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Septuagenarians shatter cross-U.S. cycling record

Do not mistake this for an impetuous bucket-list gig. These are not aging guys struggling to go not-so-gently into that good night via kooky stunts. Likewise, this was not one of those late-middle-age crises that typically results in a silver-haired dude in a Maserati with a Hooters waitress on his arm.

Instead, a four-man bicycle relay team recently broke a national record in the 2012 Race Across America, a 3,000-mile endurance trek from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md. The gentlemen in question have a median age of 70, they made the trip in six days, 13 hours and 13 minutes, and they didn't just break the record for the male 70-74 age group, they shattered it - by 27 hours.

As one might expect in that context, the cyclists are decidedly not rookies but veterans who have individually raced and trained in diligent fashion for years.

A week after finishing their excursion, two of the squad's four members, 68-year-old Dave Burnett of Norwich and 70-year-old Michael Patterson of Old Lyme, talked about the race on a sunny weekend morning, sipping coffee and nibbling fresh-made blueberry muffins.

"I guess I was sort of the instigator of the whole thing," Patterson said. "For a long time I knew about the Race Across America and it's been in the back of my mind. In 2010, it dawned on me that I was going to turn 70, and I thought, 'What's a good project I could do that would make me look foolish?'"

After discussing the idea with some old friends who'd expressed interest - and then stepped aside as the enormity of the task started to become evident - Patterson sought out an old race rival, Durwood Higgins of Chatanooga, Tenn. Once he was onboard, Patterson was describing the concept to Burnett, who immediately said, "Any way you can get me on the team, I'm there."

A mutual friend recommended Don Metz, a New Hampshire mountain climbing enthusiast. At 72, he gave the team the sufficient aggregate actuarial table to qualify with a median age of 70.

"Looking at it, we realized we were glad we are all from the East Coast," Burnett said. "Most endurance athletes seem to be from Colorado or California or Utah, and we liked the idea of entering the race with an East Coast attitude."

The four men commenced individual training; Patterson and Burnett working with Middletown cycling coach Aidan Charles. Meanwhile, Patterson mentioned the project to a friend at UnitedHealth and soon the group underwrote the team's expenses.

"UnitedHealth has been wonderful," Patterson said. "Their support and sponsorship has been enthusiastic and comprehensive, and if our efforts help them to publicize a healthy lifestyle, that's terrific."

Each entrant in RAAM requires a crew chief, support vehicles, and a multiple-person crew including a cook, masseuse, and folks versed in everything from medicine to bicycle maintenance.

Race Across America competitors can enter the event in a variety of age groups in either solo, two-, four- or eight-person relay teams, but the idea is that a specified cyclist is always on the road.

The actual division of road work for relay team members can be split up any way the teammates choose. In the case of the UnitedHealth squad, they split into two sub-teams, Higgins and Metz on one unit and Burnett and Patterson on the other.

The actual process through which the riders know when it's their turn to ride and when to hit the support RV for nourishment and sleep is only slightly more complex than running a control tower at a major airport.

Burnett broke out a loose-leaf notebook of computer-analysis printouts of topography, routes, traffic patterns and weather conditions, which were coordinated with around-the-clock schedules of revolving duties for the support crews. Even as one or two of the cyclists was on the highway, crew members in vehicles might be following behind the rider, racing ahead to the next check-in spot, or even heading out farther on to the next city for supply maintenance or to nuance a tricky transition point or any of a number of extenuating possibilities.

Even a week after the race was over, Patterson and Burnett seemed in grateful awe of the work done by their support crew.

"I don't think the average person can understand how important they are. I don't think WE understood until it all started," Burnett said.

The crew was headed up by Dave Eldridge, a multi-year RAAM crew chief, who brought several of his past crew members onboard for this race.

"These guys were so on top of it," Burnett said. "The transitions are so precise it's like when you see a NASCAR crew change tires - it's that quick and organized. They took us under their collective wing and made it work."

As such, the riders were able to focus on the road for their splits, then get the nourishment and rest they needed for a week-long race in which they averaged an astonishing 19 mph.

While any such endurance competition is going to have high and low points, a near disaster happened early on when Burnett miscalculated his fuel and depleted his electrolytes. He doesn't actually remember much, but Patterson, Higgins and Metz all stretched out their rides to compensate. Meanwhile, Eldridge, with Burnett, raced ahead to a town with medical facilities - and before long the normal routine resumed.

The riders said that perhaps the most surprising aspect of a bike jaunt across the country is how little you actually see. Essentially, they insist, all you take note of is eight yards of pavement directly ahead of your front wheel.

"We went through both Monument Valley and the Gettysburg battlefield at night - and for the most part, we never even knew we were there," Burnett said. "For the most part, you don't even give a (darn)! You become an automaton. A piece of meat. Dave tells you to get on the bike and pedal and that's what you do."

"There are great moments, of course," Patterson said. "I remember twice riding into the dawn and finding it just remarkably vast and beautiful."

Now that it's over, there's a bittersweet quality to their work together. "We'll always be bonded for life by this experience, but the truth is we don't know how much we'll all see each other," Patterson said.

Burnett agreed. "We went through a lot together in a week. Funny, it's the irritations and the challenges that cement those relationships more than the easy stuff. We got through it together and it becomes a source of tremendous affection and respect."

r.koster@theday.com

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