Death Valley Fall Double Century (fixed gear)
A parallel to my 2006 experience, I felt lucky to have started and ended the season with some really gratifying rides. This year, I returned to the Death Valley event with my fixed gear, and with Lisa on her fixed gear bike as well. Our travel companion, Jim, had planned on riding the double on his fixie as well, but settled for a 120-miler after some sciatic nerve pain mid-way through the ride pretty much dashed his hopes.
While temperatures were forecasted to rise to the high 90s at the warmest time of the day, prevalent cloud cover caused by the numerous devastating wildfires all over Southern California actually kept the day to a rather cool low 80s. And the overcast light was noticably out of place, I even felt many instances of the Winter Blues during the ride.
It was thrilling to be able to complete this ride again on the fixie (with the greatest areas of difficulty exactly how and where I remembered them), and it was really cool to have done it with Lisa this time. She and I, in fact, were the only ones to have completed the ride this year on fixed gears, out of a total of 96 double century finishers.
After last year's event, I was left less than impressed by the quality of the support provide on the event. I openly shared my feedback with Chris Kostman (ride director), who met some of my comments with some debate, but nonetheless promised that he'd do better next year. Much to my delight, he and his support crew really did redeem themselves with a superbly run event this year.
With so few rides to ride in this area, the course was pretty much identical to nearly all prior Fall editions of the Death Valley Double. 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.
Once again, the Mud Canyon climb up to Hell's Gate was undoubtedly the most challenging part of the ride for me. Of course it would: I knew from last year 72 gear inches was too big for me to push up that climb, yet I chose to come here with the same gear (which worked ideally for every other bit of the course). I simply haven't had the time or resources to get another wheel built with two different fixed gears on either side of the hub.
Lisa, by contrast, pushed 68.5 gear inches on this ride, and had a much better time on the Mud Canyon climb than I. On the flipside, however, she absolutely hated that endless down-grade from the northern ranger station to RS6. It's a pretty fast stretch welcomed by the geared bike riders because they get a long respite. It's obviously a different story when you have no choice but to keep pedaling at high cadence... for nearly 1.5 hours straight. Yet this stretch never bothered me much (in fact, I love it -- but only because I had a larger gear that kept my cadence a bit more sane).
Perhaps the most memorable moment for both of us on this ride was that dreaded 10-mile descent from Hell's Gate. It's an awfully long and fast descent to have to bear on fixed gears, and I remembered just how challenging it was last year. Darkness and lack of much reflective striping on the road add significantly to this challenge. It would have been marginally better if the full moon in the sky were able to shine through -- but, again, the cloud cover from distant wildfires pretty much spoiled what could have been a pretty special night for riding. Totally void of vehicular traffic, the road pretty much belonged to us, so I simply tried to keep the center line in close vicinity of my wheels the whole way down.
Of course, as fast a descent as this is (you could exceed 50mph really easily on standard road bikes here), we had to use our brakes a LOT. Both Lisa and I are set up with one brake up front, and use our legs to do supplemental braking on the rear. We taxed both these brakes so much that on several occasions, each of us were smelling our brake pads burning up, and the top of our quads took a serious beating (evidence far greater the morning after the ride) from the back-pedal action while our legs were spinning @ 120RPM or higher for about half an hour.
Generally speaking, this has been my third visit to Death Valley NP. Each time, I've come with a bike, but have always varied my stay on the other days with hikes, scenic drives and compulsory hours in the spring fed swimming pools. I'm continually amused by how much I've taken to a place so arid and desolate, but it's a place that exudes indescribable beauty and other-worldness. If you travel the many miles to join this event, do consider spending extra time to do some extra exploring off the bike!