Rainy River’s Bill Engel and the “Race Across the West”

by Annika Freiburger

International Falls, MN– The Race Across the West (RAW) is a 930 mile bicycle race where competitors have 92 hours to ride from Oceanside, CA to Durango, CO. It also represents the first one third of the Race Across America (RAAM), where riders have 12 days to ride 3000 miles from Oceanside,CA to Annapolis, MD. Racers are responsible for assembling their own support crews which often consist of family, friends, and acquaintances (often found via ultra cycling forums).  The crews drive the support vehicle(s) and are responsible for everything but riding. Without the support the crew the riders would have little chance of succeeding.

Race Format

In many ways ultra-cycling races are similar to the “Cannonball Run” but on bicycles. During daylight hours (7am to 7pm) riders must “Leapfrog” a designated vehicle; in our case the lead vehicle would typically park 3-5 miles ahead of the rider and wait for the rider to pass and again drive ahead and wait for the rider. Rinse-Lather-Repeat. During night time hours (7pm-7am) the designated vehicle must remain in direct follow; within 30 feet of the rider; providing light and protection for the rider. There are no rules to how often a rider must stop and rest or sleep; those items are part of the strategy. Most teams have two support vehicles and between four and eight support members. Many crews rent large conversion vans, others have gone “All In”and customized conversion vans into mobile cycling units equipped with sleeping quarters, repair parts, and space to store enough food for a small army; for us, it was personal vehicles, a Honda Odyssey and Jeep Cherokee organized as judicially as possible. Our team used the van as the primary follow and leap-frog vehicle while the jeep was used for errands, scouting the roads ahead, and skipping forward a few towns to find a hotel for the crew to get some rest.

The Experience

Our crew consisted of Bill Engel, Kristin Sampson, Don Miller, Jessica Klein and Ajay Bakshi. Without these five individuals the race would have been impossible.

We arrived in Oceanside, CA, on June 11th and began preparation which included team meetings, gear organization, vehicle and bike inspections, pictures, and rules meetings; not to mention a broken axle on the primary bike and a cracked frame on the secondary bike.

The Race Across the West began on June 14th at noon from the Oceanside Pier with a sea breeze and temperatures in the 70’s. Riders were announced and began the race in a parade style start, holding their positions for the first seven miles.

Day one went well as we battled the heat, then made the climb up Mount Palomar, and the descent down the “Glass Elevator” to Borrego Springs, CA and across the dessert. We rode through the night pushed by a significant tailwind and covered over 300 miles in the first 24 hours but from there things deteriorated. Soon we were climbing mountains in Northern Arizona, fighting intense heat and sleeping very little. In hindsight, it would have been better to sleep a couple hours during the the day and ride more rested in the evenings and at night. At the 72 hour mark, we were hanging on but needed to make progress quickly. Out of Arizona and into Utah proved to be a blessing as the wind again became an asset. A small sandstorm developed in Monument Valley that caused delays but for us the training in Northern Minnesota assured that ski goggles had been packed, which made the passage through the sandstorm much easier.

As the clock ticked toward 92 hours, we entered Colorado and fought our ways towards Cortez, CO. At this point it was late on Friday, June 17th and a cold front moved in with an easterly head wind that was strong enough to (at times) make going downhill difficult. The rain was intermittent with ice pellets and the temperature had dropped from the triple digits now into the 50’s. Wind blown, rain soaked leaves littered the roadway and the blustery head wind made Durango seem as distant as the moon. We finally entered the time station (parking lot at Walmart) at Cortez at 1:30am (Mt time) on Saturday. We were now 45 miles from the finish line in Durango with 7.5 hours to finish but this is where life became fuzzy. Sleep deprivation led to hallucinations and falling asleep on the bike. Somehow we covered 30+ miles before the crew made the decision to put me in the van to sleep. During those 30 miles I found myself waking up on the bike, mumbling nonsense, and pushing away tree branches that did not exist. Life improved after the brief nap, most of my cognitive function returned and thankfully the last stretch of the course was downhill. We finished in just over 90 hours, approximately 90 minutes before the deadline. Complete results can be found at https://www.raceacrossthewest.org/.

A special thank you to our crew that did everything from handling navigation, nutrition, logistics, strategy, laundry, clerical work, and the list could go on endlessly. How those five got us through the last 45 miles is incredible – they literally would not let us fail. Of course to our Crew Chief, Kristin Sampson who spearheaded the entire effort and made so much possible – Thank You!

Also, a special thank you to everyone in the International Falls area that supported and followed our effort; to Tim Ringhoffer for the media coverage, Milt and Charlie at the Sports Shop who always had time to answer questions, order parts, and fix the things that were broke; to Jay Bartkowski who is always a great source of support and optimism, to all those at RRCC, to all those that share the road with cyclists (especially the truck drivers that are incredibly generous with the roads in Northern Minnesota) and to my friend Glen Blummer who reminds me often that hockey players are tougher than basketball players and cyclists.


For our team there were two parts of the Race Across the West. The first was the adventure of the race and the second was to raise money for youth hockey in International Falls and Men’s Basketball at Rainy River CC. All donations can made to International Falls Youth Hockey — There is a Venmo Account @ifallshockey or checks can be made to IFalls Rec Hockey (in the memo add RAW fundraising). If you have further questions please contact Paul Joslyn (218-324-0390) or Missy Crandall (218-417-0891) or Bill Engel (701-789-1699).