Approaching the finish line at the Washington Monument early yesterday, Mike Secrest, a professional cyclist from Flint, Mich., feebly tried to raise both arms and almost toppled off his bike. It would have been his only fall in crossing from San Francisco to Washington, 3,117 miles in a little over nine days.
Visibly exhausted, arms and legs uncontrollably twitching, and limping from having pedaled the final 60 miles with one leg because of an injured quadriceps muscle in the other, Secrest won the McDonald's Race Across America in 9 days 11 hours 35 minutes.
It was considered the most difficult transcontinental route ever in a bicycle race, traversing the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians. There were 35 riders at the start and 22, including three women, are expected to finish.
"I wouldn't want to race this course again next year," said Secrest before a crowd of nearly 200 cycling enthusiasts gathered for his 1:30 a.m. arrival. Most left the Mall finish line well before Michael Trail of Colville, Wash., came in second, at about 3:50 a.m., in 9 days 13 hours 53 minutes. Franz Spilauer of Austria was third.
Casey Patterson, Cheryl Marek and Marie Costellic, the remaining women, were expected to finish within 48 hours of the men.
Secrest was one of a few to return from last year's race. He placed third in 1983 and second in 1984 and 1985.
The enormity of the physical demands of this year's course was evident when a vehicle trailing Secrest, reputedly the best hill rider, up a long incline on Rte. 28 in Maryland, 37 miles from the finish, registered zero on the speedometer. Secrest, wan and emotionless, stood robotlike on the pedals and trudged in steady cadence.
"You just have to have a goal and the determination and perseverance to pursue it," he said, tripping over some of his words, his puffy eyes hardly blinking. "And some people have stronger convictions than others."
Secrest, 34, overtook early leader Bobby Forney of Evergreen, Colo., shortly before Lake Tahoe at an elevation of 6,000 feet. But before reaching Utah, he developed bronchitis from riding through the cool desert nights and fell to fourth. When the riders began ascending the Rockies, Secrest found himself in his element once again and overtook Spilauer near Denver at a place called Dinosaur, Colo., 1,046 miles from the start.
He rode unchallenged until early Monday morning when Trail, 43, passed him and opened a two-minute lead. Secrest quickly made up the difference and added a one-hour advantage in almost two hours of riding.
"I really think he just wanted to see who I was," said Trail, who said he felt wonderful upon finishing. His support crew of four contrasted with Secrest's experienced crew of 11, a documentary film unit and RV, two vans and a pace vehicle.
Trail failed to finish his first transcontinental attempt in 1985, hallucinating and becoming ill, but was the only rider to remain within striking distance of Secrest after passing Forney late Friday evening somewhere near the Missouri-Illinois border. Eventually, though, lack of sleep took its toll.
Hallucinations are common among ultramarathon cyclists. Most attempt to cover more than 260 miles a day on fewer than two hours sleep. Secrest's crew chief, Jeff Crane, said that last year when Secrest lost control of his bike and broke his collarbone, hallucinations were a problem.
"From the standpoint of being in touch with reality, this was his best year," said Crane.