In Colorado, Phil Fox pushed up mountain passes. Across the Great Plains, he battled constant 20 mph winds. In West Virginia, he watched out for aggressive drivers, some of whom didn’t seem too keen on sharing the road with cyclists.
By the time he reached Annapolis, Md., the 39-year-old Chicagoan and Eagle Scout could look back and claim he pedaled more than 3,000 miles across 12 states, finishing the “world’s toughest bicycle race.”
“It was an indescribable feeling,” he says. “I just had tunnel vision — that race was going to change me.”
That’s the impact the Race Across America has on cyclists. About 300 or so people have completed the epic journey in its four-decade history. Fox finished it on his first attempt last summer, earning the “rookie of the year” honor and ending the race in fifth place overall. It left him with the experience of a lifetime — along with the satisfaction that he did a small part in helping those afflicted with a serious disease.
An Eagle rides
The Race Across America began in 1982 with four cyclists traveling from Los Angeles to New York City. It was named the Great American Bike Race then, and the nearly 3,000-mile event measured well beyond the famous Tour de France. It also differed from other long cycling events as it aimed to be continuous. No daily stages. Just nonstop cycling.
Shortly after the race’s inception, Fox was born. He joined Cub Scouts and crossed over into Troop 117 of Western Springs, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. He was active in his troop, went on a Philmont Scout Ranch trek and earned the Eagle Scout rank.
“I biked as a youth to get around,” he says. “Then you get your driver’s license and you shelf the bike for eight years.”
He didn’t grab the bicycle again until he started working in downtown Chicago and discovered cycling helped him save money on gasoline, relieve stress and lose weight. He lost about 40 pounds by getting back on the bike and commuting to the office.
The commuting turned into socializing with other cyclists, but soon pivoted to racing with a purpose. Two of his best friends were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease. He signed up to do a 200-kilometer race that raised money for MS research.
“I didn’t know how to help my friends,” Fox says. “I was angry that was the only thing I could do. That was the start.”
Preparing for the big race
Fox joined a long-distance bike club and started challenging himself by riding in long races. In 2021, he attempted to set a world record by cycling around Lake Michigan in three days’ time. He completed the 921-mile ride in 64 hours while raising money to help those with multiple sclerosis.
“That was a pressure test for the Race Across America,” he says.
Fox recruited a team of 10 people who would drive alongside him during the Race Across America, helping him navigate, monitor his nutrition and health, offer bike maintenance, watch out for his safety, and — most important — encourage him along the 3,000 miles. One team member was Chuck Judy, an Eagle Scout and assistant Scoutmaster for a troop in Ohio.
“The structure was there; we each had our duties,” Judy says. “We had 20 pages of protocols; we would know what to do where.”
With the team in place and practice rides under his belt, Fox took off from California. He was among 33 riders to start the Race Across America — and would be one of only 14 to finish.
Last year’s race launched from Oceanside, Calif. The route would take riders across California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The cyclists would need to endure temperatures varying from 40 degrees to the 110s, elevations as high as 10,857 feet and a lack of sleep. Daily sleep breaks were 2-3 hours on average.
“Murphy’s Law would have a vote on what happened,” he says. “We had to be adaptive. We were always thinking about why we were doing this. Our superpower was our adaptability. This was a really different race; the failure rate is quite high.”
As the race progressed, more solo cyclists dropped out, either from illness or exhaustion. Fox’s team was prepared for the long haul with the goals in mind to be safe and finish with distinction.
“There’s no way we could finish this race without the talent of everyone on this team,” he says. “Once I crossed the finish line, I was elated we pulled it off.”
After going through two bikes and eight flat tires, Fox finished the race in 11 days, 4 hours and 38 minutes. He raised about $50,000 for multiple sclerosis research during his journey.
The next step
After the grueling race, Fox considered slowing down a bit. Nope. There’s still more that can be done to help those with MS. He is planning another fundraising ride this June. This time, he is going to attempt to set a world record by circumnavigating Lake Erie, a 640-mile trip.
You can follow his journey here or through his social media pages listed on that page.