Parker’s chase vehicle was rear ended by a driver who was distracted on her cell phone.
Every year, the Race Across America churns out a plethora of stories about cyclists overcoming the physical and mental anguish of riding a bicycle 3,000 miles from coast to coast. Unfortunately, riding across the country is simply unfathomable for most cyclists. RAAM’s stories of toil and pain often go unnoticed within the mainstream bike community.
But every few years, RAAM produces a story that resonates with every person who’s ever thrown a leg over a top tube.
Maria Parker, a 50-year-old mother of four, is a veteran of racing great distances on her recumbent bicycle, a CruzBike. Parker signed up for RAAM this year to raise money for cancer research, after her sister, Jenny, was diagnosed with brain cancer. She estimates she sunk about $35,000 into her RAAM attempt and hoped to finish in under 10 days.
Parker’s first few days of RAAM went poorly. She developed stomach problems due to a bad nutrition regimen. But things went from bad to terrible a few miles out of Tuba City, Arizona. Parker was riding several hundred feet in front of her follow car when she heard the screeching of tires followed by an explosion.
“It sounded like a bomb went off — I pedaled as hard as I could because I was afraid debris would fall on me,” she said. “When I looked back I could see there were bike parts all over the road.”
According to Parker’s husband, Jim, a woman had been driving while texting on her cell phone when she slammed into the back of Parker’s follow vehicle, which was only traveling about 15 miles per hour. The impact crumpled the van, destroyed both of Parker’s spare bikes and mashed her stockpile of food and supplemental gear. Her son, Will, and two crewmembers were in the follow car, and all three were injured.
Parker got off of her bike. When she arrived on the scene, the driver of the other car was lying on the ground, alive, but shaken. She made sure her son and crew were okay, and then surveyed the scene. She said she knew her race was over.
“You could tell the car was totaled and the backup bikes were completely destroyed,” she said. “I just sat down and started to cry. All this planning. All of this time. It’s over.”
A tow truck hauled Parker’s follow car to Tuba City, Arizona. Parker called RAAM headquarters to announce her DNF. Then she and her crew drove to Flagstaff to prepare to fly home. But Parker said she kept thinking about her sister, and her promise to ride her bicycle across the country to raise money for cancer. After a day of thinking, she told her husband she was going to keep riding, even if her result was no longer valid.
“People with brain cancer don’t get to quit,” Parker said. “What kind of a message was I sending if I stopped?”
After some deliberation, Parker got back on her bike and finished the race.
But there was a hitch in the plan. Three of Parker’s 12 crew had decided to go home. Her follow car was wrecked. And her two other recumbent bicycles — which had specific gearing for the long climbs of Colorado and the steep hills of West Virginia — were destroyed.
Parker was undeterred. She rented two additional cars, went to the junkyard where her previous chase car was dumped and salvaged extra components from the destroyed bikes, and within 24 hours of the accident, she was ready to start again. When she and her crew called the RAAM office to tell them they would continue as an unofficial rider, she was surprised at the reply.
“They said sure, we could actually un-DNF,” Parker said. “I knew I was hundreds of miles behind, so I didn’t feel any pressure, I just started riding.”
Parker began riding on the recumbent. She had inappropriate gears for the climbs and descents, but she didn’t care. She reached Durango six hours behind the official cutoff time, but RAAM officials allowed her to continue anyway. By the time she hit Kansas, she began catching other solo competitors. By the time she reached West Virginia, she was riding in the lead of the women’s competition, with three of the five female competitors having dropped out.
Parker said that the accident affected her attitude on the bike. She was constantly terrified whenever she heard a vehicle approaching from behind. On three other occasions, she heard screeching of tires as a vehicle hit the brakes to avoid her chase car.
“I was scared the whole time. You’re riding on big roads and riding at night,” Parker said. “I spent a lot of time feeling really afraid, honestly.”
This fear was certainly understandable. Two cyclists have died during RAAM’s 31-year history. In 2004, 30-year-old Brett Malin was run over by an 18-wheeler in New Mexico while racing on the Team Vail squad. In 2005, solo racer Bob Breedlove was killed after apparently swerving into the path of a truck.
Parker finished the race in 11 days, 20 hours and 54 minutes, making good on her promise to her sister. She was also the first woman to cross the finish line, beating the only other women’s solo finisher by nearly a full day. But despite her win, Parker said the crash and constant fear of cars meant that her first RAAM will probably be her last.
“It scared me too much,” she said. “I love riding my bike but I don’t want to die in a bike wreck.”
Photos courtesy of Jim Parker.