The man widely regarded as the king of the world’s ultra-distance cyclists celebrated his 37th birthday in true Kiwi style – with a backyard BBQ in Blenheim.
Christoph Strasser, six-time Race Across America [RAAM] solo champion, was in Marlborough at the invitation of local endurance rider Craig Harper and enjoyed a birthday BBQ at his Kiwi rival’s home on Monday.
The pair met during the most recent RAAM – Strasser’s ninth attempt at the iconic race and Harpers’ first – after which the Kiwi invited the Austrian cycling legend to visit New Zealand, a trip that had always been on Strasser’s radar.
He duly arrived for a five-week trip around the country, with partner Sabine, taking a well-earned break from the rigours of training for some of the toughest sporting challenges on the planet.
Strasser was unstoppable in the 2019 RAAM, finishing nearly a day and a half in front of his nearest rival – going west to east in eight days, six hours, 51 minutes.
Harper produced an outstanding rookie effort, coming home fourth among the solo riders, crossing the finish line in 10 days, 15 hours.
Strasser described the 2019 RAAM as his “hardest ever”, due to extreme weather issues, which involved flooding, detours and periods of constant rain.
He has previously been quoted as suggested that the key to conquering the RAAM is, “one third body, one third mind and one third support team”.
“That’s my personal formula, but of course everyone is different. In my first years I was thinking that there is much more happening in your mind, but over the years I found out that physical fitness is very, very important because it is your body that allows you to go fast or to go slow. Your mind dictates whether you go on or you stop, to know the reason why it is important to finish, but how fast you can go, this is depending on your physical fitness.”
He said his RAAM recipe was, “a combination of being fast and keeping your breaks really short”.
In the 2019 race he closely monitored his breaks, sleeping just eight and a half hours over the course of the race, among a total of 15 hours “off-bike time”, which includes toilet stops, red lights and road works.
“It’s nearly the minimum,” he suggested, “it would be hard to improve on that”.
In recent years Strasser has become used to having a target on his back at the start line, but says, despite his favouritism, he felt no pressure to prove anything.
“I never talk about my goals [beforehand], the most important thing is to reach the finish line and stay healthy … even if you have won the race several times you can get sick and DNF the next time.
“When you have crossed the desert and Rocky Mountains, which are dangerous for your health, you enter the second half of the race, which is easier on your body … then you can begin to think of your finish time and your ranking.”
As regards race tactics, Strasser says although common sense suggested a slow start, thereby saving energy for the second half of the race, he favoured a strong push from the start line.
“In reality it is complicated, because your mind plays a lot of tricks on you, especially when you are sleep-deprived, and that happens in the second half.
“Therefore it is much better to be in front [early], then you have positive thinking, a clear mind and self-confidence.
“My tactic is to go as fast as possible on the first day and when you are in the lead a lot of things get easier.”
Like Harper, Strasser suffered from nerve damage in his hands and lower arms following the race, a result of constant vibration through the bike’s handlebars.
“My knees, my muscles, my backside and all that stuff … a few days after the race everything is perfect again. The pain is gone, only the damage to the hands and fingers remains.
“One year it took me three months to be able to tie my shoelaces and do up my belt. When I ate I wasn’t always able to hold onto my fork and spoon.”
Despite claiming the record for most wins this year, Strasser has no desire to be remembered as the RAAM’s greatest soloist, preferring to set his unique goals.
“There is a challenge to improve yourself, when you reach the finish line and know you gave your best performance, then you are happy with yourself … you are not happy just to have the number one before your name.
“When I look back on my successes in the RAAM, it’s not because of the number of wins, it’s just having the feeling of training for a goal, working towards that goal, putting the crew together then being on the road towards the finish, this is what make me happy …. then the finish is just a little part of the whole thing. It is the journey, the trip that is the motivation.”
Strasser does not intend to ride the RAAM in 2020, but has another target on his radar.
He is the current holder of both the world track and road 24-hour records, 896km on the road and 941km inside, and want to go further.
“I hope to be able to get 1000km in 24 hours one day, maybe in the upcoming season, but it will take a lot of organising.”
He is unlikely to race in New Zealand, although quickly developing an affinity with the country.
“I was very impressed with Craig’s north to south crossing. Before we got to know each other this year I was reading about his achievements, because I want to know about my competitors, and I didn’t realise how difficult [The Long White Ride] actually was, with such narrow roads and constant ups-and-downs.”
The man, who ironically was born the same year as the first RAAM, feels he has a good work/life balance and is relishing his lengthy break.
“I can do five weeks off the bike, so I am not a cycling junkie.
“I may gain three kilograms but it doesn’t matter because when I start training again I will soon be in shape.
“This is just about meeting great people, seeing a great country, having a beer here and there and thinking about other things than cycling.”