MONUMENT VALLEY, San Juan County — A Utah man was doing something the average bicycle rider might consider impossible. He was bicycling across the country — from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland — hoping to do the entire 3,000 miles in less than 10 days.
Michael Conti, the owner of a Park City furniture store, is not doing the Race Across America just for himself. He's competing on behalf of Seth Christensen, a Utah resident who is suffering from the usually fatal Lou Gehrig's disease.
Conti's journey was ended in South Central Colorado when a semi traveling at least 65 miles an hour rear ended his support vehicle, badly shaking up three of his crew members but not injuring anyone.
The support vehicle was totaled and Conti was forced to abandon the race.
With family and friends cheering them on, Conti and Christensen rendezvoused alongside the highway — one on a bicycle, the other in a wheelchair — on the second day of the race. They met at one of the world's most scenic locations, the incomparable red rock paradise called Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border.
As Conti pedaled up to the wheelchair, Christensen said, "You're killing it. It's incredible."
"Just having fun," Conti replied. Later he told a reporter, "I feel good, about 800 miles into the race."
Conti hopes to complete the coast-to-coast ride, possibly in as few as eight days, and he has no secret formula.
"Just keep pushing myself," he said, "over and over and over."
Christensen has battled Lou Gehrig's disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, for six years. Conti is using the high-profile bike race to help raise funds for Christensen's foundation, ALS Crowd. Christensen believes a cure is possible for the ailment.
"Absolutely I do," Christensen said. "I think we're five or 10 years away."
After a brief roadside shower and a 20-minute nap, Conti was ready to go again, seemingly unfazed by more than 24 hours of high-speed pedaling, much of it over steep terrain in the desert southwest.
"I haven't put out a lot of exertion, dude," Conti said to a member of his support crew. "I know," the crew member replied, "and you're still killing it. That's what we're saying."
Christensen got out of his wheelchair so his wife, Amy, could help load him into Conti's support vehicles. He rode along behind the bicyclist for a few miles through Monument Valley.
The Race Across America is billed as "The World's Toughest Bicycle Race." It's significantly longer than the Tour de France and — unlike the French event — competitors do not take a break every night. Typically they pedal nearly around the clock for as many days as it takes.
"Mike will be on the road for approximately nine or 10 days," said Drew Jones, the chief of Conti's support crew, "and in that nine or 10 days he'll be getting less than 90 minutes of sleep a day."
This year's race has 123 registered competitors. Team racers are allowed nine days to complete the trip; solo riders like Conti are allowed 12 days. He hopes to do it in less. "Good race, eight days," Conti said during a training run last week. "Bad race, 11 days."
"It's unbelievable what the human mind and body are capable of," Jones said. "Mike is definitely an exemplification of that."
Conti expects to burn 100,000 calories on the trip, about 10,000 per day. He hopes that will help fuel an effort to finally beat ALS.
"Yeah, I mean, I hope people keep spreading the word about ALS," Conti said while pedaling up a gentle slope near the famous buttes of Monument Valley. "It's something we need to find a cure for."
He connected with Christensen three years ago and dedicated his extreme bicycle racing to fundraising for Christensen's foundation.
"Someone suffering with ALS," Jones said, his voice cracking with emotion, "their body is dying but their mind is absolutely clear. And so they fight every day. And my perspective is, I'm going to fight every day that I'm out there."
He said Christensen and other ALS victims inspire him to keep going on his cross-country trek. "Someone fighting with ALS, they don't give up," Conti said. "Their mind just tells them to keep going."
Christensen believes the research effort has been hampered by duplication of effort and by scientists using different databases. His goal for ALS Crowd is to bring patients and scientists together to make the battle more efficient and effective.
Asked if he believes the effort could lead to a cure, his voice also broke.
"I think I'm going to be an old man. So, yes," he said. "With efforts like the one Mike is making, we can do it. We can make sure that I can be an old man."
Donations to ALS Crowd can be made through the foundation's website, alscrowd.org.