Thank goodness I was able to wrap up my 2006 riding year on a high note. I was starting to wonder if I'd ever ride a good double century again. My first time visiting Death Valley National Park, a surprisingly, and remarkably enjoyable one, was made all the sweeter by completing my 20th lifetime double century, and my second double century on a fixed gear bike.
Days and weeks before the road trip, I remained ridiculously undecided whether I would take the fixie or my standard road bike on this ride. A lot of things lay in the way of having to make this ride even more challenging with the fixie. I wasn't having an exceptional late season with double centuries. I was completely new to this course. I generally don't like the desert, let alone riding in it. I generally don't like riding with a Camelbak (a must for this ride, I believe). In the end, I said WTF and just packed up the fixie. And I couldn't be happier that the gamble paid off.
If event records speak for themselves, I may be only the fourth rider to have ridden this course on a fixed gear bike. But I won't pretend I'm superhuman for doing it, puhleeez. I know of people who ride the Furnace Creek 508 solo on fixies, or even across the country (the Big Fix), Paris-Brest-Paris, etc. So, clearly, guys and gals who do stupid shit* like that on their fixies would think nothing of this. And I remain humbled and in my own place.
(* For those of you unfamiliar with my smack, I mean this in the most admiring and respectful way, actually -- cuz I wouldn't mind having the bragging rights to be able to do the same stupid shit. But the fortitude, genes and determination it takes?? Hmm.)
It was a pretty triumphant weekend for my travel companions as well. Jim Buckingham completed his first century on a fixed gear, and Jason/Lisa McPhate their first 200 miler (which they did pretty impressively on their tandem). I had lots of fun sharing this experience with Jim, Jason and Lisa. That kid-like victorious vibe was palpable as we yakked feverishly over dinner the night after the ride (beer and exhaustion right after the ride had us too mellow).
Death Valley is a fascinating and wondrous place -- it took me completely by surprise and roused my urge to explore and discover. And it's a downright awesome place to ride a bike in Autumn (and I imagine Spring as well) conditions, or perhaps until you get a taste of the sort of headwinds the valley can really dish out. We got lucky this time: the winds were pretty mild most of the day.
The ride starts and ends at the Furnace Creek Resort, goes North to Stovepipe Wells, back tracks a bit and continues Northward to Scotty's Castle, then out and back from the I-95 junction (in Nevada, clear outside the park). The return trip from Scotty's Castle to the finish feature two notable detours. The first is an out-and-back trip to the Ubehebe Crater, the second a leg sapping climb up yet another alluvial fan to Hell's Gate on the Beatty cutoff road through Mud Canyon.
Having a fully supported ride almost entirely in a national park does present certain challenges, as much as staging a far-reaching event in a place known for its remoteness and unforgiving climate. So it's pretty cool in itself that this event even exists -- twice a year (the other, a southerly route in the early Spring), no less.
But I had "mixed" -- to put it very politely -- feelings about the quality of support on the event. While I really didn't need much else than the bare bones supplies of fluids, food and Hammergel that I consumed all day, there were a few flubs that I, as a frequent member of a ride support team, found downright inexcusable. One was running out of water at the Scotty's Castle rest stop on the outbound trip, which required me among some 20-30 other riders to wait up to 20 minutes while the rest stop crew scrambled to fetch more agua at the Grapevine ranger station. If you wanna run an event responsibly in Death Valley, you just don't run out of water ever... PERIOD. Given the experience they have in producing events like the Badwater Marathon and Furnace Creek 508, I'm really surprised they allowed this to happen. Or am I being naive?
Two was running out of Subway lunch sandwiches upon the arrival of the last 25 or so riders on course. Chris Kostman, ride director, was there and his best apology to another rider who was heartbroken to find out there were no sandwiches left was "I screwed up... I thought I got the count right." So PB&J, banana and Doritos are all I had for lunch. I refrained from complaining and just dealt with it to maintain a mostly positive vibe I was enjoying.
In a post ride email, Kostman confessed he actually had a surplus of 40 sandwiches at Furnace Creek (probably the missing stash at lunch), which he threw away... at 1PM. What??? When there was enough grievance from some riders that AdventureCorps doesn't offer a post-ride meal other than a small ration of pizza, you THREW AWAY perfectly good food that could have been stored in half a cooler? Shit.
A similar food supply issue arose at the Scotty's Junction rest stop, just before the Mud Canyon climb. Visibly, volunteers were pretty distressed about the supply issues. They were sadly the ones who took the heat from unhappy riders, even if they were so good spirited in their duties.
Three was not having ample roving SAG in the later part of the course, a point which Kostman debated with me days after the ride. So why then did I not see one vehicle travel in either direction of the course between mile 110 and mile 175? Zero. Absolutely NONE. That equated to roughly 4 to 4.5 hours of riding with no sighting of any roving SAG during the most mentally challenging and isolated parts of the course. Of that time, 2 hours was riding after nightfall in near total darkness (we had a waxing crescent moon). I didn't really need the SAG services at that point, but what if another rider in my time zone did? But what really pisses me off is that he point blank told me that I was "mistaken" about that situation. Listen dude, there ain't much life and movement around Death Valley: you think I'd miss a car on the road even if I wasn't looking for one? For the sake of any rider who may have needed support out there, I certainly hope I was "mistaken".
