike. That was the most difficult thing for me.
Ella: Did you have any scary moments out on the road?
Stanners: When we went through Death Valley, we got a text warning for wild dogs. When you’re riding down the hill at very fast speeds and can hear dogs chasing down the side of the road, that’s really scary. I thought one of them would come at me and dive in my wheel.
Ella: What did it feel like to finish – knowing you had won and broken the record in the process?
Stanners: I was so tired and just completely stripped of emotion. You finish, and you know you should be so much more excited, but you’ve got absolutely nothing.
After the race, we all went to Starbucks and tried to eat and have some coffee, but I couldn’t even hold a conversation without falling asleep mid-sentence. It was crazy.