All said, Kostman did take the time to offer a very diplomatic assurance that corrections would be made, and that next year they would do "an even better job". I can hardly wait.
The legendary support dude Lee Mitchell was there with his Bikevan (a rare occurence as he usually has a conflicting event on the Death Valley date), but I think he and what 2 or 3 other roving SAG personnel were out there may have been busy with century riders who were being swept off the course from 6PM and on. Jim B. reported later that he did notice a lot riders being transported to the finish at this point.
So, ya, despite all the grievances I could have had, I remained pretty chill and focused. Apart from a mechanical mishap (I'll get to it), my entire ride -- and the double century as a whole -- seemed to have been positively uneventful, except for a bizarre crash I saw on 190 halfway up to Scotty's Castle in the morning. There was a group of riders ahead moving pretty slow, and all of a sudden, I saw a guy down in the middle of the road, unable to move himself, bracing his shoulder. Broken clavicle. As if by perfect timing, Lee showed up 1 minute after it happened and sternly instructed everybody else to get a move on so the road could be kept clear.
Nearly every part of this course was enjoyable on the fixed gear bike. All the climbs were pretty manageable on a 72 gear-inch drive (48x18), even if the steeper sections approaching Scotty's Castle and Ubehebe Crater were a bit of a bother. However, I knew full well the main event of the day for me would be the climb to Hell's Gate. For days, I scrutinized this climb on topo charts, comparing it to nearly every climb I've been on with my fixie. What I feared certainly manifested itself on this leg busting slog of a climb. If I was on my geared bike, there's no doubt I would have been on my granny ring for it. Seven miles in all, the first half are reasonably doable at around 6%. The last half kicked up to an unrelenting 7% the whole way, and it was THAT part that really sucked.
I don't know how my knees survived that ordeal, but before long, I was on to the next challenge: a TEN-mile descent, undoubtedly the longest one I've ever been on without the privilege of freewheeling. Just when it was starting to get really old on me, I actually encountered and was about to pass another rider, which was definitely bizarre. Turns out the fella crashed on the descent and wrecked his headlight. I urged him to stay with me till the finish, which he did and was really grateful for.
Frequent compliments on the road are a definite perk of riding a fixie on events like this. They definitely lifted my spirits, even if I was mentally on the whole day. Perhaps the only part of the ride where the positive attitude may have diminished was the 50-mile out and back on Hwy 267 to the Bonnie Claire (I-95) junction in Nevada. Man, that was boring as shite -- and the trip makes flossing teeth seem like a renegade rave by comparison. The road is straight and flat as can be... with absolutely NOTHING in the landscape to gaze at on either side of the road for miles and miles.
At around mile 90, I flatted -- rear tire of course, in Nevada. The fix was kind'a slow because of some trouble I had realigning and retensioning my chain. I didn't do too good a job, evidently, as I felt more slack in the chain than I like when I got going again. Three miles down the road, I decided to stop again to fix it -- the precise moment at which my chain jumped off, then wrapped itself around the INside of the cog/hub and locked up my wheel. That had me going from my cruising speed of around 19mph to Zero in 2 seconds with a skidding and fishtailing rear. By some angelic intervention, I had the presence of mind to keep a straight line up front, unclip both feet and stay upright to a stop. I took another 10 minutes to yank out the tangled chain, remount wheel and retension the drive -- and it held together nicely for the rest of the ride.
Desolate takes on new meaning in DV, especially when you're on your own (which was my case for about 75% of the ride). It was really quiet all around, and when night fell, I had only my headlight beams (and Barry White singing in my head -- don't ask) to keep me company. Just for kicks, I stopped briefly once, shut off my lights and stood in near total darkness and silence (WOOOoooooo). During daylight hours, I saw nearly no animal life at all. Just a white scorpion that I accidentally pissed on -- and pissed off -- on the roadside, and a well fed coyote chillin' at Scotty's Castle lunch stop (increasingly common site at this event), brazenly hanging out and just scoping the land for stuff to swipe and run away with. At one point, it got somebody's Clif bar. Minutes later, he ran off with somebody's glove and made a chew toy out of it.
The McPhates had an irresistable passage in their ride report, which I'm just gonna have to steal. I think they're too nice to sue me.
Aristotle's paradox: The last 11 miles is flat fast terrain and as we make our last turn onto this stretch, I figured that we were doing about 20 mph, therefore we should be done in about 30 minutes.
As we slowed down a tad, I saw we had 8 miles left, but were now going 16 mph- still 30 minutes to go. When we speed back up to ~18 mph, I decided that I had the distance that we had ridden wrong, so we were still 30 minutes from the end. At 5 miles to go, we were going 10 mph. UGGH!!
Well, we finally made it, proving Aristotle wrong.
A couple of other distinguishing experiences on the ride that are unique to the territory: I consumed the equivalent of roughly 18 large water bottles (> 12.5 liters) of fluids in 15 hours -- and it was either barely enough or not enough. And this is the first time I've ever started a ride by climbing up to... sea level. Neat.